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New Jersey to lift most restrictions for businesses May 19, 6-foot distance remains

TRENTON — Capacity restrictions in New Jersey related to COVID-19 will be significantly reduced this month, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday following a similar announcement from New York state.

As of May 19, restaurants, stores, casinos, salons, barber shops, gyms, indoor and outdoor pools, amusement facilities, places of worship, and theaters will be able to operate at 100% capacity so long as 6-foot social distancing and masking requirements remain in place, Murphy said during his regular COVID-19 response briefing.

“Should the CDC revise its 6-foot distancing guidance, we will revise our requirements accordingly,” he said. “My guess is that that 6-foot number will come down.”

Other capacity changes as of May 19 include: no limit on party size per table (currently at eight people); no limit on outdoor gatherings; 250-person limit on catered events, funeral or memorial services, performances, political activities, and commercial gathering; and 30% capacity limit for indoor fixed-seat venues with 1,000 seats or more such as concerts and sporting events.

In addition, effective Friday, socially distanced bar seating can resume in New Jersey. For both restaurant tables and bars, seating can be closer than 6 feet if barriers are in place. Buffets also can resume operations.

“These are the most aggressive steps we have taken to reopen to date,” the governor said. “We have done exactly what we said we would do all along. We have made these decisions on our public health metrics and not on politics.”

Maria Gatta couldn’t be more thrilled.

“It feels great, going back to normal,” said Gatta, who owns Red Room Cafe in Ventnor Heights. “I’m just ready for all of this to pass and get back to normal. We’re moving forward.”

Last year, Gatta ramped up catering operations to offset lost revenue and expanded outdoor dining onto Monmouth Avenue, which the city partially closed down to help summer businesses succeed.

Monmouth Avenue won’t be closed this year for dining, but she will still utilize the sidewalk for outdoor seating. She’s excited, though, to welcome more customers to dine inside.

“I think people who have their vaccine are eating indoors because they feel comfortable,” she said. “The first thing people say when they walk in is, ‘We’re vaccinated!’ and that’s great.”

Expanding indoor dining capacity and opening up bar seating “significantly helps the restaurant business,” said Michael Chait, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce.

“The smaller restaurants can’t really expand because of the 6-foot restrictions, but it really helps the larger businesses,” he said.

He added that lifting capacity restrictions on outdoor events is also a huge step in the right direction.

“It’s tremendous ... when you look at all of the (new) executive orders,” he said. “It’s as close to normal as possible.”

Murphy is also moving up the start dates for the increased capacity limits for indoor and outdoor gatherings released last week, from May 10 to May 7.

On April 26, Murphy announced indoor and outdoor gathering limits would increase to 50% and 500 people, respectively, as of May 10, and that dancing at these events could resume.

“We have been anxiously waiting for this announcement and cannot be happier for our businesses. As we approach the summer season we needed to have the capacity restrictions lifted for our restaurants and other indoor attractions,” said Diane Wieland, Cape May County’s tourism director. “We have heard from our businesses that they are able to address the 6-foot social distancing inside and outside and this is the boost they all needed to start the journey to regain the losses experienced last year.”

Murphy’s announcement followed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s similar announcement earlier Monday.

Cuomo said capacity restrictions in New York’s tri-state area, including New Jersey and Connecticut, will increase to 100% for many venues.

“Today is a milestone for New York state and a significant moment of transition,” Cuomo said at the start of his media briefing.

Cuomo said that the tri-state region is too interconnected not to make decisions in a coordinated manner.

“Most capacity restrictions will end across the tri-state area,” Cuomo said, from offices to hair salons to Broadway. “No capacity restrictions on all of those activities.”

In New Jersey, declining positive cases and hospitalizations due to the coronavirus, combined with a climbing, although slowed, number of vaccinated residents have led to the governor, in the joint move with New York and Connecticut, to ease restrictions.

According to data available on the New Jersey’s COVID-19 dashboard, there are 880 new confirmed cases as of Monday, a drop from 3,500 one month ago.

There were 16 new confirmed deaths related to the coronavirus, bringing the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 22,991.

