As state officials tracked the spread of COVID-19 through Pennsylvania, the hundreds of liquor stores owned and controlled by the state were among the first establishments to shut down.
But even as it enforces closures of schools and myriad private businesses, there’s one venture the state keeps operating.
“Because the Lottery’s mission is to generate funding for programs that benefit older Pennsylvanians, there are currently no plans to suspend operations,” spokesperson Ewa Dworakowski said in a statement from the agency. “Many of the essential businesses that remain open, such as grocery stores, gas stations and pharmacies, are also Lottery retailers. “
The Lottery does give at least some players a reason to venture out of their houses despite state and federal officials’ admonitions to stay home.
Robin Peles said the half-mile walk from his house in Washington to the Uni-Mart on East Maiden Street is part of his daily routine. He said he spends no more than $4 a day on tickets, favoring games rather than going for the jackpot. He’s played since the Lottery’s inception in the 1970s.
The retired coal miner, 66, has four arterial stents because of a heart attack in 2003. He said he hasn’t had heart trouble since, but acknowledged his age and medical history put him at higher risk of the viral infection than most people.
The trips double as the exercise his doctor recommended, he said. He wears a surgical glove on his right hand to protect himself in the store and goes at a time in the morning when he’s likely to be the only customer. The counter puts at least three or four feet between him and the clerk, who also wears gloves.
“You can’t stop your life because of it,” Peles said. “If you just use your common sense, what they tell you – keep your distance from people, wash your hands and disinfect stuff. You don’t go out of your way to do anything stupid, but I don’t think you should go out of your way to disrupt your life anymore than you have to.”
Peles’ wife, Janet Stechly, shares this outlook. She occasionally plays with tickets her husband picks up for her.
“We both feel that we’ve had a grand life,” said Stechly, 70, a grandmother and retired schoolteacher. “And whatever God’s going to give us is fine, we’ll take it. We can’t say, ‘We can’t do this. We can’t do that.’ ... We’ve been blessed.”
Pennsylvania isn’t alone. Neighboring states like Ohio, West Virginia and New York continue sales.
In Pennsylvania, Dworakowski said Lottery officials are taking precautions, including having most employees work from home and urging players to mail winning tickets in rather than claim them in person. Sales figures for March, when the mass shutdowns started, weren’t available, but she said sales are generally down because more people are staying home.
In the 2018-19 fiscal year, the state sold a record $4.5 billion for Lottery games. About a quarter of that, $1.14 billion, went toward programs for the elderly, including low-cost medication and reduced-fare transit. The state paid out $2.9 billion in winnings.
Lottery profits account for about 3% of the state’s operating budget, which is $34.15 billion this year.
John Balzarini, associate professor of sociology at Delaware State University, saw nothing particularly surprising about the decision to continue lottery sales despite the outbreak. Instead, he said an illustration of what’s normal.
“All the other forms of revenue that (state officials) would be relying on – they’re not getting them, generally speaking,” said Balzarini, who’s studied the effects that plans for a casino had on a neighborhood in Philadelphia, the city where he lives. “And they don’t know when they’re going to start getting back to normal. Nobody does.”
He said reliance on revenue from lotteries and other gambling to balance their budget dovetails with policies that without those funding streams would mean lawmakers cut services to avoid raising taxes, even if wealthy organizations and people could afford to pay more.
“As a result, everybody’s given this false choice about: ‘Well, you’ve got fiscal austerity now, you have to do more with less and less and less, or, you’ve got to figure something else out,’” he said.
The state Department of Health took the same position as Lottery officials did when asked about the continued ticket sales.
“The Lottery’s mission is to generate funding for programs that benefit older Pennsylvanians. The Lottery is continuing to generate funding for property tax and rent rebates, prescription assistance, meals on wheels and other critical services that seniors depend on,” spokesperson Nate Wardle said in an email. “That will especially be the case once this health pandemic is over.”