Gambling assistance and anti-gambling advocacy groups believe there could be a "tsunami of gambling harm" with gaming rooms reopening this week.
The NSW Council for Social Service, Wesley Mission and the Alliance for Gambling Reform issued a joint media release yesterday expressing "deep concern for a potential tsunami of gambling harm and other public health issues" after many gambling facilities reopened.
The three groups said they were "astounded" the NSW government had allowed club and pub poker machines to be turned back on "when every other state plans to keep them shut off for at least another month due to COVID-19 infection risks".
They also questioned the government's lack of preparation to manage the risks associated with people being exposed to gambling after a nine-week enforced break.
Wesley Mission CEO, the Rev Keith Garner, said his organisation was bracing for an influx of requests for its gambling counselling services in Sydney, Wollongong, the Central Coast and Newcastle.
"In Western Sydney alone around $450 million has been saved since poker machines were switched off on 23 March," he said. "In the Hunter, it is [more than] $72 million that's been saved.
"That is a tremendous amount of money that will have been used to pay utility bills, rent and mortgages, and for other essentials, and supporting local businesses.
"It's difficult to fathom why pubs and clubs with gambling facilities will be allowed to have up to 500 people under one roof with poker machines on and taking money from people, when meanwhile churches and other places of worship are forbidden from having more than 50 people gathered."
Rev Garner said the pandemic lockdown had been an "unprecedented" break in access to gambling facilities.
"This time has been an opportunity for people to make a break from their gambling addiction if they've got one," he said.
"So going back could be difficult, it may be good for some but I think it's going to be very difficult for many, many people.
"One of the issues is people have got money in the bank and they can blow it very quickly.
"Much like COVID-19, we're expecting to see two waves. Those who initially blow their savings they might have and those who later on start to pick up the game again."
Most clubs and pubs will keep every second gaming machine turned off to ensure social distancing, but Tim Costello of Alliance for Gambling Reform said there needed to be broader action.
"The NSW government did a great job of minimising the health impacts of COVID-19 by wisely listening to public health experts. It's time they did the same with gambling harm," he said.
"The NSW government must reduce the ridiculous opening hours of poker machine venues, currently up to 18 hours a day.
"No good is happening at a poker machine venue at 3am, no real hospitality or socialising, and people coming off a period of 'cold turkey' since the shutdown will be extremely vulnerable to once again spending hours on machines specifically designed to addict them."