Crown Resorts has caved to coronavirus safety fears raised by staff, revoking the rights of high-rolling gamblers to smoke cigarettes and cigars in enclosed VIP areas.
The last-minute backflip occurred on Monday night following inquiries from TND and complaints from Melbourne workers who were worried about catching COVID-19 from smokers coughing and exhaling in their faces as they dealt cards.
A Crown spokesperson told The New Daily: “We will ask customers to step outside to smoke as part of Crown’s cautious and gradual progression towards COVID normal.”
“We will reassess this again with the benefit of revised government directions next month.”
Hey, big smoker
Coronavirus concerns were raised on Sunday when Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced casinos would be allowed to reopen from Monday under a further easing of lockdown restrictions.
Under the new rules, Melbourne’s Crown casino is now allowed to host up to 1000 patrons, with table games like blackjack and baccarat set to restart on Wednesday when the venue officially reopens.
But rather than celebrating their long-awaited return to work, casino dealers were worried.
Under a special legal exemption, big spending high rollers are allowed to smoke while gambling in VIP areas to enable what Crown calls “significant international play”.
These people aren’t just regular gamblers.
They’re what dealers call “high-net-worth individuals” who can spend up to $500,000 in a single hand.
Even without a global pandemic, many dealers resented having to breathe in gamblers’ second-hand smoke, which can cause long-term respiratory issues later in life.
Last month, Star Entertainment Group, which owns Treasury Casino and Star Casino on the Gold Coast and in Sydney, moved to ban indoor smoking at its venues by 2023.
Only the ACT, South Australia and Tasmania have banned smoking in all enclosed areas of casinos, including high roller rooms.
Dealers at Crown hope the company follows suit.
Steven, an experienced dealer who did not wish to use his real name over fear of losing his job, had been begging Crown to ban indoor smoking over fear of inhaling virus-infected droplets while working.
Until Monday, his concerns had been dismissed.
“It makes me feel really uncomfortable,” he told The New Daily.
“My biggest fear is: We reopen in the next couple of days, and then someone contracts COVID at Crown, the whole complex is shut down again and that leads to another shutdown in the state.”
Under the exemption, suspended on Monday night, gamblers were allowed to sit 1.2 metres from Steven, and remove their face masks to drink and smoke.
Luke, another dealer who wishes to remain anonymous, was particularly worried about smokers exhaling on him at work because he lives with an elderly relative.
“I don’t want to be the person who comes home and kills my family member by just going to work,” he told The New Daily.
Both Steven and Luke said they were disappointed the Premier and the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services had initially allowed indoor smoking to continue at Crown during the pandemic.
“There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing here that’s at the heart of all this,” Steven said.
“Crown has tremendous political power because of the revenues that flow from the casino into government coffers.”
The smoking suspension comes amid intense regulatory pressure on the company after media reports last year alleged it had partnered with junkets linked to organised crime, and also breached anti-money laundering laws.
Gaming regulators in Victoria, Western Australia and New South Wales are pursuing Crown about the allegations, as well as the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC).
A super-spreader risk
Between 2017 and 2018, Australians gambled away nearly $25 billion, shows a report from the Queensland Treasury.
Most of that money is lost on poker machines – a portion of which goes to our major political parties .
“It frustrates me because Dan Andrews has shown such conviction and leadership, but this is hypocritical,” Steven said.
“You can’t say health and safety comes first and then allow this to happen.”
Professor Catherine Bennett, Deakin University’s chair in epidemiology, said smokers were generally more prone to coughing, which can produce aerosol – not just air droplets – that can hang in the air for longer.
“You’ll have contaminated tables, the sharing of chips with dealers moving them into piles and out, people without masks coughing and touch points where people could pick up the virus,” she said.
Dealers could become potential super-spreaders if they unknowingly contracted COVID-19 at work, Professor Bennett added.
“If the Crown workers themselves became infected, they’re the sorts of people who would be high risk in terms of the number of people they might infect,” she said.
More than 12,500 people work across the resort at Crown Melbourne – Victoria’s largest single-site private sector employer.
That’s a lot of people for the virus to infect.