.C. Attorney General David Eby said reopening casinos remains low on the list of provincial priorities, even though he is worried about lost revenue and lost jobs. He said setting a timeline for reopening remains the purview of public health officials.
“Certainly, COVID has been very bad news for thousands of workers in B.C.’s casino industry and also very bad news for the government balance sheet. The reality is most people understand the priority is keeping British Columbians safe — keeping people out of hospitals if we can,” Eby said in an interview with NEWS 1130.
He said he does understand why several mayors and the BC Lottery Corporation (BCLC) are pushing for the reopening. “Certainly, it’s a major sector with a lot of employees and implications for government revenue, but the advice we’re receiving right now from public health is that it’s not appropriate to open.”
In Alberta, where casinos reopened in June, have reported no related outbreaks, but Eby said concerns remain about what could happen in B.C. if safety rules are broken. “The sector has been negatively impacted by a premature reopening in Nevada, and a number of infections arose from irresponsibly operated facilities in that state. Examples from Alberta are useful. The examples from Las Vegas are useful, in terms of making sure, that when the public health officers feel that B.C. can reopen, that we do it safely for everybody.”
Eby noted that the province’s priority is the safe reopening of schools and other essential services, so he won’t pressure public health authorities to rush the approval of casino reopening plans. “We’re taking our direction from them. Casinos, nightclubs, other amusement parks, and so on, are well down the list in terms of priority. We’re supportive of them taking the time they need to make sure that people are safe visiting B.C. casinos.”
However, he said he is worried about thousands of casino workers across the province losing their jobs and up to $1 billion worth of lost shared revenue. “That money is used for all kinds of public services. Courtenay gets about a million dollars a year from their local gaming facility, so that’s a big deal in a smaller municipality. Despite all of those revenue impacts, most people understand why public health officers are reluctant to open casinos at this stage.”
Earlier this year, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said casinos would be the last places she allows to reopen during the pandemic. Since then, mayors in cities including Kamloops and Fort St. John have been lobbying the province to grant approval.
Eby said cities with low COVID-19 case counts may be allowed to reopen their casinos earlier than others. “Ultimately, public health is more satisfied with an approach which would be regional and focused on local case count,” he said. “The one thing that I want to underline is that government will not be applying any pressure.”
Moreover, staff with the Ministry of Health have issued a statement confirming safety plans submitted by BCLC “have been reviewed, and conversations on how to reopen casinos safely are ongoing.” BCLC’s Cecilia Ho has confirmed safety plans were also submitted to WorkSafeBC and the Provincial Health Officer.
“When we have approval to reopen gambling facilities, we will do so with appropriate measures in place to support the health and wellbeing of our players, employees, and communities,” she said. “For example, this may mean reconfiguring seating at slot machines and table games to ensure a two-metre distance between players to support physical-distancing. Physical barriers (such as plexiglass) will be installed where this is not possible or where casino employees, such as dealers or cash-cage staff, must interact with players. Casino employees will monitor capacity to support physical distancing at all times.”
When it comes to the tactile nature of card games and slot machines, plans are also in place to keep surfaces sanitized. “BCLC and our casino service providers will provide free hand sanitizer to players and refill stations will be located throughout our facilities.”
Ho said casinos will only offer card games in which the cards are dealt face-up so players can play without touching them. She adds staff will be trained about enhanced sanitation requirements and physical-distancing protocols. “BCLC is also planning to make adjustments to GameSense Information Centres so our on-site GameSense Advisors can continue to support our players at casinos and community gaming centres throughout B.C. in making healthy decisions about their gambling.”