COVID-19 caused every single casino in America to dim their lights, shut down their slots and lock their doors.
Months later, most casinos are open for business, with just 148 of the nation’s 989 gaming facilities still closed, according to the American Gaming Association’s COVID-19 casino tracker.
Here in the Northeast, gamblers have plenty of options, with upstate tribal casinos welcoming visitors, Atlantic City’s casinos back in action and all three Massachusetts casinos reopening this week.
One of the casinos that isn’t an option: Rivers Casino & Resort in Schenectady.
Rivers remains closed, along with New York’s other three upstate commercial casinos. No date for reopening has been set by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and what many regarded as a short term shut-down risks becoming something more damaging and permanent.
In what can only be viewed as an ominous development, Rivers said this week that it will lay off employees furloughed since March, perhaps the clearest sign yet that climbing out of the economic hole we’ve fallen into will be neither quick nor easy.
Rivers’ announcement is bad news for the 1,000-plus workers who rely on the casino for a paycheck, but also the local governments that balance their budgets using gaming revenue.
In its budget for 2020, the city of Schenectady projected $2.9 million in casino payments - money that is not going to materialize, even if Cuomo abruptly decides to reopen casinos at reduced capacity, as other states have done.
Before Rivers ceased operations in mid-March, it generated $665,508 in gross gaming revenue for Schenectady. If the casino remains closed through 2020, that will be it for the year - a troubling turn of events, given that city officials have said that casino revenue is critical to keeping taxes down.
“Without casino revenue, we would have to increase taxes 12 percent,” City Council member Ed Kosiur said last fall, when the city budget was passed.
I don’t blame city officials for not anticipating the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that shuttered businesses all over the country and makes reopening indoor restaurants, bars and, yes, casinos a risky proposition.
I’ve dinged Rivers in the past for not meeting its revenue projections, but I can’t fault it for failing to perform this year.
Shutting down was the responsible thing to do - and, with COVID-19 raging throughout much of the country, staying closed through the end of the year and even into 2021 might be necessary.
I’ve read a little bit about the measures other casinos have put in place to prevent the spread of infection, but I’d like to see more research on their effectiveness before unequivocally supporting the reopening of casinos.
The news from other parts of the country where casinos have reopened doesn’t exactly paint a reassuring picture.
Las Vegas saw a record number of COVID-19 infections two weeks after the casinos there reopened, and a recent Las Vegas Review-Journal article reports that “casino operators across Southern Nevada have declined to share how many employees have tested positive for COVID-19.”
Much as I’d like to see a quick economic turnaround, all signs point to a long slog back to normal, which doesn’t bode well for America’s casinos.
In April, Moody’s Investors Services offered a grim forecast for the U.S. gaming industry, with vice president and senior analyst Adam McLaren remarking that American casinos face “a monumental, unprecedented crisis, with a long and painful recovery to follow."
"We expect that it will take 12 months for sector (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) to recover to about 30% of what was generated on an annual basis before the coronavirus pandemic struck," McLaren said. "Overall, it will take a little more than 18 months for the industry to get back to generating just 60%, roughly, of 2019 levels.”
“Casinos are definitely not recession-proof,” David Schwartz, a gaming historian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told me. And when large numbers of Americans are out of work and spending less, as they are now, gaming facilities are likely to underperform.
You don’t have to be a big fan of casinos or gambling to see that this spells trouble for Capital Region communities that have benefited from the revenue and jobs created by Rivers.
Or that the longer Rivers remains closed, the harder it will be on Schenectady.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.