Can Puerto Rico’s Biggest Casino Survive COVID?

As Puerto Rico is expected to announce its next stages of coronavirus lockdown beginning June 15, the island’s largest casino is expecting major losses for 2020. According to Ismael Vega, the general manager of Puerto Rico’s Casino Metro, the island’s gambling industry has lost the equivalent to $75 million (USD) as the coronavirus pandemic has halted international tourism and forced brick-and-mortar gambling facilities to shut their doors.

An empty basketball court overlooking the coastline in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

As Puerto Rico prepares to reopen, the island’s biggest casino offers a cautious plan to welcome guests. ©MJ Tangonan/Unsplash

Casino Metro: One of Puerto Rico’s Most Exciting Venues

Before the novel coronavirus, Casino Metro, located in the San Juan Sheraton Hotel in Puerto Rico, was the island’s most happening casino. The casino is 20,000 square feet, jam-packed with hundreds of slot machines and almost 20 blackjack tables, including games like Texas Hold’em Poker, World Poker Tour, Craps, and more.

In addition to a vibrant roster of games for gambling enthusiasts, the Casino Metro is typically also home to a star-studded roster of live entertainment on the Metro Stage Live, including magician Reynold Alexander and a weekly Ladies Night, where players can order several cocktails (mojitos, metropolitans, and margaritas) for only $3.

Coronavirus Exacerbates Existing Problems in Puerto Rico

As has been the case for many countries around the world, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus has challenged the already-precarious existence of many residents of Puerto Rico. Following the devastating Hurricane Maria in 2017, followed by a series of earthquakes from 2019 to early 2020, Puerto Ricans have struggled immensely.

Before the coronavirus outbreak reached around the world, a study from 2015 — before either of these natural disasters — determined that one-third (33 percent) of Puerto Rico’s population did not have enough to eat on a regular basis. Now, five years later, the island’s problems have only been made worse as it has been forced into lockdown.

As of the week of May 21, most states in the United States had eased their coronavirus lockdowns considerably — including places like Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming, none of which ever had statewide lockdown measures enacted, even as COVID-19 cases swelled nationwide.

In comparison, Puerto Rico — technically a territory of the United States, though it is located in the Caribbean and unincorporated — has had much stricter lockdown measures. Effective at the end of May and into early June, Puerto Rico slowly began to allow people to go to restaurants, hair salons, churches, some stores, and beaches.

Still, the region-wide lockdown measures have been set to remain until June 15, including a strict curfew between seven in the evening and five in the morning. Even as some measures will continue to lift, everyone will have to wear a mask essentially at all times, and travel will continue to be very limited to the island.

Casino Metro’s Hopes to Reopen

As the residents of Puerto Rico await Governor Wanda Vázquez’s decisions to move the area into the next phase of its lockdown, Casino Metro general manager Ismael Vega has described some of the ways in which he hopes to cautiously reopen business at Casino Metro, which has currently lost some $75 million in the ongoing lockdown.

Around the World, Casino Owners Ask: How Can We Safely Operate?

Vega is far from the only casino manager who has been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to open doors to guests once again. While iGaming providers and sports books have been lucky to weather this time with robust online content, casinos, bingo halls, and racetracks have been hard-hit by the ongoing lockdowns.

Still, operators want to make sure that they’re not putting profits over protection. Ismael Vega has described some of his stipulations for reopening Casino Metro, which include drastically cutting back on how many guests can attend the casino, as well as ensuring social distancing between slot machines.

Vega’s plans, in these regards, echo the vision put forward by Bill Hornbuckle, the interim CEO of MGM, who also hopes to reopen its locations based on a rigorous seven-part plan. In addition to advocating for social distancing by spacing out slot machines and reducing visitorship dramatically, MGM also plans to frequently test all staff for COVID-19.

The Resort-Casino: A Help or Hindrance During COVID?

The losses described by Ismael Vega to Casino Metro alone indicate the hard hit integrated resort-casinos have taken during this time, when international travel has been brought to an all-time low. Even for gambling aficionados who are residents of Puerto Rico, attendance at Casino Metro has not been possible, meaning crushing financial losses.

Still, this logic has not dissuaded officials in Brazil, many of whom remain convinced that legalizing gambling during this time in the form of resort-casinos could be the shot in the arm Brazil’s economy needs after being even harder hit economically as a result of the coronavirus, which has devastated the Latin American country.

After some politicians encouraged integrated resort-casinos only in some parts of Brazil, the nation’s Minister of Tourism, Marcelo Álvaro Antônio, has officially put forward a proposal to legalize integrated resort-casinos nationwide once the coronavirus crisis has passed over the country.

According to proponents of legal integrated resort-casinos in Brazil, gambling revenue would mean a much-needed influx of income, including taxable revenue that could be used to supplement now-drained public funds. While the idea to legalize gambling is likely a good one for Brazil’s revenue, it will be a while until COVID-19 has run its course.

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