The gambling sector relies heavily on its loyal customers (Prentice, 2013
), as well as the gambling-based tourism and hospitality market. The unprecedented worldwide lockdown and social distancing restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many casinos and various gambling venues to shut down indefinitely (Fernandes, 2020
; Marsden et al., 2020
). While casinos are struggling to survive the pandemic, casino patrons
(i.e. those who gamble at casinos) may also suffer from social isolation and inaccessibility to their hobbies or even addictions (Hakansson et al., 2020
Australia has one of the highest gambling participation rates in the world with about 39 percent of adults defined as “regular gamblers” with over one-fifth of these considered over-reliant on gambling (Armstrong & Carroll, 2017
). Gambling taxation, on average, represents over 12 percent of Australian States’ and Territories’ taxation revenue (AGC, 2019
), which makes the gambling industry critical in terms of supporting the wider post-pandemic economy recovery initiatives from a government perspective, and this is similar in other OECD countries like Italy (Raspor et al., 2019
As one of the earliest Western countries affected by the pandemic, Australia responded with a prompt economic and travel lockdown with strict social distancing restrictions to stop the community spread of the virus. This has had enormous impacts on the economy and Australian residents (N. Biddle et al., 2020a
). Although no single industry could be spared from the impact of COVID-19, the hospitality industry has been arguably the most severely devastated by the pandemic, which is “affecting the DNA of hospitality at its core” (Rivera, 2020
On 23 March 2020, Australia closed all casinos and gambling venues. This led to a sweeping and immediate impact on the gambling industry. For example, a major Australian casino gambling company laid off 90 percent of its staff in April (AAP, 2020
). Although some casinos in Australia have subsequently re-opened with more limited offerings in some selected regions from June, the gambling industry is still deeply concerned whether their regular customers will come back (Asher, 2020
). As international borders will remain closed in the foreseeable future, the heavily overseas customer-reliant Australian casinos (Forbes & Dyer, 2020
) are in a crisis. Therefore, it is of vital importance for the gambling industry and all its stakeholders to understand how gambling patrons, especially those that go to casinos, are affected by the pandemic and what are their coping strategies.
Although there is some evidence showing a rise in online gambling (Han et al., 2019
), online casinos and internet gambling are still illegal in Australia (Australian Government, 2001
) and OECD countries like the USA, Norway and many members of the European Union (OECD, 2011
). Various organizations have suggested that gambling and gambling-related problems could potentially rise during pandemics as people spend more time indoors, however, research in Australia has found that enforcing limitations on land-based gambling products during the COVID-19 pandemic did not lead to significant differences in the occurrence of gambling issues or online gambling behaviors in states that had restrictions as compared to those that did not have any (Black et al., 2022
), the findings of the current study indicate otherwise. This differs from Sweden where the level of gambling activity decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic (Auer & Griffiths, 2022
) and Canada where nearly one-third of gamblers reported stopping gambling altogether during lockdowns (Shaw et al., 2022
). This suggests Australian customers or patrons may look for other legal means to help them relieve their gambling urges. Research has shown that this may take the form of increased alcohol consumption and/or other substance use (Barnes et al., 2005
; Rice & Van Arsdale, 2010
; Rueda Ruiz et al., 2023
; Suomi et al., 2014
; YalÇIn, 2023
). However, the impact of these substitutions on gambling patrons has been relatively under-studied in the context of the COVID-19 casino closures.
To address this research gap, the main purpose of this study is to investigate (a) how casino patrons are affected by the pandemic restrictions and (b) how they cope with the impacts. Accordingly, we developed two sets of research questions:
What are the impacts of the pandemic restrictions on casino patrons’ social networks and mental health? Are they different from other gambling patrons and non-gambling Australians? Specially, from the social network perspective, we investigate how the government-imposed lockdown and social distancing restrictions affect casino patrons’ relational strengths with their close social networks and thereby influence their mental health such as anxiety and life satisfaction. Meanwhile, we are also interested in understanding how these factors affect their post-pandemic outlook. As the closures of casinos have forced casino patrons to stay away from their hobbies and addictions, we would thus expect they are likely to be different from other groups of individuals.
How do casino patrons cope with the impact of the pandemic and their pre-existing addictive behaviors during the lockdown? Does alcohol consumption serve as an effective coping strategy?
If the analysis of the first research question suggests that COVID-19 restrictions have negative impacts on all casino patrons, then we will further restrict our samples to those with alcohol consumption habits. Drawing on stress-response dampening (SRD) (Levenson et al., 1980
; Sher & Levenson, 1982
), we speculate that during the pandemic lockdown, when almost all casinos and other gambling venues are closed (Fernandes, 2020
), casino patrons tend to substitute their pre-existing addictive behaviors (gambling and alcohol consumption) with increased alcohol drinking as a strategy to cope with the pandemic. We also examine the effects of SRD on their subjective well-being during the lockdown.
To explore the questions above, we designed two studies to answer each research question, respectively. Study 1 entailed comparisons with two reference groups (other gambling patrons and non-gambling individuals), the gambling and alcohol-related variables will not be included in the model. Study 2 focused on the gambling and alcohol factors based on the SRD model and thus comparisons will be made between casino patrons and other gambling patrons.
