Casino Execs Denounce Government’s Covid-19 Response
Say inconsistencies, lack of communication and closure have been disastrous for industry
SAN JUAN — Casino owners, general managers and employees pleaded to Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced to allow their businesses to reopen in her next Covid-related executive order, which is supposed to go into effect Saturday.
The trade group Casinos de Puerto Rico, which represents more than 20 establishments, lamented what it called a lack of communication between the government and its industry, despite it complying with regulations.
“Unfortunately, there has not been any type of communication with us, none. The invitation to visit us is still open. The invitation to explain to us what your feeling is for us to be able to debate the points with which they take issue” is still open, said Ismael Vega, general manager of Casino Metro in the Convention Center District’s Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino in the Isla Grande area.
Vega stressed that the casino executives were not told in advance that Executive Order 2020-054 would reverse part or the economic reopening that was allowed by the previous order.
The general manager of Casino del Mar at La Concha a Renaissance Resort, Sigfrido De Jesús, argued that the newly created Gaming Commission, and in particular its director, José Maymó, has shown a lack of leadership.
“We have tried to communicate with Mr. Maymó repeatedly about various issues and we have not received a response,” denounced De Jesús, who also said it was evident that closing the casinos had no effect in controlling Covid-19 and that not opening them was having dire consequences on the gaming industry, particularly its employees.
Ninety-five percent of the 3,000 people who worked in casinos before the pandemic are currently furloughed or laid off.
The executives’ presentation included testimonials of employees who have not received their unemployment checks. De Jesús also spoke of employees who worked during the first two weeks of July, before the government order to close casinos and other businesses, but who have not been able to again receive unemployment benefits.
“All of us who are here, all the casinos that are here, we are budgeting an opening with losses,” De Jesús said. “We are not focused on profit projections. Instead, the most important thing for us is to rescue our employees.”
The Casino Metro manager explained that during the two weeks in July that casinos were open, they had to comply with additional regulations. Even though the executive order allowed a 75 percent occupancy, they kept at 20 percent to 35 percent.
Vega assured that they are willing to reopen at that same rate, even though it is not profitable, but then he would like to see a transition toward loosening the physical distancing restrictions.
Other factors that back the need to urge the governor to allow casinos to open, Vega said, were that while opening at a low capacity may allow these to break even, at best, maintaining the casinos closed does not eliminate monthly costs, such as utilities, for which no revenue to offset the costs is being generated. As an example, Vega indicated that Casino Metro’s monthly bills total $200,000. Additionally, the Casino Metro general manager indicated that, on average, casinos invested around $100,000 to implement measures to protect the health and safety of workers and casino-goers.
Lastly, Vega said the monthly revenue loss of keeping casinos closed totals about $23 million and recalled that the revenue tax for casinos goes to the University of Puerto Rico, the Tourism Company and the central government’s general fund.