Coronavirus: Macau casinos cleared to reopen Thursday after shutdown

In a photo taken on Feb 4, 2020, security guards stand outside the closed Grand Lisboa casino, following the coronavirus outbreak in Macau. PHOTO: REUTERS

MACAU (BLOOMBERG/AFP) - Casinos in the world's biggest gambling hub were cleared to resume operations on Thursday (Feb 20), following an unprecedented closure for 15 days to curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Lei Wai Nong, secretary for economy and finance in the Chinese territory of Macau, said in a briefing on Monday that casinos can reopen on Feb 20, though it will be conditional based on criteria that he did not specify.

Authorities said casinos that do not want to reopen because of low tourist numbers could apply to extend the closure, but they must be up and running within 30 days, AFP reported.

Macau's government has been keen to ensure the casinos keep employing staff through the downturn and are trying to avoid lay-offs. Officials said all gamblers and casino staff must wear face masks.

The resumption of the lynchpin industry comes after the city reported no new infections in the last two weeks, with the number of confirmed cases at just 10 people.

The former Portuguese colony took the unprecedented step of shutting down almost all of its lucrative entertainment sector earlier in the month, including casinos, nightclubs and many bars. The vast majority of Macau's tourists are mainland Chinese travellers, drawn to the city's casinos.

As the only place in China where casinos are allowed, Macau's gambling houses account for about 80 per cent of government revenue.

The resumption could lift the sector, which is already reeling from a slowdown in the Chinese economy and a shift to gambling operations in South-east Asia, Bloomberg reported.

Fitch Ratings estimated that the crisis could wipe out US$3.3 billion (S$4.6 billion) in cash flow for the six Macau operators, including the local units of Las Vegas Sands and MGM Resorts International.

A Bloomberg Intelligence index of Macau casino operators fell as much as 0.5 per cent in early trading Tuesday in Hong Kong. The gauge has climbed back 6 per cent this month, after dropping 10 per cent in January.

While the re-opening could provide some relief for casino operators, the move will have little impact on fundamentals, according to JPMorgan. Business will likely remain slow because of restrictions on visas and transportation, and Chinese players are probably unwilling to travel at this point, analysts led by DS Kim wrote in a note Monday.

Sands China President Wilfred Wong told Cable TV he expects few customers when casinos first re-open, and believes it will take two-to-three months before business can return to normal.

Macau closed casinos for a 15-day period that began Feb 5, in the longest shutdown ever for the world's biggest gambling hub. MGM said it is losing US$1.5 million a day in Macau, while Wynn Resorts said it is losing about US$2.5 million a day.

First found in the city of Wuhan in central China, the coronavirus has infected more than 72,000 people and killed over 1,800 on the mainland.

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