Panama Casinos: Reopening Delayed Again

In early January, officials in Panama insisted that lockdown was intended to last just ten days. By mid-month, the nation’s lockdown was extended to March. The announcement was made in a public address by Panamanian government officials in mid-January, who specified a number of ongoing restrictions which will remain in place until March 15. Included in this list is the mandatory shuttering of casinos, which have been closed since January 4, 2021.

Colorful building façades in Old Town Panama.

Lockdown has been extended in Panama for an additional two months. ©mfuente/Pixabay

Panama’s Lockdown: Stops and Starts

Throughout the pandemic, casinos in Panama have closed and reopened to the public already once before. In mid-October, officials in the country elected to reopen casinos in the country, a decision that mirrored similar reopening efforts in countries across Latin America, like Colombia, Costa Rica, and Argentina.

In The Intervening Months, A Global Surge

A brief period of respite could not spare Panama from concerns about the global spike in COVID-19 infections, which many have linked to the trans-national spread of a new, particularly infectious strain of the virus which originated in the UK, and has since been found in at least 31 countries, including the US, Singapore, Australia, and around Europe.

In Latin America, Health Care System Strains

In many Latin American countries, strict responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have been explained as a response to the knowledge that the country’s health care system is fragile, at best, and could not withstand the strain of a massive influx of coronavirus infections as has happened in China, the US, Italy, and elsewhere.

Panama Particularly Hard-Hit

During this time, Panama has earned the inauspicious title of Central America’s hardest-hit country during the COVID-19 pandemic. As of December 25, 2020, Panama had reported over 220,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 3,600 deaths: a significant total for a country of just 4.2 million people.

In January, Lockdown Reinstated

In response to the surge in COVID-19 infections, Panama’s government announced that a new lockdown would be instated from the winter holidays until January 14. This included a mandatory closure of all casinos for ten days, from January 4 until January 14. According to officials, this was an effort to save the national health care system from collapse.

Initial Lockdown Was An Extension For Two Regions

The initial lockdown announced in 2021 by the Panamanian government was an extension of existing pre-holiday lockdown measures for two of the country’s provinces: Panama City, the national capital, and Panama Oeste. The new rules impacted operations for close to 70 retail gambling locations, all in Panama City.

Two Weeks Later, An Inevitable Extension

A ten day lockdown was just a daydream for Panamanian officials, who essentially admitted as much in a public address on January 14, the day the lockdown was supposed to be lifted, when it was announced that the closures would instead last until March 15. This announcement was made by the nation’s Ministers of Health, Trade, and Industry.

What Does The New Lockdown Entail?

According to Panamanian Health Minister Francisco Sucre and Trade and Industry Minister Ramón Martínez, a nightly curfew will be placed on Panamanian residents between the hours of 9pm and 4am. An executive order has been deployed to allow for what is being called a “labor hibernation,” which could go into effect beginning in February.

In a statement from Panama’s Minister of Labor, Doris Zapata, it was reiterated that these efforts would be first and foremost to protect the rights of the workers and to maintain the peace. This was specifically alluded to in a comment made by Zapata, which acknowledged that some workers have been furloughed until January 31.

Impact On The Gambling Industry

The element of the public address which specifically referenced the gambling industry was in a portion of the address made by Minister of Trade and Industry Ramón Martínez, who explained that lottery and horse racing operations will be able to resume as usual beginning March 1, though horse races would need to take place without an audience.

Minister Martínez went on to explain that retail gambling facilities, including casinos, will be allowed to reopen to the public on March 15. This is an extension of two months beyond what Panama’s casinos were expecting, and it’s quite likely to be a challenging time for many retail gambling businesses, should they not yet have a viable iGaming option.

Around The World, Lockdowns Resume

Panama is not the first country to reintroduce stringent lockdown measures many hoped were a fixture of the past. Nor, unfortunately, will it be the last. Since the fall of 2020, a global surge in COVID-19 infections has brought countries around the world, including in Latin America, to bring back lockdowns, including in the gambling industry.

How Can A Casino Survive Lockdown?

Lockdowns have posed a tremendous challenge to retail gambling, which has not been helped, even, as casinos have been allowed to reopen. Strict maximum capacity limits for visitors, as well as decreases in global tourism, have disabled casinos from resuming business as usual during the pandemic, meaning significant financial loss.

For many in the gambling business, the answer has been to introduce a robust online gambling option, which can offset some of the losses of operating gambling in the retail space. Still, this doesn’t solve the problem of gambling industry employees, who have been hit by massive layoffs from Las Vegas to Madrid during the pandemic.

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A woman sells ice from a cart in Panama.

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