There are 3.26 million New Jersey residents who have received the COVID-19 vaccine. The state’s goal was to reach 4.7 million or 70% of eligible residents by the start of summer.

Murphy said that the only way to ensure that the numbers keep trending in the right direction is to get more residents vaccinated.

The governor announced a series of new or expanded vaccine outreach initiatives, including “Grateful for the Shot,” which targets religious organizations, and “Shot and a Beer,” working with New Jersey craft breweries.

“Every single activity that we just discussed is substantially safer if you are vaccinated,” Murphy said.

Responding to questions regarding the economic effectiveness of lifting capacity restrictions for conferences that typically welcome thousands, and restaurants that don’t have the space to add more seating due to the 6-feet rule, Murphy said he knows it’s not “the promised land.”

“But at least its a step, a meaningful step, in the right direction,” he said.

Murphy said that allowing for bar seating was a big factor for restaurants, and noted that casino venues like at Ocean Resort, Borgata or Hard Rock could utilize the 250-person limit per room, and the 30% capacity for large fixed-seating venues, to hold conferences.

“I’m not suggesting that it’s full on open for business, but I think it’s a pretty meaningful step,” Murphy said.

Following Murphy’s announcement, local business advocates in the Jersey Shore region said it was welcome news ahead of Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer here.

“With the restrictions being lifted and capacity restored we are feeling that people will have the confidence to gather, support small businesses and enjoy the summer safely,” said Lori Pepenella, chief executive officer of the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce. She added that there is a tremendous need for workers.

Staff writer CJ Fairfield contributed to this report.

Ocean Casino Resort has announced it will spend $15 million on renovations to the casino floor.

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As tribute to a brother lost from COVID, Atlantic City woman provides boots for kids

Adults need to honor their dead. Kids need to stay dry in rainy weather.

These demands underlie Angel Burton’s recent charitable endeavor: giving boots to children whom she has observed walking to school without them.

Besides being an acclaimed and veteran R&B singer, Burton works as a crossing guard in Atlantic City. And she is the sister of someone who died from COVID-19 a year ago.

“This is my way of memorializing our brother, Robert ‘Swami’ Browne,” said Burton. With sister Saundra Stephens, she operates Rain Boots for Children through their 501C3 nonprofit organization, Creative Multi Media.

“Before he passed, the last thing he bought me was a pair of boots: Uggs,” Burton said.

Rain Boots for Children also honors the memory of her father and grandmother, who made sure young Angela was covered during inclement days in her own childhood.

“I had rain boots, a raincoat and an umbrella,” Burton remembered. “Back in those days, you didn’t have people going around without things, as they are now.”

Burton said her charity’s “largest contributor of boots” is Irish Pub owner Cathy Burke, who has donated 40 pairs, at a cost of about $1,000. The pub held a kids’ gift party on Friday where 70 children, ranging from second to sixth grade, were expected to receive boots.

Burke once said in an interview, “It’s the essence of the Irish to be charitable. It comes when you are happy and love life, and love what you are doing.”

Naturally she expressed excitement anticipating the April 30 event in an interview beforehand.

“We’ll have chocolate milk, chocolate cake and cookies,” she said. “We’ll have their boots and we’ll all have a good time.”

“I think it’s so important that we take care of children,” added Burke, whose Irish Pub Children’s Foundation focuses on helping the children of law enforcement officers in South Jersey and Philadelphia, particularly those killed in the line of duty. In addition, Burke is chair of the Save Ellis Island Foundation, which raises money to restore buildings at the legendary immigrant center, and leads tours there.

Another Rain Boots for Children contributor is Angel James, the proprietor of Casino Dealers Academy in Northfield.

“(Burton) was telling me about her mission and her vision to get boots for children,” Jones said. “I got excited about it. I am so proud of what she is doing.”

Jones donated a dozen pairs — worth about $200. And she did it with flair, at a surprise party earlier this spring.

“We bought balloons, and a banner I had specially designed for her,” Jones said. “She had no idea. It was a big event.”

Members of the public are welcome to send kids’ boots, or checks made payable to Creative Multi Media. The address is Creative Multi Media, P.O. Box 1678, Atlantic City, NJ 08404.

