Three Pennsylvania casinos are to reopen Friday and two more on Monday, and with that, the state’s gaming industry will — nominally, at least — be back to 92% of its former jingling bustle.
Harrah’s Philadelphia, Valley Forge Casino Resort, and Presque Isle Downs & Casino are set this week to join the six prior casinos that reopened since June 9 under certain limitations placed on them by Gov. Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
Three days later, the state’s two largest gambling revenue earners — Parx Casino and Wind Creek Bethlehem — are slated to join them.
That will leave just Rivers Casino Philadelphia as the one property among 12 to remain dark since mid-March. Though like other casinos it is in the state’s “green” phase allowing widespread resumption of business activities, the city of Philadelphia has retained its own special restrictions related to COVID-19 on the casino and certain other large gathering spaces.
The return of the 11 others is welcomed by executives, employees, and patrons, even if new operating procedure is far from standard: Everyone must wear face coverings; only half the slot machines and table game seats are generally available; many dining options remain shut down, most notably buffets; and live entertainment, poker, and valet parking won’t resume for a while.
Losses might be at least $750 million
Like most of the nearly 1,000 casinos in America, those in Pennsylvania shut down from March 13-17 due to the coronavirus health threat. Because of the size of the industry and government dependence on it for revenue, the unprecedented closures have been especially costly in the Keystone State.
The losses have been offset partially by increased iCasino play the past three months in Pennsylvania — one of the few states with legal online gaming — but that hardly makes up for a near-standstill in what has been a $3.4 billion annual industry.
A conservative estimate based on past history suggests the casinos have collectively lost some $750 million in revenue during their days of darkness, with the state and local government share of lost taxes from that exceeding $300 million.
That doesn’t take into account whatever sacrifice in revenue comes now from reduced gambling, which might stem either from patrons’ fears of returning, their diminished income, or the new operational limits, including a restriction they don’t exceed 50% of their normal maximum occupancy.
The operators know they can’t match their former income levels for the time being, but they hope to still operate in the black based on early business at casinos that have opened elsewhere and the initial volume of customers returning in Pennsylvania.
The Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh reported its first day back saw more than twice its normal volume for a Tuesday, and Lady Luck Nemacolin found its revenue in its first five days exceeded the same period last year.
A long line of customers waited to get inside Mount Airy Casino Resort upon its reopening Monday, and the casino tweeted afterward: “Thank you to everyone who joined us in making our opening day a great success! We had an incredible turn out with record numbers.”
Half of casino workforce may still be idled
The Pennsylvania casinos employ more than 16,000 individuals, nearly all of whom were furloughed for weeks, if not months, after the properties shut down.
Many are still not recalled to work, as the various operating restrictions on the properties means they don’t need as many staff as was the case before.
Generally, casinos have reported they’ve recalled about half of their workforce, or a little more than that. It’s a fair estimate, considering few of Rivers Casino Philadelphia’s 1,600 employees would be on the job, that at least 8,000 casino employees in the state might still be collecting unemployment and wondering if and when they’ll be able to return to work.
Some are already finding out they’ve likely lost their jobs permanently.
Penn National Gaming filed federally mandated notices this month about large-scale pending layoffs late this summer that will be permanent. Those include 180 at its Meadows Racetrack & Casino, 64 at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course, and 233 at company headquarters in Wyomissing, Pa., and Las Vegas.
They are among several thousand job cuts planned by Penn National at various of its 41 properties across the country.
The layoffs “are the unfortunate result of COVID-19 related business circumstances that were sudden, dramatic and beyond our control,” the company reported.
“These significant drags on our business will likely continue for the foreseeable future. Finally, we could not have anticipated when our properties would be allowed to reopen and how restrictive the new operating conditions would be, and the negative impact this would have on business volumes.”
At Wind Creek, reservations and no smoking
While the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board has set minimum standards all casinos must adhere to in order to be approved for reopening, they have flexibility to make certain decisions affecting their operations and customers.
For example, Wind Creek, Parx, and Presque Isle have announced that they will join Lady Luck, Mohegan Sun, and Rivers Pittsburgh in doing temperature checks of everyone entering, and those showing fevers will be kept out. (Rivers Pittsburgh did not do so initially, but adopted the policy after two employees tested positive for COVID-19.)
And Wind Creek, Parx, and Valley Forge will join the Rivers, Meadows, and Hollywood casinos in curtailing their hours, shutting down in the early morning – in some cases every day, others just weekdays – for “deep cleaning.” All of the casinos were formerly 24/7.
And Wind Creek, a Northampton County venue that draws many patrons across the state line from New Jersey and New York, stands out in particular for two policies.
- It has established a reservation system people should use if they want to be guaranteed admittance, as otherwise they could be required to wait if occupancy is too high.
- It is the first casino to ban smoking within the property. It will limit smoking to a designated parking lot area.
Wind Creek also is notable for the manner in which its website attempts to spell out the range of new health and safety protocols in easy-to-understand language, as opposed to just repeating formal corporate policy.
Other casinos might do well to emulate its tone, such as the following instruction from Wind Creek pertaining to state-mandated facial coverings:
“If anyone understands odds, trust us, it’s us. So if masks weren’t so effective, we wouldn’t require them. They might be annoying to wear, but they’re among the absolutely most effective means of stopping COVID-19 spread, and therefore, all Guests, Team Members, and Visitors will be required to wear masks or cloth face coverings at all properties.”
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