Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020 | 2 a.m.
If ever-improving technology couldn’t make coin slot machines extinct in Las Vegas, a pandemic wasn’t going to either.
Because of a nationwide coin shortage brought on by business closures out of COVID-19 concerns, casinos with the coin-play machines have had to scramble to secure enough coins in circulation for their machines to operate.
A staple of the vintage Las Vegas experience from years gone by, the machines — and the trademark ching-ching-ching coin falling sound — remain in operation only at a handful of casino properties, including El Cortez in downtown.
Before the pandemic hit, El Cortez general manager Adam Wiesberg said the casino had about $120,000 in nickels, quarters, 50-cent pieces and dollar coins on hand for its arsenal of about 100 coin-operated machines.
But after Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered casinos closed in mid-March, El Cortez deposited most of that in the bank, only saving $30,000 in coins, Wiesberg said.
Trying to get the coins back has proven to be impossible.
“Our first coin order that we did after reopening, in July, we ordered $30,000 in quarters,” Wiesberg said. “When the Brinks people came, they brought us just $500 in quarters. That’s when we realized firsthand that there was a coin issue. We’re fortunate we kept that $30,000.”
Across the country, quarters, dimes and nickels aren’t circulating as freely as they normally do because many businesses have been closed in recent months. Consumers aren’t spending as much now, and health-conscious shoppers aren’t wanting to touch paper money and coins as much for fear of spreading or contracting COVID-19. It’s also common to see stores ask consumer to pay with exact change.
Under normal circumstances, according to a July news release from the U.S. Mint, retail transactions and “coin recyclers” return a significant amount of coins to circulation on a daily basis, though that flow is now reduced.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and others have urged Americans to use coins or turn them into banks, though the supply chain is expected to gradually normalize in the coming months as the economy continues to reopen.
At the El Cortez, the casino has removed a 5% fee that had been collected whenever a patron used one of its coin-counting machines (the machine counts change, then prints off a ticket that can be cashed at the casino), which adds to the coin recycling effort.
“People can come to El Cortez and change out your piggy banks for free, which has helped increase the amount of coin we’re bringing in,” Wiesberg said. “We used to empty those machines much less frequently, but now we’re emptying them every day. For a weekend, those machines will have $75,000 in coins if we wait until Monday to empty them.”
A casino that prides itself on its vintage feel and gambler-centric offerings, El Cortez has many regulars who have been playing coin slot machines for years. Dale Vigil, who has been coming to the casino since the early 1950s, is one such regular.
Early Wednesday afternoon, Vigil played a coin poker machine, one of about 20 players using coin machines in one area of the casino. The machines used to be lined up right next to each other in rows with players almost shoulder-to-shoulder at times. Nowadays, the machines can be found in circular clusters, which spaces the players appropriately under social distancing guidelines.
“I don’t think they’ll get rid of the coin machines,” Vigil said. “Not in my lifetime, at least.”
Wiesberg confirmed Vigil’s hunch, saying the casino had no plans to take the old machines off the floor, though he did say it’s sometimes a complicated matter to fix machines in need of service. Manufacturers aren’t making them any longer, and parts can be tough to find.
In Henderson, Skyline general manager Sam Kiki said his staff had run into the same types of issues. Skyline still has 88 coin-operated machines on its casino floor.
After he realized there was a coin shortage, Kiki said he was forced to buy a coin-sorting machine so the casino could start to recycle its own coins. It cost about $10,000, he said.
“If you try to get coins from the bank right now, it’s very limited,” Kiki said. “We would usually order coins every day or every other day. Right now, we can’t get them more than once per week. The coin machines, people love them. They love to hear the money coming out of them, especially the old-timers.”
The California, also in downtown, has about three-dozen coin-operated machines in operation, Boyd Gaming spokesman David Strow said.
“We currently have enough supply of coins at (Boyd’s) downtown properties, so we don’t foresee any issues with keeping those machines going,” Strow said. “The bigger issue, though, is with ticket redemption kiosks.”
It’s been tricky at times, Strow said, to keep enough coins in the company’s self-serve kiosks so that players redeeming their ticket can get exact change.
Like the El Cortez, Boyd is offering the public the chance to cash in their coins at most company casinos around Las Vegas free of charge.
“It’s been very successful,” Strow said. “We’ve been able to secure enough coins, we’ve been able to continue offering customers the full amount when they use our kiosks. If you go to a grocery store or someplace where you can cash coins, they’ll charge a fee. People can bring us as many coins as they want right now and we’ll happily take them.”
The U.S. Mint produced nearly 1.6 billion coins in June, according to a new release. For the remainder of 2020, it’s on pace to mint 1.65 billion per month. In 2019, the mint said it produced on average 1 billion coins per month. That means the coin shortage is likely a temporary problem for casinos and other businesses.
Whether that comes to pass, patrons will still be hearing the familiar ching-ching-ching sound from their favorite machines at the El Cortez, California and Skyline and other casinos with coin slots.
“At any other time in our history, this coin shortage would be a big deal for us,” Wiesberg said. “The (COVID-19) adjustments we’ve had to make have been extensive. We have regulars who have been coming here for decades, it’s like a social club for them. When we closed down (in March), one of the first things we did was think about how we could make our coin machines safe for those customers. These people are like family to use.”