The house doesn’t always win: Casinos already lost $100 million as COVID-19 keeps them shut ‘until further notice’

All Illinois gambling operations have been suspended since March 16. The industry had never faced an extended shutdown since the state’s first riverboat casino set sail in 1991.

SHARE The house doesn’t always win: Casinos already lost $100 million as COVID-19 keeps them shut ‘until further notice’
Rivers Casino in Des Plaines shortly before its opening in 2011.

Rivers Casino in Des Plaines shortly before its opening in 2011.

Brian Jackson~Sun-Times files

Illinois casinos, already in the midst of an unprecedented shutdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, will remain closed “until further notice” as Gov. J.B. Pritzker doubles down on his stay-at-home order through May.

More than 36,000 video gambling terminals across the state will also stay dark indefinitely “to prevent the further spread of the novel COVID-19 virus and protect public health and safety,” Illinois Gaming Board administrator Marcus Fruchter said in an order issued Thursday.

All Illinois gambling operations have been suspended since March 16.The industry had never faced an extended shutdown since the state’s first riverboat casino set sail in 1991.

“The Gaming Board will continue to review current public health guidance and conditions to determine when and under what conditions statewide video gaming and casino gambling can safely resume,” Fruchter said.

Fruchter’s latest order marks the third extension of the gaming shutdown, while Pritzker’s modified stay-at-home order — which allows some previously shuttered businesses to resume limited operations — is poised to last until May 30, though it faces a trio of legal challenges originating outside the Chicago area.

Illinois Casino Gaming Association executive director Tom Swoik said casino operators are hopeful they’ll be able to start laying odds again June 1.

Swoik estimated Illinois’ 10 casinos have lost about $100 million during the first six weeks they’ve been out of business, while more than 5,000 employees are out of work. And it won’t be easy to turn things around whenever games are back on.

Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, Ill.

Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, Ill.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times files

“It’ll take several months to see people feeling comfortable to start going back. Everyone’s going to be very, very cautious,” Swoik said.

Casinos across the country are considering new sanitization criteria in the age of COVID-19. That could include sneeze guards between spaced-out slot machines, limiting table games to two or three players — and not allowing them to touch cards, Swoik said. Chips would have to be continually sanitized.

Illinois casinos raked in nearly $115 million in April 2019, while gamblers lost almost $145 million at video slots that month, Gaming Board records show.

Besides bringing a $3 billion industry to a halt, the pandemic has thrown a wrench into a massive statewide gambling expansion signed into law last summer by Pritzker, designed to help fund his signature $45 billioncapitalplan for statewide construction projects.

Regulators were evaluating applications to open five new casinos. They’d also rolled out legal sports betting just two days before the NBA suspended its season, prompting other major leagues to follow suit— and a week before the casinos were forced to shut their doors.

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