Detroit Casinos Stuck In Limbo As Reopened Tribal Properties Across Michigan Welcome Gamblers

Within a few days, 10 of the 26 casinos in Michigan will be open again, but the three commercial casinos in Detroit remain in lockdown.
MGM Grand Detroit Reopening

The casino reopenings are plowing ahead in Michigan.

Of the 26 casinos in the Wolverine State, all of which shut down in March as the COVID-19 virus spread across the country, three had reopened prior to Friday and seven more are slated to follow by Monday, June 1.

That will give the state 10 open casinos when the new month begins — all of them tribal casinos that are not governed by Michigan’s rules.

The three Detroit casinos — the only non-tribal, commercial casinos in the state — don’t have the same freedom to decide when they should reopen. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order is in effect through June 12, if not beyond, putting MGM Grand Detroit, MotorCity Casino, and Greektown Casino at a relative disadvantage.

Unless, that is, opening at limited capacity, at a time when a majority of Americans are still disinclined to engage in non-essential indoor activities, proves unprofitable for the 10 tribal casinos trying it out.

The Detroit casino trio will have the advantage, if you could call it that, of observing what works, what doesn’t, where money is well spent, and where money is poorly spent, while they remain sidelined for at least two more weeks.

Opening back up in MI and beyond

The Island Resort & Casino in the Upper Peninsula was the first to reopen, on May 16, followed by the Odawa Casino in Mackinaw and the Northern Waters Casino Resort, both on May 22. Safety measures at the properties have included face mask requirements, temperature checks, and limits on the number of open table games and machines to help keep guests appropriately distanced.

Four tribes — Gun Lake Tribe, Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi, Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, and Bay Mills Indian Community — have started reopening seven additional casinos among them beginning at 10 a.m. Friday.

This is part of a national trend toward reopening, as 217 of the 989 U.S. casinos were welcoming customers heading into Friday.

The most significant news on the reopening front came Wednesday when Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak announced that Las Vegas casinos could open again on June 4. The Vegas economy is heavily fueled by tourism, which figures to be in short supply with the virus far from contained at this stage. With that in mind, some might consider it surprising that Las Vegas casinos would reopen before Detroit casinos.

Then again, the casinos are Las Vegas, to a large extent. While the owners, executives, and employees at the three Detroit casinos won’t want to hear it, the Motor City has different economic priorities.

But this pandemic has dealt a brutal blow to those downtown casinos and to those who benefit from their taxes. According to city estimates, Detroit is losing about $600,000 a day in tax revenue while the casinos are closed.

That assumes, however, casinos would be operating at full capacity as they were before COVID-19. The daily revenue for the casinos and for the city and state if they were to reopen right now would be significantly reduced.

iGaming is the answer … eventually

No matter how you frame it, the Detroit casinos have reason to be envious of the various smaller tribal properties that can return employees to work and at least begin attempting to turn a profit. While some segment of the population wouldn’t even begin to consider playing in a casino yet, there have been reports around the country of people driving multiple hours to patronize a reopened casino.

It’s no consolation right now, but iGaming can and will eventually help to level out a revenue imbalance such as this.

In December, Gov. Whitmer put her signature on legislation permitting online casino, poker, and sports betting in Michigan, and while none of that was expected to go live until early 2021, the pandemic has inspired a possible fast-tracking of the launch.

Should casinos have to close again if there are additional waves of COVID-19 spread, and if there prove to be frequent reopenings and re-closings until a vaccine is widely available, online gaming revenue will prove vital to all of the operators in the state.

For now, though, brick-and-mortar is the only option available.

And for three of the 26 casinos, it’s not an option at all yet.

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