The answer as to whether the COVID-19 coronavirus will spread further in Pennsylvania seems certain, but the question for the state’s vibrant casino industry is whether the health threat will cause any more shutdowns.
In the most striking example of the potentially fatal virus impacting the U.S. gaming industry, the Valley Forge Resort Casino closed its doors to the public at 6 a.m. Friday.
Boyd Gaming Corp., which owns the casino, anticipates a two-week shutdown in compliance with a broad directive from Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.
The Valley Forge casino is located in suburban Philadelphia in Montgomery County, where 13 known or presumed cases of the coronavirus have been identified out of 22 total in the state, as of Thursday. No other county has had more than two cases, and Wolf directed that large public gathering spaces in Montgomery — schools, shopping malls, community centers, etc. — should shut down for two weeks as a hedge against spread of the virus.
Closure of “entertainment centers” within the state’s third-largest county was also part of the order, and Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board spokesman Richard McGarvey said the governor’s office described a casino as within that category. The agency’s staff consulted with representatives of the casino and governor to confirm plans for the shutdown, he said.
“Board executive staff relayed the governor’s order to Valley Forge Casino Resort staff,” McGarvey said. “The casino did not hesitate in complying with the order and an orderly closure process took place.”
The two-week closure will certainly cost Boyd millions of dollars, based on the normal $12 million in monthly revenue it collects from slots play, table games, and retail sports wagering. In addition, it will lose the patronage at its 442-room hotel and income derived from food and beverages.
Other casinos keeping doors open — for now
None of the other 11 casinos in the state has indicated plans for any significant cutbacks, but they are anxious to see what the coronavirus’ impact will be as they remain open.
This weekend could provide a stark indication of whether the public avoids such large, communal venues out of safety concerns — even where there are no reported cases, as in western Pennsylvania — or whether they seek out casinos as an entertaining diversion from the depressing health and economic news that is dominating public consciousness.
Multiple casinos contacted this week declined to comment on whether they have seen any dropoff in patronage as of yet or have concerns about that in the days and weeks ahead.
One financial blow already certain is the loss of additional revenue they would have generated during March Madness, the basketball tournament canceled by the NCAA that normally receives more wagers than any other sporting event. The casinos’ sportsbooks and events centers would have been huge focal points for viewing the games, with patrons willing to pay $50 to $125 for reserved seats.
Valley Forge itself had planned a large viewing party in its sportsbook March 20, with former Duke and NBA star Christian Laettner present to sign autographs.
Staying as sanitary as possible
The other casinos around the state largely say they are taking special sanitary precautions of late for the benefit of both patrons and employees due to the unprecedented health concerns. Most visibly, they have been providing more sanitary hand-washing dispensers with signs advising individuals to use them.
Penn National Gaming, which owns both the Hollywood and Meadows casinos, said that among other steps, its staff has been increasing sanitary wiping of gaming devices, door handles, elevator buttons, menus, and other public spaces.
One way in which COVID-19 can be transmitted is by touching a surface or object that has been contaminated by a person with the virus. In a casino, there all kinds of things — slot machines, kiosks, chips, playing cards, table tops — that involve shared contact among patrons and with employees.
Such instances are not the most common way the virus is transmitted, however, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads,” the CDC states on its COVID-19 information page.
The more common form of transmission is from an infected person coughing or sneezing and sharing respiratory droplets with those less than 6 feet away. Like anywhere with crowds, that could be a concern in a busy casino, and it is the reason so many sporting events, concerts, conferences, etc., across the country have been canceled as a precaution.
No case of anyone contracting the virus in a Pennsylvania casino has been reported, and the facilities responding to questions Thursday did not report having had any large event cancellations themselves.
But Kevin O’Sullivan, general manager of Presque Isle Downs & Casino, said, “We urge our guests planning to attend any functions or events to check with the event organizers for updated event information.”
Presque Isle is one of a number of casinos reporting it has an internal task force working on issues relating to the coronavirus, and most said they have their cleaning staff doing more than before.
Following advice of health experts
The casinos also say they are closely monitoring information from the CDC and Pennsylvania Department of Health, as McGarvey said the gaming board is also doing and advises members of the public to do as well.
As to whether more closures like Valley Forge’s seem likely across the state, he said in an email, “PGCB continues to monitor the situation and as events change the PGCB will act accordingly. Casinos are private enterprises, and if they so choose they could limit operations on their own. However, PGCB staff would still monitor the operation to insure that there is an orderly process and securing of all assets.”
Before its arrival in the U.S., the coronavirus erupted more broadly in China and elsewhere in Asia, prompting a two-week shutdown of Macau’s casino industry until the spread was thought to be under control.
The Valley Forge shutdown is the first similarly lengthy closure of a U.S. casino. Las Vegas casinos have had their own more modest reaction up to now, such as announcing plans to shut down buffets and to refund the price of show tickets for anyone having second thoughts about attending.
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