Shutdown Illegal Gaming Devices For COVID-19 Concerns, PA Group Demands

Written By Kevin Shelly on March 20, 2020
PA Senator Gene Yaw continues to push for the legislation of skill games.

Pennsylvania should immediately shut down games of skill to stem the spread of the coronavirus, an advocacy group called for on Friday.

According to the Pennsylvanians Against Illegal Gambling (PAIG), the PA Department of Health and county health departments should order businesses that are housing illegal gaming devices to shut them down. 

Unregulated gaming devices have “proliferated in gas stations, corner stores, restaurants, clubs and bars,” spokesman Peter Shelly said. And now they pose a health hazard.

PA State Police have testified before the legislature that more than 15,000 of the machines are scattered throughout the state.

By contrast, licensed slots in casinos number 24,000.

Surfaces can harbor the virus for three days

Shelly pointed to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study that found the virus that causes COVID-19 “is stable for several hours to days on surfaces.” Federal scientists found the virus can survive for up to three days on plastic and stainless steel surfaces.

This is a major reason the state has already ordered the closing of casinos and entertainment centers, as well as bars and sit-down restaurants.

But many of the devices remain in play at places such as convenience stores, which remain open because of the essential services they offer, said Shelly.

He added:

“At a time in which Pennsylvania casinos have made the difficult but appropriate decision to shut down to protect the health of their patrons, employees and the public, these machines continue to attract gamblers of all ages. You don’t have to be a health expert to know that the extended period of times in which players interact with these machines could accelerate the spread of coronavirus to some of our most vulnerable citizens.”

State is cracking down on devices, but slowly

The heat on these unregulated devices has been rising of late.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) recently provided grants to local law enforcement agencies. The grants provide more than $740,000 across five jurisdictions to address illegal gambling.

And meanwhile, PA State Police continue their crackdown across the state.

Grant recipients: Five PA jurisdictions

Receiving the grant money are:

  • $250,000 for the District Attorney’s Office in Delaware County, which is where Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino and Racetrack is located
  • $221,025 for Bensalem, the host city for Parx Casino
  • $154,336 for Cumberland County, just west of Harrisburg
  • $114,802 for Lackawanna County, which houses Scranton and the Dunmore Borough police (Mohegan Sun Pocono is in nearby Wilkes-Barre.)

The local law enforcement grants, as stated in the Gaming Act, earmark $2 million annually. The grants are for local law enforcement to “investigate violations of and enforce laws relating to unlawful gambling in this Commonwealth.”

Delaware County’s grant is $250,000, the max

Democratic State Representatives from Delaware County announced receipt of the grant money in a release authored by Margo Davidson.

The money will fund a task force staffed by an assistant district attorney and one detective. Their purpose will be to combat illegal gambling in Delaware County, according to her announcement. Davidson, who chairs the House Democratic Southeast Delegation, said in the presser:

“This grant will provide the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office with the funds needed to identify, prevent, deter and prosecute unlawful gambling.”

Other representatives focused on safety and funding issues that will be addressed with the help of the state-funded task force.

“This important state funding allows for the development of increased prevention and law enforcement here at home,” Rep. Leanne Krueger said. “These state funds will help the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office maintain and improve the safety and security in our communities.”

Rep. Mike Zabel said:

“Illegal gambling operations skirt the rules and provide zero tax dollars, which is an important and often-times overlooked aspect in the reason why Pennsylvania needs to continue to prosecute these cases.”

Rep. David Delloso also focused on the aspect of tax dollars not being collected from unregulated machines.

“Trying to lower our school property taxes will always be an important issue for me. Slot machine revenues are used to fund general school property tax reductions, so combating illegal gambling is one important part of that process.”

“Illegal gambling lacks the integrity and regulations put in place at the state level to protect residents of our community,” Rep. Jennifer O’Mara said. “This task force has the important job of protecting citizens and making sure tax revenue is collected.”

Enforcement efforts have increased

Enforcement around the state has increased since the courts lifted a temporary injunction against seizures of Pennsylvania “skill games.”

While the ultimate question about the legality of the skill devices remains to be answered either in court or through the legislature, the decision has ratcheted up enforcement by the State Police.

Between Jan. 22 and Feb. 25, authorities confiscated 71 gambling machines. That included 65 video gambling devices from 17 liquor establishments.

Recent seizures

Seizures by the statepolice are continuing.

  • The Parade Speed Check convenience store in Erie had six devices and $1,087 in cash confiscated on March 3.
  • Nine video games and two additional coin-pusher devices, along with $215 from a quick stop store and gasoline station at 1220 Wheeler Ave. in Dunmore on March 4.
  • Lenny’s, a pub in Gibsonia, Allegheny County, near Pittsburgh, had five video machines seized on March 11.
  • Four video machines and $410 in cash from Hourglass, a pub in Brookville Borough, not far from Punxsutawney.

Given around 15,000 illegal devices are operating in PA, there’s more work to be done.

Regulated casino slots are unavailable for the foreseeable future, in light of the current pandemic. Time will tell if the PAIG gets their wish for a mandated shutdown of unregulated gaming devices as well.

Lead image courtesy of PA State Police.

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Kevin Shelly

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning career journalist who has spent most of his career in South Jersey. He's the former assistant city editor of The Press of Atlantic City, where he covered the casino industry and Atlantic City government as a reporter. He was also an investigative, narrative enterprise, and features reporter for Gannett’s Courier-Post.

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