By Tom Nightingale
For British Columbia casino operators and gamblers, the waiting game continues.
Last week saw the marking of one year since casinos were last open in the province. All land-based gaming facilities were ordered to be shut down on March 16, 2020 as the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic began to become clear this time last year.
B.C. has taken perhaps the hardest stance on land-based gaming of any Canadian province or territory or any U.S. state throughout the pandemic. While other provinces like Ontario have gone through numerous reopenings and closures in line with health advice and regional changes to the COVID-19 framework, B.C. has opted for a blanket approach.
Interim British Columbia Lottery Corporation CEO Lynda Cavanaugh says BCLC is anxious to reopen casinos and is working closely with the provincial government to achieve that aim. There is currently no target potential reopening date, but she hopes that COVID-19 vaccine progress will accelerate the timeline.
“We provided what is a very robust health and safety protocol plan to both the provincial health office and WorkSafeBC quite some time ago,” Cavanaugh told NL News. “Since then, we’ve continued dialogue towards (reopening). Our casinos are set up now for reopening… And we’ve been optimistic all through this past year that that might happen sooner rather than later. But regardless, whenever that does happen, we’re ready.”
Meanwhile, Stewart Groumoutis, director of eGaming operations at BCLC, said earlier this month that the Crown is cooperating with industry regulators, WorkSafeBC, and the provincial health officer on working out a possible reopening date and working conditions. He says all parties involved are aware of the need to reopen and that discussions about it are very positive.
Concern over vague timeline
However, for many mayors in the province, the lack of specific timeline is a concern.
A letter on behalf of 13 mayors in B.C. was sent to Premier John Horgan earlier this month, stressing that the mandated closures “have had and will continue to have a lasting impact on workers and their families, in all corners of the province. To make it worse, they still have no indication of when they might be able to return to work to provide for their loved ones.”
The letter continued: “Other provinces and territories in Canada have managed to have their gaming industries operate without incident throughout the pandemic, with the safety of patrons and workers coming first and foremost. Our residents continue to face difficult and uncertain times as a result of the closures, with no indication of when they might see a reliable paycheck again.
“The safety of casino workers and patrons is paramount. We urge you to look at other provinces and territories for best practices on the reopening of casinos in developing a plan for British Columbians to safely return to work in this important sector to our communities. Workers and their families deserve to know what the Province is doing to get them back to work as quickly and safely as possible.”
When gaming does reopen, as in other provinces, there will be plenty of changes, the kind of which have become the new standard across the gaming industry. Cavanaugh says there will be Plexiglass at tables and slot machines and slots will be spread out two metres apart. Plexiglass will also be set up anywhere where a player might interact with a staff member, and there will be sanitization stations, constant cleaning, and directional signs on floors. Masks will have to be worn indoors at all times.
Many casinos, including Cascades Casino in Langley City, have already begun implementing those changes.
Tanya Gabara, public relations director of Gateway Casinos, which operates that venue, noted that B.C. is the only jurisdiction in North America that has “completely refused to permit casinos to re-open, even in a restricted manner, during the pandemic.” She added Gateway was able to reopen multiple casinos with capacity restrictions, barriers, and physical distancing measures in Ontario and Alberta in October and November 2020 and again in early February, without seeing any instances of the spread of COVID-19.
“We believe that the Canadian gaming industry is a demonstrably safe indoor entertainment option that provides a vital alternative to indoor gatherings and other social interactions that are aggravating the spread of COVID-19,” she added.
Data shows that nearly 37,000 people were employed through B.C.’s gaming, entertainment, leisure and hospitality sectors pre-COVID-19, including over 10,000 people directly employed by gaming operators in casinos, community gaming centres, bingo centres, and horse racetracks.