It’s been a hellish two months for the land-based gaming industry following wide-spread casino closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Though online casinos seem to be picking up some of the slack, people are out of work, state and local economies are holding on by their fingertips, and people are left wondering when and if things will ever return to normal.
In states like Nevada, where the gambling and entertainment industry are pillars of economic security and held together by travel, the situation is a bit more complex. The numbers speak for themselves: 219 casinos closed and over 206,000 gaming workers jobless.
Other areas of the US, where the gambling industry also provides necessary capital needed to fund state budgets, are also searching for answers. Lawmakers, health officials, and gaming executives are scrambling to figure out how and when doors can reopen safely.
As consumers of entertainment, and those employed by it, we must trust that our questions will be answered. When will Vegas casino doors open? Will all casinos around the country have similar guidelines? These types of specifics are still being sorted out across the US but a picture is beginning to take shape as to when and how things might look.
When will Las Vegas casinos reopen?
Many properties including some on the Las Vegas strip are considering Memorial Day as a (very) tentative reopening date. MGM Resorts International said it plans to reopen in early June. However, nothing is set in stone, given the approval process.
First, each property must create a plan to ensure safety for customers and employees. Casinos must implement new guidelines adopted by the Nevada Gaming Commission into their plans, which among them include half the occupancy and frequent cleaning of surfaces and gaming devices.
Joe Bertolone, executive director of the UNLV International Center for Gaming Regulation, expect Las Vegas to open at a slower pace than other gaming markets.
“Clearly, the association with air travel in Las Vegas and other integrated resort markets like Singapore and Macau that have transportation as a key component to their gaming offerings, they are just going to open more slowly than other markets,” Bertolone said in an interview.
Caesars Entertainment Chief Executive Officer Tony Rodio echoed this statement during the companies quarterly earnings call.
“I think we’re all in agreement that we think regional markets are going to bounce back quicker because of the lack of needing to fly,” Rodio said. “When the governor in Las Vegas announced the move toward Phase 1 and the Raiders schedule came out, we actually had a pretty significant bump in reservations booked for the fourth quarter of this year.”
Right now there is no exact date or time when Las Vegas casinos will reopen.
Nevada operating and safety protocols
The Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB) released both operating guidelines and health and safety policies that casino properties must follow prior to reopening. The policy memorandum specifically states a “plan must be submitted at least seven days before reopening occurs or as soon as reasonably possible thereafter.”
A few of the operational policies include:
- A schedule for the replenishment of funds, including cash, chips, and tokens in all areas of casino accountability.
- Licensees must take measures to pay receipts and wagers that may have expired during temporary closures.
- Club venues will be allowed to reopen in compliance with any directive issued by the Governor’s office.
- Licensees must comply with all prescribed local, state, and federal COVID-19 health requirements.
A complete list of all operating guidelines can be viewed here.
NV Governor Steve Sisolak issued policies and procedures to notify gaming operators of new operational requirements to “mitigate and reduce risk of exposure to COVID-19 for all employees, patrons, and other guests.” According to the release, these constitute the “minimum” requirements that should be followed and does not stop operators from implementing their own additional requirements.
Here are a few, but not all, of the new safety and health policies:
- Occupancy will be limited to no more than 50% in each gaming area.
- All reopening plans must include how disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer will be available to everyone.
- Floor plans for slot machines must meet social distancing requirements.
- Table games maximums: only three players per blackjack table, six players per craps table, four players per roulette table, and four players per poker table.
- Extensive cleaning of all items including, dice, chairs, chips, and numerous other items when a new player or employee comes in contact with any item.
A complete list of all health and safety guidelines can be viewed here.
Bertolone said one of the important takeaways from the new guidelines is their ability to change.
“The thing that stands out the most is the recognition by regulators that this is a dynamic and fluid situation. While today there might be these standards, tomorrow they may change. Regulators are putting plans in place that allow for change,” he said.
Health and safety protocols are determined by local and state health officials, not the gaming board.
A new look at the casino experience
All of these new rules — which will likely become universal, give or take — bring us to how the whole casino experience will initially change for gamblers. At least, in the beginning, gone will be the dozen people hovering around a craps table rooting for someone on a hot streak. No longer will there be 10-12 high rollers sitting at a poker table stacking chips to look like city skylines. There won’t be groups of friends playing slot machines side by side or lines forming to enter new night clubs and eateries.
Based on the guidelines released by the NGCB, noise levels will be reduced by the lack of customers, spacing will be mandatory, and sanitation best practices will be heavily enforced.
George Rover, managing partner at Princeton Global Strategies and former deputy director of the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, anticipates similar policies around the US.
“All properties must comply with whatever executive order is handed down by their governor,” Rover said in an interview. “I can see maybe two out of every three slot machines closed or only three people at a blackjack table.”
Many of the policies in states like Nevada and Louisiana have mirrored Rover’s assessment. Expanding upon his comments, Rover said one thing that may cause a hold up in properties reopening is physical space.
“Some will be limited by their physical architecture,” he said. “They are all on equal footing but depending on their layout, some may be on better positioned when it comes to adopting what the executive order requires.”
Regional regulators weigh in
Experts may be focused on Las Vegas, but when reopening casinos begins, it will begin in the South. As first reported by Bloomberg, Louisiana casinos are set to begin reopening May 18, subject to approval by state-police.
“It will be a slow start and a conservative approach,” said Ronnie Jones, chairman of the Louisiana Gaming Control Board (LGCB). “I think what will be proposed here will mirror Nevada and is pretty much what was proposed in Mississippi.”
According to plans released by LA Gov. John Bel Edwards, which can be viewed here, guidelines in Louisiana do in fact mirror some of the policies implemented in Nevada with a few exceptions.
Some but not all of the LA guidelines include:
- Gaming positions will be reduced to 25%
- Casino capacity will be reduced to 25%
- Customers will be offered masks and be encouraged to wear them on the gaming floor
- Temperatures will be taken by gaming employees
Fielding a workforce
Another potential issue is rallying employees to come back to work. According to a first-hand account written by Jones in Fantini’s Public Policy Review, he notes how severe Louisiana was hit by the pandemic.
“On a per capita population basis, Louisiana ranks 3rd behind New York and New Jersey in the number of infections and the number of deaths. In fact, one parish actually has the highest per capita death rate in the country, even higher than New York. Of the 25 counties throughout the country with the highest per capita death rate, ten are Louisiana parishes.”
In an interview, Jones said he continues to speak with general managers throughout the crisis and some a fearful even if they wanted to get to 100 percent, they don’t think they could.
“I’ve been speaking with general managers and a few are nervous their employees won’t be coming back to work,” he said. “They are either concerned for their own health or they are getting more from unemployment.”
Expected outlook on the casino industry
As with the reopening of any industry, policies and procedures will change. But according to Bertolone, “it’s too early to tell what will be the new norm.”
“Consumers are smart. Gambling is a very practical industry and without safety, the industry won’t recover,” he said. “The basic feelings of safety and cleanliness will be revisited whether you own a casino or a restaurant.”
Rodio said the company continues to work closely with regulators, and government and tribal officials to ensure operations upon reopening follow their directives.
“We will ensure that our operations are in compliance with applicable government directives and tribal mandates,” Rodio said. “While we don’t know the duration or the severity of the economic downturn — we recognize that recovery will take time.”
For now, the best the gambling industry or any industry affected by the pandemic can do is wait. In the grand scheme of things, two months is better than two years.