Our results from Study 1 suggest that lockdown restrictions on respondents’ relational strength have significant negative impacts on anxiety, life satisfaction and post-pandemic outlook. In Study 2, we find that casino patrons substitute gambling with alcohol consumption during the lockdown and the increase of alcohol consumption was negatively related to life satisfaction.
Paradoxically, this supports the market findings that although the earnings of casinos may have been affected, it has not had a significant effect on the overall earnings of owners of casinos (Kang et al., 2011
). This may be because many gambling venue operators in Australia also legally own alcohol retail outlets, which are important sources of revenue. Therefore, if gambling patrons increase their alcohol consumption, the companies may be less affected by the closure or restrictions on their casino operations.
The paper will next review the literature on our research questions and develop relevant hypotheses for each of the studies. This is followed by a description of the methodology. The data analysis and findings are then presented. The paper concludes with a discussion and main contributions to theory and practice as well as suggestions for future research.
Contributions to Theory and Practice, Limitations and Further Research
At a general level, our research finds that the COVID-19 restrictions have had negative impacts on individuals’ relational strength, and that this has negatively affected mental health and outlooks of the post-pandemic future. By focusing on casino patrons in Australia, we find that one method that they use to help cope with the negative impacts of pandemic restrictions as well as their pre-existing addictive behaviors is by increasing their alcohol consumption. Thus, alcohol consumption served as a substitute for casino gambling during the lockdown period. The results also suggest that increase of alcohol use was negatively related to life satisfaction. Moreover, the model in Study 2 is only relevant for the casino patron group, we did not find such relationships among other gambling patrons, who appear to be less affected by the pandemic restrictions. This paper holds a number of implications for theory and practice.
Theoretical Implications from Study 1
Study 1 contributes to understanding the importance of social networks and mental health among consumers in the hospitality industry by examining the COVID-19 impact on individuals’ relational strength of their bonding relationships and its secondary impacts on their mental health and future expectations. In studying casino patrons, we believe that this is one of the few studies in hospitality management research that applies relational strength perspectives in the pandemic context, and it therefore provides some helpful insights into the relationship between social networks and mental health in a time of a major global crisis.
Our analysis suggests that when individuals’ relational strength, i.e. one’s accessibility and quality of relationships with his/her family members and close friends, is confined by major external restrictions such as the pandemic lockdown, their mental health is likely to be negatively affected. The results support other existing studies which suggest that lower level of social capital/social network strength are associated with higher risk of mental distress and psychological well-being (De Silva et al., 2007
; Economou et al., 2014
; Phongsavan et al., 2006
). In terms of hospitality research, previous studies have corroborated the importance of enhancing social relationships from hospitality firms (Dai et al., 2015
) and employees’ (King & Lee, 2016
) perspectives, whereas research among hospitality customers has been limited. This study addresses this gap and highlights the critical role played by social networks among gambling patrons.
This study also offers some support to separation anxiety theory (Bögels et al., 2013
). Separation anxiety was originally regarded as a “childhood onset” disorder in psychology research (Bowlby, 1960
), whereas it has gained increasing attention among adults (Bögels et al., 2013
). This study, while not a clinical psychology investigation, confirms a close correlation between the negative impact of separated close-knit relationships by the pandemic restrictions (i.e. relational strength) and anxiety. In light of the results, we argue that future studies on separation anxiety could delve more into the pandemic and lockdown settings in the hospitality sector.
An interesting finding is that relational strength impact has a more negative direct impact on people’s post-disaster outlook than on their current life satisfaction. While the finding is consistent across the three groups, it is most significant among casino patrons. The existing literature on social networks and mental health relations is mostly focused on individuals’ present mental health conditions, and we suggest that more studies are needed for customers in the hospitality industry to shed light on individuals’ future expectations.
