New Mexico racinos ask governor to reconsider closure

September 17, 2020 GMT

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s racetrack and casino operators are asking Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to consider allowing them to reopen, saying hundreds of gaming operations across the U.S. already have shown that the industry can operate safely.

The tracks and their associated casinos have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. After a brief hiatus in the spring, races resumed at Ruidoso Downs in May but without spectators and the casinos have remained closed under the public health order issued by Lujan Grisham.

The revenue brought in by the casinos during race meets helps to subsidize racing. Without the slot machines and tables, purse money has been reduced to a fraction of what it was last year.

In a letter to the governor, track and casino managers in Ruidoso, Sunland Park, Hobbs and Farmington touted the industry’s economic impact on the state. They said their operations contribute to the $380 million in tax revenues brought in annually by gaming and their employees are among the more than 17,000 who work in the racing industry and at tribal and commercial casinos.

“As we now approach six months of closure, we have access to proven best practices from other jurisdictions that will allow us to operate our businesses safely for the health and wellbeing of our customers and team members, and we are hopeful that we can bring our employees back to work as soon as possible,” the letter reads.

The managers also noted that every commercial casino outside of New Mexico has been allowed to reopen and as of this week, there were nearly 900 gaming facilities open in 43 states.

Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Thursday the administration has been in regular contact with non-tribal casinos and that public health conditions will determine when it’s safe for the restrictions to be lifted.

“Casinos on tribal land have the autonomy to open, though that doesn’t necessarily make opening a safe decision at this time,” Meyers Sackett said in an email to The Associated Press.

The non-tribal tracks and casinos previously submitted to the governor protocols and procedures for reopening. The managers say the proposal meets and in some instances exceeds recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

The tracks and casinos initially sought to reopen at 50% capacity. The plan called for issuing masks and gloves to all employees, and guests would not be allowed to enter casinos without a face covering. Guests and employees would be screened upon arrival and would be required to keep an appropriate distance from one another. Some gaming machines would either be disabled or plexiglass barriers installed to help keep distance between people.

Industry officials had not expected the closure to last this long and some are concerned that race meets scheduled later this year and in early 2021 could be left without much purse money.

Ismael “Izzy” Trejo, executive director of the New Mexico Racing Commission, said Thursday that the purpose of racing is to win and that those winnings are used by horse owners to pay their trainers, finance the care of their animals and keep their operations going.

Since casino operations subsidize racing, New Mexico finds itself in a uniquely difficult position. In neighboring Texas, for example, purses are funded by a tax on agricultural feed and other items, Trejo said. New Mexico doesn’t have such a fallback.

“There has to be some type of purse money,” he said. “We have to think outside the box to keep the industry going.”