Amid global fears of a pandemic, casinos are battling coronavirus too
Last Saturday, wondering what to do, I decided to go to the local casino. As I arrived, I was surprised how few cars were in the parking lot. Usually getting a decent parking spot on a Saturday is difficult but on this day, there was only about five rows of cars and no doubt many of those cars belonged to employees. The casino seemed fairly empty and as I sat down by a slot machine, an attendant came up and wiped the buttons with Lysol wipes and made it clear to me the casino was taking the coronavirus seriously. The tables were also much emptier than usual and it seemed card players sat as far apart from each other as possible. Bottles of hand sanitizer were also on every table.
Up to that point I never really thought much about the coronavirus and I certainly didn't think it was an issue at casinos, but upon reflection I realized the fear was somewhat justified. At the casino, slot machines are very close to each with people sitting literally next to each each other and experts say the virus can transmit via a sneeze or cough from someone within six feet. Players also touch their faces often and then touch either the buttons on a machine or their cards. And like it or not, the nature of gambling and the potential for addiction means there will be many people at the casino who will be there whether they’re sick or not. Additionally, a large percentage of players are from Asia and other affected areas and there is no way of knowing whether they have traveled to widely affected countries since January. While the hand sanitizers and attendants regularly wiping down the areas was comforting, the over cautiousness just brought the concern to the forefront.
Coronavirus concern felt more in gambling meccas
Macau shut down all casinos for 15 days in February to try and stop spread of the disease and by all accounts the number of visitors to the city since has been a fraction of what it usually is. Hotel occupancy is below 12% and non-VIP gamblers have all but disappeared. And in Las Vegas it has been noted that casinos are not only wiping down machines, door handles, bar counters and bathroom facilities constantly, but most casinos are now shredding cards and opening new decks every few hands. Las Vegas is pulling out all the stops to reassure gamblers, but visits and casino play are down sharply as a result of concerns of spread, U.S. travel restrictions on Chinese residents (who make up a sizeable percentage of regular visitors) and cancellation of conventions in the city. And with three cases of coronavirus now being confirmed in Nevada, it's almost certain it will get much worse before it gets better. Atlantic City is also now apparently starting to see the effects too, although to a much lesser degree, according to one casino worker there I reached out to. The large decreases due to coronavirus have even led to Wynn, MGM, Caesars and Las Vegas Sands to issue warnings to investors that the companies won't meet revenue targets and stock prices have tanked accordingly.
One question is whether there is any upside to the coronavirus concerns and the answer is yes. While land-based gambling is down, there are reports that online gambling in parts of Europe have soared. And many sites facing European and Asian customers are seeing higher than usual deposits and play. And it's almost certain that trend will be felt in U.S. states that have legalized online casinos, including Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. And no doubt Michigan and Colorado, which have passed bills legalizing online casinos but are not yet operating, will speed up their plans to implement it. And the large number of states that have licensed and regulated online sports betting and horse racing available can expect to see large increases in play for those products also. Ironically, the exact reason why people prefer to play at land-based casinos, namely human interaction and bonding with other players and dealers, could be the exact reason why it is now being avoided.
"Why would I risk playing blackjack at the casino when I can play the same game in the comfort of my own home on my own tablet?" one gambler said to me after saying this was the last time he was going to a casino until the outbreak is officially contained. "At least the live dealers on the casino app can't spread germs and the website has a chat option to talk to other players if I want."
One of the other casualties of the coronavirus could be Sheldon Adelson and the current Republican regime pushing for the 2011 DoJ opinion to be changed. While Adelson and his cronies have given various reasons for why online gambling should be banned, it's understood that the real reason is concern that online gambling could cannibalize land-based wagering. However, this outbreak indicates why it's important to have other options for gamblers and casinos. At some point the coronavirus concern will end, but it's inevitable other events will occur that will create closures of businesses, including casinos, whether it's another outbreak, terrorism, war or other unforeseen event. And if people are homebound, online gambling provides a leisure activity they can do without exposure or fear. One person in self- quarantine told a CTV reporter that he was glad he had online gambling to pass the time. No doubt that won't be enough to stop the US Department of Justice from challenging the New Hampshire court decision, which disallowed the new DoJ opinion, but it could be enough to have companies like MGM and Caesars to get their lawyers involved in defending the 2011 decision.
So, the coronavirus scare is having huge impacts on businesses, stock markets, airlines and casinos. If the 2003 SARS pandemic is any indication, the breakout won't burn out to at least the end of the summer and it’s possible it could drag out much longer since two strains of COVID-19 have now been identified. Casinos are doing everything in their power to try and reassure customers that everything is okay, but it likely won't be enough and attendance and hotel stays will continue to suffer. Fortunately, those located in locations with licensed and regulated online gambling have other options and every player can still wager at sites like 5Dimes, Heritage Sports or BetOnline, all of whom still happily take global action.