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Longest-running Las Vegas casino caught in coronavirus coin crunch

Jonathan Garber

A COVID-19 coin shortage that forced American retailers to post signs warning they lacked the change to handle cash purchases has entangled Las Vegas casinos, too.

El Cortez Hotel & Casino, one of the world’s last remaining coin slot machine operators, had built up a stash of $120,000 in coin over the years before depositing all but $30,000 when it shut down in March to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

“When we went to reopen, we got some additional coin back with our cash, but we didn't think there would be a shortage,” Adam Wiesberg, general manager at El Cortez, told FOX Business.

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But when the casino ordered an additional $30,000 of coin from Brinks and the security company could only deliver $500, managers knew there was going to be an issue.

El Cortez, founded in 1941 and located in the Freemont East entertainment district, is the longest-running casino in Las Vegas. The casino's 730 slot machines, 113 of which take coins, account for about two-thirds of the casino's gaming revenue.

As customers returned to the gaming floor, which has machines spaced out and separated by acrylic, the casino’s coin supply dwindled to about $20,000.

That’s when management sprang into action, eliminating the 5% fee for cashing out coins at three CoinMax counters located on the casino floor. Staff now empty the machines daily as opposed to the previous schedule of at least once per week.

The El Cortez has typically served as a bank for local businesses, giving them the change they need to fill their registers each day, but has had to scale back that service post-pandemic to slow the leakage of its coin.

If the situation were to worsen, Wiesberg said, the casino could ask regular customers to bring in their coins from home and resort to emptying the machines several times a day.

HOW A COIN SHORTAGE IS HURTING US LAUNDROMATS

“We have a lot of support in the community, so I think we're able to handle the coin shortage here at El Cortez,” he said.

The shortage is due to circulation issues, not supply challenges, according to U.S. Mint spokesperson Michael White.

“Third-party coin processors and retail activity account for the majority of coins put into circulation each year,” he told FOX Business.

Coins and paper bills alike have been used less, however, amid concern about transmitting the coronavirus. The interruption of businesses where cash payments were more common, such as restaurant dining, has aggravated the situation.

To help mitigate it, the Federal Reserve announced a U.S. Coin Task Force to ensure there is equitable distribution of the $47.8 billion of coin in circulation and to work on reducing the disruption.

CORONAVIRUS COIN SHORTAGE HAS PEOPLE CASHING IN ON SPARE CHANGE

Additionally, the U.S. Mint has ramped up production and is expected to create 1.65 billion coins per month for the remainder of the year. By comparison, the Mint produced an average of 1 billion coins per month in 2019.

In the meantime, the agency is asking Americans to pay for their purchases with exact change, when possible, and bring their coins to banks, financial institutions and coin-recycling kiosks.

“Every little bit helps,” White said.

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