By Annie Ross
The hit suffered by local casinos in the month since they have closed due to the pandemic was predictable.
But its size is still shocking.
Even in states with the nation’s laxest online gambling laws, revenues plummeted by hundreds of millions of dollars following the closure of bricks-and-mortar casinos last month
Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware allow for full online casino gaming, including poker, roulette and slots. Nevada, which allows online poker, bans other digital table games. As casinos across the country went dark under the novel coronavirus in March, eyes turned toward those digital life rafts: could they ride out the storm?
According to the first financial reports released since the closures, the answer is a resounding “No.”
Despite online gambling indeed skyrocketing in all three states, newly released data show it wasn’t nearly enough to offset massive losses from traditional casinos.
In Pennsylvania, total gambling revenues fell from $304 million in February to just $153 million last month after the state’s 12 casinos were all shuttered March 16. Add that loss to a $124 million drop-off from February to March in New Jersey, and a staggering $274 million in likely revenue was lost in just 16 days across the two states.
The numbers will grow even bleaker when Delaware releases full figures later this month, according to Vernon Kick, director of the Delaware Lottery. That comes despite a 58% percent boost in online gaming in that state. “Even though we’ve spiked up,” Kirk said, “it’s still just a drop in the bucket.”
Pennsylvania has had the worst of it so far. The state taxes slots at 54% and table games at 16%, compared to 8% for both in New Jersey. That meant a dramatic reduction in Pennsylvania tax revenues in March, falling to $62 million from $124 million in February.
Online gambling surged in Pennsylvania, with overall revenues increasing 24%. However, the bump barely made a dent in state tax revenues, with the increase in online gaming revenues amounting to less than a $2 million boost.
“We certainly have seen an uptick in online play, in particular table games, the biggest being poker,” said Doug Harbach, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. “It does not make up for the casino losses. It will not come close to satisfying the tax revenue we’ve been used to.”
But it’s the host towns of Pennsylvania’s 12 casinos that could end up feeling the greatest pinch.
According to state figures, gambling money has accounted for just 0.5% of total state tax revenues so far this fiscal year. Compare that to Bensalem, which receives nearly a quarter of its annual revenues — $11 million a year — from Parx Casino.
Bensalem Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo says the town is upright for the time being: The $11 million is a fixed host fee that arrives in four installments each year. Because Parx, the state’s largest casino, was operating for most of the first quarter, he expects it to arrive without issue within the next month.
“After that I’m worried,” DiGirolamo said. “It’s a big part of our budget.”
DiGirolamo said the town’s finances have already suffered as property owners miss real estate tax payments and workers lose their jobs. Parx furloughed more than 2,000 employees after closing, many of whom DiGirolamo says live in the township. “What I can tell you is we’re getting hit all over,” DiGirolamo said. “People aren’t earning income, so that’s another big part of our budget.”