Casinos in New York state, a major source of purse money for the horse racing industry, will be allowed to reopen next week for the first time since mid-March when COVID-19 accelerated its spread across the state.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said Sept. 3 that casinos, including the video lottery terminal facility at Aqueduct Racetrack, can resume limited operations Sept. 9. Admission will be restricted to 25% of a facility’s capacity, extra spacing of slots and VLTs will be required, and drinks and food will not be permitted to be served on gaming floors.
The Aqueduct facility, located in Queens in New York City, also will not be permitted to offer indoor dining; New York City restaurants can serve patrons outside, but the indoor dining ban has not yet been lifted by the state.
Four commercial casinos and racetrack-based VLT facilities contributed more than $1 billion in tax revenues to state and local governments in the 12 months preceding the March shutdown order by Cuomo. The facilities, especially Aqueduct, also provide tens of millions of dollars to Thoroughbred and Standardbred purse accounts; the Aqueduct casino is also a major driver of money to the New York Racing Association for its capital projects. The facilities also pay into horse breeding funds.
“Horsemen will look forward to the added revenue as it will help secure the thousands of statewide jobs that rely on horse racing,” said Joseph Appelbaum, the president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.
Appelbaum said it was too soon to tell how much purse money was lost to the COVID-19 shutdown of the casinos. He noted that VLT revenue-sharing proceeds account for about 38% of NYRA purse accounts in a typical year, with the rest coming from pari-mutuel wagering revenues. He noted the 38% funding level is one of the nation’s lowest.
“This is yet another positive step for New York that reflects the progress made throughout the state to combat the spread of COVID-19,” NYRA spokesman Patrick McKenna said.
McKenna said NYRA applauds Cuomo’s decision to reopen casinos with what he called “common-sense health and safety protocols in place” that will also resume VLT revenue payments to NYRA that “will solidify the purse account that supports hundreds of small businesses and thousands of hourly workers.”
The state several years ago authorized four new commercial casinos with slots and table games, which are spread around upstate areas. There are also VLT casinos at most racetracks, though not at NYRA’s Saratoga Race Course or Belmont Park. The new Cuomo reopening order bans table games at the casinos unless there is some sort of state-authorized physical barrier erected to separate bettors.
Uncertain is how many casino workers will be brought back in the initial phase of the facilities’ reopenings. Thousands lost their jobs this spring. Earlier on Thursday, the state labor department, in its daily update on large-scale layoffs, posted a notice from MGM, the owners of the Yonkers harness track and casino, stating that the furloughs of 860 workers at the Westchester County casino would be made permanent in mid-September.
Sen. Joseph Addabbo, a Queens Democrat and the chairman of the state Senate’s racing, gaming, and wagering committee, said Cuomo’s decision “will result in many of the furloughed casino workers returning to their jobs and providing for their families, while permitting our residents to visit these gaming sites to safely enjoy the amenities during these difficult times.”
Addabbo said Cuomo’s decision is a “productive first step” but that he hopes the administration will put in place protocols for casinos to meet every two weeks that could lead to more portions of the casinos reopening at a quicker pace.
Casino operators have been heavily lobbying for the reopening plan for months as other segments of the state’s economy reopened. Jobless casino workers also took to protesting on the grounds of the state Capitol outside Cuomo’s office. The reopening also comes as the governor has expressed concerns about a possible second COVID-19 wave this fall when the flu season kicks in. Cuomo said additional regulators will be at the casinos to ensure compliance with his reopening order.