A large crowd of journalists huddled in front of the main casino entrance at the Grand Lisboa last night hoping to snap a photo of the first gamblers since an unprecedented 15-day suspension order came into effect. A small group of inspectors from the gaming regulator were poised to enter the casino at the stroke of midnight to ensure that extraordinary new restrictions introduced this week were being followed.
But when the clocked chimed midnight, there was just a handful of possible casino patrons stood at a distance and seemingly waiting for the crowd to clear.
The Times visited several other popular casinos last night to observe the first moments of the reopening. The casino at StarWorld Hotel was 15 minutes late to reopen, but a staff member at the property said that it had been only “a preparation matter” and assured that the situation was normal. Casinos on the Cotai Strip appeared to be following the new restrictions in force, but were equally devoid of customers.
Twenty-nine Macau casinos reopened at midnight, while a further 12 indicated that they would make use of the extension period offered by the Secretary for Economy and Finance earlier this week.
According to information disclosed during yesterday’s press conference, the 10 operating casinos that have not reopened are Oceanus, Regency, Macau Jockey Club (Roosevelt), Sands Cotai Central, Waldo, Rio, President, Altira, Oriental at Grand Lapa and Grand Dragon. Two other casinos, the Macau Palace and Greek Mythology, were already closed and will remain so.
Most of these properties manage so-called “satellite casinos,” meaning that they rely on one of the six concessionaires to operate, mostly Sociedade de Jogos de Macau (SJM).
Moreover, about 1,800 gaming tables, less than 30% of the territory’s total, were reopened to the public, according to the director of the Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau, Paulo Martins Chan.
The figure conforms with several opening restrictions issued by the gaming regulator earlier in the week. The restrictions state that no more than half of the tables in any gaming area may be opened to customers and that they must be spaced apart so as to prevent crowding. Likewise, slot machines will also need to be placed at a distance equivalent to the space occupied by one or two machines.
Baccarat tables, usually consisting of seven seats, will allow only three or four people to bet simultaneously, and gamblers must be seated at least one seat away from the dealer. Gamblers are also forbidden from placing bets standing up.
Earlier this week, Secretary for Economy and Finance Lei Wai Nong confirmed that the Executive Order issued by the Chief Executive to mandatorily close casinos for an unprecedented 15-day period would indeed expire on Thursday midnight. However, casino operators could apply for an extension of up to 30 days, during which time they would not be required to operate fully or at all.
“The gaming law says that Macau is an area of continuous gaming and that casinos should operate every day of the year. Casinos can only suspend operations under exceptional circumstances and with the permission of the government,” said Carlos Coelho, a Macau-based lawyer who provides corporate and regulatory assistance to casino operators.
However, “the government is now saying that the current conditions should be considered as ‘exceptional circumstances’ and so it will grant this exemption period of up to 30 days to those casinos which apply [for inclusion].”
Statements yesterday from five of Macau’s six casino concessionaires indicated that gambling activity would resume in a “phased approach” starting from tomorrow. The operators declined to state in clear terms whether they would apply for the extension.
The latest information suggests that most of the casinos directly operated by the concessionaires have not applied for the extension period. Nevertheless, the operators intend to ramp up their gambling operations only according to “market conditions.”
Regarding the ability of casinos to partially resume operations, for example by operating only a portion of their available gaming tables, Coelho said, “There is nothing in the law on this matter.”
Lawyer Sérgio de Almeida Correia told the Times that the contracts signed by the concessionaires allow for the aforementioned changes to casino operating conditions, as does article 6 of the gaming law, which states the conditions under which casinos may stray from normal operating conditions.
According to the contracts, the concessionaires may “establish a daily period of opening to the public of the casinos and the activities included therein,” provided that the government is notified of the change at least three days in advance and that the new operating hours are affixed at the casino entrance.
“I think there must be some common sense in how the opening has to be managed,” added Correia. “It should be done in such a way that there is no risk that we will have new coronavirus cases – which would be very bad for Macau’s reputation, and also for the casinos, for the government and for the entire population.”
“There are jobs to be protected [and] there are fundamental earnings for the region’s livelihood that were put in crisis with the Covid-19 epidemic. […] On the other hand, due to the circulation restrictions in China, I wonder if the casinos will have customers in quantity. So, it makes perfect sense to have a soft opening and to have casinos opened only during part of the day, instead of the usual 24-hour operation.”
“If the situation improves, the concessionaires will be the first to wish to return to normal business. Nobody wants to lose more money or to have more coronavirus cases.”