Andrew Rains describes himself as a regular casino visitor near Detroit, going at least once a month before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. But Rains, like the rest of the people around the state, was shut out from the gaming floors for nearly five months after the casinos closed in mid-March.
When Rains and others were able to revisit in early August after Detroit’s three casinos reopened their doors at 15% capacity, it was an entirely different atmosphere than the one they had known. Masks were required, temperatures were checked, social distancing guidelines and regular disinfecting were in place. The optics of the gaming and patrons looked different, but for Rains’ visit with his girlfriend in late August, the mood and relative normalcy had a familiar vibe.
“It was a fun night,” said Rains, who went to the casino to celebrate his girlfriend’s birthday. “Everyone was doing what they should be doing. It wasn’t like walking into Wal-Mart where every other person didn’t have a mask on and all that stuff. Everybody was aware of the issue at hand, and I think for the overall part, everybody just wanted to go out and do something, but still follow Michigan guidelines.”
The process for patrons getting to their favorite games has changed. Just half of the tables are open and are limited to three people per table, and the number of slots available have been reconfigured to promote social distancing. Despite the guidelines, giving visitors like Rains a sense of safety and normalcy has been a focal point for David Tsai, MGM Grand Detroit president and COO.
“The core gaming experience I think we can still deliver on,” Tsai said. “We can keep people socially distant and offer the games people are looking for.
“We know this is a different time right now. We opened with some of the most restrictive protocols of any state in the nation, and we wanted to make sure we took it at an appropriate pace. We didn’t want to rush into things.”
There will soon be more options for Michigan bettors and casino players. Online casino gambling is being played in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia. Michigan has legalized online casinos with a target launch date of later this year. The state is holding a public hearing on online gaming regulations on Wednesday.
Online casino games have produced revenue for those four states during the coronvirus pandemic and have provided gamblers with a safe way to play while brick-and-mortar casinos were closed or reopened with limited capacity like those in Michigan.
Rains’ affinity for gaming can be traced to his mom introducing him to casinos. She loved penny slots, and it’s the reason he prefers those to table games. Now, he’s graduated on to the 25-cent machines because he believes, “there’s no bang for your buck,” in penny slots and it’s on the bigger games where he makes his money. But even as a slot lover, Rains understood the necessary safety steps that needed to be taken, even if that means some of his favorite games are inactive.
“One thing I found nice was that not only did they shut slot machines down at every other terminal, but they also removed the chairs,” Rains said. “You didn’t have a bunch of people sitting next to each other even though the machine was down, which I thought was a really good idea.”
The casual gaming element has been the one area casinos have been able to closely mimic since reopening. Gone are the events, tournaments, drawings, concerts and live entertainment in the bars. Poker rooms remain closed, and other amenities such as valet service, fitness centers and spas also have yet to reopen.
“We certainly don’t want to do anything that draws a crowd, so that broader level of entertainment is something that we can’t right now deliver on,” Tsai said. “For folks who are looking for a broader entertainment experience, you’re going to have to wait a little longer. But for the folks who like to gamble, have a good time and have great service where you’re in an environment you can feel clean and safe, you’re certainly able to do that right now.”
Even with the restrictions in place and the lack of traditional amenities, Tsai has noticed a positive reception from visitors adhering to the guidelines. That includes enforcing the rule that visitors must wear their masks at all times, except when they sip their drinks. He notes it can be one of the more difficult restrictions to enforce, but MGM Grand Detroit has rarely had to kick anyone out for refusing to wear a mask.
“I think we’re fortunate in that because we’re in Michigan, folks have been used to some of the protocols for a while,” Tsai said. “By and large, almost in every instance, people are really understanding.
“The difficult part is mask enforcement, right? We’re constantly staying on top of guests and reminding them every single time. Sometimes, you know, we probably get a little annoying about it. But generally, most people are understanding and know it’s what we have to do right now.”
As expected, revenue for Detroit’s three casinos in August fell compared to the same month as last year. Compared to 2019, MGM Grand Detroit saw a revenue drop of 46% to $28.6 million, while MotorCity dropped 37.5% to $25 million and Greektown fell 41.5% to $15.7 million. GreekTown declined to comment for this story, while MotorCity could not be reached for comment.
Over the past two decades, Detroit casinos have paid more than $2.2 billion to Michigan, designated for public schools. During August, the three Detroit casinos paid $5.6 million in taxes to the state.
Despite the revenue drop, Tsai said there is a positive outlook for the future of casinos. The weekend of Sept. 12-13 saw MGM Grand Detroit reach its full 15% occupancy for the first time, forcing the casino to shut down access to the floor. Less restrictive measures, such as allowing 25% occupancy compared to the current 15%, would also assist casinos in getting closer to generating revenues they’re accustomed to making.
“We’ve seen the volume grow steadily,” Tsai said. “We’re making some arguments about why we can still (go to 25%) and still do it safely. Even at 25%, we would be the lowest in the country of any state that’s open right now.
“In other states where we have folks who have been more comfortable coming out and have had fewer restrictions, we’ve seen casinos do just as well, if not better, than prior years. What we’re hoping to continue to do is demonstrate that we still have a lot of capacity, still have a lot of space to keep people socially distanced and we have staff to clean and sanitize. And if we just relax the restrictions even a little bit, feel we can get back to previous year levels.
According to Tsai, the younger demographic has been the one seeking dining outside their homes and entertainment options across the country. Thus far, it has been a diverse crowd returning to MGM Grand Detroit, and Tsai believes more people may be willing to return once they see how serious businesses are taking the new safety protocols put in place.
“I don’t think you’re going to see a significant shift overnight,” Tsai said of the outlook of casinos for the rest of 2020 and beyond. “I think as long as this virus is still around, and I expect the virus to remain around for a while longer, that you’ll have slow but steady growth. I think you’ll see more people come out and understand where they can go and still feel safe, knowing the places or businesses that are taking protocols seriously.”