- Most of the world’s land based casinos are currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The Baltic country of Latvia has made a strange call to also close online gaming properties.
- The shutdown order issued by the Latvian President left a lot of ambiguity.
Strange situation in Latvia where the response to the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the temporary closure of not only land based gaming properties but their online counterparts as well. The rationale behind this is inexplicable and does nothing but deny gaming companies revenue and players access to some form of entertainment during their ‘lockdown’.
Here’s how the situation began: On March 22, the Latvian President signed a bill outlining his country’s response to the COVID-19 virus. Among other steps, the bill ordered the temporary closure of ‘all casinos, gambling halls, bingo halls and betting locations’. The problem began because of contradictory language in the wording of the bill. In one paragraph, it specifically exempts ‘interactive gaming, numerical lotteries and instant lotteries’. In the next paragraphs, however, it mandates that the Latvian Lotteries and Gambling Supervisory Authority temporarily suspend all gambling license for physical gambling venues but also includes ‘interactive media and/or via electronic communication services’.
Janis Ungurs, Legal Director for the Latvian gaming oversight body recognized the contradiction and on March 24 sought clarification from the parliament’s legal office and the Ministry of Justice. That clarification came back today and went with the broader interpretation meaning that all online gaming is closed down as well. The intent was to protect ‘financially vulnerable people’ from excessive spending at gaming sites. There’s plenty of cynicism in the bill as players still have access to the government run lottery as well as unregulated gaming options.
Enlab is one of the major players in European gaming and they’re none too pleased about the shutdown. It not only cuts off the Latvian revenue stream but sets a dangerous precedent. Enlab CEO/President George Ustinov articulated his concern:
“The main argument of parliament was to protect financially vulnerable people from excessive expenditure. In our opinion, this goal will not be achieved as suspension of regulated market will only open doors for illegal operator. Customers receive significantly higher protection with us, offering a vast set of gaming behaviour-controlling tools and integration to the central self-exclusion registry.”
“This adverse regulatory development will demonstrate to the politicians that the real threat to the financially vulnerable people are the illegal operators. Hopefully our voice about balanced regulation and market protection will get heard after the crisis.”
Unfortunately, this type of overreach has become commonplace as national, state and local governments react to the Coronavirus pandemic. Government officials will undertake reasonable steps to control the spread of COVID-19 but far too often will go well beyond what is ‘reasonable’ in the process. That appears to be what has happened here but the problem is that governments have also shown a tendency to be ‘copycats’ during the pandemic by trying to adopt similar measures as other jurisdictions regardless of their advisability or efficacy.