- Strong recovery predicted by state gaming regulators
- American Gaming Association seeks relief from U.S. Congress
- Tribal casinos request $18bn in federal aid
As doomsday projections continue to define the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. gaming regulators are keeping a stiff upper lip even after ordering their casinos to close their doors.
Ronnie Jones, the chairman of the Louisiana Gaming Control Board, described a harrowing journey after driving this week from the state capital of Baton Rouge to New Orleans.
“There is so much anxiety out there that people are driving crazy, passing on the shoulder and doing all kinds of reckless things,” said Jones, whose agency ordered the closure on Monday of Louisiana’s 20 casinos and racinos.
“Just out of curiosity, I drove through the French Quarter and it was like a ghost town without the tumbleweeds,” he said. “It was just like it was during Hurricane Katrina except the streetlights are still working.”
Jones said he is working out of his home in New Orleans and venturing out only to a local grocery store and pharmacy. Only one person is still working in the control board’s headquarters in Baton Rouge.
Mardi Gras, which began January 6 and continued through February 25, appears to have been “a Petri dish for the coronavirus,” Jones said.
New Orleans has the nation’s second largest infection rate per capita, trailing only Seattle.
COVID-19 may turn out to be “Darwin’s answer to the saturation of casinos across the country,” Jones said.
Amid all this turmoil, however, Jones is confident the gaming industry will survive this invisible crisis and bounce back stronger than ever.
He bases his optimism on his experience enduring Hurricane Katrina, the cataclysmic storm in August 2005 that became the costliest tropical cyclone on record.
“Our industry had one of its biggest years ever the very next year,” Jones said. “I know this pandemic is going to bottom out; I just don’t know when.”
Allen Godfrey, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, agrees with his counterpart and friendly competitor in Louisiana.
“Right now, a lot of people are out of work, and that certainly is a concern,” said Godfrey, who also ordered his state’s casinos to close Monday.
“But there’s also a lot of pent-up demand, and that’s going to be a big boost for our recovery,” he said. “When this is over, people are going to want to be entertained. So, I’m not worried about any irreversible damage. People just need to use common sense right now.”
This bullish outlook of casino regulators is not confined to the Gulf Coast.
“This is a tough time, but we have a very stable industry,” said Brian Ohorilko, director of gaming at the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.
On Tuesday, Iowa joined at least 20 other states in ordering the closure of casinos to help counter the spread of the coronavirus. The move came just a few hours before even Nevada’s governor took the same step in requiring casinos to cease operations.
Casinos in Iowa and Louisiana are shuttered for two weeks and Mississippi’s shutdown is indefinite.
Ohorilko and Jones acknowledged casino closures in their states may have to be extended.
“We’re in a very fluid situation, and we’re just going to have to play it by ear,” Ohorilko said.
Meanwhile, gaming is making efforts to ensure casino-resorts are included in any fiscal relief package approved by Congress for industries most affected by COVID-19.
MGM Resorts International chief Jim Murren joined other tourism industry executives on a visit to the White House on Tuesday.
In a Tuesday letter to congressional leaders, American Gaming Association CEO Bill Miller said the industry was “experiencing severe economic harm” due to the closing of casinos and a lack of live sports events for bettors to wager on.
“While the gaming industry has historically shown resilience in the face of financial and natural disasters, this unique challenge will require an unprecedented level of support from our government leaders,” Miller wrote.
Miller noted that the gaming industry supports 1.8m jobs and said its “immediate priorities are capital structure support, and working capital support through direct grant assistance, loan guarantees or meaningful refundable tax credits that can free up operating capital today, so our member companies can continue to support their workers and their families through these difficult times.”
In a letter addressed to Republican Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Democratic Congresswoman Deb Haaland of New Mexico, the National Indian Gaming Association on Tuesday requested an equivalent of $18bn in federal aid as the 460 tribal casinos across the U.S. also prepare to close.