Video lottery machines like this one are whirring back to life across Malheur County. (Liliana Frankel/The Enterprise).

ONTARIO – Oregon’s video lottery is back up and running in Malheur County, bringing back an important source of revenue for approximately 20 struggling restaurants – and for the state. 

Last year, people in Malheur County dropped $12,658,454 into video poker machines, which resulted in $2,917,517 in commissions to local businesses. Most of the rest of the money was redistributed by the Oregon Legislature to projects in different communities. Projects in Malheur County have received millions of dollars in lottery funding. 

The lottery, as with indoor dining, had been closed in counties deemed at “extreme risk” for Covid transmission since November. It reopened Jan. 29, with only six people being allowed indoors at the restaurants and bars to gamble at once. The ban remains on indoor eating and drinking even in those businesses.

No explanation was given by the state as to why lottery was allowed to reopen.

“Lottery, as we have throughout this pandemic, has been taking our guidance from the (Oregon Health Authority),” said Matthew Shelby, public information manager for the Oregon Lottery. “So that’s ranged from everywhere to a complete shutdown of all video lottery to a tiered opening, which is where we’re operating now. Lottery doesn’t decide what those restrictions are.”

At Mackey’s Steakhouse and Pub in Ontario, owner Angie Grove estimated that about 5-10% of her revenue could come from lottery commissions. 

“It’s not huge, but right now when you’re so limited, every little bit helps,” she said.

Not every establishment welcomed the news of the lottery’s return, however.

At Brewsky’s Broiler, also in Ontario, front-of-house manager Sara Lynch said that she had serious doubts as to whether it is actually safe for customers to come inside and play the lottery during the Covid pandemic. 

“If it’s not considered safe to have people hanging out in the bar, we don’t see how it’s safe to have people in the lottery booth,” she said. “We don’t want to be part of the problem. We want to do right by the community, and this just seems so shaky that we’re not sure about it.”

New guidance from the Oregon Health Authority mandates that video lottery machines be spaced at least six feet apart and that restaurant employees clean each machine before use by a new client.

Lynch said those recommendations represent a significant break with the existing culture of how people use the machines. 

“We have a lot of people that will come in and have lunch or dinner and have a few beers while they feed some dollar bills into there, and it’s engrained into the experience here of eating and drinking,” she said. “Which makes it extra awkward to (not) offer that.”

Jonathan Modie, lead communications officer with the Oregon Health Authority, said allowing anyone to eat or drink indoors while gambling would be illegal.

 “We are not saying (gambling) is 100% ‘safe’ or without risk,” Modie said. “Being indoors where there are others outside your household carries some risk, but the risk can be reduced as long as restaurant and bar operators strictly adhere to the guidance.”

Grove said that she’s observed gamblers taking their own hygiene precautions during Covid. 

“I’ve had lottery players that come in and bring their own Clorox wipes,” she said. 

Grove and Lynch said that they’d often felt left to take matters into their own hands due to poor communication from the state. 

“I don’t think the state often realizes that we’re staffing for outdoors and we’re staffing for takeout,” said Grove. “We actually had to staff another person because (the lottery machines are) in a whole other area that we didn’t have open. That took some very quick tweaking of the schedule.”

Lynch expressed frustration that when the state changes its guidance, restaurant owners are left to parse the new instructions. 

“Basically we are always hearing rumors from vendors and other business owners. We then comb through the local news, thoroughly fact check, and respond accordingly,” she said. “It’s chaos!”

Lynch said that she hoped the move to reopen the video lottery might herald the return of limited indoor dining. She questioned the reopening of the video lottery when restaurants are still struggling without the revenue they could generate from indoor dining. 

“The only reason for these changes is that the government isn’t willing to miss out on their money,” she said. 

“When (the government) felt the crunch they went and did something about it and were able to open something, and it’s like, do you think we haven’t felt the crunch?” said Grove.

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

YOU CAN SUPPORT THIS KIND OF WORK

The Enterprise relies on community support to fund vital local journalism. You can help us do more.

SUBSCRIBE: A monthly digital subscription is $5 a month.

GIFT: Give someone you know a subscription.

ONE-TIME PAYMENT: Contribute, knowing your support goes towards more local journalism you can trust.