He would be one of the casino’s last patrons.
In a matter of days, the intensifying coronavirus outbreak — and its unprecedented economic fallout — triggered huge shutdowns within the casino industry. Wynn Resorts announced it would close its Wynn Las Vegas and Encore properties starting 6 p.m. Tuesday, adding that all full-time employees would be paid through the temporary closures. MGM Resorts International said that it would shutter all Las Vegas casino operations on Monday and that the hotels would follow Tuesday. It also said it would not be accepting reservations before May 1.
Also on Sunday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) ordered the state’s casinos, racetracks and simulcast betting facilities to close indefinitely. On Monday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy shut down casinos, along with bars and restaurants, to combat the spread — effectively shutting down Atlantic City.
The public health crisis is grinding the economy to a slow crawl, upending entire industries — from sports to travel to entertainment — and sparking layoffs across the country. Consumer spending has plummeted as people increasingly steer clear of restaurants, shopping centers and even their own workplaces to mitigate the spread of the highly contagious virus, which has killed thousands of people worldwide and been detected in dozens of countries and nearly every state. On Sunday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines discouraging gatherings of 50 people or more for eight weeks.
Now casinos are feeling pinched as patrons shy away from handling chips, cash, slot machines and playing cards. Social distancing is a hard sell at the baccarat tables.
With many of the nation’s biggest attractions — from Disneyland to March Madness — packing up because of the pandemic, it is unclear how much longer the $261-billion-a-year casino gambling industry, which supports 1.8 million jobs, can hold out. A prolonged shutdown could have shattering effects in such gambling hot spots as Las Vegas and Atlantic City, where the industry is a big regional employer and a top economic engine in those states.
On Sunday night, Robert Norton, president of Live Casino & Hotel near Baltimore, told The Washington Post that he did not “understand the logic or effectiveness” of Maryland’s decision to close casinos. He noted that similar action had not been taken against the state’s restaurants, bars or airports. On Saturday, five of Maryland’s casinos had announced plans to halve the number of patrons allowed inside to limit person-to-person contact.
“Unfortunately there’s been no direct communication with this industry from the state,” Norton said. “We learned only right before the announcement was made.”
Earlier in the day, Hogan said in a news release that the “unprecedented actions” were due to the “extraordinary situation, but they could be the difference in saving lives and keeping people safe.”
Norton said that Live would set aside $5 million to cover the wages and benefits of its roughly 2,500 employees, including the hourly and tip portions of their wages.
Before Sunday’s announcement about MGM’s Las Vegas properties, the company had already started furloughs and layoffs, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. Several MGM employees tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a letter to workers obtained by Las Vegas media outlets.
Still, Las Vegas Sands said Sunday it would keep the Venetian Resort Las Vegas and the Palazzo at the Venetian Resort open. The company said it was not considering layoffs or changes to existing health-care benefits.
Massachusetts also closed all of its casinos. Regulators said all three would go dark for at least two weeks. The Illinois Gaming Board ordered the state’s 10 casinos to close for two weeks starting Monday. Other gambling clusters are closing each day.
A Saturday night at MGM National Harbor southeast of Washington would normally be bustling. Not this weekend: A highly anticipated boxing match was postponed, and the theater’s ticket office was closed.
The casino’s windowless gambling floor appeared to be more of an escape than usual for the small crowd gathered there. Waitresses and floor staff were not wearing gloves as they handled cash, chips and ticket stubs. People on bar stools sat shoulder to shoulder, nursing their beers. One man said the crowd was half the size of the previous weekend.
It would turn out to be the casino’s last Saturday night for some time. The possibility of a shutdown wasn’t much of a consideration.
Chris Johnson and his wife, Deondra, booked their trip months ago and decided not to let the outbreak ruin their plans. Johnson is in the military and on leave from his base in Colorado Springs. “If you’re going to catch the coronavirus, you can catch it anywhere,” he figured.
Johnson noticed that the casino seemed to be running low on hand sanitizer that night. But that didn’t sour his luck: He won $800.
Earl Elam, who lives nearby, said Saturday that he visits MGM National Harbor nearly every weekend. He was perusing the slots with Brittany Parker, who said they ventured out because, “We don’t live in fear.”
Andrew Brokos, a poker player, writer, coach and podcast host, had a different take. He hasn’t been to a casino for weeks. Now that tournaments and other events are being canceled, Brokos said, he thinks it may be easier to get players to come onto his podcast, “Thinking Poker.”
“The only other time I’ve heard about a casino closing is when it has caught on fire,” Brokos said.
The Unite Here Culinary Workers Union Local 226 is negotiating with Las Vegas casino resorts, spokeswoman Bethany Khan said Saturday. Proposed protections for culinary workers and bartenders include paid sick days, no discipline for quarantined or sick workers and as much as six months of paid health benefits for those who are laid off.
Khan said that Culinary Union contracts protect 60,000 workers in Las Vegas. Those agreements already stipulate that when business picks back up, workers will return to their jobs by seniority.
David Schwartz, an expert on gambling and casinos at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, said the toll on the industry will ripple through local economies, state budgets and anyone whose livelihood is reliant on hotels, clubs, gambling, food services and entertainment.
However, even after the pandemic is contained, it’s hard to say how quickly casinos will bounce back.
“A lot depends on what the economy is going to look like,” Schwartz said. “First, you have to have the physical ability to [go to a casino], and you have to have the time and the income. So if you take away one of those, it becomes more problematic.”
Austin Suarez is a regular at MGM National Harbor, stopping by once or twice a month. On Saturday night, he said he had never seen the space so empty. He wasn’t there to gamble.
A lot had changed in the world since Suarez’s last visit. But so had the display in the hotel lobby: a floor-to-ceiling spring wonderland complete with cherry blossoms, bonsai trees and butterflies.
It was beautiful, and Suarez just wanted to see it.