Gamblers on pokies in casino
(Image: Unsplash/Chuma A)

There is no other country that has anything like Australia’s 5000 gambling venues and 200,000 poker machines — let alone annual pokies losses of $14 billion.

They say never waste a good crisis, so stand by for the first meaningful reduction of Australian poker machine losses in recent memory, despite the industry’s initially tardy response.

As theatres, gyms, pools, stores and restaurants were closing, the Victorian government did a deal with Crown Melbourne — Australia’s biggest pokies venue with $462.7 million in 2018-19 pokies revenue — earlier this week requiring it to deactivate every second poker machine and impose gambler spacing policies.

Crown, which is not a good communicator at the best of times, thought it was important enough to disclose the arrangements to the ASX on Monday, perhaps reflecting the healthcare heavyweights on its board. This includes former federal Health Department secretary Jane Halton and former federal chief medical officer Professor John Horvath.

Crown then clarified on Thursday morning that it will remain open with the 100 person limit, which applies to different segments of its complex.

As Clubs NSW clarified yesterday, you can have 100 people in the pokies room plus 100 people in the adjacent bar.

Australia’s second biggest casino company Star Entertainment followed up with a similar announcement later on Monday, although there was no sign of any regulatory approval. But is this enough?

If this were New York City then Crown Melbourne and Sydney’s Star Casino would be compulsorily shut. Elsewhere in the US, casino giants such as Wynn Resorts have voluntarily shut their casinos in Boston and Las Vegas. As of last night, all Vegas casinos were compulsorily shut down.

So why haven’t any of Australia’s 5000 pokies venues followed Wynn’s lead and shut their doors?

When Crown and Star announced their “shut every second pokie” strategy, 11 public health academics signed a joint letter to gaming ministers and premiers across the country urging them to shut the pokies industry down on public health grounds, focusing on the largest venues first.

As the academics pointed out, pokies gamblers tend to be older, more vulnerable Australians who often gamble for extended periods moving from machine to machine. Transmission is a high risk, hence the decision of Finland to close down all its pokies venues.

Community Clubs Victoria president Leon Wiegard countered by saying his members are spraying the machines every hour.

I visited one of the biggest Woolworths pokies venue in Melbourne on Wednesday, the Doncaster Hotel, and they did not appear to have shut every second machine or established any social distancing policies.

Former pokies gambler Anna Bardsley, who famously took on James Packer at the 2017 Crown Resorts AGM in Melbourne, slammed the move to keep pokies venues open in the following terms:

When I was gambling I would frequently lose track of time and get into a zone where nothing else mattered. The machines are designed to do that to you. I had no concern for my own health or the health of others while I sat in front of a poker machine. Pokies venues are a germ fest at the best of times. I was constantly sick when I was gambling in those places.

Poker machines were a form of escape from the issues I had in my life, and that is so common. The thought of vulnerable people, especially older people and those with other risks for Covid-19, sitting in a room spreading germs, touching things and losing money to escape from these difficult times makes me incredibly sad.

It’s a pretty compelling argument. Australia’s biggest not-for-profit club, the RACV, closed its gym, pool and squash courts at its $200 million Melbourne CBD facility last night. Pokies venues are still opening their doors with impunity, not even bothering with Crown’s “turn off every second pokie” strategy.

The Victorian RSL has cancelled all Anzac Day marches, but its 50 pokies venues remain open.

Woolworths, Australia’s biggest pokies operator, is yet to make any sort of ASX announcement about the impact of coronavirus, let alone mentioning the likely drop in gambling revenue on its 12,000-plus machines located in 285 pokies pubs across Australia.

Then you have got Australia’s second-biggest listed pokies company, Redcape Hotels, which put out an upbeat statement on March 12, quoting CEO Dan Brady:

Redcape continues to trade in line with expectations with no material evidence of any slowdown in patronage due to COVID-19. Results to date are consistent with full year guidance provided in February. That said, COVID-19 is an evolving issue for businesses and its potential effect on the business remains difficult to predict.

Redcape floated at $1 per share two years but its share price has crashed from $1.12 on March 4 to just 63 cents yesterday, after tumbling more than 11% on the day.

Investors are clearly fearful of some sorts of pokies pub shutdown, but the industry is famously powerful, even securing an exemption for pokies gamblers from the NSW lock-out laws.

You couldn’t drink but you could still gamble the night away.

A public health crisis might deliver a different outcome. Watch this space!