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Some South Jersey high schools bar fans from football games, as others limit capacity

The decision was difficult.

When the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association announced in mid-September that it would follow state guidance and limit attendance at outdoor events to 500 people, schools in the area scrambled to develop protocols for allowing fans into high school sports venues.

Some schools are allowing just families of players, band members or cheerleaders. Others are offering tickets on a first-come, first-serve basis.

But Bridgeton High School wanted to further ensure the health and safety of its athletes, coaches and staff members amid the COVID-19 pandemic, taking the step to not allow fans on the bleachers this season.

Fans are permitted to watch from outside the property or along the fences on the visitors’ side and end zones.

“We are in a pandemic right now, so it’s not an uncommon thing happening nationwide. Most college and professional teams are modeling no fans,” said Bridgeton athletic director Cyndy Wilks, who added that the Bridgeton Board of Education made the final decision. “I’m in complete agreement with my board. We just want to make sure the kids can have a safe and complete season. I’m trying to put the safest possible scenario together for the kids to be able to compete.”

Mainland Regional announced last week in a statement that it also would not allow spectators inside its complex or anywhere else on school property.

But with other schools allowing limited fans, Mainland’s booster club had another Zoom meeting Tuesday, with Superintendent Mark Marrone on hand, to continue its conversation about the fan policy.

After further discussion, Mainland decided to allow a limited number of fans, athletic director Mike Gatley said Wednesday.

Mainland will issue each senior player, band member and cheerleader two tickets for family. Each underclassman player will receive one ticket. The total will be about 200 fans on the home side, Gatley said.

An additional 104 tickets will be issued for the visiting team, but that number will decrease if the opposition brings its band.

No other admission will be permitted, including students.

“I’m absolutely excited about it,” Gatley said. “There is no question. We want fans and spectators at the games, but what has to happen, though, is we have to limit who those people are. That is where our (initial) concern was. We want to err on the side of caution for the kids, but at the same time we were trying to also work in as many fans as we can within safety reasons.

“I feel we came up with a plan that will help everybody.”

Masks are required for entry.

“They are going to be missed,” Gatley said about Mainland’s student fan section — the Corral Crazies. “They are second to none. I’m disappointed for them as much as I am for anybody,”

Bridgeton established a habit of following the COVID-19 guidelines the state and the NJSIAA put in place when practice started, coach Steve Lane said.

And his players want to continue that, even if that means not having fans in the bleachers.

“I agree with (the decision),” said Lane, who noted he had a meeting with players and students last week to make everyone aware of the spectator policy this season.

Both Mainland and Bridgeton will livestream their games.

“Parents want their children to be safe,” Lane said. “They want themselves and their families to be safe. So they all understood. I didn’t have anyone disgruntled about it. They were more concerned about their child’s safety.

“And my guys, the staff and the athletic department, we work diligently every day to ensure we are being safe on and off the field. … We are handling what we have to right now so we are able to get back to normal.”

Bridgeton will allow opposing band members and cheerleaders on the field.

“It’s new to everybody,” Wilks said. “Worrying about the fans is a small piece of people’s worries at this point when we are trying to have sports in a pandemic. This is not going to look how it normally looks.

“I would love for things to be back to normal and pack my stadium. But we can’t right now. … So we have to operate this new normal with integrity and keep our main focus — the health and safety of our students and staff.”

How many fans are South Jersey high schools allowing at football games?

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Poker will 'eventually' return to Atlantic City casinos, but when is anybody's guess

ATLANTIC CITY — Most live table games have returned to Atlantic City’s nine casinos with one notable exception: poker.

While other gaming jurisdictions have resumed live poker with strict protocols in place because of the coronavirus pandemic, Atlantic City casinos have yet to make the move.

“Poker is tough,” Steve Callender, regional president of Caesars Entertainment Inc. and president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, said during a remote discussion with the Greater Atlantic City Chamber last week. “It’s a challenge. I wouldn’t venture (to say) when we’re going to see poker come back.”

