Like many corners of Colorado that had high hopes for 2020, the state’s gambling capital of Gilpin County has absorbed some serious body blows in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The novel coronavirus shut down casinos in Black Hawk, Central City and across the state from March 17 through mid-June. Now Gilpin leaders are trying to reckon with a more than $4.5 million hole in the county’s projected tax income, Commissioner Ron Engels said.
“There will be absolutely no capital projects in next year’s budget,” said Engels.
The county’s unemployment rate, which spiked over 20% in April, still paced the state in July at 12%, according to labor department data.
This past weekend is providing sparks of optimism in Black Hawk and Central City and putting people back to work. Those sparks are coming in the form of dice, cards, roulette wheels and footballs.
Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Tuesday moved Gilpin County to the “Protect our Neighbors” phase of coronavirus restrictions, a rollback that allows table games like blackjack, craps, and poker to resume for the first time since spring. It also greatly increases the number of people casinos can allow on the floor at one time, up to 500 from the previous limit of 175. Some Black Hawk establishments, including the Monarch Casino, welcomed players back Friday morning.
“Our dealers are really excited to be back at work,” Monarch chief operating officer David Farahi said Thursday, shortly after 100 returning workers went through COVID tests ahead of the reopening.
The Monarch does not plan to let 500 people in at a time right away, capping capacity at 25% of fire code, Farahi said. Some of the games will look different, too. In blackjack, only the dealers touch the cards now.
“We want to make sure that we have a density that still allows for social distancing in the building,” Farahi said.
The other major gambling development this past week is the kickoff of the NFL season.
Sports betting has been legal since May 1 in Colorado, with 20 licensed betting apps handling bettors’ money while casinos were closed. With all major U.S. sports leagues shut down by the virus, the biggest sport for those dollars over Colorado’s first month of legal sports betting was table tennis, the Division of Gaming reported at the time.
Since then, pro basketball, hockey and baseball have returned and sports apps have continued to proliferate — but NFL football is the main event.
A recent survey from the American Gaming Association found that 33.2 million Americans reported that they planned to bet on NFL games this year, including 11.3 million through online platforms (legal and illegal) and 6.6 million who planned to visit physical sportsbooks.
DraftKings got in on the ground floor of Colorado’s legal market. In addition to its app, it has a physical presence at the Mardi Gras Casino in Black Hawk. Company co-founder Matt Kalish called Colorado “one of our best markets,” and expressed high hopes for what the NFL season will mean for action in the state.
“The NFL has the biggest national audience following the sport, and I think it’s also the weekend cadence,” Kalish said of football’s dominance when it comes to betting. “The NFL has just carved off Sunday. Everybody is just paying attention and dropping what they’re doing to pay attention.”
DraftKings is just getting into the retail side of sportsbook operations, but the Monarch, which has a sister casino in Reno, Nev., runs its own book and is used to the physical side of things. Farahi said when he first moved to Colorado, he was surprised at how slow the casino was on Broncos’ Sundays, noting the NFL used to bring out crowds in Reno.
“I am really curious to see what happens on Monday night, and, now that sports betting is legal, if casinos are going to become a hub for watching football games,” Farahi said.
The Monarch has a small physical sportsbook now but supplements that with a bar where fans and bettors can watch games. A larger sportsbook is coming as part of the casino’s long-in-the-works expansion that will also bring a spa and 516 new hotel rooms to the property, but a projected completion date for that project hasn’t been announced.
Because of the way the sports betting law is written in Colorado, even bets made at brick-and-mortar locations don’t provide tax revenue directly to Gilpin County, Engels said. But the hope is players will drop some additional coin, be it on food or in a slot machine, if the sportsbooks can draw them in in person.
In Cripple Creek, table games are still not allowed to operate. Teller County Commissioner Marc Dettenrieder said he was filing a variance request with the state health department on Friday to change that and to allow 24-hour alcohol service in casinos.
“We feel we are in the right position to put in another variance request for casinos specifically, based on the facts on the ground,” Dettenrieder said of the county’s efforts to contain the coronavirus after a case spike in late July.
In the meantime, the Wildwood Casino in Cripple Creek is ahead of 2019 when it comes to its slots revenue and only a little behind annual revenue as a whole, director of marketing Andy Jones said. The casino, which is also in the midst of an ambitious expansion plan, including a 102-room hotel, stayed active reaching out to players even during the shutdown, Jones said. It’s planning its biggest promotion ever, a nightly drawing giving visitors a shot at $2 million, starting in October.
“Instead of trying to starve our way to success, we’re trying to grow the market right now,” he said.
Wildwood does have its own sportsbook with 20 TVs, Jones said, and while the take wasn’t fully counted as of Friday morning, he said activity on Thursday night’s NFL game was better than expected.
“Obviously, Sunday will be the big test followed by the Broncos on Monday,” he said.
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