Pandemic isolation, shift to online gambling set up 'perfect storm,' experts say

With brick-and-mortar casinos across the United States shut down to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, public health advocates are concerned that a shift to online wagering may lead to an increase in problematic behaviors.

With brick-and-mortar casinos across the United States shut down to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, public health advocates are concerned that a shift to online wagering may lead to an increase in problematic behaviors.

Gov. Phil Murphy ordered the indefinite closing of Atlantic City’s nine casinos March 16 but permitted online gaming to continue. Industry experts expect an escalation in online gaming activity because of the retail casino closings, and the anticipated growth in internet play has gambling addiction professionals worried.

“We believe every risk factor for gambling problems is increasing right now,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.

The social distancing measures recommended by government health officials exacerbate conditions — such as loneliness, isolation and depression — that lead to problem behaviors, Whyte said.

“It’s kind of a perfect storm,” he said. “(Casino) closures and quarantine can increase risk factors, there’s a shift to online gambling — which may have some higher risk factors — and then the impact on state budgets (for gambling addiction resources and programs) may disproportionately impact available behavioral health services.”

Academic studies show a majority of people who gamble are able to do so responsibly. The NCPG estimates 2% to 3% of Americans display some form of problem gambling behavior.

But, according to a report published by the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University, the rate of problem gambling disorders and behaviors increases for online players.

Some gamblers, such as Devy Goodrich, of North Philadelphia, are aware of the potential pitfalls of online gaming. Goodrich, a member of the Everything AC Casinos Facebook group, said he would rather wait for Atlantic City’s casinos to reopen than try his luck online.

“I believe that online gambling is more addicting than in-house due to the fact that there is more leeway to pull out of your account than when you can exercise better caution when you are in possession of your ATM card,” he said.

Internet gaming in New Jersey has been steadily growing since it was legalized and regulated more than six years ago. In 2014, the first full year of online gaming, revenue from internet wagering was less than 5% of the industry’s annual total. In 2019, revenue from online gaming (not including online sports wagering) accounted for nearly 15% of the industry’s total. The $482.7 million in internet gaming revenue last year was nearly 62% higher than the total in 2018.

Neva Pryor, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, said she was “very concerned about problem gamblers” during the pandemic. She said that, as is common with other addictive behaviors, some might use gambling as an escape.

“A lot of people are going to reach out to gambling, they’re going to reach out to substances and other activities that might prove to be harmful, and then come out of it with a problem,” Pryor said.

Online gaming provides users with tools to mitigate those problems, Pryor said. New Jersey regulations include provisions for self-exclusion lists, and most internet sites that operate in the state allow players to limit how much and how often they gamble.

The Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey has also found new ways to connect with those who are vulnerable to problem gambling behaviors, including tele-therapy, webinars, social media and hosting Gamblers Anonymous meetings over the phone.

“We have to reinvent ourselves,” Pryor said. “I would suggest that there’s probably more help out there now than before, because we’re constantly putting the message out there.”

The COVID-19 outbreak will not entirely change player behavior, even if the retail casinos are closed. Some gamblers are confident they can continue playing online, and it may even benefit their bankroll in the long run.

“I gamble online almost every weekend if I don’t go to Atlantic City,” said Andrea Marano Mercer, of Brick Township, Ocean County. “I find I spend less actually. If I’m there, I’m more tempted to take out more money. At home, I can just shut the computer off and walk away.

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