Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is shutting down the state’s casinos, racetracks and off-track betting parlors indefinitely in an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
“The situation continues to evolve and will escalate rapidly and dramatically,” Hogan, a Republican, said in a statement Sunday. “These are unprecedented actions in an extraordinary situation, but they could be the difference in saving lives and keeping people safe.”
Hogan said state regulators would work with the casinos on an “orderly shutdown” of their operations. They must close by 12:01 a.m. Monday or risk being charged with a misdemeanor that carries a potential penalty of up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
David Cordish, CEO of the Cordish Companies, which operates the Maryland Live casino, called the move “irrational” given that bars and restaurants in Baltimore remain packed with customers.
“If you want to say crowds are bad for the public’s health right now, then who am I to argue? They have health experts advising them, and we all know this is serious," Cordish said. “But this isn’t what’s happening. Right now people can go to a clothing store, try on a sweater and then put it back on the rack for the next person. Does that make any sense to you?"
Cordish said casino owners were given only 15 minutes’ notice before Hogan’s announcement. In recent days casinos had agreed to cut capacity by 50 percent, creating so much extra space that patrons were never sitting beside each other or within close proximity.
Maryland Live employs about 4,000 people, who are all out of work, at least temporarily. Cordish said his company immediately set aside $5 million so that each person would collect their full salary for abouttwo weeks of closure.
On Saturday, owners of the six casinos said they would reduce their capacity by 50% to minimize customer interactions starting Monday.
In casinos, customers often sit shoulder-to-shoulder at slot machines and gaming tables. Five of the state’s six casinos said in a joint statement that they would remove some of the chairs at slot machines and table games and enact “restrictions” in their on-site bars and restaurants.
The casinos all said Saturday that they were increasing their cleaning but had no plans to close.
Live Casino & Hotel in Hanover, meanwhile, sent “a handful” of dealers home “out of an abundance of caution,” casino president Robert Norton said Saturday.
Though Maryland’s casinos are privately owned and operated, they are regulated by the Maryland State Lottery and Gaming Control Agency.
In addition to Live Casino & Hotel, the other Maryland casinos are Rocky Gap Casino Resort in Flintstone, Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, Hollywood Casino Perryville in Cecil County, Ocean Downs in Berlin and MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill.
The Laurel Park thoroughbred racetrack had continued racing and banned spectators, though the track’s simulcast facility had remained open. Officials with the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates the track, were working Sunday to figure out the details of the order and how to apply it.
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Not all the state’s tracks are currently racing, but they all are affected by the order. The other tracks are Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, Fair Hill Races in Cecil County, Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George’s County and Ocean Downs in Worcester County.
Late Sunday afternoon, horsemen and track operators were still awaiting clarification from the governor’s office as to whether spectator-free racing could continue at Laurel. The track hosted full racing cards in front of empty stands Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Industry leaders warned that if Hogan halts racing starting Monday, many trainers would decamp to New York, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida and other states where tracks will continue operating without spectators.
"It could cripple the business here," said Alan Foreman, longtime general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "We think what we're doing is consistent with what the governor's asked. We understand what's going on in the world. But we're operating a business where these horses cannot stand in stalls. ... I don't think the government wants us to shut our business down completely."
Without fans present, he argued, crowds at the track aren’t much larger on race days than on days when horses are merely in training. Dozens of trainers base their operations at Laurel, and they have no choice but to exercise their horses daily.
"We support every measure to protect the public," Foreman said. "We believe what we're doing is consistent with that, and we're no different than any other business that is operating remotely. We have essential personnel who will conduct our business, but everything else will be done remotely."
Laurel Park is scheduled to hold its next racing card Friday.