Bets are off at Las Vegas casinos

Gaming revenue, visitor numbers plunge due to virus; rock-bottom hotel rates draw few takers

Gambling revenue has dropped about 40 per cent so far in 2020.
Gambling revenue has dropped about 40 per cent so far in 2020.PHOTO: AFP

(BLOOMBERG) - The chips are down for the casino business at the world-renowned Las Vegas Strip.

Gambling revenue has dropped about 40 per cent so far this year and a turnaround is nowhere in sight. Some hotels are even offering rock-bottom rates - US$10 (S$14) a night and yet there are few takers.

So how bad is the business now?

At a recent poker competition at Caesars Palace, only 13 players turned up.

Welcome to Las Vegas in the time of coronavirus. The city began reopening its giant casino hotels on June 4 but guests - particularly those travelling by air - have been reluctant to return. The overall number of visitors tumbled 61 per cent to 1.4 million in July, the first full month the casinos were open.

Gambling revenue on the Strip fell 39 per cent to US$330 million from a year ago.

Resort operators have been trying to lure guests with discounted rooms. A recent stay at Bally's, a Caesars property, cost US$10 a night. The bill for three nights with taxes and resort fees was US$130. Room service was not offered.

It has been pretty devastating for everyone, especially on the Strip, because the convention business is gone. Local officials have prohibited gatherings of more than 50 people, a killer for the crucial meeting and convention business.

With fewer guests and reduced capacity, resorts have been reluctant to bring back workers.

MGM said last month it was laying off 18,000 employees nationwide, most of them in Las Vegas.

Signs in the casinos remind patrons that masks are required and encourage safety protocols like social distancing and frequent hand-washing. Only four people at a time are allowed in lifts though that sometimes seems to be ignored.

 
 

The slot machine floors look different as well, often with every other machine disabled to enforce social distancing. The core slot players, older guests, have been hesitant to travel due to the virus, noted Mr Nick Hogan, whose ReelMetrics tracks slot machine data.

He called the senior shortage "unquestionably the pandemic's greatest threat to casinos globally".

Mr Adam Wiesberg, general manager of the El Cortez casino in downtown Las Vegas, said he had removed more than 200 slot machines and put the rest in circular or X-shaped configurations so players can keep their distance.

Extra workers on the casino floor are on hand to wipe the devices. "We try to get them cleaned as soon as somebody stands up," he said.

Wynn Resorts has taken an unusual step of releasing detailed Covid-19 testing data for its employees and guests. The company said 548 of its workers tested positive last week out of more than 15,000 tests administered.

Contact tracing that the company performed with 10 in-house staff suggested 98 per cent of the illnesses were caught outside or at work. Out of some 500,000 overall visitors since June, six tested positive after in-room exams.

Wynn has since reopened its poker room.

Changes in poker rooms are easy to spot. Seating at the tables has been reduced to eight players from 10 and each guest is separated by a plastic divider.

Tables are cleaned after every 30 minutes with a change of dealers. Hand sanitiser is freely dispensed to anyone who asks for it.

 
 

Vegas' famous free drinks are tougher to get, with one server apparently handling the whole room at Caesars.

Masks make it harder to read the players' faces. Voices are muffled, so it is harder to hear too, whether it is someone announcing a raise, or just making chit-chat.

One player had to be reminded several times by a dealer to keep his mask above his nose. He grumbled that he had trouble breathing but he complied.