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Atlantic City casinos seeing younger crowd during coronavirus pandemic as older gamblers retreat

ATLANTIC CITY — Sacoya Mills was staying at Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City for a couple nights to celebrate her son Joey’s 7th birthday.

Along with her older son, Isiah, and her sister, Mills planned a mini vacation that included a trip to the Steel Pier on Wednesday afternoon.

Under normal circumstances, the 36-year-old mother from Brooklyn, New York, said she would not have stayed at a casino.

But the affordable midweek room rates and the absence of much else to do in the summer of the coronavirus meant coming to Atlantic City was an attractive option.

“Prior to this, I would never bring my children to a casino unless I had activities for them to do,” she said, adding that had COVID-19 not shut down much of New York City, “we would have been somewhere else.”

Once considered a haven for gray-haired slot players who came by the busload with slim hopes of a big payday, Atlantic City’s casinos have worked toward expanding their appeal to younger visitors and nongamblers.

But even as the casinos have successfully managed to bring a younger crowd to Atlantic City, particularly in the past decade or so, the shift has been amplified since the gambling parlors reopened this month after being closed for more than 15 weeks to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

The presence of younger gamblers and the number of families staying at the hotels has increased at most of the city’s casinos since the industry was permitted to reopen July 2, several executives and employees said, while at the same time, many older players are staying away.

“I agree that the crowd is younger and we have many families visiting. But, I think, they have always been coming,” said Steve Callender, regional president for Caesars Entertainment Inc., which operates four of the city’s nine casinos.

Callender, who is also president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, suggested part of the reason frequent Atlantic City customers and core gamblers may not be visiting right now could have as much to do with COVID-19 as it does with the restrictions imposed on the casinos as a result of the virus.

Indoor dining, drinking and smoking on the casino floor are all prohibited, while other offerings, such as spa services or live entertainment, are extremely limited or not available at all.

“It appears that more of our more mature guests are not coming back yet or, at least, as frequently as they used to. I think this is due to less amenities than they expect from their experience at our facilities,” he said. “I’m sure some are just waiting until there is a vaccine so they feel more comfortable, but, mostly, they don’t want to stand in line on the Boardwalk waiting to eat.”

The increase of younger visitors to Atlantic City is evident in metrics the casinos can gauge, such as hotel bookings and loyalty card signups, said Ron Baumann, senior vice president and general manager for Caesars Entertainment. Baumann said that in the first two weeks of July, nearly 6,000 new CAESARS Rewards cards were activated, with a good portion of those signups being done by people between the ages of 29 and 39.

“That segment is growing,” Baumann said Wednesday. “And the ones that (already had rewards cards) are increasing their visitation more so than they were pre-COVID.”

Joe Lupo, president of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, also said player’s cards give the casino a clear picture of who is, and who isn’t, coming to the property.

“We are seeing that the older the customer is, the less frequent we are seeing that customer compared to last year,” he said, noting that trend is similar at other casinos across the Hard Rock brand. “I think it’s very expected that the older customer segment is a little bit more leery of going out in public with the risk of COVID, and the numbers specifically show that.”

Another factor that is likely contributing to the uptick in younger and first-time visitors to Atlantic City is the affordability of casino hotel rooms. When combined with travel restrictions and canceled out-of-state summer vacations, Baumann said local families are staying at casino hotels more often than in years past.

“Our hotel rates, as are most of our competitors, are more affordable this summer than they’ve been probably in I don’t know how long,” Baumann said. “So families can now take advantage of coming down here ... especially during the weekdays, we’re definitely seeing more families from the area.”

The reduction of older gamblers and visitors coming to Atlantic City was anticipated by the casino industry since that population is, according to health officials, more at-risk to contract COVID-19.

A 2008 survey, conducted by Spectrum Gaming Group at the request of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, found the average age of someone visiting Atlantic City with the primary purpose of gambling was 55, while the mean age of the typical tourist was 51.

“There’s a fear factor,” said Bob Ambrose, a gaming industry consultant, writer and adjunct professor of casino management and hospitality. “I think it’s going to take a while for the more mature visitor to feel comfortable enough to come back.”

Ambrose said he understood why some senior gamblers may shy away from coming to a casino but added that the industry’s precautions and safety protocols are “much better” than at supermarkets or retail stores.

In the weeks following their early July reopening, Lupo said Hard Rock has seen more older gamblers return, particularly as the public becomes more aware of the health and safety protocols the casinos are following.

“I think over time, that we will see — and we have seen — a little bit more of the older demographic as they understand (what the casinos are doing),” Lupo said. “We need to build competence and trust that our protocols are doing their job, and I think we’ve seen that.”

Not every casino is trending younger. Without HQ2 Beachclub or a nightclub and sports betting only recently ramping back up, Mike Donovan, chief marketing officer and senior vice president at Ocean Casino Resort, said the things that typically attracted a younger demographic to the property are missing.

“I think (the crowd) is probably a little bit older, just for us, because we don’t have those things and that was such a big piece of business last year,” he said. “That nightlife, sports betting and entertainment would bring ... 10,000 people on your property in one day that are all primarily under 40.”