Theoretical Implications from Study 2
Study 2 contributes to understanding SRD better by offering empirical evidence in a pandemic context. The main tenets of SRD are that some individuals use alcohol drinking to cope with external stressors (Levenson et al., 1980
; Sher & Levenson, 1982
). The ongoing pandemic is distinct from other stressors that have been examined in previous SRD studies, therefore, this study bears several implications for the SRD and addictive behavior literature as follows:
First, as many previous SRD studies have suggested, certain individuals consume alcohol when the external stress is high. In this study, only 25.0% of casino patrons reported a decrease in alcohol consumption since the outbreak. Second, individuals’ previous alcohol consumption dependency has a strong predictive power on DTC when under stress in both gambling patron groups (β = 0.41 & 0.36; p
< 0.01). This supports SRD’s arguments that individuals’ alcohol consumption habits in normal times is an important predictor of their DTC when under stress (Sher & Levenson, 1982
; Sher & Walitzer, 1986
). Third, individuals’ gambling dependency also can predict their DTC. However, this relationship was only significant in the casino patrons group and not among non-casino gambling patrons. This reinforces the finding that during the pandemic lockdown period, casino patrons tended to substitute gambling with increased alcohol consumption as a means of DTC due to the closure of gambling venues. Non-casino gambling patrons, on the contrary, were less affected by the pandemic restrictions likely because they could still access their gambling outlets during the lockdown. Fourth, when the external stressor is extraordinary, long-lasting and uncertain like COVID-19, and if the individual is highly dependent on addictive behaviors, then alcohol drinking as a stress-coping strategy, could cause negative health and subsequent social effects. The results can help to untangle the ambiguity in the SRD literature regarding the consequences of DTC—whether it can alleviate stress or not. In our study, the casino patrons group had the highest prevalence of alcohol drinking, and thus the negative correlation between the increase of alcohol consumption and life satisfaction was identified among casino patrons but not among the other non-casino gambling patrons. Fifth, although relational strength moderated the effects of DTC on life satisfaction among casino patrons, it did not do so among non-casino gambling patrons. This means the negative effect of increase in alcohol drinking on life satisfaction was stronger in those casino patrons whose relational strength was more negatively affected by the pandemic restrictions. The results imply that casino gambling activities may involve more interpersonal interactions and social networking behaviors than other gambling outlets. Lastly, there is a noticeable gender difference in the effects of DTC, where the negative impact of alcohol consumption was found to be significant in male casino patrons cohort but not significant among female casino patrons. This supports research in other gender comparison-focused SRD studies (Sinha et al., 1998
Managerial and Policy Implications
For the heavily repeat-customers-reliant gambling industry (Prentice, 2013
) and gambling-reliant Australian tax-funded governments (AGC, 2019
), it has never been more important to understand gambling patrons’ attitudes and behaviors during this unprecedented pandemic. At the time of writing, some gambling venues in Australia are preparing to resume operations (Asher, 2020
). Therefore, this study provides some implications on how the casinos can regain their lost patrons in the post-pandemic era and sustain a healthy and sustainable customer relationship in the long run.
First, casinos and other gambling venues should consider implementing and strengthening product and customer diversification strategies. Moderate product diversification can improve casinos’ performance (Kang et al., 2011
) as our research has shown. While casinos are struggling to survive the pandemic, there may be a silver lining for liquor retailers, another player in the hospitality sector, as casino patrons in this study were found to substitute gambling with alcohol consumption during the lockdown. In the Australian context, many casino and gambling operators also operate liquor stores and similar licenses. Therefore, even if the casino operations were closed during the lockdown, which was exacerbated by a dramatic drop in international and even out-of-state casino patrons since the outbreak (Forbes & Dyer, 2020
), the liquor retailing businesses were still able to generate income to offset some of the losses from the gambling operations, and even increase them through novel business models such as online and take-away alcohol sales, which have contributed to an estimated jump of more than 30 percent of year-over-year growth in alcohol retail sales for the April-June 2020 quarter (Colbert et al., 2020
Second, policymakers and authorities should be prudent that although gambling may have declined, the increased alcohol consumption may lead to similar significant health and social problems. For example, recent preliminary studies have found an increase in alcohol consumption and alcohol misuse among the general population during the pandemic (Clay & Parker, 2020
; Da et al., 2020
) and this has led to a major spike in domestic violence, some of which is alcohol-fueled (Ramalho, 2020
). Of particular concern is that over one-fifth of Australia’s gambling patrons have been identified as “problem gamblers” (Armstrong & Carroll, 2017
). Hence, after a long period of lockdown which has had negative effects on mental health, there may be a substantial damaging bounce-back as individuals make up by excessive gambling, which could eliminate any potential savings they may have made during the restrictions. The problem gamblers may also continue life at a higher level of alcohol consumption. This may explain a dramatic rise in alcohol-related crime in regions that have eased restrictions due to lower rates of COVID-19 infections (McNeill, 2020
Third, and related to the second point above, governments and gambling or alcohol addiction support groups need to be especially attentive to the mental health of these individuals to mitigate against this undesirable side-effect as a result of COVID-19 restrictions. While physical distancing and staying at home are key steps to slow the spread of coronavirus, substance abuse and addiction support groups are seeing a rise in people who use or are experiencing a dependence on alcohol and other drugs, and have additional challenges and harms as a result of these measures (Alcohol & Drug Foundation, 2020
). While some initial steps have been taken, the hospitality industry should work together with the government and these support groups to develop policies and measures to help these individuals avoid plunging into the vicious circle of gambling, alcohol consumption, violence and/or depression.
Limitations and Future Studies
This study also has some limitations which can be addressed in future studies. First, despite the advantages of using a probability-based nationally representative survey, the secondary data has restricted us from developing further variables to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the research questions. Second, this study only focuses on the bonding networks of individuals’ social capital, whereas the bridging relationships may also play an important role, and future studies can attempt to shed light on this. Third, the sample size is limited, especially the casino patrons group, the significance of parameter estimates could have been compromised by the effect of the sample size. Last, our study is confined to the Australian context, and for more generalisable conclusions, it should be extended to other countries with different cultural backgrounds, different legal systems, and most importantly, different pandemic severities. This would also include testing the effect of differences in age and education in other samples as they did not seem to have an effect in our study.
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