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Gambling on Precautions: How Casinos Plan to Adapt to COVID-19

An empty casino view from the felt of a roulette board

In the months leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, Las Vegas was booming. In the preceding 90 days, over 3 million visitors had come to sin city to enjoy its offerings. That meant roughly $1 billion in revenue for casinos, hotels, convention centers and entertainment venues. But that came to a screeching halt when pandemic lockdowns went into place. And like many others throughout the country, Las Vegas has been anxiously waiting to once again open casinos. But the big question for all is how to do so while ensuring safe gambling activities.

Currently, many states have moved to open casinos with Las Vegas now adding their name to this list. Like many businesses in the travel and tourism sector, gambling casinos have been hit hard by COVID-19. Many people rely on these businesses for their income, but likewise, concerns for their health is also paramount. A number of safe gambling measures have been put into place. But with so many unknowns still existing about COVID-19, the move to open casinos has risks. Casinos are hoping the odds are in their favor.

“Things were really bullish here in Las Vegas. And now, as a result of the virus, the public health crisis and the government shutting down the economy, it looks to me like Las Vegas is going to be once again one of the hardest-hit metro areas in the West.” – Stephen Miller, Professor of Economics, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

An Economic Deja Vu for Las Vegas

Based on recent unemployment figures, the degree of job loss has surpassed the economic recession of 2008. Unfortunately, Las Vegas is all too familiar with that crisis. It was among the hardest hit when the housing market bubble fell. And it is likely to be among the hardest hit again with the COVID-19 pandemic. A third of Las Vegas’ economy depends on the leisure and hospitality sectors wellbeing. In fact, the city ranks first in this category throughout the country. Thus, it’s not surprising to hear that Las Vegas’ unemployment rate exceeded 28 percent in April. If any community needed to open casinos again, it’s certainly this one.

A bunch of slot machines behind an open sign
An open casino means a greater COVID-19 threat – what’s the answer?

Of course, Las Vegas struggles with the same realities we all are. Are safe gambling practices going to be enough to protect workers and attract guests? For those working in Las Vegas, they must weight decisions about their health and livelihood. For guests, they must determine if the entertainment experience is worth the cost and the risk. After all, Las Vegas is a social destination and not one of isolation. Given these dilemmas, Las Vegas expects its reboot after COVID-19 to be a slow and gradual one. But just as it did in 2008, the city fully expects to recover and do so in a very big way.

“Nobody comes to Vegas to spend time by themselves. It’s a place people come to be social with one another.” – Brian Labus, Assistant Professor, School of Public Health at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Open Casinos Across the Nation

Las Vegas decided to open casinos on June 4th after the city and Nevada’s governor gave the go ahead. Even sports betting is reopening. But many others have already made the choice to open casinos in their states and regions weeks before. Many tribal nations opened their doors to patrons after safe gambling measures were put into place in May. Tribal casinos in Idaho, Washington, and Arizona were among the first. Likewise, several commercial casinos are also now open in Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. Though too early to tell, all seems well so far.

Interestingly, tribal casinos were not mandated to close at all. The federal government awards these casinos sovereignty in determining their own practices. However, out of concern for its employees and guests, all shut down in mid-March and only recently reopened. Like Las Vegas, safe gambling procedures are being adopted to reduce the risk of coronavirus spread. These measures include not only social distancing strategies but a number of new cleaning protocols. This has been the preferred approach for all casinos to date in minimizing both health and economic threats.

“It was a tough decision to open. Ultimately, everyone wanted to make sure that as tribes open, it wasn’t business as usual. The way we are going to open is going to look much different than when we closed.” – Jeff L. Grubbe, Tribal Chairman for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Rancho Mirage and Palm Springs casinos

Safe Gambling Strategies Being Adopted

In order to open casino gambling to patrons, all are adopting social distancing practices. For most, this means reducing occupancy to 50 percent. In Las Vegas, most casinos will only allow 4 people at a poker table and 3 at a blackjack table. Also, every other slot machine will be disabled or removed as well. And pool chairs are being reduced in number to promote social distancing. These measures, as well as security personnel and tape on the floors will serve to ensure occupancy rates are much lower. Similar safe gambling measures have been put in place all casinos that have reopened to date.

In addition to these practices, a number of other safe gambling procedures are being used as well. For example, the Venetian in Las Vegas is using thermal cameras at entrances and installing plastic barriers at check-in counters. Some casinos have hired companies to provide ultrasonic chip cleaning services. These services add an antimicrobial coating to the chips as well that protects their surface for up to 60 days. Likewise, guests will no longer be allowed to touch cards and be encouraged to use touchless transactions. Also, machines will be cleaned after each use. Most are employing these measures before the make the move to open casino operations for gambling.

Hedging Their Bets

The decision to open casino operations is one that is being approached with great caution. Notably, the safe gambling measures being used serve to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread. But at the same time, they allow some return of economic activity and social normalcy. Notably absent will be all-you-can-eat buffets, concerts, and night club activities. These alone account for two-thirds of the revenues in places like Las Vegas. Thus, open casino operations will only serve to improve the financial situation slightly for these establishments. But if all goes well, then casinos hope to gradually move forward and open additional venues. Though the choice to open casino operations is risky, it’s clear everyone is proceeding with a healthy dose of caution.

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