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Macau to close casinos for two weeks over virus

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Macau (AFP)

Macau on Tuesday said it will temporarily close down all casinos as the gambling hub battles the deadly coronavirus, cutting off the lifeblood of the city's economy.

The move came as the former Portuguese colony confirmed its tenth confirmed case of the virus, which has killed more than 400 people in China, infected tens of thousands and spread to more than 20 countries.

Chief Executive Ho Iat-seng, a pro-Beijing appointee who took office in December, said the gambling industry would initially shutter for two weeks but he warned the closures could be extended if the virus continued to spread.

"This is a difficult decision but we have to do it, for the health of our Macau residents," he told reporters.

He said he would meet gaming industry representatives on Tuesday afternoon and announce precise timings soon after.

The only other time Macau has closed its casinos was in 2018, when the city was hit directly by a typhoon.

On Tuesday, health authorities announced two fresh infections, one a woman who worked in the gaming industry.

As the only place in China where gambling is allowed, Macau's casinos account for about 80 percent of government revenue.

Some 35 million people visited the densely crowded city of just 631,000 people last year, the vast majority mainland Chinese heading to the casinos, which rake in each week what Las Vegas takes in a month.

But the virus outbreak has hammered the industry over what would usually be one of its busiest periods -- the Lunar New Year holidays.

The number of visitors has plunged 80 percent in the past week.

Ho had previously said he was willing to close the gambling industry because of the virus outbreak and casinos have been monitoring the temperatures of punters walking through their doors in recent days.

He, who wore a face mask for his news conference, added that he had no plans yet to close the border with mainland China but would consider shutting certain checkpoints, a step neighbouring Hong Kong has taken.

He also called on residents to reduce trips outdoors.

"Don't go on the streets if not necessary. I hope everyone will wear a mask no matter where you go, supermarkets or wet markets. Don't be careless. Don't take it lightly," he said.

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