After shutting their doors for about three months in the spring to slow the spread of coronavirus, Pennsylvania casino executives sent Governor Tom Wolf a two-page letter on Dec. 9 asking him to not close the state’s 12 casinos in a new round of COVID-19 mitigation efforts. They cited the impact another round of closures would have on the 18,000 industry employees, vendors and tax revenue, the logistics of a short-notice shutdown, and customers leaving to play in other states with still-open casinos.
One day later, Wolf announced added restrictions that included the temporary closure of all casinos and no indoor dining. Wolf said increased measures need to be taken once again to slow the spread of the coronavirus. He called the current situation “dire,” saying it is worse than what PA experienced in the spring.
Rivers Casino Philadelphia has been closed since Nov. 20 due to restrictions by the city of Philadelphia. The state’s other casinos closed Dec. 12, and the mandate runs for three weeks, with a scheduled lift date of Jan. 4.
Another closure puts casinos in “difficult position”
The letter, written on behalf of the over 18,000 employees and thousands of business partners, was signed by nine casino executives. It noted that “due to exigent circumstances, the remaining Pennsylvania casinos did not have the opportunity to join in this letter” and said:
“Most importantly, this industry currently employs more than 18,000 workers. Respectfully, to put this number of people at risk of being furloughed or laid off, especially at this time of the year, puts our businesses in a very difficult position, to say the least.”
The casino executives point out that the gaming industry has cooperated with the Wolf administration and the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to take “extraordinary” and needed measures to slow the spread of the virus to keep employees and customers safe:
“Collectively, we have invested tens of millions of dollars to install every safeguard imaginable. We have trained staff to follow and enforce extensive safety protocols. In addition to following the administration’s and the Department of Health’s directives and guidance, we also follow all of the PGCB’s COVID-19 protocols. Further, both the PGCB and the Pennsylvania State Police maintain a near-continuous presence in every casino in this state, a level of oversight that is simply not matched in any other business or industry in the commonwealth.”
Extensive mitigation measures now the norm at PA casinos
Since reopening in June, PA casinos have followed Pennsylvania Department of Health requirements and the PGCB’s COVID-19 Casino Reopening Protocols.
Some new health and safety measures at casinos include:
- Casinos can reopen at 50% capacity.
- Employees and guests must wear masks.
- Markings on the floor promote social distancing.
- There is mandatory enhanced cleaning throughout the facility.
In addition, most casinos in Pennsylvania require a temperature check on entry. Plus, some slot machines are turned off, hand sanitizer stations have been added, there are a reduced number of positions at table games and plexiglass dividers have been installed, in addition to various other measures. The letter said:
“Our goal now is to build on this record as we move forward, rather than shutter one of the state’s most successful — and safe — industries and cause the furlough of thousands of additional Pennsylvanians.”
American Gaming Association calls on Congress for action
According to the American Gaming Association, currently in the United States, 122 casinos are closed and 874 are open.
Casey Clark, senior vice president, strategic communications, commented to PlayPennsylvania:
“The gaming industry has implemented strict safety protocols, adhered to evolving state and local health regulations and invested millions of dollars in innovative solutions to protect the health and safety of our employees and customers. These measures, like the gaming industry more broadly, have positively helped communities far beyond the four walls of casino properties.
“While our members comply with new restrictions and re-closures, Congress must take urgent action to support the full economic recovery of our members, their employees and gaming communities across the country. The AGA continues to fight on Capitol Hill for measures that provide tax relief and liability protections, boost travel and meetings, offer flexibility for tribal nations and improve reimbursement for unemployment benefits.”
Casinos and contact tracing
Casino executives said they have successfully managed the pandemic at their properties. They added, “There is no evidence that casinos are a source of COVID-19 spread.”
“We all understand that one case is one too many. However, forcing our properties to close would ignore this record, our investments and our commitment to strictly enforce all protocols.”
In November, PlayPennsylvania asked the Pennsylvania Department of Health if there are any statistics about coronavirus cases being traced to casinos.
A representative from the Department of Health commented:
“In terms of contact tracing specific to any event or specific location, we follow our contact tracing process, which includes case investigation. At this time, we are prioritizing case investigations due to the high case load. We maintain regular communication with CDC but handle outbreaks locally. There is no way to determine definitively if cases track to an individual event or location. There is not current evidence from our regular case investigation and contact tracing efforts that indicates outbreaks from these events, but we will continue to monitor [them].”
Good track record for coronavirus containment
Figures released by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board in early November showed that less than 1% of casino employees had tested positive for the virus since casinos first began to reopen in early June.
All nine casinos in Atlantic City remain open. However, indoor food and alcohol sales are prohibited indoors after 10 p.m.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said there is no evidence casinos are linked to outbreaks.
During a briefing on Nov. 18, Murphy said:
“We believe, based on the evidence that we have, that they’ve been able to responsibly manage their casino floors. Whether it’s through [personal protective equipment], whether it’s through dividers, capacity management, temperature checks, review of symptoms checks with people who go onto the floor, which is happening in all the casinos … there is not any evidence that there is either bad management of the floor or that there is a big outbreak coming from participating on the floor.”
Most recent contact tracing data for PA
On Dec. 14, the PA Dept. of Health gave its weekly data update on the results of contact tracing. Of the 62,693 confirmed cases reported between Nov. 29 and Dec. 5, only 4.4% gave an answer to whether they spent time at a business establishment.
Only .4% answered “yes,” and here is a breakdown of the business they reported visiting:
- 50% (125) of those who said yes reported going to a restaurant.
- 25% (64) of those who said yes reported going to some other business establishment.
- 16% (40) of those who said yes reported going to a gym/fitness center.
- 8% (21) of those who said yes reported going to a bar.
- 5% (13) of those who said yes reported going to a salon/barbershop.
Illegal games immune to COVID-19 restrictions
The letter from PA casino execs also pointed out the growing threat from illegal gaming. There are thousands of unregulated and unlicensed gambling devices in Pennsylvania, everywhere from corner stores to strip malls. The machines are untaxed and outside of the jurisdiction of regulators.
The letter from casino executives says:
“As the Pennsylvania State Police have noted, operators of illegal ‘skill’ slot machines have not closed down these devices, despite the obvious health risk they pose to customers in gas stations, pizza parlors and convenience stores statewide. It would be a perverse and ironic outcome if casinos operating with the highest levels of safety are required to close while illegal operators without safety protocols continue to do business as usual.”
Online casinos and sportsbooks breaking records
The closures of brick-and-mortar casinos in Pennsylvania do not affect other forms of gaming regulated by the PGCB, which include the commonwealth’s 13 online casinos, 10 online sportsbook apps and fantasy contests.
In October, online casinos generated a record $59.8 million in revenue. That broke the record set a month before in September. Revenue figures for November are due to be released by the PGCB this week.
Pennsylvania sportsbooks shattered their own record for handle, taking a record-breaking $525.8 million in bets in October. Only four months into the 2020-21 fiscal year, sports betting handle in Pennsylvania has surpassed the $1.5 billion mark. Revenue skyrocketed from $6.2 million in September to $36.8 million in October. About 90% of wagers were placed online.
PA online gaming shows no signs of slowing down. It also continues to provide a steady stream of revenue for the commonwealth with land-based facilities shut down.
Lead image (Meadows Racetrack & Casino) courtesy of AP Photo/Keith Srakocic.