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In less than a week, the two tribal casinos in Connecticut will reopen against the state government’s express wishes.
Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun recently issued a joint statement confirming their plans to welcome guests back beginning on June 1.
The tribes have faced growing public pressure to resume normal operations despite COVID-19, and the start of June has long been a target for many businesses. It’s a Monday and the first day of the month marking, in many people’s minds, the start of summer.
The decision is stirring up controversy, though. It could have implications for the broader discussion surrounding the expansion of gambling in the state.
However one feels about the timing, the two casinos are not rushing into reopening unprepared. Both will implement safety measures similar to those in place at other casinos that have reopened.
These protocols include:
Gov. Ned Lamont is among those who see the situation in Connecticut as more serious than elsewhere. His administration contends that these measures won’t be enough to reopen casinos safely.
Among the top concerns expressed by the governor are the demographics of casino customers and the proximity of Connecticut to some of the hardest-hit states like Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.
COVID-19 tends to severely affect older people, and retirees make up a significant portion of a typical casino’s clientele. A 2010 study, for instance, showed that the median age of US casino visitors is older than 50 and a quarter of guests are 65 or older.
The possibility of visitors traveling from neighboring states to gamble is equally worrying.
Those nearby states are the top three in terms of coronavirus per capita cases, and Connecticut itself is No. 6. Save for tribal properties in upstate NY, most casinos in the region will not be reopening for several more weeks.
Though they’ve promised to refrain from out-of-state marketing, Connecticut casinos will undoubtedly attract traveling gamblers who have no nearer options available.
As of this writing, about 1 in 5 American casinos has reopened its doors.
These reopenings began slowly in early May, with just a few tribal casinos exercising their sovereignty. On May 9, the South Dakota town of Deadwood became the first jurisdiction to allow its commercial casinos to reopen.
Over the past week, the pace has accelerated dramatically. However, most of the casinos that have reopened are in the Deep South or along the West Coast. Only one has, so far, reopened in all of the northeast: Lakeside Entertainment in central NY.
Aside from that, the closest available options for east coasters at the moment are in northern Michigan or North Carolina.
While there are good reasons for East Coast casinos to remain closed for the time being, there are also strong economic incentives to be the first to reopen.
Casino-goers have been denied the live experience for over two months now, and online gambling remains forbidden in most US states — including Connecticut. There is a booming business to be made when you’re the only game in town.
Not only are Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods planning to be the first East Coast casinos to reopen, they were also the last to close. Both locked their doors on March 16, a few days after their competitors in nearby states.
Nor did they do so without a fuss. The two tribes almost immediately began petitioning the governor to sign an executive order allowing them to offer online gambling during the shutdown.
From the casinos’ perspective, even a June 1 reopening is a compromise. They originally said they would resume operations in mid-May but moved the date back a few weeks under pressure from Lamont and the Reopen CT Advisory Group he established.
That’s not nearly enough of a compromise for the governor, however, who continues to make it difficult for the casinos to proceed with their plan without his approval. He has even threatened to strip their liquor licenses if they reopen in defiance of state orders.
Lamont is understandably in no hurry to fully reopen Connecticut.
The northeastern states have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic due to their high population and international travel hubs. There’s a real concern that an overly optimistic and accelerated reopening could lead to disaster.
The casinos, however, are not beholden to state instructions. Tribal sovereignty means that the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes are free to dictate their own rules and ignore the governor’s pleas to remain closed.
It’s a move with immediate economic upside, but one which could strain tribal-state relations at a critical juncture.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, the two parties were locked in a heated debate about sports betting, online gambling, and the construction of new casinos in the state. This clash over reopening only figures to strain the relationship further.