pokies gambling
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Australia’s second biggest casino company Star Entertainment yesterday provided an update to the ASX explaining the return to gambling at its Sydney and Queensland properties.

After being forced to shut its land-based gaming rooms in late March like the rest of the industry, Sydney’s Star casino first reopened its doors June 1 for loyalty club members and their guests, by invitation only. Maximum visitor numbers were progressively ramped up to 900 by June 19.

That was significantly cranked up yesterday to a maximum patron model of 5000, including members of the general public, within the casino area, which was determined by the four-square-metre distancing regime.

After initially turning off every second poker machine in the week before shutdown in March, all of Star Sydney’s tables and 1500 poker machines were switched on yesterday, though the casino committed to social distancing of 1.5 metres between gamblers unless they were from the same household.

As for Queensland, the main gambling floor and private gaming rooms at both The Star Gold Coast and the Brisbane Treasury casino will reopen at midday tomorrow, after a 102-day shutdown. They will operate with a capacity of 2600 and 2300 respectively, based on the four-square-metre rule.

With all Queensland pub and club pokies rooms also permitted to reopen at noon tomorrow, the $15 billion-a-year industry will finally be back above 50% capacity this weekend.

Based on the $38 million per day in national savings at the peak of the lockdown, pokies losses are expected to be down by more than $3 billion in 2020, although this will partly depend on when Victoria reopens.

Here is a chronological list tracking the progressive reopening of casinos and pokies venues across Australia, with the only unknown being Victoria which initially planned to reopen gambling on July 15 but is now battling a second wave. (The ACT was also looking at the middle of July for its pokies venues as Clubs ACT complained in an update pointing to the far earlier opening in NSW.)

  • June 26: Tasmania reopens casinos and pokies pubs after industry pressure brings it forward from the original plan of July 13. Independent MP Megg Webb estimates gamblers saved $43 million during the shutdown.
  • June 29: Crown Perth, the only pokies venue in WA, reopens with social distancing requirement of one person every two square metres, including staff. See ASX announcement.
  • June 29: SA pokies venues reopen with only limit being social distancing of two square metres. Adelaide Casino’s Kiwi parent company Sky City told the ASX this would limit total capacity, including staff, to 2200 people.
  • July 3: All Queensland club and pub pokies rooms can reopen from noon — Queensland Hotels Association boss Bernie Hogan welcomes this “great news”.

It probably shouldn’t come as any surprise that pokies-captured NSW led the return. As anti-gambling campaigner Tim Costello pointed out in a Fairfax comment piece, the reopening move on June 1 wasn’t even formally announced by the government.

The ABC reported that Clubs NSW boasted to members that it successfully lobbied against a proposed overall cap of 500 people in venues, with the only limit being the number of dining rooms and the four-square-metre rule.

The enormous NSW clubs have even been successfully seeking permission to relocate poker machines into foyers and restaurants in order to maximise gambling revenue under the social distancing regulations.

Pubs and clubs have been very large recipients of government support through both JobKeeper and a range of other initiatives such as the initial six month holiday in gaming taxes offered by NSW.

However, Australia’s biggest pokies operator Woolworths has suffered the most significant losses because its ALH pokies division, which runs more than 12,000 machines in almost 300 pokies pubs, didn’t qualify for JobKeeper. Its overall revenue across the group wasn’t down by the required 50%.

Adding to the pain, its biggest division is in Victoria, where gamblers lose an estimated $670 million a year at its 80 pokies venues, a number of which are located in lockdown suburbs.

Unlike the bleating from the pubs and club lobby, Woolworths has said very little about its bleeding pokies division, although it did acknowledge material declines in profit in this trading update last week.

However, it has used the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to delay the planned demerger of its Endeavour Drinks pubs and liquor division until the second half of 2021.

Still, you shouldn’t feel too sorry for Woolworths, which is valued by the market at $46.6 billion. Packaged liquor sales have been up strongly during the crisis and it has more than 50% of this market in Australia.

Peter Fray

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