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Casinos in Louisiana and Mississippi are reopening this week, offering a glimpse of how the mostly closed industry might recover in a socially distanced world.
Shirley Martinez, 45 years old, drove two hours from her home in Houston to Lake Charles, La., with her sister and 85-year-old mother for the casinos' reopening on Monday. Her mother was ready to play slots after being on lockdown -- with hand sanitizer and masks in tow. "She said, 'It's open, let's go,'" Ms. Martinez said.
Though far smaller than the hubs in Las Vegas and New Jersey's Atlantic City, which remain closed, Louisiana and Mississippi are among the country's biggest gambling markets. Casinos in the two states are opening their doors Monday and Thursday, respectively, after two-month closures. The return to business is testing industry leaders' hope that gamblers bored at home will venture out to casino floors despite lingering fears about the pandemic and large social gatherings.
Casino executives are promoting their safety plans, including tests for employees, temperature scans, sanitizing procedures, masks, no-contact guest services and fewer slot machines and seats at table games for social distancing.
At one point this year, all 989 commercial and tribal casinos in the U.S. were closed, according to the American Gaming Association, an industry trade group. Since then, commercial casinos in South Dakota and Arkansas and more than 50 tribal casinos have reopened. By Monday, the total number of casinos open was 82, the group said.
"It's going to take time," said the group's chief executive, Bill Miller. "The experience is going to be different for some period of time, appropriately, but I think that the industry will get its swagger back."
Louisiana was the fifth-largest commercial casino market with $2.56 billion in annual revenue in 2018, according to the most recent report from the gaming association. Mississippi was the seventh-largest at $2.14 billion. The top three states are the still-closed Nevada, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
In Deadwood, S.D., 13 of the historic Old West town's 21 casinos have reopened since May 7, according to the American Gaming Association. Mayor David Ruth, a table games manager at the local Silverado-Franklin hotel and casino, said he has encountered visitors driving in from nearby states and as far away as New York, Florida, Texas and New Mexico. There are still quite a few people staying home, he said, but he expects more to arrive come Memorial Day weekend.
The Deadwood casinos haven't lowered their occupancy limits, but they are implementing social distancing, he said. Slot machines are all on, but when a customer picks one, staff post signs making neighboring machines temporarily unavailable.
"The last thing an operator wants to do is accidentally take out someone's favorite machine," Mr. Ruth said.
In Louisiana, casinos in Lake Charles and the Shreveport area -- which attract drive-in visitors from Texas -- along with casinos in Baton Rouge and the New Orleans area suburbs, were allowed to reopen starting Monday. The state logged a total of 34,709 cases of Covid-19 and 2,440 deaths as of Monday. In early April, the state ranked second in per capita Covid-19 deaths behind New York. A decline in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations since then led the state to lift some restrictions last week.
Casinos must comply with a 25% occupancy limit and make only 50% of table-game seats and slot machines available, according to regulators. Anyone entering the casinos must also undergo mandatory temperature checks.
"We want to be sensitive to the fact that Louisiana was a hot spot," said Ronnie Jones, chairman of the state's Gaming Control Board.
Harrah's New Orleans, owned by Las Vegas-based Caesars Entertainment Corp., will remain closed under a more-restrictive order from Mayor LaToya Cantrell. The city has begun a cautious reopening after being a hotbed of Covid-19 cases.
"A casino is considered high-risk in terms of contact intensity, volume, and potential for visitors congregating in large groups and presents significant challenges in mitigation," a spokesman for Ms. Cantrell said.
In neighboring Mississippi, casinos can reopen starting Thursday with a maximum 50% occupancy.
About 60 people waited outside L'Auberge in Baton Rouge, and another 95 outside Margaritaville in the Shreveport area when doors opened Monday morning, and guests complied with social distancing and temperature checks, according to Penn National Gaming Inc. Kim Ginn, L'Auberge's general manager, said revenues actually exceeded an average Monday, though it isn't clear whether that will continue through the week. "Surprisingly, you still have the music, you still have the people, you still have the sounds of the slot machines, and you still feel that same energy on the floor," Ms. Ginn said.
Penn National has five casinos each in Louisiana and Mississippi, representing one-fourth of the company's portfolio.
In Mississippi, MGM Resorts International owns the Beau Rivage on the Gulf Coast and Gold Strike in Tunica, near Memphis, Tenn. MGM Resorts acting CEO Bill Hornbuckle said the Gold Strike will open Thursday, with plans to reopen Beau Rivage a week later.
Companywide safety plans include installing handwashing stations in the middle of casino floors and having guests use their mobile phones for check-ins or restaurant alerts to make visits as contact-free as possible.
That is not ideal for hospitality, Mr. Hornbuckle said, but "for today's circumstances, we think it's appropriate and we think people will appreciate it."
An even bigger question looming is how gambling will fare in a protracted economic downturn. About 36.5 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits over the past eight weeks, and the unemployment rate in April hit a record 14.7%.
"Initial openings will clearly spur people to come out of their homes," Michael Pollock, managing director of consulting firm Spectrum Gaming Group. "How much they will spend and how frequently they will visit are tied to larger economic trends."
While casinos have been closed, online gambling revenues have been on the rise, though they remain comparatively modest. Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware allow both online casino gambling and online poker. In all three states, online gambling revenue increased by more than 50% to $213 million for March and April combined, from $140 million for January and February, according to the iDevelopment and Economic Association. For the same period, land-based casino revenues in those states dropped more than 75% to $264 million, from $1.1 billion, according to the group, which promotes online gambling.