CORONAVIRUS

Coronavirus pandemic saps Iowa casino revenue by about 20 percent

A robust launch of sports betting helped the financial picture

Jean Brown wears a face mask while she plays on a machine June 5 at the Rhythm City Casino Resort in Davenport. The casi
Jean Brown wears a face mask while she plays on a machine June 5 at the Rhythm City Casino Resort in Davenport. The casino was one of the first to voluntarily close when the coronavirus pandemic was spreading across the country. In an emergency health order, Gov. Kim Reynolds allowed state casinos to reopen starting June 1, but with restrictions. (Jessica Gallagher/Quad City Times)

DES MOINES — Iowa’s state-licensed casinos are (kind of) back to wheeling and dealing after the coronavirus pandemic knocked them offline for 11 weeks and caused fiscal 2020 revenue to tank by about 20 percent for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Preliminary estimates compiled by the state Racing & Gaming Commission showed the 19 casinos reported adjusted gross revenue topping $1.16 billion — a number strikingly lower than the nearly $1.457 billion posted last fiscal year and the record of nearly $1.47 billion set in fiscal 2012.

Commission records indicate the fiscal 2020 revenue — slashed when casinos were ordered to close for nearly three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic — was the lowest since fiscal 2006.

And the 15,530,221 people who came through the turnstiles marked the lowest admissions since fiscal 1996. Yearly admission at Iowa’s casinos had topped 23 million in some past fiscal years.

“There’s no script for preparing for a pandemic,” said Wes Ehrecke, spokesman for the Iowa Gaming Association, an umbrella group for the state-licensed casinos.

Currently, all 19 casinos have reopened after Gov. Kim Reynolds lifted an order June 1 that had closed them and many other businesses effective March 17 to slow the coronavirus spread in Iowa.

Reynolds said the venues could reopen but still under capacity restrictions and public health requirements.

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Ehrecke said many casinos are “just inching forward, if you will, to get to what I would call this phase of normal, but that’s certainly not the complete normal that we had before March 16.”

Brian Ohorilko, administrator for the state gaming commission, said June revenue was off about 5.5 percent from the previous year as casinos cautiously resumed operations — many with limited table games and spacing that reduced patron capacities.

Gross adjusted revenue was up at nine casinos in June, but down at 10 others, he noted.

While overall revenue was down, a number of Eastern Iowa casinos in the Quad Cities, Clinton, Dubuque, Burlington and Riverside “did really well,” thanks in part to an absence of competition from Illinois casinos, Ohorilko said.

But he noted that overall admissions at Iowa casinos were off by about 38 percent — a total likely impacted by a delayed reopening of the Prairie Meadows racetrack-casino in Altoona and the reopening of the Harrah’s casino in Council Bluffs until this month.

“That is still a little concerning,” Ohorilko said of the admissions slip, “and will be something that we’re going to have to monitor very closely in the next few months.”

One new element that did not require on-site casino attendance in fiscal 2020 was the Aug. 15, 2019, arrival of legalized sports wagering with an online betting option that proved to be a financial savior for many casinos, Ohorilko noted.

College and pro football seasons got sports wagering off to “a very positive” start, and many casinos were seeing a surge in overall gambling activity early in the fiscal year — until the pandemic reversed their fortunes in a big way.

“The numbers would have been lower had the facilities not been able to offer sports betting,” the administrator said.

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Currently, Ohorilko said all of the 19 state-licensed casinos are in relatively good financial shape and able to cover debt — six of which benefited from federal Payroll Protection Program.

But he noted that “it’s still really hard to tell what to expect” in the future as the pandemic continues to buffet the nation and economy.

“Things are still moving along. I think everyone is cautiously optimistic that everything will be OK but it really is too early to tell how the market is going to respond,” he said. “At this point, there are still so many questions.”

Ehrecke said while “it’s great to be reopened,” the challenge now is to provide as much confidence as possible to patrons and employees by sanitizing, disinfecting, providing appropriate barriers, encouraging the wearing of masks and implementing other safety measures.

“I do know that there are those who are hesitant to come to a casino or to go out anywhere still, and I certainly respect that thought,” he said. “There are people who aren’t ready to come. It’s just going to take time.”

Ohorilko said the commission staff was finalizing the fiscal 2020 financial summary Wednesday and expected to have individual casino revenue, admission and per capita wagering numbers, as well as the final report on sports wagering for the fiscal year by Thursday’s commission meeting or by Friday.

The commission meeting in Altoona marks one of the first times since the governor issued a public health emergency order after the coronavirus was confirmed March 8 in Iowa that a state panel will hold a public meeting that is in-person only — with no option for participating via a remote link or online hookup.

“I have not had any concerns expressed by any of the operators that are on the meeting or even from the general public,” Ohorilko said Wednesday.

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He noted the Prairie Meadows racetrack-casino “has a mandatory mask policy and will be requiring social distancing and so I think the commission and the industry felt comfortable that we could have a meeting in a safe way.”

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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