By Christian Hetrick
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Atlantic City casinos welcomed gamblers for the first time in almost four months on Thursday, but the seaside city famous for not enforcing Prohibition couldn’t let its guests drink on the casino floors.
The booze ban was one of several state restrictions that casinos complied with to open during the coronavirus pandemic. Gamblers wore masks and were separated by empty seats or acrylic glass partitions.
No one could smoke, eat, or drink on the casino floor.
The casinos were limited to 25% capacity, too, but that wasn’t a problem. Social distancing was easy, as some customers had entire rows of slots or tables to themselves Thursday morning at Hard Rock Hotel Casino. There was hardly any talking among mesmerized slot machine players.
“Obviously it will be lighter than normal. This is usually a busy weekend,” said Joe Lupo, president of the Hard Rock in Atlantic City. “I think people are going to try it out, test us out, see what it’s like.”
Hard Rock checked customers’ temperatures as they entered, installed 200 hand sanitizer dispensers, and hired a Gene Simmons impersonator who wore a mask that prevented him from sticking out the iconic tongue.
Five of the city’s nine casinos — Hard Rock, Ocean, Resorts, Tropicana, and Golden Nugget — opened Thursday. Three more — Caesars, Bally’s and Harrah’s — will open Friday. Borgata, the city’s market leader, will stay closed. Borgata reversed plans to reopen after Gov. Phil Murphy canceled permission to allow indoor dining, further disrupting an industry that has seen its revenues plummet during the pandemic.
The other casinos offered outdoor dining and takeout options. Ocean Casino Resort, for example, allowed the Mad Dog Morgans food truck to sell its buffalo tenders, cheesesteaks, and burgers outside its entrance.
Ocean also had a mobile bar set up outside in a food truck. So patrons could load up and carry open containers onto most of the Boardwalk, thanks to a temporary measure the city passed for the pandemic.
Terrell Carter, 23, and his girlfriend, Jessica Dansereau, 21, had already booked their trip to Atlantic City when they heard the indoor meals were put on ice. But they were still glad they came all the way from North Providence, R.I., to celebrate Carter’s birthday in Hard Rock.
“A lot of things are closed. We were kind of discouraged yesterday,” Dansereau said. “Today it’s more lively and a lot more things are open.”
Over at Ocean Casino Resort, Joe Arnashus played the first hand of blackjack in 108 days at the casino. The 54-year-old won $55. The Toms River, N.J., resident went on to win the next two hands before his luck ran out, and he went on a losing streak.
“It’s a start. These poor guys have been out of work for 3-plus months,” Arnashus said. “I’m sure they’re happy to be back. We’re happy to be back playing. And we’ll see how it goes.”
Unite Here Local 54, the union representing roughly 9,000 casino workers, said 20% to 30% of members got their jobs back as a result of the reopenings. Donna DeCaprio, the union’s financial secretary and treasurer, said some of the union’s members don’t think the casino safety protocols go far enough.
A spokesperson for the Casino Association of New Jersey said casinos were complying with state rules to do health screens, keep a 25% capacity limit, and erect acrylic glass barriers on many table games.
State shutdown orders and the suspension of many sports have devastated Atlantic City casinos. Gaming revenue across the market was down nearly 69% in April and 65% in May, according to the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement.
The inability to eat, drink, or smoke on the casino floor didn’t bother gamblers interviewed by The Inquirer. But at least one person found a way around the drinking prohibition.
“It hasn’t been a problem,” said a man in his early 20s while shaking an orange juice bottle that smelled like something stronger.
Social distancing also wasn’t always practiced. By 5 p.m., the check-in queue for Ocean had picked up with more than 100 people standing partly close together in a normal pre-pandemic line.
Still others reveled in old habits. Rita Jacoby, 62, a nurse from Brick, N.J., came with a friend at 7 a.m. to visit Hard Rock to play the slot machines. “We used to come all the time. We missed it. We’re happy Murphy finally opened it,” she said.
Did she feel safe? “Absolutely. This has always been a clean casino.”