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Two months into the process, the reopening of US casinos has slowed considerably. Over 80% have returned to operation, but the remaining states and properties may take much longer to get back in business.
Casinos in Illinois and New Jersey received permission to resume operations this week, leaving just five states fully closed to gambling.
Elsewhere, however, the recent resurgence of new cases of COVID-19 is causing policymakers to second-guess the decision to resume such high-risk activities.
Some states are tightening restrictions or even reversing course altogether, while a handful of casinos have taken it upon themselves to remain closed or shut back down.
According to the American Gaming Association, there are nearly 1,000 casinos in the US.
There are 36 states with at least one casino open, while 5 remain fully closed and 9 had no casinos to begin with.
Illinois on Wednesday went from fully closed to fully open. Kansas, Maryland, and Ohio all recently achieved the same status, bringing the total to 15 states with all casinos back in business.
New Jersey has been caught between a rock and a hard place since the shutdown began. On the one hand, it sits within the northeastern epicenter of the disease in the US. On the other, Atlantic City’s economy is heavily dependent on its casinos.
The state has gone from almost full employment to start the year to double-digit unemployment as a result of the economic shutdown. A significant portion of those job losses come from the nine casinos, which together employ roughly 30,000 people.
Gov. Phil Murphy has generally prioritized public health while working under substantial pressure to allow casinos to reopen in time for the July 4 holiday weekend. Although he gave that permission, the state imposed the strictest precautions yet seen — including a 25% capacity limit and mandatory masks.
Barely 48 hours before the scheduled reopening, officials announced more major restrictions: there is to be no eating, drinking, or smoking inside the casinos.
The city’s largest casino, Borgata, responded to the news by deferring its reopening indefinitely. It had originally planned on allowing invited guests back on July 2 before a full reopening Monday.
Of the other eight casinos, five reopened Thursday and the remaining three — Caesars, Bally’s and Harrah’s — opted to wait until Friday. Though they didn’t postpone their plans, that doesn’t mean they’re weren’t disappointed with the decision.
Casinos elsewhere have seen record business upon reopening, even with limited capacity and various precautions. This is the first time a restart has been tried with no alcohol and no smoking, however, both of which are part and parcel of the casino experience for many.
New Jersey tried banning smoking in casinos once before in 2008, a move so disastrous that it reversed the decision just three weeks later.
Meanwhile, states that were quicker to get the ball rolling again are now feathering the brakes once more.
As difficult as New Jersey’s predicament may be, the situation in Nevada has been far worse. Its gambling industry is even larger and more reliant on interstate and international visitors.
Las Vegas has suffered the worst job losses related to the shutdown of any major metropolitan center in the US. Its unemployment rate reached a staggering 33.5% in April, triple the national average.
Amid that economic pressure, state officials allowed the casino industry to resume business on June 4. And despite precautions, the rate of coronavirus infections in Nevada has soared. After hovering around 100 per day in May, the state hit a high of 887 new cases on June 24.
So far, there’s no indication that casinos will be forced to close again. However, they have begun tightening precautions to try to avoid the need to do so.
Per reporting from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Nevada Gaming Control Board is already considering enforcement action for 111 cases of non-compliance.
Gov. Steve Sisolak also issued an order last week making masks obligatory statewide for anyone going out in public, including casino guests.
Despite these additional precautions, a second shutdown may yet become necessary. Neighboring Arizona and California are already moving in that direction.
In mid-June, three of Arizona’s tribal casinos owned by Gila River Gaming shut down to reassess their protocols as a result of surging COVID-19 cases in the state. They were among the first wave of casinos to resume business, having reopened on May 15.
The Gila River properties opened for the second time on Thursday. This time, they have a no smoking policy, mandatory masks across the board, and coronavirus testing for staff.
California meanwhile ordered a renewed shutdown for 19 of its counties, including card rooms in those areas. These venues may present even more risk than traditional casinos due the interactive, multiplayer nature of card games.