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The most transmissible Omicron subvariant yet is forcing casinos in the world’s top gambling hub to close for the first time in 2 years

July 11, 2022, 9:46 AM UTC
A blue plastic barrier seals off the entrance to Macau's Grand Lisboa hotel
Macau has ordered casinos to close for the first time since 2020 as the gaming hub battles a BA.5 outbreak.
Guo Kai—VCG/Getty Images

The emergence of Omicron BA.5 in Macau has prompted the government to do the unthinkable and order all 42 casinos in the Chinese gambling hub to close for the third time ever, while authorities rush to contain the most transmissible version of COVID yet. 

Investors are betting that the fallout of Macau’s rare casino closure will last longer than the seven days prescribed by the Macanese government, considering how older, less transmissible versions of COVID forced Shanghai to endure two months of lockdown earlier this year.

Analysts at J.P. Morgan wrote in a note Monday that they would “probably need to write-off” current projections for July and August gaming revenue due to the uncertainty of the situation.

Macau is battling a COVID outbreak that has caused 1,500 infections in the past month and resulted in the tiny city’s first COVID deaths since the pandemic began. A 100-year-old and a 94-year-old died in early July. On Saturday, with case numbers still rising in the city of 650,000, the local government ordered a lockdown starting Monday, with all non-essential businesses closing and people limited to going outside to shop for food.

Remarkably, authorities have declared that casinos are a non-essential business, despite the city usually earning around 80% of its income from tax on gambling. Las Vegas’s state of Nevada, for comparison, earned roughly 16% of tax income from gaming in 2020.

Macau has only closed its casinos twice before—first in 2018, when a typhoon shut casinos for 33 hours, and once again in February 2020, when the pandemic began. In 2020, the casinos remained closed for two weeks and gaming revenues plummeted 88% for the month.

Macau’s stringent quarantine procedures for tourists, which require arrivals to quarantine for two weeks, and mainland China’s broader COVID-zero restrictions on people’s movement mean that foot traffic at Macau’s casinos is already trailing normal years. Fewer tourists are coming in, and those who do visit are required to present negative PCR tests before entering casinos. 

In June, Macau’s Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau (DICJ) reported gross gaming revenue—the income accumulated across Macau’s casinos—was 62% lower than the year before, plummeting to $310 million. In June 2019, Macau reported gaming revenue of $2.98 billion. 

“Frankly speaking, there was virtually no business for casinos over the past three weeks anyway, so the incremental impact [of closing the casinos] will be marginal, in our view,” Morgan Stanley analysts wrote in a note. Even so, investors have reacted harshly to the news, tanking the stock prices of Macau’s six listed casino operators.

Hong Kong-listed shares in casino operators SJM Holdings, Wynn Macau, and Galaxy Entertainment all plunged roughly 7% Monday; MGM China dropped 6.5% while Sands China crashed 8%. The last remaining operator, Melco Resorts, is listed on the Nasdaq, where markets have yet to open.

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