LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) – The six racetrack-owned gaming venues in Kentucky are operating full steam ahead, not being a part of the wide-ranging mandates handed down this week by Gov. Andy Beshear, and it isn’t sitting well with Kentucky Baptist leaders and pastors.
While restaurants, schools, gyms and even family Thanksgiving outings fall under some tough restrictions with mandates from the governor, and houses of worships are being asked to have virtual-only services, the gambling industry keeps rolling along untouched even while hundreds are gathered in the same building at the slot-like historical machines.
Count Kentucky Baptist Convention Executive Director-Treasurer Todd Gray among the flabbergasted after learning that the racetracks aren’t under restrictions, but so many others, including in-person services at churches, seem to be.
“Some things defy the use of the word ‘unbelievable’ and this is one of them,” Gray said. “While families curtail their Thanksgiving holiday plans, and churches are being asked to hold virtual services instead of in-person ones, for the well-being of the commonwealth, no such request is being made of these organizations. I, like most Kentucky Baptists, will find this information beyond understanding.”
The information came to light in a feature story on Louisville television station WDRB that highlighted the exception for the industry that brings in billions of dollars a year in wagers for the state’s politically influential horse tracks.
Kentucky’s six racetrack-owned gaming venues have about 3,500 slot-like machines between them, according to WDRB's report.
The industry said it would self-impose some restrictions starting Friday, the same day Beshear’s actions come into play for restaurants and bars to no longer be allowed to have inside customers, and other venues and gyms to be limited.
Hershael York, the pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, was stunned that the gaming venues were under no restrictions, other than self-imposed, and called it “political pandering.”
“While the governor has asked churches to close their doors this Sunday, the one-armed bandits at the Red Mile in Lexington will be robbing citizens of the commonwealth from 10 a.m. until 4 a.m. How is an hour of worship more dangerous than 18 hours of gambling?” he asked. “Kentuckians desperately need to trust our public officials and their guidance, but how can we see this as anything other than political pandering at the risk of public safety? I can only take the governor at his word when he called these measures ‘targeted.’’’
Revenue from the facilities generated $303 million in wagers in September, a jump of 34% from a year ago even with an ongoing pandemic, according to the story. The six gaming venues generate $10 million a day in wagers from consumers who play the slot-like games, WDRB's report said.
Starting at 5 p.m. Friday, the venues will no longer serve food indoors, bars will be closed and smoking will be allowed only on outside patios.
Beshear said Thursday the gaming venues would be treated just like food courts in malls and not be allowed to serve. He said he wants to be “surgical” in applying as few restrictions as necessary to stop the spread of coronavirus.
"There is going to be a whole lot of, ‘Why are you doing this to me and not to Walmart?’” he said. “The answer is, the public health experts tell us this is the most targeted way to reduce the growth of the virus with causing as little disruption as possible.”
Richard Nelson, executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, said the decision for the casinos to have a free hand while others are being pinched was unfathomable.
“It’s disappointing that the governor sees restaurants and event venues as a bigger threat to public safety than casino gambling venues,” Nelson said. “The governor loses moral authority when he suggests that churches should close and casinos remain open. Unfortunately, the governor loses credibility when he shuts down legitimate businesses and gives an open door to a controversial industry that specializes in making Kentuckians lose.”
After the WDRB story was first published, Beshear’s office said that the gaming venues are considered “indoor recreation facilities” under his Wednesday executive order, meaning they will have to reduce their capacity to 33% and cease indoor food and beverage consumption.