A video poker machine located in a truck-stop casino in Port Allen, La. (Photo by Julie O’Donoghue)
There are no windows, and the lights are turned way down at this truck-stop casino in Port Allen. It’s the middle of a weekday afternoon. Mirrors line the walls to make it look bigger than it is, but this video poker hall is smaller than your average McDonald’s. It contains a bar (now closed), spacious bathrooms and 50 gambling machines packed closely together.
Ramona, one of four employees working, is spending every few minutes doling out cash to patrons, mostly $5 bills. The machines only take cash, which means people come to her when they run out. She’s also the only waitress in the place, running mixed drinks and beers to those who order it. She agreed to be interviewed but did not want her last name to be used in this story because her employer wouldn’t be comfortable with her speaking to the media.
Ramona wears a black mask that covers her mouth and nose, but almost none of her 18 patrons are doing the same. They either have their masks pulled down around their chin or completely off their faces. Some are smoking or drinking while at a machine, making mask-wearing impossible. That pattern held true for clients at two other Port Allen truck-stop casinos on Wednesday afternoon.
Still, at video poker places like this, business is booming — at least it was a few weeks ago.
Revenue from video poker machines at truck stops and racetracks was up by over 30 percent in June when compared to the same time last year, according to the latest state revenue reports. Truck-stop casino business surged in spite of coronavirus restrictions from the state. They are capped at 50 percent capacity and are only able to operate 75 percent of their gambling seats at one time.
“There is nothing else for people to do,” said Greg Albrecht, the state’s legislative economist who analyzes Louisiana’s economy. “There’s just not as many places to spend your discretionary money right now.”
Albrecht expects the truck-stop revenue to drop off and suspects that the June increases were due to pent-up demand for gambling. Ramona agreed, saying the federal stimulus checks in the spring and $600 per week in enhanced unemployment benefits were driving some of the activity at her casino. Those unemployment benefits ran out at the end of July.
“It’s leveled off,” she said.
The gambling industry across the country was shut down in March when the coronavirus initially erupted, but Louisiana’s casinos were among the first to open back up in late May. America’s three largest casino markets – in Nevada, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — didn’t restart until June and July.
Louisiana’s truck-stop casinos fared well in June, but the rest of the state’s gambling industry did not. Total revenue at Louisiana’s more traditional casinos in June was down from the same time last year, according to state reports.
DiamondJacks Casino in Bossier City didn’t bother to open back up at all and produced no revenue that month. Harrah’s in New Orleans — where the city put even tighter coronavirus regulations in place — saw a 75 percent drop in June revenue when compared to last year.
The truck-stop casino experience varies significantly from that of a traditional casino in Louisiana, which is usually located on a riverboat.
Truck stops only offer gambling on video poker machines. There are no table games. The businesses are also much smaller. Truck stops have a maximum of 50 individual gambling machines, while traditional casinos can offer over 2,000 individual gambling seats.
But truck-stop casinos are also much more likely to be closer to someone’s home in Louisiana. The state has 16 larger, traditional casinos. There are nearly 200 truck-stop casinos here, mostly near major highways.
Both types of casinos are among the only public places where people can smoke indoors. A few local governments — including New Orleans and Baton Rouge — have enacted bans, but smoking is still allowed in bars and casinos in other parts of the state. Right now, bars are shut down to in-person business, essentially leaving casinos as the only smoking option.
During the pandemic, casino smoking troubles public health experts even more than it typically does. It’s not clear what effect the act of smoking has on the transmission of COVID-19 through the air, but it does make it more likely that casino patrons aren’t reliably wearing masks.
“By definition, if you are in a place that allows smoking, you are more likely to be in a place where people would be unmasked and shedding more virus into that enclosed space,” said Susan Hassig, a member of Tulane University’s epidemiology department.
There’s agreement that the virus spreads between groups of people who are indoors, within six feet of each other and not wearing masks for long periods of time. Gamblers can often sit in a casino for several hours, especially if they are in front of an electronic machine.
In fact, a large part of the appeal of a video poker or slot machine is that people can “zone out” and play for long periods of time, said Mark van der Maas, a problem gambling expert at Rutgers University.
“Some people will definitely do more than 12 hours in front of a machine easily,” he said.
Coronavirus infections have been traced back to gambling in Louisiana. There have been six outbreaks — and 193 cases — attributed to casinos or racetracks in the state. But none of those outbreaks have taken place at a truck-stop casino, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.
Still, other parts of the country have banned smoking in casinos to combat the spread of coronavirus. New Jersey and Pennsylvania, for example, have temporarily prohibited it in gambling establishments.
On Thursday, Edwards said he might be open to a temporary ban on smoking in casinos and video poker outlets, though he would have to talk to state regulators first. “First impression, it seems to make some sense,” he said.
The gambling industry accounts for a significant portion of the state’s revenue. Close to six percent of all taxes that come into the state are directly from gambling. That’s higher than the direct tax revenue coming from the oil and gas industry, Albrecht said.
Even when the governor closed down in-person service in bars in July, he allowed the video poker machines located inside those bars to continue to operate. Under pandemic rules, bars can have two of a maximum of three video poker machines in their establishments running, even though they can’t serve alcohol in-person to patrons.
Realistically though, bars — especially if they aren’t running a take-out alcohol business — are not staying open for just two video poker machines, said Alton Ashy, the video poker industry’s chief lobbyist.
“Truck stops by and large are doing pretty well, but the [operators] that are in bars and restaurants are taking a pretty good beating,” he said. “With the bars being closed right now, the numbers are way down. I don’t know that there is much that anyone can do about it.”
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