New York Casinos Remain Dormant While Neighbors Rebound From Pandemic

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The end of July marks a fourth consecutive month of zero revenues for four commercial casinos in upstate New York, thanks to a triple whammy of political decisions.

Neighboring New Jersey and Pennsylvania have maintained respectable revenue levels with online casino gaming and mobile sports betting throughout the COVID-19 global pandemic, and both states have reopened their brick-and-mortar casinos.

In Connecticut, another state bordering New York, tribal casinos Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods reopened on June 1 — although this week, one staff member at Foxwoods with limited interaction with the public did test positive for the virus.

But New York? The only legal, regulated gambling residents can do in the state as August beckons is at tribal casinos hours north of New York City. The Oneida Nation’s three casinos in Central New York reopened more than six weeks ago, the Seneca Nation’s three casinos in Western New York also have reopened, and the Cayuga Nation has reopened its casino as well.

It initially was expected that casinos would reopen under certain conditions under “Phase 4” of the state’s plan. But earlier this month, casinos were bounced from the list of businesses that can resume operation in the early stages of that phase.

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“The numbers show we are right where we want to be, but what’s happening around the country is a cold reminder that we need to continue being cautious and smart and disciplined — no one wants to go back to the hell that we went through,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement at that time.

Horse racing also impacted

The delay in bringing back the commercial casinos — in spite of Gov. Cuomo’s pledge in March that his state, New Jersey, and Connecticut would “reopen together, when we reopen” — hasn’t only impacted more than 5,000 casino workers all over the state.

New York horse racing also is suffering from the impact.

At Monticello Raceway, the operator’s refusal to resume horse racing — which has occurred at every other racetrack in the state — has led to a recent lawsuit by the Monticello Harness Horsemen’s Association. Genting, which owns the Resorts World Catskills casino, opened the casino in 2018 along with a promise to keep the venerable nearby track in operation. But without slot machine revenues to help subsidize purses, the races have yet to return.

The situation also is dire at Vernon Downs, where track operator Jeff Gural — who also runs the Meadowlands Racetrack as well as Tioga Downs in New York — this week told the Utica Observer-Dispatch that the track would close after Labor Day and the adjacent racino would be shuttered on Oct. 1 unless it reopens before then.

“At some point, we run out of money,” Gural said.

Other states finding ways to reopen casinos

Curiously, a spokesman for Cuomo said this week that the commercial casinos remain closed “as they invite social gatherings with customers in proximity to each other while eating and drinking.”

But each of the neighboring states appears to have solved that issue by allowing only a limited number of patrons and banning alcohol sales and full-service meals on the premises. All patrons have their temperature checked at the door, thousands of slot machines are out of operation to help ensure safe social distancing, and plexiglass separates players from each other and the dealer at gaming tables.

All of the full-scale casinos — Resorts World Catskills, Tioga Downs, Rivers Casino in Schenectady, and del Lago in the Finger Lakes region — have failed to meet their financial projections since they opened in 2017 and 2018.

The Catskills and del Lago casinos have been sold amid warnings of pending bankruptcy even before the pandemic.

The beleaguered billion-dollar Catskills facility somehow remains alive in spite of the absence of any revenues.

Atlantic City’s nine casinos took in a total of $270.9 million in April, May, and June from online casino gaming and mobile sports betting, and the partial reopening of casino floors on July 4 weekend, along with outdoor dining and drinking, will push the industry well over $100 million in July.

Even worse for the Catskills site is the fact that the racino at Yonkers Raceway — just north of Manhattan in Westchester County, and therefore much more convenient for city residents — could obtain a full-scale casino license as soon as 2023.

Mobile sports betting, meanwhile, will not be permitted in New York until at least late 2023 — unless a ballot question for November is approved next week, or Cuomo reverses his stance that a constitutional amendment is required to open the door for such wagering.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com
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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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