By LYNN LOFTON
The coronavirus pandemic has done what heretofore only hurricanes and floods have done: closed Mississippi’s 26 state-regulated casinos. The State Gaming Commission ordered the temporary closing to begin at midnight on March 16. To date, officials do not know when they will reopen.
With the casinos shuttered, more than 19,000 employees are out of work and the state coffers are minus millions of dollars the gaming industry provides each month. State Economist Darrin Webb says in February gaming transfers to the state’s general fund were $9.4 million. “If the casinos are closed three months, the general fund loses roughly $35.7 million; if closed six months, it’s roughly $68.9 million,” he said. “In fiscal year 2019, gaming transfers to the general fund were $136.6 million with gaming representing 2.3 percent of the general fund.”
State Gaming Commission Executive Director Allen Godfrey says the decision to close the casinos was challenging due to the impact on the employees. “But based on the best information we had coming from the State Department of Health, which said that gatherings of a certain number of people — and it has gone from 250 down to 50, then 10 — should be avoided, it was in the best interest of the public to close the casinos.”
His estimation is that gaming contributes approximately $4.5 million per week including the local distribution and sales taxes associated with the industry.
“I do not have an idea when casinos can reopen but will wait to get guidance from our health officials and elected leaders,” Godfrey said.
Larry Gregory, executive director of the State Gaming Association, says the casino operators were not involved in the decision to close. “We depend on the experience and knowledge of the Mississippi Gaming Commission on the precise time to close our businesses,” he said, “and we will wait for the necessary federal and state health entities to decide that business can safely resume.”
Gregory says some casinos are paying their employees for a specified period of time, after which they are eligible for unemployment.
“The impact of Covid-19 has been major to our industry. The closing of 26 casinos is a tough pill to swallow for our casino employees and state economy,” he said. “However, we have been through other events in our history — flooding, oil spill, and hurricanes from which we have learned. This is not our first rodeo. Like other catastrophic events we have endured, we will overcome this event and our casinos will reopen with vigor. We are all anxiously waiting for that day.”
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