With a clientele perhaps more focused on gambling this summer, Donovan said Ocean is poised to report a good month in terms of gaming revenue.

“July has been a great month for us at the property,” he said. “Our gaming revenues — they’ll come out on the 12th (of August) — but we’re going to be up, likely, 20% to 25% over where we were last year.”

GALLERY: Atlantic City casinos reopen after COVID-19 shutdown

Hammonton food drive helps South Jersey migrant workers

HAMMONTON — Rafael Mendez’s truck was the first to arrive at the Atlantic Blueberry Company on Friday to pick up food.

Volunteers from the Community FoodBank of New Jersey loaded it with a pallet of canned goods, produce, beans and masks for Mendez and other employees at Hammonton’s Pleasantdale Farm.

The 25 migrant farm workers of Pleasantdale were the first of more than 650 to receive food as part of the food bank’s latest effort to battle food insecurity brought on by COVID-19.

It was the organization’s third food drive in as many months.

“It’s very important,” said Mendez, 53, who is originally from Guanajuato, Mexico. “It’s always nice when someone does something for the community. To us, it’s very valuable.”

More than 20,000 pounds of food were delivered to the loading bay of the Atlantic Blueberry Company on Friday, and trucks from at least 12 other South Jersey farms were registered to pick up pallets of food for their employees.

Each worker from the farms received a box filled with beans, pancake mix, macaroni and cheese, syrup and canned goods in addition to a small crate of corn. Packs of masks were also provided.

The food drive’s host also received food for its employees. According to a form detailing the distribution, Atlantic Blueberry received 375 boxes for its employees at both its Hammonton and Mays Landing facilities.

“It’s extremely appreciated in this kind of environment with all this stuff going around,” Atlantic Blueberry co-owner Art Galletta said. “These people really appreciate it.”

Galletta said the company had to quarantine a few employees after positive coronavirus tests, but they had not experienced an outbreak. He also mentioned that due to the health value in blueberries, it’s been a successful season and financial hardships have been kept to a minimum.

“People want to eat healthy during this kind of situation to keep their systems up to snuff,” Galletta said.

To maintain social distancing, however, the company has had to reduce the capacity of its living quarters. Elsewhere in Hammonton, Blueberry Bill Farms has done the same. According to 19-year-old employee Luis Ruiz, the dormitories at Blueberry Bill that can hold up to 150 people now only house around 30.

“It’s a lot of new stuff that we have to get used to,” Ruiz said. “And I’m pretty sure this is going to last for another year, so this is not going to go away that easily and we have to adapt and get used to all this stuff.”

Ruiz has been on a farm most of his life. His father, Jose, has been a manager on the farm for 25 years, and Luis’ family left Michoacan, Mexico, when he was 2 to join him.

Luis said the inclusion of masks was especially important.

“Sometimes we don’t get enough masks to go inside the stores,” Luis said. “And (some of the workers) don’t understand the importance of the mask and all that stuff.”

The food bank held two similar drives for migrant farm workers in Cumberland County. With more than 650 boxes distributed, Friday was the largest of them so far.

“Food insecurity is one of the biggest issues (among farm workers),” said Millie Irizarry-Sanchez, a network engagement specialist and mobile food pantry supervisor for the food bank. “For us to be able to give them some kind of relief, it alleviates a lot of the stress and pressure that’s already on them. They work really hard in brutal heat and weather conditions, and then have to worry about what they’re going to eat.

“Now they have a little something that they can work with.”

A fourth drive is being planned for next month. A date and location have not been determined, but Irizarry-Sanchez said it will likely be in Bridgeton.

PHOTOS from a food drive for farm workers in Hammonton

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Teachers in Atlantic County call for remote learning to start 2020-21 school year

Teachers in Atlantic County are calling on the governor to halt plans for a return to in-person education this fall in favor of all-remote learning.

In a letter to Gov. Phil Murphy, the Atlantic County Council of Education Associations on Friday urged that schools in Atlantic County be opened for remote learning only until it was safe to reopen in person amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As educators, parents and members of our communities, we want to return to school as we know it. But, the truth is, right now, that’s not possible,” the letter begins. “Major League Baseball made it two days, and schools should look to this as what will happen when schools open. Regardless of the steps taken to mitigate the spread, COVID-19 will spread in schools and communities. It’s not a question of if or when; the question is: How bad it will be?”

The letter comes as school districts across the state are preparing plans to reopen in some fashion for the new school year after spending last spring closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In June, the state Department of Education released a 100-page guidance on how schools should plan to reopen that included capacity limits, a mandate for teachers and staff to wear masks, and for students to wear masks when maintaining 6 feet of distance was not possible, as well as other precautions.

Since then, the state has amended its guidance to mandate that districts offer all-remote options for students and on how districts should respond to students and staff presenting symptoms of the virus.

A bill introduced Wednesday in the state Assembly would delay in-person instruction until at least Oct. 31, although Murphy has continued to advocate for some in-person learning, citing equity issues.

The Atlantic County Education Association is a subset of the New Jersey Education Association and represents 6,532 active and 885 retired members.