There are presently five poker rooms in Atlantic City casinos: Bally’s Atlantic City, Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Golden Nugget Atlantic City, Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City and Tropicana Atlantic City. Ocean Casino Resort had poker tables but removed them to make space for a new high-limit slot area.

The challenge with poker rooms is two-fold, Callender said.

The first issue is COVID-19 and how to open the rooms while keeping guests and employees safe.

In other gaming locales, most notably Las Vegas, poker rooms have reopened with table capacity limits and polycarbonate dividers between players. New Jersey’s regulations on reopening the casinos appear to allow for the reopening of poker rooms under similar restrictions.

But those limitations only underscore the second issue for Atlantic City casinos, which is the profitability, or rather lack thereof, of poker.

“A live poker room does not bring a great deal directly to the bottom line,” said Bob Ambrose, a gaming industry consultant, professor of casino management and former Atlantic City executive. “It does bring bottom line revenues to the other property amenities, such as restaurants, bars and even other non-poker gaming. ... I would say you gain more from it as a marketing tool for visitation.”

Big events, such as the Caesars Entertainment-owned World Series of Poker, bring attention and visitors to the properties, but not much in terms of gambling revenue compared to slot machines and other table games. Players wager against one another, while the casino gets a small commission, otherwise known as the rake, or charges a buy-in for tournaments.

In 2019, Atlantic City casinos with poker rooms reported slightly more than $27.2 million in revenue. The prior year, revenue generated from poker rooms was nearly $28.5 million.

“This is a business decision as well, and, frankly, we don’t make a lot of money in poker,” Callender said.

According to data reported by the casinos to state gaming regulators, Borgata was far and away the biggest benefactor of offering poker. The market leader also boasts the city’s largest poker room, with 77 tables. In 2019, Borgata generated nearly $17.9 million in poker revenue.

The Caesars properties with their World Series of Poker-branded rooms — Bally’s and Harrah’s — reported a combined $4.925 million in 2019. Tropicana, which is now a Caesars-operated casino, reported just over $2 million last year, while Golden Nugget and Ocean generated $1.037 million and $1.386 million, respectively.

But the casinos want to be able to offer guests the full resort experience, so poker rooms will “be back eventually. We just have to be patient.”

“Many serious players like the slower pace and methodical experience of a live game,” Ambrose said. “The poker footprint in the casino is a must have for diversification of gaming product and experience for the player.”

What were the biggest jackpots scored at Atlantic City casinos in August?

Exit Zero Jazz Festival returns to Cape May, but with a different look

Ralph DiPietro loves to travel, dine out and especially sit in a club and listen to live jazz.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken all of that away from him.

“I travel at least two or three times a year. My traveling is zero now,” said the 57-year-old. “I usually eat out. I haven’t eaten out at all.”

But he will be traveling to Cape May this weekend for the Exit Zero Jazz Festival.

The twice-a-year festival, which consistently brings in some of the biggest names in jazz, is happening Thursday through Sunday — outdoors and with pandemic safety protocols. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Septet with Wynton Marsalis headlines and opens the festival’s first night at 7 p.m.

The word “festival” brings to mind large groups of people sitting or standing close together, and often jazz music attracts an older audience — two things that raise immediate red flags since the outbreak of COVID-19 in March.

And Michael Kline, the festival’s executive producer and artistic director, is keenly aware of that.

“We try to give them a picture of what it’s going to look like,” said Kline, who has been putting on Exit Zero since 2012. “First thing that we tell them is you are not going to be sitting in a reserved seat at a concert. You are going to bring your chairs. You are going to sit in a reserved space. That space is going to be big enough for your two chairs. You are going to have at least 30 square feet of space on all sides of you.”

Kline knew he had to throw out his traditional model of a jazz festival with groups performing at multiple small clubs throughout town. He needed to spread things out and, more importantly, go outside.