For the past six years CMM has hosted the Tri-State Black History Month Awards, with the next ceremony slated for July 31, though a venue has not been announced.

Burton, who released the album “Passion and Pain” in 2018, has credited religious faith for her success in music. She did not forget to look skyward when explaining the genesis of Rain Boots for Children.

“I was standing in the rain one day, seeing kids go to school, and God said, ‘Angela, you should do this,’” Burton remembered.

Despite virus, Atlantic City casinos reinvesting millions

ATLANTIC CITY — With COVID-19 restrictions limiting how many people can gamble inside, and revenue and profits plunging, this might not sound like the best time for Atlantic City’s casinos to be spending big on renovations.

And yet they are, looking to a post-pandemic future when gamblers will be looking for the latest thing. They’re investing hundreds of millions of dollars with those days in mind.

The latest to open the corporate checkbook is Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, which announced Monday it will spend $20 million to renovate hotel suites, open a Starbucks outlet, purchase new slot machines and tables games, add a new restaurant and upgrade its beachfront amenities.

The renovations come in a span of a few weeks in which the Ocean Casino Resort announced it is spending $15 million on upgrades to the casino floor, as well as outdoor amenities like pools, cabanas and the beach, and Harrah’s unveiled three new restaurants, a new spa and a renovated lobby bar.

Harrah’s parent company, Caesars Entertainment, recently outlined specifics of the $400 million it pledged New Jersey gambling regulators it would make at its three Atlantic City casinos (Caesars, Harrah’s and Tropicana) during last year’s change-of-ownership hearings.

And Bally’s Corp. is plowing $90 million back into the Atlantic City casino of the same name that it acquired from Caesars Entertainment last year.

Both those investments will span three years.

And Resorts is opening a new electronic tables games area later this month with 19 terminals, will make a “significant investment” in new slot machines this year and open a new restaurant.

Hard Rock is opening its wallet less than three years after spending a half-billion dollars to gut the former Trump Taj Mahal casino and turn it into a Hard Rock casino resort.

And it’s doing so in a market depressed by COVID-19 restrictions and the hesitancy of some gamblers and tourists to return to in-person casinos. Numerous health and safety measures have been in place since they reopened last July, including limiting occupancy of the casino floor. Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday increasing capacity at casinos to 100% from 50% as of May 19.

“We need to reinvigorate Atlantic City,” said Hard Rock president Joe Lupo. “With declining revenue, there are only so many visitors out there. It’s become more competitive. Those properties like Hard Rock that are in it for the long run, are investing their dollars now.”

For Hard Rock, the bulk of the $20 million will go toward renovations of 91 guest suites. But every hotel room in the complex will get new televisions and lighting as well.

Sound upgrades will also be made to the casino’s Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena and Sound Waves concert venues. Meeting and convention space will be refurbished, as will the indoor pool.

The coronavirus outbreak sent profits plunging by more than 80% last year at Atlantic City’s nine casinos, and things would have been worse had it not been for the continued growth of internet gambling and a small assist from sports betting.

But the virus won’t last forever, and when customers do return in droves, casinos want them to come to their facilities.

By Lupo’s reckoning, there are three “new” casino companies in Atlantic City: his own, which opened Hard Rock in June 2018; the upcoming 50% partnership in the Ocean casino by the Ilitch family of Detroit (Ocean opened the same day as Hard Rock did); and the new Caesars Entertainment, which kept the name but adopted the management of the former Eldorado Resorts in last year’s merger.

“With this new investment comes a need for our companies to ensure that their product and the experience they offer meets the needs of people, especially at a time when the city has been declining since we reopened in July,” he said. “We realize we have an opportunity. The constant change gives our visitors something new to look forward to, and that has always been important in Atlantic City.”

It also takes into effect the ongoing competition all around it, from casinos in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and other northeastern states that had been eating away at Atlantic City’s market even before the pandemic.

GALLERY: See drone footage of the Trump Plaza rubble in Atlantic City

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Rival campaigners throw insults, swing at each other in Atlantic City

ATLANTIC CITY — The mayoral campaign is in full swing — literally — after a video surfaced of Mayor Marty Small Sr. knocking a phone out of a rival campaigner’s hand Sunday and then being shoved.

