The Hard Rock opens its casino floor for the first time May 21, 2020, since closing its doors in March. Photo: (Alyssa Newton/Sun Herald)

Mississippi casinos are making more money now than they were before the pandemic, and the Gulf Coast is leading the spike.

Mississippi casinos are reporting a nearly 21% increase in gross gaming revenue so far this year compared to the same period in 2019, according to data from the state Gaming Commission.

From January through May, the latest data available, the state’s casinos reported a gross gaming revenue totaling $1.1 billion. The Gulf Coast’s casinos gross revenue for the months of March, April and May have never been higher, according to Gaming Commission records. 

“There was less competition for people’s discretionary dollars when you consider the number of businesses that had to close,” said Keith Crosby, the general manager of Biloxi’s Palace Casino. “On the flip side of that effect, the casino industry got ahead of it with some significant safety measures in place to deal with COVID.” 

Coast casinos aren’t just breaking their collective revenue record, they’re smashing it. In April of this year, the Gulf Coast casinos reported a gross gaming revenue increase of about $46 million and $34 million in May. 

Gross gaming revenue — the amount of money players wager minus what they win — is similar to traditional businesses’ sales figures. The gaming revenue numbers do not account for the cost of doing business.

Mississippi casinos reported nearly $1.8 billion in gross revenue for all of 2020, which included the roughly two months they had to shut down because of the pandemic. In 2019, that figure was $2.2 billion. With half of the year still left, the casinos are on pace to have the highest total gross gaming revenue since they began operating in the 1990s. 

The casinos’ recent spike is matched with an increase in tourists visiting the Gulf Coast. Karen Conner, the director of marketing for tourism bureau Coastal Mississippi, said the region’s number of tourists is higher now than it has been in the last several years. 

“This significant increase in visitation serves as an important benchmark for the progress of our recovery as a destination,” Conner said. “Tourism is the lifeblood of Mississippi’s tri-county coastal region, but despite the indelible impact of COVID-19 on the industry, Coastal Mississippi continues to see successes and growth.” 

State Rep. Casey Eure, a Republcian from Biloxi who chairs the House Gaming Committee, said the casinos have benefited as more professional sporting events resumed. The state started allowing sports betting inside casinos in 2018. 

“I think Mississippi casinos are some of the best in the country,” Eure said. “People have been happy to get back to normal life.” 

The growth hasn’t come without some complications. Hospitality businesses across the state are still struggling to fill positions with qualified workers.

The Beau Rivage, the Coast’s largest casino and resort, had 99 open positions on its website Wednesday. That’s even after the Biloxi resort and casino had a job fair in May, which hosted about 300 people and resulted in 120 job offers. 

In response to labor demands, some casinos have started raising wages. 

“The cost of doing business is going up,” said Crosby, the Palace manager. “Food costs are up, material costs are up. You have to think about what that nets out to. There may be better revenue but there is a creeping increase in cost following that.” 

Casinos, like restaurants and bars, have had to deal with sudden shifts in supply chains resulting in pricy poultry and hard-to-secure crab legs. Crosby pointed to a common water valve that used to cost $8 that is now going for $18.

The casino manager said he’s waiting to see how the fall fairs. He doesn’t expect the record-smashing gross revenue to continue much longer. 

“There’s no question the last 12 to 14 months were unique,” Crosby said. “As we move out of that uniqueness, things are going to start to sort back out again. I think there is as much unknown in the future as there was when we first reopened.”

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