No Drinks, No Food But AC Casinos Open

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has postponed the resumption of indoor dining and drinking as AC casinos reopened on July 2.

With record-breaking spikes in coronavirus cases, attributed to crowds of maskless patrons in reopened bars, the governors of Florida and Texas have shut bars back down.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy knows a cue when he sees one. On June 29—days before Atlantic City’s casinos were due to start reopening—he postponed the start of indoor dining as well as alcohol service on casino floors, and banned smoking inside casinos as well. Murphy said reports indicated that people in New Jersey were failing in the face mask and social distancing department, according to the Associated Press.

“Unfortunately, the national scene compounded by instances of knucklehead behavior here at home are requiring us to hit pause on the re-start of indoor dining for the foreseeable future,” Murphy said. “Casinos will open. I feel comfortable in the distinction.”

Most of the nine casinos expected to open over the weekend anyway, relying on outdoor dining, takeout and room service.

“All of the casino operators are in the same boat and are still waiting for official guidelines in regards to reopening,” said Tom Pohlman, general manager of Golden Nugget.

But Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa nixed its reopening plans. “Our guests expect a special experience when they come to our property and if we cannot provide that level of hospitality, we feel it best that we remain closed until such time that the governor lets us know it is safe to offer food and beverage,” said a statement from Borgata’s parent company, MGM Resorts International.

Steve Callender, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey (CANJ), told the AP the smoking ban could lead additional casinos to shut down again.

Asked when indoor dining may resume, Murphy said, “I don’t think it’s a matter of days, but a matter of weeks. We have enormous sympathy, but the alternative here is worse and unacceptable. None of us, none of us want to go back to that hell,” meaning the almost total shutdown of businesses. “We’ve worked too hard to get here.”

Joe Lupo, president of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City said he’s disappointed with the governor’s decision, especially given the effort to reopen the hotel casino safely. “We are confident our enhanced ‘Safe + Sound’ protocols are a responsible approach to safely opening our property and bringing our team members back to work.”

Complicating matters is the uncertain future of thousands of out-of-work casino employees. The bans on dining and drinking will also reduce the number of laid-off workers who will return. Drink servers and indoor restaurant workers were to have comprised a significant portion of the returning force.

“I really don’t even think (casinos) should open,” said Bob McDevitt, president of Unite Here Local 54, which represents nearly 10,000 employees in Atlantic City. “Why would they?” McDevitt said 60 percent of his union members had been scheduled to return to work this week. Now, as few as 30 percent may go back. McDevitt’s union filed suit against several Las Vegas casinos last week for alleged failure to protect their workers.

Jim Allen, president of Hard Rock International, said the company and its thousands of workers are eager to reopen and start making up for some of the losses they have experienced since March.

“People are really desperate for a job and a paycheck,” he said.

Casinos can offer outdoor dining, and those with beach bars, outdoor decks or Boardwalk seating still plan to offer it. Alcohol was sold in bars off the casino floors, as well as liquor stores and non-casino businesses.

In a statement, the CANJ said, “Atlantic City casinos are ready and excited to welcome back employees and guests to our properties, but we recognize the experience will be different than what our guests have come to expect from the beachfront destination.

“We are living in unprecedented times, and we must be vigilant. That is why we are taking extraordinary measures to ensure we are well-positioned to welcome back thousands of hardworking employees and valued guests. In the best interest of their guests and employees, properties such as Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa have decided to remain closed. We look forward to a successful reopening and welcoming employees and guests back safely to Atlantic City.”

The gaming halls will operate at 25 percent capacity to start, and face masks will be required of everyone. “If any visitor refuses to comply with these simple safeguards, you will be escorted out of the casino,” Murphy said last month. Casinos will also increase hand sanitizers on hand and enforce safe social distancing.

Union president McDevitt summed up his feelings about the governor’s decision, saying, “This is like Catholic school: A handful of people misbehave, and the entire class gets punished.”