* Crown, Star say move will foster “social distancing”
* Companies already struggling due to travel restrictions (Reworks throughout, adds expert comment, updates shares)
By Byron Kaye and Nikhil Nainan
March 16 (Reuters) - Australia’s two biggest casino companies said they would shut off half their poker machines to force gamblers to engage in “social distancing” and slow the spread of the coronavirus, as concerns about their future revenue sent shares tumbling.
The measures show the pressure on the tourism sub-sector to keep operating amid a widespread shutdown of entertainment and sporting events as authorities limit public gatherings to curtail the spread of the illness.
Casino companies already have reported a pinch in their businesses targeting wealthy tourists from Asia, known as VIPs, due to travel restrictions related to the coronavirus. Cutting half their poker machines hits another earner: domestic gamblers.
Melbourne-based Crown Resorts, which is 37% owned by billionaire James Packer, and Sydney rival Star Entertainment Group said they would keep gamblers apart by switching off every second electronic machine, and restrict the number of players at gambling tables.
The two companies are licensed to operate a total of more than 4,000 machines mostly in Sydney and Melbourne.
Crown also said it would restrict the number of people in individual conference or restaurant spaces to 450 people, while Star said it would limit the number of people to 500. From Monday, the Australian government advised against non-essential gatherings of more than 500 people.
Crown said its “social distancing policy” was approved by the chief health officer of Victoria state, while Star said its measures were in line with Federal Government policy.
“Really this is a minimum,” said Philip Russo, president of the Australasian College for Infection Prevention and Control.
“It will likely slow down spread, but more stringent social distancing would have a greater effect,” he added in an email.
In Las Vegas, casino giant Wynn Resorts Ltd said it would close completely for two weeks due to the virus amid a broad rush of U.S. government and entertainment facilities shuttering amid the pandemic.
Crown shares fell 11% to their lowest close in nine years while shares of Star tumbled 24% to their lowest finish on record. The broader market fell 9.7%, its biggest one-day decline since 1987.
Australia has reported nearly 300 cases of the flu-like disease, with five deaths so far. (Reporting by Byron Kaye in SYDNEY Nikhil Kurian Nainan in BENGALURU; Editing by Jane Wardell and Steve Coates)