By David Ross Wed, Apr 8, 2020

For most of the 115 casinos in Canada—commercial and First Nations—the shutdown that’s gripped the industry and the world began on March 15. That’s when operators in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec began turning out the lights.

“Over the next 72 hours, everything in the country was pretty much shut down,” said Paul Burns, president and CEO of the Canadian Gaming Association, who, like everyone else, is hunkered down at home.

“We are now in the middle of our third week of closures, with no end in sight,” Burns told GGB News last week.

The initial order in Ontario was to end the shutdown last weekend, he said. “But obviously a lot of those orders have been extended through the end of April and beginning of May. At this point, there’s no firm (reopening) date.”

Pitching In

Meanwhile, Canadian casinos are working to assist their employees and host communities. “Everybody recognizes that the need to close and protect their employees was the first order of business. Different organizations have different challenges. What we’re seeing is that companies have stepped up in the communities they operate in.”

Casinos across the country have donated to local food banks, he said, and provided space for “temporary care” if local hospitals become overwhelmed. Gateway Casinos, the largest gaming company in Canada, has offered up properties in Ontario and British Columbia for hospital beds.

Being closed “is not a position that anyone wants to be in right now,” said Burns, “but they’ve been working with government partners, making sure there are proper supports for employees. The government has offered many measures to laid-off employees and quick access to unemployment, ensuring that businesses are putting themselves in the best financial position to ride this out.”

Some casinos have kept employees on salary. The Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority (SaskGaming), which operates Casinos Regina and Moose Jaw, paid employees from March 17 to April 3, and all laid-off workers—about 550 in total—have extended benefits until the end of April.

SaskGaming said both unionized and non-union workers would be able to return to the same jobs when the casinos reopen, but union official Marianne Hladun wasn’t impressed. “I think we were all blindsided,” she told CNBC News. “We’re seeing private companies that are doing the right thing and providing income security for their members, and to see a Crown corporation within the province of Saskatchewan just arbitrarily lay everybody off was beyond disappointing.”

SaskGaming, which is a Crown corporation—i.e., a government entity—made the layoffs under emergency provisions of the Saskatchewan Employment Act.

“Everyone has quick access to unemployment and most have kept them on with benefits,” said Burns. “Everybody’s taking a wait-and-see approach. They hope there may be an opportunity for some to reopen as we head into May.”

Financial Rescue

Criticism of the shutdown has been mostly muted, said Burns. “At this point, I’ve heard nothing serious. British Columbia was very proactive working with their casino operators, moving funds that were owed to operators. Ontario has waived fees and extended all licenses and registration fees for three months. They’re working with individual properties in Ontario to find ways to lessen the burden as much as possible. We see it as very proactive.”

At the national level, he added, “A lot of us are looking to see that casinos have access to loans that the government’s created. We’re looking at a recovery period and working with our partners in the broader hospitality sector.”

About 100,000 people in hospitality are not working right now, he pointed out. “We have entertainment and restaurants working with our partners in those sectors to make sure we have access to those incentives, including supports to make sure businesses have proper cash to keep moving.”

Provincial governments have waived requirements for casinos and other businesses paying workers’ comp and workers insurance payments during the crisis. “Tax remittances have been waived. The hydroelectricity utility has reduced rates for everybody. There are lots of measures where the federal and provincial governments say payroll remittances won’t be due until August,” he said. “We have a national sales tax, and remittances on those have been pushed back. Support for business has been very good at providing us with what they can so companies can hang onto cash in order to support them reopening.”

On the Horizon

Part of the work of the Canadian Gaming Association is looking ahead to the recovery phase, Burns said. “One of the challenges is, what’s reopening going to look like? Will there be requirements for social distancing, or capacity restrictions? We don’t know. We may need supports a little longer, because people may not come back to work at the same time.”

It’s definitely a case where one size won’t fit all. “We have properties that range from small to very large,” said Burns. “Each community is different. We want to make sure the industry as a whole can rebound.”

Will online gaming play a role in rebounding the Canadian gaming industry? “I think it’s something operators and government should explore,” said Burns. “The Ontario government was moving quickly to establish a regulatory regime for online gaming,” when the outbreak began.

“There are overarching laws that require some federal changes but everything else is under the purview of the provinces. Ontario announced last year that it was creating a framework for online gaming. We were expecting an announcement at the end of March, but things got pushed back. Ontario will be proceeding shortly thereafter with a tax and license system. Other provinces may follow. For everybody, it’s a little bit different.”

In Quebec, for example, the Société des casinos du Québec, which operates hotels and casinos, already offers online gaming. “British Columbia has a very successful online platform, PlayNow,” said Burns. “Saskatchewan and Alberto don’t have any, but some see it as an opportunity. It’s more speculative at this point.”

When casinos reopen is still an open question. “That’s something we’re all trying to see at this point, because public health recommendations may come along with reopening,” Burns said. “We’ve had no gatherings of more than five or 10 people in most jurisdictions. Are they going to work that number back up to larger numbers? There may be no problem getting back into business for small casinos, but for the larger facilities, it may be more difficult.”

Another question is when and how customers will come back.

“Will it be right away, or over time?” asked Burns. “We’re trying to work on realistic scenarios. I think in terms of getting back to previous levels, 12 to 18 months is more realistic in some jurisdictions.

“But getting to capacity, being able to host concerts and conventions, those are unknown at this point, due to possible public health restrictions. The industry is going to have to be flexible and resourceful as we are to work with the situations as they evolve.

“We are all living in unique times.”