A gaming task force wants an explanation of why Gov. John Bel Edwards is capping the number of slot machines and table game positions at casinos and video poker truck stops, along with limiting the number of customers — restrictions that could affect some casinos' decisions on potentially reopening next week.
Casinos are authorized to reopen Friday, but won't be able to until Monday to give State Police and the Louisiana Gaming Control Board time to put reopening regulations in place. Even then, it's not clear how many will reopen.
Wade Duty, executive director of the Louisiana Casino Association, said that reducing the number of gambling spaces means that it won’t be profitable for more than half of the state’s riverboats and racinos to open. Louisiana has 15 riverboat casinos and four racinos, or racetrack casinos.
“I don’t want to seem ungrateful,” Duty said, “but if we can only service 25% of the positions, it really impacts the number of people who get called back” to work.
Members of the Recover Louisiana Commission’s Gaming Task Force said at a Tuesday meeting that they want to know what's achieved by reducing the number of gambling spaces to 25% of what would be allowed by law versus what would be accomplished by just reducing the customer capacity of gambling halls to 25%.
Edwards shut down state-licensed casinos and video poker truck stops on March 17 in an attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus. On Monday he announced he was lifting some of the restrictions and casinos would be able to open at the end of week.
The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Arthur Lawson, Gretna's longtime police chief and owner of Metro Gaming and Amusement, which operates video poker machines at truck stops in Louisiana, said the device cap means some small operations won’t find it profitable to open. “If you have 19 machines in one location, it’s probably not cost-effective,” he said.
The cap also impacts small restaurants, which would be allowed to turn on their video poker machines once they start serving food. “What does a restaurant with two or three machines do?” Lawson said.
Even with the device cap, some larger properties say they are looking to reopen and bring back some of the thousands of employees who have been without a job for nearly two months.
Barron Fuller, senior vice president of operations for Eldorado Resorts, which owns the Belle of Baton Rouge and Eldorado Shreveport, said his company is leaning toward reopening. “We need to get life back in the building,” he said.
Under Edwards' phased reopening plan, casinos will be able to boost capacity up to 50% once the state gets into the second phase. That won’t happen until June 5 at the earliest, provided the number of coronavirus cases in Louisiana continues to shrink.
“There may be short-term relief, but we can’t predict where we will be the first week of June,” said Ronnie Jones, who heads up the task force. “And the governor can’t predict it either.”
The task force has been charged with not only finding a way to get casinos open after the pandemic passes, but to provide recommendations for the future of the gambling industry in Louisiana. To that end, the group heard a presentation from representatives of Spectrum Gaming Group, which conducted an analysis of the state’s gaming market in 2109 for Louisiana Economic Development.
Officials from Spectrum stuck to the recommendations of the report: allow some of the operators in the Shreveport-Bossier market to move their riverboats to the north shore or Monroe to keep gamblers in those areas from going to Mississippi; allow for sports betting in Louisiana; look at digital gaming, a popular trend that allows people to gamble on their smartphone; and to overhaul the gaming tax structure in Louisiana, which puts properties at a disadvantage to Mississippi.
The task force made no recommendations, but the Legislature is looking at allowing sports betting. A Senate committee passed two bills last week that would give voters a chance to approve sports betting at casinos.
“We’re looking for good things to come out of bad times,” Jones said.