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Casino Gambling Resumes In Illinois After Months Of Being Shut Down By Coronavirus

The Casino Queen in East St. Louis reopened to gamblers on July 1. Casinos in Illinois had been shut down since the middle of March becuase of the coronavirus.
Eric Schmid | St Louis Public Radio
The Casino Queen in East St. Louis reopened to gamblers on Wednesday. Casinos in Illinois had been shut down since the middle of March because of the coronavirus.

EAST ST. LOUIS — Dozens waited outside the Casino Queen on Wednesday morning, eager for the first day of gambling in Illinois since the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The Illinois Gaming Board announced last week all 10 casinos and more than 37,000 video gaming terminals in the state could resume operating Wednesday, nearly a month after casinos in Missouri reopened.

It’s a big step for the industry, which has lost around $390 million in revenue in the 100-plus days it's been shut down, said Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association.

“That doesn’t account for the new revenues we were anticipating with sports wagering,” he said. “Several of my members believe that revenues this year will be as much as 50% if not more below what they were last year.”

Reopening also means state and local tax dollars will start flowing again. Swoik estimates the state lost more than $100 million in casino tax revenue during the shutdown, and municipalities with casinos lost about $23 million in total revenue.

Now that casinos are open, Swoik doesn’t expect gambling revenues will immediately return to where they were pre-pandemic.

“We’re not expecting that we’re gonna have the kind of crowds we had before,” he said. “But we expect within the next few weeks it will start getting back to some semblance of normal.”

Revenue from gaming, sales tax and income tax on employees at the Casino Queen makes up $6 million of East St. Louis’ $18 million general fund. The Belleville News-Democrat reports the city received about half its normal gaming revenues in April and none in May.

“Those funds are used to pay the salaries of policemen and firefighters, so needless to say, we are in a bit of a financial crunch,” East St. Louis City Manager Brook Smith told the News-Democrat. 

East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern III was not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

Patrons outside the Casino Queen on Wednesday morning said they were happy it was reopening. None wanted to be identified because they said they were either skipping work or did not want family members to know they were gambling.

They said they prefer the Casino Queen over ones in Missouri because it does not allow smoking indoors. They also said that the Queen’s winning payouts are better and that the casino has more established rules for social distancing, mask wearing and other health-focused policies. 

“Everybody must wear a mask the whole time they’re in the casinos, other than if they happen to be in an area where they’re eating or drinking,” Swoik said. “I’ve been in some grocery stores where most of the people wear masks, but some don’t. They won’t be allowed in the casino without one.”

Swoik added that casinos across the state have adjusted other practices to keep patrons safe, like regularly cleaning common areas, slot machines, cloth tabletops, chips, dice and cards. Some casinos will check the temperatures of guests and ask them to sign a document affirming they don’t have COVID-19 and haven't had contact with anyone who has tested positive for the virus, he said. 

Even as casinos can resume operations on Wednesday, coronavirus infections across the U.S. are rising, raising the possibility that casinos would need to close down again.

“We’re hoping that we never have to go back or shut down again,” Swoik said. “The last 106 days have been pretty tough on everybody and to have to go back to that again, I think that would be very detrimental to the industry and to the whole state.”

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid 

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Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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