fter a 15-day mandatory shutdown, 29 casinos opened their doors again at midnight on Wednesday in Macau, with a raft of regulations covering those who wished to enter, including the compulsory wearing of masks and health declarations.
While no new Covid-19 cases have been reported since the order to close was given on February 4, when a hotel worker fell ill, the mood for gaming has not yet returned. A third of all casino tables in the gaming capital of the world reopened Thursday, but there is a shortage of punters from mainland China, where the Covid-19 coronavirus has killed 2,118 people and infected 74,576 people.
The situation stems from gamblers from mainland China without visas to enter Macau, faced with border restrictions and the sudden and indeterminate cancellation of flights since the outbreak began in late 2019.
The resumption of business at 70 percent of Macau’s casinos would be gradual, with fewer than a third of gaming tables – 1,800 – returning to operation, the Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau said on Wednesday. Casino operators reopening in phases include MGM China, Wynn Macau and Galaxy Entertainment. Ten casinos that remain shut will have to reopen within 30 days in accordance with the city’s gaming laws.
The gaming regulator required visitors to wear masks, undergo body temperature checks and make health declarations via mobile phone before entering the premises. At the Venetian Macau, the city’s largest casino, a hall housing more than 600 gaming tables and 1,700 slot machines looked desolate on Thursday morning, South China Morning Post reports. At 11am, only one of the dozens of baccarat tables in the high-limit zones was occupied, with three players at the seven-seater table. They were asked by a dealer to rub their hands with sanitiser every few rounds. Casino workers were also seen reminding onlookers not to stand or gather at the tables.
Signs on every other games machine on the main floor told punters they were not available to play after the government required all casinos to shut down half their tables and machines to ensure a safe distance between visitors.
The executive director of gaming services company 2NT8 is one of the few people who travel today to the two largest casinos in Macau, the Galaxy and the Venetian. This morning, Alidad Tash unveiled a few dozen people scattered around the nearly 50 tables already open to the public and easily did the ‘accounting’: more tables than players.
“Before the casinos were closed [15 days ago], only 400, 500 tables were already open because of the epidemic,” with fewer players now registering with the gradual reopening of some gambling rooms, “90 percent less than it was usual,” he told Lusa news agency. Accounts made, the first quarter for game operators are lost, the second should not show any major improvements, the third is unknown and only the fourth will be able to register positive results similar to those of previous years, he predicted.
Even with 1,800 tables already reopened, according to the authorities, Macau still woke up with empty hotels, with no customers to ‘feed’ the restaurant and bet all the chips in the hope that mainland China will be able to contain the outbreak as quickly as possible, especially because it is mainly the now ‘contaminated’ Chinese tourist market that makes the territory the ‘Las Vegas’ of Asia.
A visit to the casinos on the Cotai strip, where the luxurious integrated ‘resorts’ created from Chinese and American capital are located, showed the same scenario: employees, ‘croupiers’ and half a dozen customers from the commercial mask spaces, a redoubled effort in cleaning and disinfection operations, a greater distance between the gaming tables to ‘outwit’ the risk of contagion, the obligation for everyone to undergo a body temperature measurement and to submit a health declaration.
Access to these spaces was forbidden to anyone who was in the Chinese province of Hubei, where the epidemic of the new coronavirus began. But there are other prohibitions: standing bets and agglomerations are not allowed, so a minimum distance between players is determined.
In addition to the traditional tables, some electronic gambling machines have also been deactivated to ensure a safe distance between bettors, who remain away from Macau, despite the fact that there have been no new cases in the territory for 16 consecutive days.
The number of infected with the Covid-19 coronavirus in Macau has dropped to four after a new hospital discharge announced on Wednesday by the Health Services. Of the ten cases recorded in Macau, this was the sixth patient to be discharged, with four people still hospitalized.
On the first day of the month, alarms went off on the territory’s authorities when it was confirmed that two people working in Macau’s casinos and living in the nearby Chinese city of Zhuhai were infected with the new coronavirus. Three days later, Macau registered two confirmed cases of a new coronavirus in residents of the territory with a direct connection to the complexes where the casinos are located: an employee of the Galaxy operator and a shuttle bus driver for SJM Holdings. That same day, the Macau Chief Executive announced that casinos were to suspend operations for two weeks.
Macau has 41 casinos, which employed more than 57,000 full-time staff in 2018, according to official figures. Two of those, the Macau Palace and Greek Mythology, had closed well before the virus outbreak.
Analysts indicated this week that gaming concessionaires could have new demands for the future gambling licenses in 2022, to guard against future exceptional situations similar to the coronavirus outbreak.
Gambling analyst David Green told Lusa that “this interruption will affect the new bidding/renegotiation of the casino concessions”, in reference to the decision taken on February 4 by the Macau Government to close the casinos for 15 days. “Gambling operators will be much less inclined to make additional investment commitments or to pay a large initial fee for the concession of a new concession,” said the founder of Macau gaming regulation consultancy Newpage Consulting.
Economist José Luís de Sales Marques said it was too early to predict changes that may appear in the specifications, or even in the law itself. “Now, without a doubt, any investor reacts to the data that are the history of their activity and also what they predict the future to be. And the fact that the casinos are closed was not part of the history of gambling activity in Macau,” he noted.
“From now on it becomes part of the history and, therefore, this will have some implications, whether we like it or not,” said the professor of Political Science and International Relations at the Macao Polytechnic Institute(IPM).
The hand out of new licenses in the gambling capital of the world will take place in 2022, and the Government of Macau has promised to hold a public tender. Gambling operators, which during the 15 days of closing of the casinos lost US$1.5 billion according to financial rating agency Fitch Rating, will continue to have very low revenues in the short term due to the small number of tourists in the territory, analysts asked by Lusa maintained.
Last Sunday, around 1,400 tourists entered Macau, which normally receives more than three million tourists per month, the overwhelming majority of them from mainland China.
“I think that both the VIP market [big bettors] and the mass market will be strongly affected during this time,” said the director of the IPM Game Research and Teaching Center, Wang Changbin. A situation that will remain after the outbreak in Macau is under control, he said. “I cannot see a sign of rapid recovery. The Chinese economy will slow down even more”, he defended.
David Green also said he believed that the economic damage inflicted by the coronavirus outbreak would significantly affect the mass game, “but also the market for big bets” for fear of being exposed to infections or being involuntarily quarantined.”