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If I were the coronavirus, whose goal is to be the best stalker it can be before committing assault and battery on any unprotected victim it can find, I'd hang out at a casino.

Casinos are full of excitement in normal times, but a pandemic takes the concept of gambling to a whole new level.

"All right, all right, people. Step right up to spin the wheel and see where the virus lands. Where will it go? Nobody knows."

Talk about a game of chance.

Arkansas voters in 2018 changed the state Constitution to allow operation of four casinos in Arkansas -- two at existing dog/horse tracks in West Memphis and Hot Springs where wagering on races has taken place for decades, one in Jefferson County and one in Pope County.

The first three are up and running, if not yet in their permanent locations. In Pope County, the local politics have turned the Arkansas Racing Commission's job of awarding a license into a legal quagmire. The actual pope might visit Pope County before anyone manages to open a casino there.

But these days there's as much casino gambling going on in Pope County as in any of the other three locations. Gov. Asa Hutchinson in mid-March ordered the casinos closed as part of the state's response to the covid-19 spread.

As with every other aspect of Arkansas' disrupted economy, the question of when to reopen looms.

It's perhaps easy to dismiss reopening casinos as a priority. It's just playing games, right? But it's also big business and big employment, in a state where 170,000 people have filed for unemployment and the Hutchinson administration cut the fiscal 2020 state budget by $353.1 million because of economic projections related to the pandemic. Cities and counties where the casinos operate are also losing money every day they're closed.

So, of course, the pressure is on for Hutchinson to reopen casinos. The governor opposed the casino amendment, so I don't think he's worried one bit about whether someone is itching to try his luck at a one-armed bandit. But he's no doubt interested in doing everything he can to restart Arkansas' economy. Casinos are part of that.

There's also counter-pressure specific to casinos because of the kinds of activities they promote. Gathering gamblers who crowd around gaming tables or sit down at slot machines 10 other people used in the last hour is a recipe for spreading the virus. They could just rename the casinos to reflect the exciting games of chance playing out inside: "Oaklawn Jockey Club and Petri Dish?" Or in Pine Bluff the "Saracen Casino and National Center for Biological Research?" How about "Southland Greyhound Park and Laboratory for Infectious Diseases?"

Dr. Nate Smith, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Health, described casinos last week as high risk.

"They are indoors. A lot of people in a small amount of space. Often times, people with significant risk factors. Oftentimes, there is smoking going on as well and you've got a lot of people touching stuff, so if you wanted to design a setting to optimize the spread of covid-19, it would look a lot like a casino," he said.

There's also the fact that casinos draw gamblers from all over, and could particularly do so if casinos in surrounding states remain closed. Hutchinson has banned lodging facilities from renting rooms to "recreational" travelers from outside the state.

The governor has set May 4 as a target to start easing restrictions on Arkansas businesses and other activities. But casinos, beyond being businesses, are also highly interactive entertainment venues, not unlike concerts halls or sports arenas that draw large crowds.

Opening them too soon will be a serious roll of the dice with less-than-promising odds.

Commentary on 04/26/2020

Print Headline: Placing bets on casinos? Not just yet

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