President Barbara Rheault, who also serves as chair of New Jersey Education Association Working Conditions Committee, said the county association has the support of many of the local education association presidents, although some are waiting to hear their own district’s plans.

The letter calls for a staged reopening, like the state is using, to ensure safety. New Jersey, which has seen its overall number of COVID-19 cases decline, paused in Stage 2 of its reopening process at the end of June as cases began to surge in other parts of the country.

“Just yesterday, Atlantic County, along with Burlington, Mercer and Camden counties, were added by FEMA to the list of 98 (emerging COVID-19) hotspots out of 30 states in the nation,” Rheault said, referring to a news report Thursday about a memo from the Department of Homeland Security. “So we’re extremely concerned that we’re planning to do reopening when we haven’t even contained a virus.”

Atlantic County teachers are not alone in their call for remote learning. Last week, Anthony Rosamilia, president of the Essex County Education Association, sent a letter to state leaders and elected officials requesting remote learning in the fall be mandated. Both South Brunswick and Willingboro school districts have submitted plans for all remote learning to the state.

Rheault said there will be a meeting Saturday with all the county education association presidents to discuss the idea further.

GALLERY: Best of the Class of 2020 graduations in South Jersey

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GOP Senate candidate Singh seeks recount to highlight what he calls perils of vote-by-mail elections

Saying he wants to highlight the perils of all vote-by-mail elections as he checks on the accuracy of the July 7 primary count, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Hirsh Singh has asked for a hand recount of all Republican ballots in Cape May and Atlantic counties.

In hearings Friday before Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez regarding his requests, Singh, 34, said he is asking for recounts in all counties of the state and called the July 7 primary “irregular” because it was the first time a primary was conducted mainly through paper vote-by-mail ballots.

Singh, an engineer from Linwood, said he wanted the recount not only to ensure public trust overall in election results but also to show the government that recounts are easy to get and a reason for avoiding a vote-by-mail election in November.

“We could be headed for disaster,” Singh said.

Clerk of the Atlantic County Board of Elections Sue Sandman said a hand recount of the 18,853 Republican ballots cast countywide would take at least a month and prevent the board from preparing for the November general election.

“We are waiting anxiously to hear what the governor wants to do in November. If he says, ‘Open up in-person voting,’ we are going to have to expand from our consolidated polling sites … train poll workers and try and locate another 50-60 polling sites so people are not waiting in line two to three hours to vote,” Sandman said. “We were hoping to use the month of August to help with the general (election).”

Preliminary counts statewide have Singh about 8,000 votes behind the leader, Rik Mehta, of Morris County, a biotech entrepreneur, pharmacist and attorney.

Mehta’s lawyer, Tim Howes, said Singh has not shown a fact-based reason to order a recount.

“He has to provide more than maybe or speculation, such as specific knowledge of jamming or malfunction of an optical scanner. That is not present here,” Howes argued in the hearing. “There is nothing to indicate he could overcome an 8,000-vote deficit by recounting ballots.”

About 360,000 Republican ballots were counted of an estimated 400,000 cast as of Friday.

Howes said he appreciated Singh’s “altruism” in bringing the action, and “while I agree with him on the merits of an all-paper-ballot election, this is not the forum for that.”

Singh said 27,000 ballots have been thrown out statewide, tens of thousands more remain uncounted and he has received reports of irregularities in how the optical scanners have counted paper ballots.

“Fifteen thousand provisional ballots in Middlesex County have not been reported yet,” Singh said, as well as an unknown number in Hudson, Union and Essex counties. “There is a large amount of unknowns. Anyone who is talking about results at this point in time is extremely incorrect.”

In his home county of Atlantic, Singh had an overwhelming lead. Of 18,853 Republican votes cast, Singh got 13,033 to Mehta’s 1,055. A total of 204 Republican votes were rejected in Atlantic County, according to election officials.

The primary election, ordered postponed from June 2 to July 7 by Gov. Phil Murphy to allow for a mostly vote-by-mail election to avoid spreading COVID-19, has not yet been certified statewide.

The Associated Press called the race for Mehta on July 10, but results have not been certified, and Singh said at the Mendez hearing there are still thousands of votes that haven’t been counted yet in various counties.

The winner will face incumbent U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., in November.

Singh filed the Atlantic County petition Thursday, Atlantic County Board of Elections Chair Lynn Caterson said.

Singh ran in the 2nd Congressional District Republican primary in 2018 and was defeated by a modest margin by Seth Grossman. The seat ultimately went to Democrat Jeff Van Drew, who changed parties to Republican in December after voting against impeaching President Donald Trump in the House of Representatives.

Singh won the endorsement of four of the eight county committees in the district in last year’s congressional race, including Atlantic County’s, and raised almost $100,000 more than the winner, Grossman.

But Grossman, who had better name recognition and a strong grassroots campaign, won the day.

Singh also angered party leaders, including Atlantic County Republican Chairman Keith Davis, who accused him of misleading county party officials about how much personal wealth he had. After pledging to self-fund his campaign and raise as much as $2 million, Singh filed financial papers indicating he only has $50,000 to $100,000 in personal wealth, Davis said.

Singh also ran in the Republican primary for governor in 2017 but failed to get his party’s nod over former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.