Just when Nevada’s casinos reopen is anyone’s guess. Just what business will look like when that day comes is a mystery too. But Macau’s experience may provide some clues.
In February, Macau became the first gaming market to order the closure of its casinos due to Covid-19, and shut them down for a then-unprecedented 15 days. At the time, it was still widely believed that the United States would be spared the worst of the contagion.
But by the time Macau reopened February 20, the virus had migrated to the U.S., and by early March, when federal and state governments finally swung into action to stop it, it was too little, too late.
In the stunning shutdown of the U.S. economy that followed, some 900 commercial and tribal casinos were forced to close their doors. At the end of last week, the national death toll from the virus had surpassed 50,000.
Mainland China, where Covid-19 apparently originated, is the key feeder market for Macau. It was sending upwards of 150,000 tourists a day to the city until its borders closed in late January. Strangely enough, however, Macau, with a population of 600,000, has seen fewer than 50 confirmed coronavirus infections and no fatalities. Of the known cases, most were brought into the city by Macau residents who had traveled abroad, indicating virtually no community spread. It seems to be the opposite of the situation in the U.S.
Much of the credit must go to tight border controls and swift action to contain the virus, including the mandatory quarantine of incoming travelers. The casinos’ stringent health guidelines and dramatically altered business model have also helped.
For example, most non-gaming segments, including hotels, restaurants, MICE facilities and other attractions, remain closed. Strict social distancing is being enforced on casino floors, with restrictions on the numbers of active table games and slot machines, and limited seating per table. Entry points are being controlled. Guest temperature checks have been imposed. Employees must wear face masks and other protective equipment. Large staff gatherings have been prohibited. Public and back-of-house areas are regularly cleaned and sanitized.
It looks like Macau will be the model for Las Vegas and other casino markets in the U.S., based on protocols issued last week by Strip giant Wynn Resorts, which operates three casinos in Macau (the Las Vegas Sands Corp. runs five, and MGM Resorts International runs two).
“These are three of the biggest companies operating in Macau, and certainly they see what the experience is there,” David Schwartz, of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told GGB News. “It will inform procedures not just in Las Vegas but across the U.S.”
Deutsche Bank analyst Carlos Santarelli believes U.S. casinos will reopen first, while spas, theaters, convention centers, nightclubs and pools remain closed, “or at best, sparsely opened.” Buffets are “almost sure to remain closed,” and hotels probably won’t sell more than one-third of their available rooms. Entertainment schedules will be “nonexistent” for the time being, he said.
As for gaming floors, they, too, will closely resemble their counterparts in Macau.
The Wynn protocols, released in a 23-page paper on the company’s website, offer the most detailed picture yet of how this new environment will look:
- Extensive procedures will be put in place for the regular cleaning and sanitizing of hotel rooms, public spaces, tables, slots, seating, cash and cage areas and all back-of-house areas everything from elevator buttons and door handles to table rails and dice.
- The frequency of air filter replacement and HVAC system cleanings is being increased along with other steps to maximize fresh air exchange.
- Employee meetings will be conducted virtually or, as in Macau, at staggered times to keep the gatherings small.
- Touchless hand sanitizer dispensers will be made available in all public and back-of-house areas.
- All doors will open automatically or will be propped open or opened by employees.
- Thermal cameras will be positioned at points of entry to conduct non-invasive temperature checks on arrival.
- Guests will be provided with “amenity bags” that include hand sanitizer and face masks.
- Elevators will be restricted to no more than four occupants at a time, limousines to no more than four riders or no more than two, depending on the type of vehicle. Employees will not be allowed to open the doors of cars or taxis. Valet service will be suspended.
- Best practices on social distancing will be implemented, including in restaurants and hotel check-in areas, in sports books, meetings areas, at the pools and in contacts between employees and guests.
- On the gaming floors, cocktail service will be maintained, but only every other table game will be open, and only three players per table will be allowed (four per big baccarat table). Craps tables will be restricted to three players per side. Players will be reminded to use hand sanitizer and don masks before placing a bet, and guests will be discouraged from gathering behind players.
- Slot machines will be turned off and/or reconfigured with chairs removed to allow for safe separation. Signage will be placed throughout the slot floor to remind guests to sanitize machines before use or contact a slot attendant for assistance.
Wynn says the plan was developed based on “the best available science in consultation with professional infectious disease experts from the best academic institutions in the country” and is being supplemented with “even more detailed” procedures customized for each department.
Wynn is “definitely a model for how to do this,” Brendan Bussmann, director of government affairs for industry consultants Global Market Advisors, told GGB. The company’s standards “been well-received by the industry. Their leadership ability has shown through in this, and that obviously comes from being one of the concessionaires in Macau.”
Bussmann cautioned that Macau and Las Vegas are “different animals,” with different considerations in terms of how their rooms, food and beverage, entertainment and other business segments will be configured. “We won’t fully know until the gates reopen and travel resumes,” he said.
Santarelli said, “We don’t expect a one-size-fits-all approach.”
But in Schwartz’s view, Wynn’s “carefully thought-out ideas” will likely be replicated up and down the Strip, and possibly in other U.S. jurisdictions as well.
“I don’t think you’ll see a lot of variations,” he said. “I think the properties will agree on one standard.”