Coronavirus may sway regulators to allow casinos to say good-bye to cash

The Chumash Casino Resort, located in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley, prepares to reopen on June 10 after a three month closure due to Covid-19 as viewed on June 5, 2020, in Santa Ynez, California.

George Rose | Getty Images

Walk into a newly reopened Las Vegas casino and you’ll see dealers wearing masks behind plexiglass shields, with sanitizer at the ready for both chips and hands. What you won’t see is gamblers paying for their wagers with their cell phones. 

That’s because Nevada doesn’t allow digital payments on casino floors. No state does. But that could change — and quickly — because of the coronavirus pandemic.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend “tap-and-pay to limit handling of cash” as part of good hygiene measures to prevent Covid-19. Given this, state legislatures and gaming regulators may be more motivated to permit mobile payments or digital wallets to help curb the spread of viral infections.

Nevada gaming regulators will hold a hearing on cashless payments on June 25. 

Contactless payments

Fifty-nine percent of people who visited a casino within the past year, said they are less likely to use cash in their everyday lives because of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a report released Tuesday by the American Gaming Association.

“Any customers uneasy about using cash on the gaming floor due to health or safety concerns should have an alternate payment option available to them,” the gaming industry’s trade group said.

AGA’s CEO Bill Miller has been encouraging tribal leaders, legislators and regulators to consider flexible rules that permit cash alternatives. 

“Casinos are really looking for some modernization in the industry that for too long has been almost entirely reliant on cash,” Miller said, in an interview.  

Penn National Gaming CEO Jay Snowden said during a second-quarter earnings call that his team must reimagine how casinos operate.

“We’re still an industry, probably the last out there, that transacts only in cash,” Snowden said. “We’re working with our regulators right now to see if we can really accelerate this digitalization [of] payments on our properties.”

While physical casinos still deal with physical cash, digital payments are standard in mobile sports betting and online casinos, though in some states, customers are required to set up their initial account and/or deposits in person, with cash.

Sightline Payments provides a digital payment solution called Play+ to leading casinos with online sports betting.  It counts MGM Resorts, Caesars, Penn National, Draft Kings, FanDuel and William Hill among its customers. And in Pennsylvania, it provides Play+ to the iLottery.

Wooing a new generation

Sightline’s founder and CEO Kirk Sanford said Play+ can be used as digital payment no matter how a gambler antes up, whether through slot machines, table games or mobile gaming.

“Winnings can be immediately cashed out and used for spending, both on-premise at the casino or off-premise, everywhere that accepts Discover cards,” Sanford said. 

Sanford envisions contactless payments replacing even the chips used at gaming tables. 

“It removes one more obstacle to the hygienic running of a gaming floor and reduces costs for constant cleaning,” Sanford said. 

In the case of Pennsylvania’s iLottery, Sanford said, “Think about trying to go to liquor store to redeem a ticket worth hundreds of dollars. The retailer may not want to hand out that much cash. It’s much easier with electronic payments because the winnings just get returned to the account.”

There are other advantages. Linking a mobile wallet with a customer loyalty program creates opportunities for the casinos. And while casino customers, especially slot players, are an aging crowd, younger players might find it easier to bet with digital payments. 

“It’s figuring out how to make the casino floor approachable to new generations of people that don’t use cash at all,” said Miller.

Critics argue that mobile payments create an easy pathway for problem gambling. But the AGA argues in its report: “Digital payments provide customers with more options to wager responsibly throughout their gaming experience. This starts with limit setting — on how much they wager and how long to play — as part of account initiation.”

In addition, AGA said mobile pay could help combat money-laundering.

“Creating new payment options for customers provides law enforcement additional insights into sources of funds and customer backgrounds,” the report said. 

States starved of tax revenue by the coronavirus closures may be more motivated to permit both mobile and sports betting as well as mobile payments, which are typically taxed at higher rates than general trade, goods and services.

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