Aizliegts! Online Gambling Banned in Latvia During COVID-19 Pandemic
These are tough times for everyone—from international leaders battling critical illness to the thousands of job losses, investor uncertainty in gambling, and other areas of the economy, as well as the millions of people around the world living under the shadow of COVID-19.
Across the globe, countries have been scrambling emergency legislation into place to deal with the manifold problems caused by the global pandemic.
And yes, some of these new laws include gambling.
However, not many lawmakers have gone as far as those in the EU state of Latvia did this month—by imposing a minimum 7-day (and potential 3-month) ban on all gambling operations in the country.
The new law includes online casinos and sportsbooks, which is confusing, as all online gambling happens, by definition, online, posing no risk of contact infection to anyone participating.
When the legislation passed through parliament on the 25th of March, many voiced their criticism.
Jānis Trēgers, chairman of the Latvian Association of Internet Gambling (LIAB), told legislators that the decision was made without any regard for “economic logic.” He warned that the shutdown might bankrupt many operators in the growing domestic market.
The new law would undo “everything that had been done in Latvia to combat illegal gambling sites” over the past few years, Trēgers continued.
LIAB companies made over £300 million ($370 million) in 2019 and contributed nearly $37 million in tax—money that could be vitally spent on helping frontline medical staff treating the 500 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country as of the 7th of April.
Georgian Ustinov, CEO of Latvian brand Optibet, was also concerned about the legislation. He called it “ill-considered” and an “unjustifiable infringement” of the licensing conditions.
If the government’s goal is to stop problem gamblers, there are other methods to achieve that outcome without shutting down an entire section of the entertainment industry, Ustinov said.
This is especially true during this time of crisis when more people should be indoors (and on their computers or tablets) than ever.
Ustinov also noted that not one other European country had taken the same steps as Latvia—even though many have been taking “less disproportionate” action to achieve similar goals.
For example, in Belgium, gamblers have been limited to £500 per month in deposits across all their casino accounts.
In the UK, online casinos have recently banned credit cards. Advertisers across Europe have also been repeatedly warned (or even fined) for using coronavirus-related statements in their marketing material.
All those regulations require a good deal of cooperation between companies and may be difficult to enforce in some cases, but they’re preferable to a full closure.
The ban, first put into place on the 22nd of March and leaving online operators in legal limbo and with zero clarification on what it meant for them, was debated in the Saeima (the Latvian parliament) on Friday.
However, most lawmakers did not sympathize with the case of their local gambling operators.
Government finance bigwigs and the Latvian Chamber of Commerce both opposed the ban but were outvoted in the main chamber.
They pointed out that no other country had taken such harsh measures to dissuade a minority of problem gamblers and that the government would be depriving itself of much-needed tax income over the rest of the year.
Latvia is a country that makes only $37 billion annually, which is a princely sum but one far smaller than even the one-time economic aid packages being dealt out by its richer neighbors in the EU.
The LIAB has not yet commented on the debate’s outcome. However, earlier in the week, it took a somewhat accusatory tone in a statement, saying that “decisions regarding the interactive gambling industry in Latvia are politicized and run counter to the interests of both players, operators, and national budget revenue.”
Keep checking our pages for updates on this story and all other fast-moving gambling news in the world—and stay safe.