Regional Casinos And Racetracks Closing Over Coronavirus Concerns

Posted on March 16, 2020 - Last Updated on March 20, 2020

Five of the eight states that border Tennessee have commercial or tribal casinos or racetracks. Several are shutting down operations as new directives from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) encourages no gatherings of more than 50 people.

Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and North Carolina are where Tennesseans may travel to take part in legal gambling. It’s time to table at least some of those plans for the indefinite future.

Arkansas: Oaklawn closes casino, but will race sans spectators

In Arkansas, the Oaklawn gaming facility is closed through at least March 30. That applies to both the casino and racetrack, although the races will continue to be held without spectators.

So far, that’s the only facility in the Natural State to alter its course. Choctaw Casinos & Resorts in Russellville and the Southland Park Gaming and Racing Center in West Memphis haven’t made any announcements on the issue.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has confirmed 16 cases of the virus in his state. Thus far, he has taken no action to ban gatherings or close facilities in the state.

As with just about everything else in society right now, this situation is subject to change on a moment’s notice. TN’s neighbor to the immediate north has seen similar effects of the virus.

Kentucky: Keeneland calls off spring meet

KY Gov. Andy Beshear has confirmed 21 cases in the Bluegrass State and also declared a state of emergency. For horse racing fans in the state, that might be an accurate description of the situation.

Keeneland in Lexington, KY, has canceled its 2020 Spring Meet. Although there are no official announcements about any future events at Keeneland or the Kentucky Oaks in Louisville, this situation creates doubt.

The 2020 Kentucky Derby is slated for May 2. Rumors are circulating online that “the Run for the Roses” will be postponed until the fall.

MS, MO, and NC: MGM closing properties

So far, there are no mandates requiring casinos in Mississippi, Missouri, or North Carolina to close to the public. Allen Godfrey, the executive director of the MS Gaming Commission, spoke to how tenuous the situation is, however.

“We’re going to be very fluid with this,” Godfrey said last Friday. Casino-goers should take into account that their favorite facilities could close with very short notice.

That happened on Monday when MGM Resorts decided to close both Beau Rivage in Biloxi, MS, and Gold Strike in Tunica, MS, shortly after the company shut down its Las Vegas casinos.

Godfrey said the commission did require casino operators that wanted to remain open to submit contingency plans in case the situation gets worse.

While remaining open, casinos aren’t completely oblivious to the threat of the virus. The Hard Rock in Biloxi, MS, for example, is taking extra steps to sanitize accommodations for guests.

Gov. Tate Reeves did declare a state of emergency and confirmed six cases in Mississippi on Saturday. Thus far, he has not ordered any closures, however.

That’s the same number of confirmed cases in MO. On Monday, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson recommended that all scheduled gatherings of more than 50 people be canceled or postponed. Parson hasn’t banned such gatherings yet, however.

NC Gov. Roy Cooper has gone a step further than Parson or Reeves, ordering public K-12 schools in his state closed for the next two weeks. The longer the closures drag on, the more pressure that casino operators may feel to do the same thing.

While Cherokee tribal casinos remain open, the World Series of Poker Circuit event scheduled to run from April 8-20 is postponed indefinitely.

Casinos don’t have to wait for the government to act

As privately owned businesses, casinos have a lot of leverage to operate as they see fit within government regulations. The heads of these facilities have a tight rope to walk right now.

As many patrons practice social distancing or voluntary quarantine, the gambling floors of these facilities are likely sparsely populated. Because of that, casinos are likely to lose money by staying open.

Unfortunately, casinos are a breeding ground for the virus. Not only are guests usually within proximity to each other, but casinos are filled with hard surfaces that the virus can live on for days. In addition, the age demographics of typical casino patrons also happen to make them one of the more vulnerable populations.

The other consideration is keeping a workforce on the payroll, however. For example, Mississippi casinos employ over 16,000 people. If all those people suddenly find themselves out of work, it could have a residual effect on the state’s economy.

Some casinos have opted to close for a period of time and offer their employees deferred vacation days to try to satisfy both concerns simultaneously. While most of the gambling facilities that TN residents may visit are still open now, a casino closing could happen at the drop of a hat.

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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a freelance journalist who resides in Chicago. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law.

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