Coronavirus and Las Vegas casinos: It’s a health gamble

My wife and I have enjoyed many visits to gamble in Las Vegas casinos. As the coronavirus pandemic threatens public health across the U.S. and world, I ask: How safe is it to gamble in casinos?

Come on Vegas. You’ve shut down buffets, sportsbook gaming, clubs, spas, salons and gyms. These are all places where people gather.

Now you have to take what may be the most important public health step. Close your casino games until COVID-19 is given the “all-clear” by public health officials.

This message is for every casino in America. Because Las Vegas has the highest concentration of casinos in the world, I mention you specifically. You should take the lead here. You need to take the lead here. This pandemic has been declared a national emergency.

Anyone, regardless of age, should worry about the health risks posed to anyone gambling or working in close proximity to casino guests and employees. People infected with COVID-19 can spread it to those they come into contact with at gaming tables and slot machines. Las Vegas and Clark County already have several presumptive coronavirus cases.

One concerning fact about coronavirus: According to a new study funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the National Natural Science Foundation of China, about 1 in 10 people infected and contagious with the disease can go days without exhibiting symptoms of the virus for which there is no cure, no vaccine.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control coronavirus is spread in a variety of ways:

Person-to-person spread
The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.

  • Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).
  • Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
    These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

The most effective way to slow the spread of coronavirus at this point is social distancing when we’re in public and self-quarantine if we exhibit symptoms. If we don’t, our hospitals will quickly be overwhelmed with serious COVID-19 patients, effectively paralyzing America’s health care system. Take a look at what’s happening in Italy if you want a real-world case of this happening.  As I write this post, 1,809 people have died from coronavirus in Italy. And it’s happening in America too. In Seattle, Washington and King County 35 deaths from COVID-19 have been reported. 

How easily the virus spreads

  • The virus that causes COVID-19 seems to be spreading easily and sustainably in the community (“community spread”) in some affected geographic areas.
  • Community spread means people have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected.

Recently, featured an article “Las Vegas Doing All It Can to Prevent Spread of Coronavirus” that touched on four points:

  1. Las Vegas casinos are scared revenues could drop significantly due to the coronavirus
  2. These facilities have increased cleaning and sanitizing efforts
  3. Hand sanitizer machines have been installed everywhere
  4. Casino stocks have taken a big hit due to concerns over the deadly virus

The article said many casinos doubled the number of people who clean slot machines. Table dealers are using hand sanitizer machines after dealing cards and handling chips.
Between games, there is more extensive table cleaning. Casino bartenders are instructed to wipe their counters down every half hour or so.
Staff are working around the clock sanitizing many casino’s doors, toilets, and counters. The card decks on table games are being destroyed more frequently. Other casino areas that are frequently touched are regularly washed down and sanitized.

That’s not enough to stop the spread of coronavirus? It does not follow suggested CDC public health guidelines for coronavirus.

Here’s ane example scenario: I play craps. Most craps players handle the dice several times when it’s their turn to roll. For good luck, some players may blow on the dice before rolling them.

After every roll, the dice are retrieved by the stickman who regularly inspects the dice by hand before returning them to the table player who rolls the dice. If a die or dice fall off the table during a roll someone else usually picks them up their hands and returns them to the stickman for inspection.

A standard casino craps table may have up to 16 players who roll the dice. Often the number of players are about half that. Add to that, typically five casino staff members who manage a craps table.  Players usually stand shoulder-to-shoulder at a craps table. As they do, they stand within a couple of feet of each other and casino table staff.

Craps players also handle their chips with their fingers as they place and retrieve their bets on the table. Every time someone rolls the dice the chips, often hundreds of them, are co-mingled among other craps players and the five table crew members.  Gaming experts estimate the dice are tossed 60 to 100 times an hour on a casino craps table depending on how many players are on the table.

Some people use a repeatable, consistent style of holding, releasing and rolling the dice. It’s called “rhythmic rolling.”

That’s a lot of hand contact and closed space for a highly contagious disease like coronavirus to spread quickly from one person to another.

If someone who is contagious with COVID-19 goes from table to table playing games they could potentially infect dozens of others. When others become infected and return home from Las Vegas they too could infect more people. The human spread of this incurable virus then becomes geometric. It spreads, sickens and kills humans faster than our ability to control it.

My point: In a scenario such as this, what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. It needlessly puts lives at risk and adds to the daunting challenges faced by health care workers who have to treat serious coronavirus cases.

So please Las Vegas casinos. Close down the gambling until we can stop the spread of this disease. I know you are the driving economic force in Nevada. This means tens of thousands of casino and hotel employees and entertainers will be idled by this emergency. This is truly heartbreaking. But if you don’t do this today the odds are this crisis will only become worse.


About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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