Vaccine Requirements At Casinos Get A Shot In The Arm

Six weeks out from the WSOP, the tenor around COVID precautions is changing again
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For those who choose to roll the figurative dice with COVID-19 by not getting vaccinated against the virus, it’s beginning to get harder to roll the literal dice at a casino.

In keeping with a local mandate by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell concerning indoor activities, on Monday Harrah’s New Orleans became the first casino in the U.S. to require either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to enter the property. It can’t quite be called a “vaccine mandate,” thanks to the “or a negative COVID test” clause, but the inconvenience of getting tested repeatedly will likely serve to either discourage unvaccinated citizens from entering the casino or to encourage them to get their shots.

With 60.8% of people in Louisiana’s Orleans parish having received at least one vaccine dose, the city is well above the state average of 46% (just 38% in the state are fully vaccinated, the fifth-lowest total in the country), but that still leaves quite a few unvaccinated people in the region who might be interested in a night out at the casino. And starting Tuesday, unvaccinated potential guests at Resorts World New York City, part of the Aqueduct Racetrack complex, will have an even tougher time getting into the casino. The vaccine mandate for the five boroughs doesn’t include an “or a negative COVID test” option, and it now expands from indoor dining to also cover casinos — as well as sports stadiums, movie theaters, concert halls, and other venues.

New York City is in slightly better shape, vaccination-wise, than New Orleans, with 63% having received at least one shot, while the state is far ahead of Louisiana with 58.5% of the population fully vaccinated.

The Delta downturn

After a late spring and early summer spent with COVID in retreat in much of America as the vaccines became readily available to everyone age 12 and up, the spread of the Delta variant, predominantly among the unvaccinated, has reversed much of that momentum.

Indoor mask requirements are going back into effect in many areas, particularly metropolitan ones. This is impacting casinos in states such as Pennsylvania, where two of the state’s 15 brick-and-mortar properties are located within Philadelphia borders and are now subject to mask requirements regardless of vaccination status, while the other 13 casinos in the state operate without such requirements.

There is naturally some talk about whether casinos in less restricted regions will benefit financially in the short term from customers who are anti-vaccine, anti-mask, or both taking their business to those other casinos. There is also much talk about how effectively vaccine mandates can be enforced, as the paper vaccination cards are not difficult to forge and the U.S. has yet to establish a digital vaccination authentication system.

The prevailing approach goes further than the “masks optional if vaccinated” signs that have served as window dressing at countless businesses the last several months, but it still isn’t comprehensive enough to discourage those who are unvaccinated but motivated to gamble.

What the WSOP is doing

While states, cities, and casinos around the country weigh their various options with regard to vaccine mandates, one major gambling event looms about six weeks in the distance: the World Series of Poker.

The last time a full, in-person WSOP took place, as many as 28,000 poker players descended upon the Rio in Las Vegas for a single tournament. On any given day at the World Series, thousands of poker players share breathing space around tables and in long lines in hallways and bathrooms. It’s hard to envision a scenario under which the highly transmissible Delta variant doesn’t spread among players if unvaccinated entrants are allowed — barring COVID case numbers dropping precipitously between now and the scheduled start of the WSOP on Sept. 30.

Even for vaccinated poker players, the risk level has gone up significantly since the tournament dates were announced back in June with understandable optimism. From the moment Vegas brought back its mask mandate in early August, the WSOP has been shrouded in uncertainty.

The WSOP released its 2021 tournament rules last week, and the regulation that garnered the most attention concerned the Rio’s ability to disqualify a player if they either test positive for COVID-19 or “come into close proximity” with someone who tested positive.

On Aug. 13, the World Series issued a clarification:

In short, those who are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic are far less likely to be DQ’d than those who are unvaccinated — but there’s still plenty of gray area in all directions. It’s an approach somewhat similar to that taken by the NFL, making life more challenging for unvaccinated players without explicitly requiring vaccines.

Two-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner Mark Seif didn’t mince words as to how he thinks the WSOP needs to approach vaccination:

The replies to Seif’s tweet show a snapshot of how split society is on such an approach. As with all things COVID in the U.S. right now, there are those who think being required to wear a mask infringes upon their rights and there are those who feel vaccine mandates should be in effect for all public spaces.

The WSOP is bound to lose customers operating at either end of the spectrum — and at all points in between. It’s a no-win situation, at least under the current COVID case load, and legal action in response to disqualifications seems inevitable. But a vaccination mandate — complete with the ability to somehow confirm vaccination status — would appear the clearest path to an in-person WSOP played to completion and to minimizing the need for disqualifications.

Local and state governments might go further in taking the decision out of the hands of entities like the WSOP and casinos. But for now, many such private businesses are faced with decisions for which every option presents a set of downsides.

Image: Michael D. Edwards / Shutterstock

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