Revenue Sinks As Detroit Casinos Remain Closed And Michiganders Argue Over Mask Order

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As Michigan’s attempts to halt the spread of COVID-19 stall, Detroit’s shuttered casinos continue to suffer.

Revenue at the city’s three gaming venues — MGM Grand Detroit, MotorCity Casino, and Greektown Casino — has plummeted 59.3% over the first half of 2020, according to The Detroit News. Through the first six months of 2019, the three casinos combined to generate $735.4 million. This year, during the same period, the total revenue has been $299.2 million.

At MGM Grand, revenue dropped from $315.1 million to $126.5 million. At MotorCity, it fell from $250.5 million to $102.6 million. And at Greektown, the plunge was from $169.8 million to $70.1 million.

Schedule for reopening remains unclear

Michigan was among the hardest hit states during the early months of the pandemic, with the bulk of cases and deaths occurring in Detroit and its surrounding suburbs. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered Detroit’s hotel-casinos closed on March 16 to halt COVID-19’s spread, and business at all three has flatlined since then.

In June, when the state appeared to have the virus under control and the number of new reported cases sunk as low as 125 on some days, the Michigan Gaming Control Board released guidelines for reopening, which included operating at 15% capacity during the initial reopening phase, a smoking ban on the casino floor, no poker rooms, and rules on mask-usage and social distancing, among other regulations.

Since then, however, COVID-19 case numbers in Michigan have rebounded. Through Sunday, state data showed the seven-day average of new reported cases had crept up to 618.

Last Tuesday, Whitmer extended Michigan’s state of emergency, which empowers the governor to order the closure of businesses like Detroit’s casinos due to public health concerns, through August 11. At a press conference on Wednesday, the governor called the uptick in COVID-19 cases a possible “turning point” for Michigan’s response to the pandemic and insisted that residents and businesses take more seriously the state’s mandate to wear masks in indoor public spaces and outdoor spaces where social distancing is impossible.

“If Michiganders don’t mask up when we’re going out in public, cases could rise, and we could be forced to close down more of our businesses,” Whitmer said.

For Detroit’s casinos, which require the governor’s approval to reopen, a potential reversal of the state’s reopening efforts could mean prolonging the casinos’ forced closure. Friday, MGM Grand Detroit provided a statement that underlined how the casinos’ fate remains in the governor’s hands — and depends on whether Michiganders take the necessary steps to prevent a second spike in COVID-19 cases.

“We do not have a reopening date to share at this time,” the statement said. “We have been working closely with government and health officials and are implementing safety protocols that are consistent with federal and state guidance. We look forward to welcoming our guests and employees back as soon as we’re allowed by the Governor and state gaming regulators.”

Michigan a hotbed for mask-related disputes

Despite a statewide mandate and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that masks be worn in public spaces to slow the spread of COVID-19, the call for mandatory face coverings has become politicized throughout the United States.

In Michigan, the issue is particularly divisive. Republican state lawmakers have lambasted Whitmer, a Democrat, for infringing on residents’ liberties. State Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth) compared the mask order to torture his father endured in Soviet East Germany.

Several county sheriffs have announced that they would not strictly enforce the governor’s emergency mandates. A petition to recall Whitmer has been approved by the Board of State Canvassers and can begin collecting signatures on July 29. Last week, a 77-year-old man was stabbed to death after a mask-related confrontation at a convenience store in suburban Lansing, and the 43-year-old suspect was later shot in a police encounter and died in the hospital. In May, a security guard was shot outside of a Family Dollar store in Flint after telling a customer her child could not enter the establishment without a mask.

Meanwhile, Whitmer has remained resolute. On Friday, the governor issued a new, stronger executive order aimed to prevent businesses from sidestepping the indoor mask mandate by assuming any customers who weren’t covering their faces had a medical reason for doing so. “A business may not assume that someone who enters the business without a face covering … cannot medically tolerate a face covering,” the order read.

Whitmer even called upon the football and men’s and women’s basketball coaches of Michigan and Michigan State to appear in a television ad campaign to encourage Michiganders to heed the advice of public health experts like White House Coronavirus Task Force member Dr. Anthony Fauci and “mask up.” On Michigan Public Radio, sports commentator John U. Bacon said that the message from Jim Harbaugh, Tom Izzo, and Juwan Howard could have a dramatic impact on public opinion.

“This is one of the bizarre, crazy things about college athletics,” Bacon said. “Izzo’s chances are better in the state of Michigan than Fauci’s.”

Masks and safety at Michigan casinos

For Detroit’s casinos to reopen, the state will have to prevent its current, modest rise in COVID-19 rates from exploding into another society-crippling outbreak. Mask usage will contribute to getting Michigan to a point where the governor can lift the state of emergency and allow casinos to open, and the continued adherence to mask rules will help Detroit’s casinos stay open once they’re back in business.

At Michigan’s 23 tribal casinos, which aren’t bound by state law and began reopening in late May, mask requirements and strict safety protocols have allowed gaming to resume without being linked to any major COVID-19 outbreaks. One incident of potential exposure was reported at Turtle Creek Casino and Hotel in Williamsburg, according to the Traverse City Record-Eagle. So far, further spread of the virus has not been traced back to the casino.

Mask compliance appeared to be widespread, although imperfect, during MI Bets’ Saturday afternoon visit to Firekeepers Casino Hotel in Battle Creek. To enter, guests were required to have their temperatures checked digitally and they had to be wearing a mask over their nose and mouth. During a thorough walk-through of the casino floor, only 18 out of several hundred people were observed with exposed mouths and noses, their masks pulled all the way down to their chins or around their necks. The pulling of masks down just enough to expose the nose but still cover the mouth was so common, however, that guests skirting the rules in this manner were too numerous to count.

Because the sportsbook at Firekeepers doubles as a restaurant, it was one of the few spaces in the casino where socially distanced diners were permitted to remove their masks while eating. That meant bettors who had hoped to wager on Saturday’s UFC Fight Night or the third round of the PGA Tour’s Memorial Tournament and then watch the events unfold on the sportsbook’s big screens could have felt like they were risking their lives along with their dollars. For those who didn’t want to stand in the vicinity of dozens of unmasked diners, electronic kiosks around the perimeter of the sportsbook allowed guests to place bets without getting too close to the unwanted action.

Overall, the scene at Firekeepers pointed to the kind of reopening that will hopefully prove sustainable for Michigan casinos from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula. The casino itself seemed committed to creating the safest possible conditions for sports betting, table games, and playing the slots, and the guests showed suitable — if not commendable — levels of compliance.

In a state where many residents have loudly resisted and openly defied mask orders to shop at Kroger and Home Depot, it seems they were willing to compromise to place their bets.

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Rafe Bartholomew

Rafe has worked as an editor and writer at Harper's Magazine, Grantland, Eater, and The Athletic. He is a co-author of the New York Times Bestselling book Basketball: A Love Story and the author of two other books, Pacific Rims and Two and Two.

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