AFTER a bruising three months of total lockdown, Ireland is slowly easing its way towards the 'new normal'.
Restrictions are slowly being lifted in a phased manner that is expected to last all through the rest of 2020.
With flare-ups of the virus still happening in parts of the country, further lockdowns cannot be ruled out. The new coalition government also faces an uphill battle on the economic front, as many sectors face an unprecedented existential threat due to the virus.
The entertainment industry in general faces an uncertain future with gambling and casinos beset with severe challenges related to social distancing and public safety.
With all non-essential businesses closed until August, consumers have turned in ever-increasing numbers to online alternatives, be it in movies or gambling. This then begs the question – what changes if any, should the Dail bring in Ireland’s current laws related to online casinos to effectively counter COVID-19?
The current legal status of online gambling in Ireland
Gambling is a very popular pastime in the Republic. In countries like the US, offline casinos dominate the gambling industry and online casinos are prohibited from operating by law. The situation here in Ireland is almost diametrically opposed to the US experience.
Here, online gambling has been legal for over a decade now while land casinos were still facing a formal ban. Informal casinos do operate under a loophole that allowed clubs to offer games of chance to members. As a result, online casinos have thrived in the Irish market over the last 10 years.
In fact, recent amendments to the Gaming and Lotteries Act in 2019 brought several key changes to online as well as offline gambling, including:
- Allowing licensed establishments to offer low stakes offline gambling services (maximum bet 5 euros, a maximum stake of 500 euros)
- Fixing the legal age of gambling at 18 for all services
- Upgrading laws related to lotteries and sports betting
Land casinos in Ireland face an uncertain future
The big change to the Irish gambling laws that needs to be reassessed is the allowing of licensed gambling establishments. To stop the virus from spreading, public spaces and business establishments with confined spaces had to be shut down, including restaurants, pubs, and cinemas.
The many informal casinos in Dublin, Cork, and other cities have been shut since the early days of April 2020. There is no guarantee when they will be able to open with safety and confidence this year, if at all.
In this scenario, it is hard to envision the newly legalized licensing system for local betting establishments finding too many takers. One can even put forward an argument that the Garda (who have the responsibility of issuing said permits) should discourage the opening of such establishments at least until we reach the other side of the COVID crisis.
The situation is markedly different for online casinos
The online casino industry experience in Ireland has been a highly successful one so far. The law permits both local and offshore operators to apply for licenses. Given the close proximity of UK, a gambling Mecca, this has led to a surplus of quality online gambling platforms for Irish customers.
The enforcement of quality standards has been quite successful, even in the absence of a central authority like the Gambling Commission in the UK. Since the early days of the pandemic, Irish online casinos have been the big winners with the shuttering of the country.
The strict lockdown measures preventing folks from travelling outside their home county had a huge impact on all online entertainment and streaming businesses. Irish online casinos have also benefited from increased player interest in online gambling.
Why online casinos and slots are better during COVID-19
Talking strictly from a perspective of public health safety, it must be said that online casinos are leagues ahead of their offline counterparts. At all land-based casinos, slot machines are the main money-makers. With a highly contagious virus on the prowl, they can become death-machines as well.
With online casino slots, there is no threat of close proximity between players. Viral droplets also cannot be transmitted through the touching of buttons and levels, as is very possible with a gambling machine. Online slots are virtual and can be accessed from the safety of your home.
There is also the question of choice. With so many options in terms of casino websites, slot games, live dealer games, and table games, modern online casinos are clearly superior to their land-based counterparts, at least in Ireland.
As long as regulators and the rules stay strict and vigilant, the safety of players can also be guaranteed. Problem gambling, player bonus abuse, and other issues can be effectively negated at online casinos, perhaps even more so than at land-based casinos.
The road ahead for online gambling in Ireland
It is quite clear that online gambling should be given priority ahead of offline forms of entertainment in Ireland. The country has already paid an enormous price to avoid the fate of other nations like Italy, Spain, and the UK.
Encouraging social distancing and safer online alternatives like online casinos will help keep up the fight against this deadly virus. In these torrid times, the public needs adequate avenues to relax and take the pressure off. Online casinos can step in to fill the void, in a safe and responsible manner.