Locked-down bars survive through gamblers’ luck

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Many South African bars and pubs have run dry because of the ban on the sale of alcohol, but some watering holes are still trying to eke out an income with the help of legal slot machines.

Several bar owners and managers in Cape Town who spoke to the Mail & Guardian said that although they were not able to serve a pint, they could still legally serve soft drinks and other refreshments to punters playing their on-site slot machines.

One owner of a sports pub in Cape Town’s southern suburbs said he did not want to be named because the lockdown regulations were ambiguous. He was uncertain about whether his bar’s door should be totally shut, or whether he could still allow in patrons but not sell them alcohol.

“The lockdown hit us hard, from [being] a full venue almost every day to nearly no customers. It broke us,” the owner said. 

Once the “new normal” of lockdown set in, business owners realised that they could still keep operating and invite regulars who would usually occupy themselves at the slot machines. 

“We have the bar, we serve lunches and we have the slots. We, of course, make most of our revenue from alcohol sales. But, the gambling side of things has allowed us to remain open, even though I’ve had to let go of our night-time staff for as long as lockdown lasts,” he said. 

At the Kimberley Hotel in the Cape Town city bowl, the bar area is usually packed with patrons at all hours of the day but is currently empty. However, the adjacent slots room is busy. There’s an occasional order for a drink or something from the bistro, which the manager, Deon, serves himself because the other staff are not needed. 

The owners agreed to talk to the M&G, but did not want to be quoted. 

South Africa’s food and beverage industry has estimated that more than 800 000 livelihoods are at risk as bars, pubs, and restaurants struggle with lockdown regulations to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Xololo takes a break at the closed bar in The Kimbo. Since the Covid-19 lockdown she has fewer shifts and is struggling along with so many in the hospitality industry. The Kimberly Hotel in Cape Town has been trying to make ends meet through their small slot machine room, which is on the side of the main bar that has been closed for months with the COVID-19 national lockdown. (Photo by David Harrison/M&G)

In addition to the ban on alcohol sales, a night-time curfew of 9pm was also announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa. This was later moved to 10pm weeks later under amended lockdown regulations.

Under lockdown regulations, casinos and legal gambling outlets are allowed to operate. The Western Cape Gambling Board confirmed that bars with legal gambling areas are also within their right to operate. “As gambling in pubs and bars is a secondary business, they may only operate while the primary business of a pub or bar is legally allowed to trade. Should the primary business be closed for any reason, the secondary business of gambling must close too,” said the board’s chief executive Primo Abrahams.

This rule has meant that more bars have now been marketing themselves as restaurants and coffee shops for the slots machines to operate legally. 

“The regulations say that nightclubs can’t be open. But bars and pubs are only not allowed to sell alcohol. So, many of them started selling pub lunches and, if law enforcement isn’t closing them down, then they can be open,” Abrahams said. 

Despite the gambling rooms being allowed to operate, the businesses management must ensure proper physical-distancing measures are implemented.  

At another bar in the Cape Town city bowl, a manager said they don’t allow more than six people in the gambling areas at a time. They have also physically separated slot machines and are enforcing a 2m distancing rule.  

Abrahams said that although there has been a boom in business for bars with slot machines, there have not been any new applications for gambling licences at physical premises since the beginning of the lockdown. 

But, there has been an increase in interest in online gambling outlets. And the sports betting industry is showing an upwards trend now that international sporting events are slowly restarting.  

In May, a National Gambling Board report found that, over the past few years, there had been a decline in casino gambling, but an increase in overall betting. In 2018, casino betting accounted for 64% of the South African gambling market. 

“Bookmakers are allowed to be open … with social-distancing measures … We don’t enforce national lockdown regulations, [but] our teams are often going to gambling sites just to make sure Covid-19 rules are adhered to,” Abrahams said. 

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