VLTs still operating in Manitoba despite physical distancing recommendations

It’s been two weeks since the first case of COVID-19 was identified in the province. Schools have suspended classes, gyms are closed and casinos are shut down but video lottery terminals in lounges and hotels remain in operation.

Some lounges shutting down on their own to protect staff and customers

Exterior sign at The Kildonan Hotel advertises VLTs 'with social distancing.' (Joanne Levasseur/CBC News)

It's been two weeks since the first case of COVID-19 was identified in Manitoba. Schools have suspended classes, gyms are closed and casinos are shut down but video lottery terminals in lounges and hotels remain in operation.

On March 20, half of Manitoba's 5,000 VLTs were remotely shut off by Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries, to ensure physical distancing between gamblers, said Scott Jocelyn of the Manitoba Hotel Association. He estimates half of his member hotels decided to close their lounges at that point. 

But the partial shutdown of VLTs doesn't go far enough for the general manager of one small Winnipeg hotel.

"People weren't sitting right next to one another, but there's still not the six feet between them," he said. 

CBC is not naming the manager or the hotel because he is concerned speaking out could affect his relationship with Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries. 

"I myself did not understand because there is social distancing right now and of course, you're supposed to stay home if you can. I don't think that was one of the essentials — to have VLTs going," said the manager. 

Atlantic Lotteries, which runs gambling operations for the four Atlantic provinces, shut down its VLTs on March 15 in response to advice from public health officials to ensure the safety of gamblers, workers and the public at large.

Manitoba has nearly 500 locations that run VLTs, which generate $199 million per year or just under $17 million per month in net revenue for the province.

The unnamed hotel's restaurant and lounge shut down this week out of concerns for staff safety. The general manager says the loss of revenue is not as important as keeping his workers — who have been laid off — healthy.

"You can have all the money in the world, but if you're sick, it's not worth it. So it's important that we just shut down so that we can keep our staff at home, keep them healthy."

Jocelyn says members of his association have had mixed reactions to the partial shutdown on VLTs. Some members took it upon themselves to completely shut their bars and lounges while others are staying open in order to keep their small businesses alive.

"The fact that some of those people have wrestled with that decision and come up with that, I'm glad they had the opportunity to make that decision [to close], because a lot of times we don't have the opportunity to make decisions," said Jocelyn. He says his members are subject to heavy regulation by Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries. 

As for lounges that stay open, "I respect whatever decisions those people have made," said Jocelyn. 

Occupancy limits

A spokesperson for Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton says the government is closely following the advice of Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin, who has not recommended closing licensed hospitality premises.

"At this time licensed hospitality premises, some of which include VLTs, can remain open but are subject to occupancy limits," said a spokesperson for Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton. 

The occupancy limits are 50 people or 50 per cent capacity whichever is lesser. Measures are also in place to ensure people stand at least one metre apart from one another.

Less than 20 per cent of VLTs in Manitoba are currently operating, a Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries spokesperson told CBC News in an email.

"VLT sites are independent private businesses. Many of them have closed and we have disabled alternating VLTs at any sites that remain open to maintain customer spacing (social distancing)," the spokesperson said.