Coronavirus Shuts Macau, the World’s Gambling Capital


It’s like closing the Las Vegas Strip, six times over.

Officials in the Chinese city of Macau on Tuesday asked its 41 casinos to close for half a month as they rush to stop the coronavirus outbreak afflicting China and the region. The move will shut down the world’s gambling capital, which could hit big American casino operators like Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands as well as the local companies that sustain the territory’s economy.

The authorities said 10 people in Macau had been sickened by the pneumonialike illness, among them a hotel employee at Galaxy Casino, one of the city’s busiest gambling establishments. Though no deaths have been reported there, the coronavirus is known to have killed more than 420 people in mainland China, one in the Philippines and one in Hong Kong, Macau’s neighbor.

“Of course this was a difficult decision, but we must do it for the health of Macau’s residents,” said Ho Iat Seng, the chief executive of the semiautonomous Chinese territory, in a televised news conference.

Wearing a blue face mask and a suit, Mr. Ho said the case of the hotel worker served as a warning that the virus was beginning to spread through the city. The worker had shared shuttle buses and the casino cafeteria with colleagues.

Gambling accounts for four-fifths of the Macau government’s revenue. But Mr. Ho said, “Macau can still bear these economic losses.”





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The coronavirus has shaken companies and investors around the world who have come to rely on China for its efficient factories, its increasingly affluent consumers and its years of hard-charging economic growth. General Motors, Ford, Nissan and other auto companies have temporarily closed factories. Apple and Starbucks have closed stores.

On Tuesday, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s biggest local airline, announced steep cuts to China flights and plans to pare back across its network, and American Airlines suspended all flights to Hong Kong from Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles through Feb. 20, citing low demand.

Most of China remains shut down by the coronavirus, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan and has sickened thousands of people in the country. The global economic outlook, the fortunes of major companies and the jobs of workers around the world could depend on how quickly they come back.

Macau makes a glittery and sometimes gaudy symbol of the world’s dependence on Chinese money. A former Portuguese colony that was returned to Chinese control in 1999, Macau is the only part of China that allows casino gambling.

As deep-pocketed Chinese tourists arrived in droves, Macau transformed into a thriving international and hub for entertainment, fine dining and luxury shopping. Gambling companies have built vast casinos, illuminating the skyline of the once sleepy city of just over 622,000 people with neon and spotlights. It offers everything that Las Vegas has — like a miniature Eiffel Tower — and more, like a gilded-dragon cable car that floats past dancing water fountains at the Wynn Palace.

Macau was bustling just two weeks ago as tourists from the mainland arrived to spend the Lunar New Year holiday at the city’s baccarat tables and Michelin-starred restaurants.

“There were no signs of the epidemic anywhere,” said Wang Qian, who traveled with her parents to shop and see the sights.

When they visited the Casino Lisboa on Jan. 21, employees took their temperatures. Still, when they left three days later, “I don’t think people took it seriously yet, but many started to wear face masks,” she said.

Macau also suspended basic public services on Tuesday, and Mr. Ho urged residents not to leave their homes except to get food. “This is not a holiday,” he said.

“It’s just mind-boggling. I’ve never seen anything like this in my 25 years here.” said Carlos Lobo, a lawyer and gambling consultant in Macau.

“This shows two things: the seriousness of the situation and the extreme measure that the government is taking to control the outbreak,” Mr. Lobo said.

Macau’s gross gaming revenue totaled $36.5 billion last year, a 3.4 percent drop from the year before but still about six times that of the Las Vegas Strip. In more recent years, the biggest American casino operators, like Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands, have come to rely on their towering outposts in Macau.

The impact will be “devastating” in the short term, said Matthew Ossolinski, a gambling consultant and investor. He estimated that the two-week closure could shave 5 to 15 percent off Macau’s gaming revenue this year.

Sands, founded by the American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a major Republican donor, owns several casinos and hotels in Macau, including the Venetian Macao, the Parisian Macao and Sands Macao. Wynn Resorts, until recently run by the casino mogul Steve Wynn, owns three properties in Macau.

Sands did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Wynn Resorts, Michael Weaver, said the company supported the government’s decision to close casinos in Macau.

“Our greatest concern and our top priority is the health and safety of our employees, their families and the citizens of Macau,” Mr. Weaver said. “We believe that our goals and the goals of the Macau government during this challenging period are fully aligned.”

Mr. Ossolinski, the gambling consultant, said he expected the industry to bounce back once casinos opened again and Chinese tourists were allowed to travel to the city.

“Macau remains the golden goose,” he said. But when things pick up would be “harder to predict.”

In late January, the Chinese authorities began to take drastic measures to contain the outbreak. The shift coincided with Lunar New Year, the most lucrative time for Macau casinos, and the city has already seen visits drop by 80 percent, according to Fitch Ratings.

For weeks, many casino floors, typically brimming with Chinese tourists, have been largely empty. Recent visitors described empty casino floors, worse than when China clamped down on the casinos to stop corruption by government officials.

Mr. Lobo, the consultant, who has lived in Macau for 25 years and has worked for the Macau government and the Venetian, visited some of the biggest casinos in Macau on Monday.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, this is big,’” he said. “It’s like a ghost town in terms of patrons. It was surreal.”

Reporting was contributed by Cao Li, Elaine Yu, David Yaffe-Bellany and Tiffany May.


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