When COVID-19 caused states to go into lockdown, one of my first reactions was, fine, as long as I don’t have to wear a mask. Like anyone who has travelled a bit, I had seen people wearing masks in airports and they looked a little freaky and a lot uncomfortable.
My ability to weather the pandemic without donning a mask lasted about a week in my part of the country. By late March, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made mask-wearing in public spaces mandatory and that was that. Four months later, New York, once the epicenter of the pandemic, has one of the lowest infection rates in the country. Coincidence? I don’t think so and even if we disagree, for the purposes of this column, it doesn’t matter.
That’s because—slowly but surely—behavior is changing and we are here to talk about business. If you’re a casino operator, your customers skew older—many of them have underlying health issues and just about all of them are scared of getting sick. Your best customers love to gamble and we have seen that most of them are willing to abide by whatever rules you put in place so they can get out of the house and come to your casino.
Like every other highly decentralized entity in the country, casinos have embraced different approaches to the whole issue of mask wearing. Some have been more vigilant than others, all have dealt with people who are unhappy about being compelled to wear a mask. The issue might seem like something that will disappear as soon as a cure or a vaccine comes along, but there are some strong reasons why that probably isn’t true.
For one thing, having lived through 9/11 in New York and the immediate aftermath, you can count on a period of post-COVID-19 stress disorder no matter what cure or vaccine emerges, hopefully sometime next year. There will be rumors—too many to enumerate—that will scare and/or intimidate people. This will go on for a number of years. However governments do or do not react, a certain number of individuals will turn to masks as a way to inoculate themselves against uncertainty.
For another, COVID-19 probably won’t be the last pandemic you’ll see in your lifetime. The world is smaller and hotter, people are bumping up against nature in new ways and in more places and virus-jumping from animals to humans could well become more commonplace.
The pandemic is a public health story that ties into globalization, increased urbanization and climate change. Its underlying pre-conditions have been feared for some time and they won’t go away when the present virus has been tamed. Here is what the Centers for Disease Control said in a Global Health Security Update in 2017:
“The threats keep coming: SARS in 2003; pandemic influenza in 2009; the largest Ebola outbreak in history in 2014; Zika in 2015. Since then, there have been regional outbreaks of chikungunya, yellow fever, and H7N9 influenza, among hundreds of others. And multidrug resistant superbugs have emerged globally in just the past few years…When Ebola, flu, or another infectious disease can travel from a remote village to major cities on all continents in 36 hours, the threat to our national security is greater than ever. Even if the disease never reaches the U.S., a global infectious disease outbreak can have a catastrophic impact on the U.S. economy.”
Finally, while Westeners are and always will be way behind Asia in the area of mask assimilation, people adapt and mask wearing will become more commonplace. The magic of the market is already being applied to the all-important issues of fashion statements, identity and personal attractiveness. The vast majority of people will junk their masks at the first opportunity, but some will remain attached to them for certain reasons, be it perceived safety, as a way to reinforce personal space or just to annoy you.
The point for casino operators is to make peace with the mask and all the complications that it brings because they aren’t going away anytime soon. On an individual level, be conscious of whatever negative views you have of masks and allow for the possibility that not all of your customers share them. This is a wordy way of saying leave your personal views at the door.
When the threat from COVID-19 has mercifully passed and four people are sitting at one of your table games and one has chosen to wear a mask, make sure your property isn’t the place where that player can be harassed with impunity. At the same time, there will need to be rules for mask wearers, too. The bad news is you have to even think about these issues, but the unfortunate truth is whatever time and effort you are putting into living with masks will benefit your property for the foreseeable future.