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San Antonio bingo halls have considerably less to give after coronavirus deals heavy blow

San Antonio Express News logo San Antonio Express News 10/19/2020 By Liz Hardaway, Staff writer

As parts of the Texas economy slowly recover from the novel coronavirus, the many churches, disabled veteran groups and children in need supported by bingo operators across the state are still reeling from the heavy blow.

In Bexar County, residents hoping to hit it big helped raise $1.2 million for local charities in the 2019 second quarter alone.

But in this year’s second quarter — when bingo halls were shut down for nearly two months along with other entertainment venues to prevent spreading the virus — those charities received less than $30,000.

“It was devastating,” said Chris Keller, owner of Alamo Hills Bingo and three other bingo halls.

At the start of the pandemic, bingo halls were among the first ordered by the city to close, along with bowling alleys, gyms, bars and theaters.

Two months later, these establishments were permitted to open again at 25 percent by executive order from Governor Greg Abbott. Recently, they were allowed to increase to 75 percent.

But even those that are open aren’t seeing full participation; some players are marking their cards from inside their vehicles or in lawn chairs in the parking lot because they’re worried about the safety of going indoors. Bingo players tend to skew older, who are at higher risk for serious consequences if they contract the virus, and many aren’t showing up at all.

Few can give

With the initial shutdown, bingo halls weren’t able to operate for the last couple of weeks of their first quarter — which goes from January to March — and for half of the second quarter, which goes from April to June.

Most of the money raised by bingo organizations goes to prizes and administrative expenses but they’re required by law to give all of their remaining net proceeds to charities.

For the first half of 2019, bingo halls in Bexar County gave $1.57 million to charities, and finished off the second half of the year by giving another $1.5 million.

Between January and March this year, 23 bingo halls gave almost half a million dollars to their charities. But between April and June, the last period for which data is available, only nine bingo halls were able to give anything at all. Those nine contributed a total of $29,574 to charities, according to quarterly reports published by the Texas Lottery Commission.

The largest donation during the second quarter came from Lucky Draw Bingo, with $9,000. Additional donations came from operators Magic Bingo, St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, Thousand Oaks Bingo, the New Marbach Bingo, American Legion Post 579 and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Posts 837, 4787 and 9174.

After expenses such as rent and employee wages, roughly half of the organizations that hosted bingo in the second quarter ended up in the red, or with negative net proceeds, according to the quarterly reports.

Though each of Keller’s four bingo halls had some net proceeds, the organization was not able to give to charity last quarter, but plans to do so this quarter, he said.

In 2019, the four bingo halls donated $763,000 to 26 charities. Some donations from Alamo Hills Bingo went to the Alamo Heights Little League to maintain the baseball fields and to help pay the expenses of kids who might not otherwise by able to afford to play.

Bingo is the largest source for revenue for Helotes Lions Club, which donates 90 percent of its proceeds to charity with the remainder used to keep the organization going, according to the club’s treasurer, Chris Reardon.

In 2019, the Helotes Lions Club donated $4,683 to local charities through bingo. The club mainly donates to the Texas Lions Camp, which is a summer camp to children with physical disabilities, but also donates to other charities and helps local residents, such as a special needs student who couldn’t afford glasses.

The club has been closed since mid-March because it’s a small operation that doesn’t make money if it’s not open at full capacity.

“It’s not a good feeling not to be able to do what we want,” Reardon said, in reference to the organization’s charitable works.

The Golden Bingo Family, which has 13 bingo halls in the area, usually makes up more than half of the county’s total donations each quarter.

In last year’s second quarter, its bingo halls gave $765,250 to Bexar County charities.

“We’re trying our hardest to make sure that we give them the maximum allowed by the state,” said Melanie Tawil, director of marketing for Golden Bingo Family. “Because we do understand our charities, what they do pre-COVID was necessary and absolutely what they’re doing right now is essential to make sure that our community continues to grow.”

None of the 13 halls’ charities received a charitable donation last quarter, but the company plans to give this coming quarter, which accounts for proceeds made between July and September.

On Oct. 1, the Texas Lottery Commission, which oversees bingo operations, approved numerous rule changes, including now allowing bingo conductors to accept and award donated prizes.

Not all ready to play

As halls have been increasing their capacity and more players have been coming in to try their luck, owners say they’ve noticed some are still reluctant.

For the first six months of 2019, there were 10,460 bingo events in Bexar County, with more than 1.3 million attendees. That dropped to 6,676 events from January to June this year, with just about 813,000 attendees.

“It’s been challenging,” Keller said.

When the halls were closed, with employees sent home, Keller himself sat in one of the empty buildings, fielding phone calls to tell anxious players that, no, none of the halls were open yet.

“But eventually it stopped ringing,” he said. “Everybody knew that nobody was open.”

The halls used the time for extra cleaning, painting the walls and landscaping, he said.

Once bingo halls were allowed to open again, crowds were extremely light, he said. It also took awhile for customers to adjust to the new norm of getting temperature checked at the door, wearing masks and fewer people per table to maintain social distancing.

In 2019, Alamo Hills bingo hall averaged around 94 people per session, hosting a few bingo sessions during the day. From April to June, though, it has seen 61 people on average per session.

“A lot of our elderly crowd just hasn’t come back yet,” Keller said.

Tawil of Golden Bingo Family says their halls are seeing the same.

“We’re still building trust,” Tawil said.

For those halls that haven’t opened at all yet, it’s even more trying for their older customers.

“Bingo is a lot of times their only social outlet,” Reardon said, adding that the club hosts about five sessions a month for many customers older than 65.

Helotes Lions Club is hoping to start its games again in mid-November.

Liz Hardaway is a staff writer covering San Antonio government and politics. To read more from Liz, become a subscriber. | Twitter: @liz_hardaway


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