The altercation quickly became campaign fodder, with Democratic rival Tom Foley releasing the video Sunday night. Small responded with a news conference Monday afternoon, saying Foley was trying to intimidate and harass voters of color.

Not to be outdone, Foley was in Mays Landing on Monday afternoon to file a complaint with the Atlantic County Superintendent of Elections against Small, alleging Small’s campaign was paying $10 each for votes in the public housing complex Stanley Holmes Village. However, Foley said his campaign was still working on the written complaint, which had not yet been filed as of Monday afternoon.

Politics is a full-contact sport in the resort, where issues often get lost in a maze of petty distractions and personal attacks.

There are likely to be more of these kind of back-and-forth allegations as the June primary approaches.

Things had already gotten ugly. In March, Small filed a lawsuit against Foley supporter and political organizer Craig Callaway, of Atlantic City, alleging slander over statements Callaway has made saying Small and his wife allowed a relative to rape a child in their home. The Smalls have said it is a lie and Callaway knows or should know it to be a lie.

Small said Monday that Callaway and another political organizer working for Foley, Dionne Garland, used intimidation tactics to try to stop him and his campaign workers from talking to voters Sunday afternoon.

At a news conference Monday, Small apologized for any embarrassment he may bring on the city for reacting in anger.

“People will say another mayor is fighting in Atlantic City,” Small said.

His predecessor, Frank Gilliam, resigned in disgrace after pleading guilty to stealing more than $80,000 from a youth basketball league. Gilliam had also been involved in a fight outside an Atlantic City casino.

As for the latest incident, Small said, “They screamed obscenities ... and called us child molester protectors. It turned physical when (a Foley supporter) pushed me.”

Small said he had “every right as a man” to protect himself and fight back in self-defense.

However, Foley said Garland was filming Small with a cell phone when Small made the first physical contact, swatting the phone out of Garland’s hand.

That’s when Garland lunged toward Small, Foley said.

The video does show Small swatting the phone out of Garland’s hand just before Garland lashed out at Small, shoving him.

Small does not plan to file any charges related to the incident but wanted to explain what happened to residents, he said.

Later Monday, Small said Foley’s accusations about paying for votes are just a distraction.

“It’s funny he’s talking about Stanley Holmes Village. He needs a GPS to find it,” Small said of Foley. “How ironic he would even utter that my campaign is paying people (for votes), when people supporting him have a history of paying people $30 to $50 for their vote.”

Callaway has been accused of paying voters $30 to $50 per vote in the past, including by former Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian after he lost his bid for re-election in 2017.

“This is what you get when you have a Donald Trump supporter running for office. You get voter suppression. You get voter intimidation. You get physical confrontations,” Small said in a written statement and again at the news conference. “Across the country, Trump Republicans are working to deprive communities of color of their right to vote, and now Tom Foley and Craig Callaway are trying to do this in Atlantic City.”

Foley, a former Republican, has acknowledged being a supporter of former President Trump.

Small’s complaint against Callaway, filed in March in Atlantic County Superior Court, accuses Callaway of slander and civil conspiracy for comments Callaway made about the Smalls and a relative of theirs who has pleaded guilty to child exploitation involving sexual abuse and child pornography.

Kayan Frazier, 28, of Somers Point — who is the cousin of Small’s wife, La’Quetta — pleaded guilty Feb. 4 in federal court to exploitation of a child who was in Frazier’s care between March 2017 and April 15, 2019.

According to the plea agreement, Frazier possessed and distributed child pornography dating as far back as March 2015.

Frazier had lived with the Smalls at their Atlantic City home while attending Stockton University and for some time after, Small said, but moved out to live in his own apartment in October 2015.

Frazier worked as a substitute teacher in Atlantic City schools, including at the Pennsylvania Avenue School, where La’Quetta Small was principal, between 2015 and 2017.

He was dismissed for inappropriate behavior after La’Quetta Small found out a minor child had stayed overnight in his apartment.