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Cashless gambling? How coronavirus may change Canada’s casinos

Gambling & gaming on the rise during COVID-19
ABOVE: Gambling & gaming on the rise during COVID-19.

As coronavirus restrictions start to ease across the country, Canadians may soon be able to hit the slots and roulette tables as casinos slowly start to reopen.

But the scene of the gambling floor may look different. Patrons may be met with spaced out slot machines, dealers behind plexiglass shields and sanitizer stations at every corner.

Read more: Alberta casinos take varying approaches to reducing COVID-19 risk

And soon, customers may be able to gamble using digital payments, like Apple Pay, according to Paul Burns, president and CEO of the Canadian Gaming Association.

“We have been working on the cashless payment option since last spring, so it’s fortuitous timing,” he said. “But the timing of this pandemic and technology has escalated this discussion.

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“Casinos have traditionally been a cash business and increasing people looking for different options.”

Crowd cheers as casinos reopen in Las Vegas
Crowd cheers as casinos reopen in Las Vegas

Casinos across the country closed in March during the height of the pandemic. Between handling cash, rolling shared dice and touching screens on slot machines, trying to stop the risk of exposure in an enclosed venue with large crowds seemed like a social distancing nightmare.

“There are a lot of things to touch at casinos; poker chips, slot machines handles, doorknobs … and there’s also ventilation,” said Colin Furness, infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto. “Casinos are usually air-conditioned, and aid conditioning facilitates COVID.”

Furness said opening casinos during a pandemic should not be “the top of our list” and recommends Canadians go outside instead as it’s safer. But he added it is still possible to reopen the industry in a safe manner.

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“It will depend on ventilation and design of the casino,” he said. “If I could design one from scratch I could design a fairly safe casino.”

READ MORE: Las Vegas rolls the dice, reopens 23 casinos with coronavirus measures in place

Alberta is the only province to give the green light to casinos, which reopened on June 12. With the news, it outlined four requirements for businesses to meet in order to help reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread.

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Other provinces, like Manitoba, Ontario and British Columbia, are still trying to figure out ways to open casinos but keep patrons and employees safe.

Burns says he predicts more casinos may start opening in July as jurisdictions get the nod of approval from health officials.

“It does take a bit of work for casino environments to be prepared, so we [Ontario] started preparing a few weeks ago. We are taking this seriously and creating guidelines for a safe working environment for employees and also an entertaining environment for customers,” he said.
Coronavirus: Ontario government rolls out new COVID-19 tracing app
Coronavirus: Ontario government rolls out new COVID-19 tracing app

Burns said casinos will be running at 50 per cent occupancy so people can gamble while physical distancing.

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“Every other machine may be turned off, chairs removed, we will have enhanced cleaning procedures and will reduce the number of people at tables,” Burns said. “We will also have enhanced filters and fresh airflow. It’s more expensive to do so, but have the capability to ensure there will be fresh air,” he said.

Slots up and running in Alberta

As part of its requirement for casinos to reopen, the Alberta Gaming Liquor and Cannabis (AGLC) said slot machines have to be spaced out every two metres, unless separated by a physical barrier. Markers are also supposed to placed on the casino floor to show spacing for those waiting to play.

Table games, like blackjack, are still not allowed.

At the River Cree Resort and Casino in Edmonton, plastic barriers were installed between every slot machine, sanitization stations added and masks supplied to staff and patrons.

A blackjack dealer wears a face shield during the reopening of The D hotel-casino in downtown Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. June 4, 2020.
A blackjack dealer wears a face shield during the reopening of The D hotel-casino in downtown Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. June 4, 2020. REUTERS/Steve Marcus/File Photo

Marketing director Jayne Behm said the casino more than tripled its cleaning staff, created an “extreme clean team” for wiping down high-touch surfaces and has redeployed employees from other departments (like valet) to walk the floor and remind guests to physically distance.

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The Alberta scene looks similar to many casinos in Las Vegas, which also opened to the public earlier this month. There are hand-washing stations, spaced-out seating, and plexiglass barriers. Employees are required to masks, but guests are only encouraged to do so (gamblers have to wear face masks at table games that have no barriers).

Guests take complimentary gloves from the side of a new hand-washing station on the gaming floor that also offers masks and wipes at Bellagio Resort & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
Guests take complimentary gloves from the side of a new hand-washing station on the gaming floor that also offers masks and wipes at Bellagio Resort & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. Getty Images

Cashless gambling?

Burns says Canada does not have any cashless payment options in casinos, but the Canadian Gaming Association (CGA) is hoping it will pick up soon. The CGA released a draft copy called “Standards for Cashless Systems” last week and is waiting to hear back feedback from the industry.

Burns said it will a lot like online gaming options currently in place in Canada. For example, there will be a mechanism built in so patrons can set a deposit limit for a day.

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“We plan to collect the feedback by mid-July, and then later this summer have standard we can release to allow jurisdictions to see how they can integrate them in their own provinces,” Burns said.

Health officials say the coronavirus can survive on paper currency, but that risk is low compared to person-to-person spread, which is the main way people get infected. Still, many businesses, like grocery stores, have banned cash transactions.

Coronavirus pandemic pushes some businesses towards cashless payments
Coronavirus pandemic pushes some businesses towards cashless payments

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says using touchless payment methods is a good idea where possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends “tap-and-pay to limit handling of cash” as ways to decrease the spread of coronavirus.

Furness believes going cashless is not the way to stop the spread of the virus.

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“It actually may encourage people to just gamble more. I would rather pay people to walk around and give patrons hand sanitizer. Yes, you can pick up COVID from handling cash, but you can also pick it up from door handles. So it’s not particularly risky compared to other things.

He said the key is to stop the spread of COVID-19 in casinos is to decrease the number of people in casinos, make people and employees wear masks and have hand sanitizer everywhere.

— With files from Global News’ Emily Mertz and the Associated Press