“The cap on large events is 500. So we set that as our bar for what the capacity could be at any one venue,” he said. “And then we looked for venues who basically had acreage. ... We were looking for green space.”

Kline approached the Emlen Physick Estate in the heart of Cape May. The distinctive Victorian mansion also features a vast lawn perfect for an outdoor concert. So, Kline began putting on a weekly jazz series this summer to test the waters and see if people would come.

And they did. Kline said about 100 people would come out each week to the series.

That encouraged him to try another location that had a big open space — the Hawk Haven Vineyard and Winery in the Rio Grande section of Middle Township. At those weekly music shows, between 250 and 300 people would show up — sitting outside, socially distanced and wearing masks until they sat in their designated area.

“The feedback from patrons was that they love this and keep it going. They were buying tickets,” Kline said. “You roll these things out, and you never know if anyone is going to come. It’s always a big risk, but especially so in the middle of a pandemic.”

With the fall date for the jazz festival fast approaching and with some successful outdoor shows under his belt, Kline decided in mid-August not to postpone Exit Zero like he was forced to do in April. Realizing outside in November would not be pleasant, he petitioned Cape May to move up the date of the festival to the first weekend in October.

He also reached out to a few larger outdoor venues in the county. Soon, Cape May Brewing Company at the Cape May County Airport and the Nauti Spirits Distillery in Cape May signed up.

Convincing jazz fans, especially older ones, to return was an important step. He said the festival has a core group of a few hundred people that come twice a year, and he knew that detailed safety protocols would be key to convincing them to come this time around.

He relied on guidelines presented by the Event Safety Alliance, a nonprofit “dedicated to promoting ‘life safety first’ throughout all phases of event production and execution.”

“We do everything we can to make people feel comfortable to come if they make that choice,” Kline said. “Then, it’s just trying to convey to them how serious we are about all these guidelines and how serious that we all respect them.”

DiPietro was sold. Since 2012, he has driven from his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, twice a year to go to Exit Zero, buying VIP tickets each time.

He came to a couple of Kline’s summer shows and feels entirely comfortable with this weekend’s setup.

“The thing that has been impressive to me is he won’t tolerate people who won’t wear masks,” DiPietro said. “He has put (shows) on at places that have a lot of land and a lot of social distancing. He’s not packing it in. He’s not jamming 1,000 people into a little square box.”

Kline has also been careful to make the area safe for the performers. He has the stage set up so there’s no contact with the crowd. He bought several UV light wands to sanitize the stage and the equipment. He also has Plexiglas screens on stage in case band members need or want to be separated.

Bill Walton and his rock band will play the festival for the first time, and the Egg Harbor Township resident said after playing a couple of Kline’s shows this summer he’s not worried about safety.

“It was actually safer than being in my house,” Walton said with a laugh. “It was so spread out. I was just so comfortable. Everybody did their part. It’s probably safer than going to Walmart.

“And it’s more fun, and they have drinks.”

DiPietro, who is a musician in the Washington, D.C., area, thinks Kline has hit on something in putting on shows safely during the pandemic.

“I know how he’s set it up, and I think it’s brilliant. It’s kind of a new way of perhaps working through COVID over the next year and trying to give musicians some income,” said the lawyer and adjunct professor at American University.

Kline is excited for the fans and for the musicians.

“I had a couple of bands standing on the stage (at an earlier show) watching the crowds coming in and fill the space, and they looked at each other and just started giggling because they hadn’t played with each other since March,” he said. “They were really excited about it, and it was really kind of cool.”

However, he knows that safety has to be the biggest priority this weekend.

“The last thing I want is the Exit Zero Jazz Festival on CNN two weeks later and the festival has caused a cluster (of COVID cases),” Kline said. “We’d be out of business forever, and rightfully so.”

PHOTOS from the 2019 Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May

A high school football season like no other includes face masks on the field at Holy Spirit High School, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (VERNON OGRODNEK / For The Press)

Debate commission says it will make changes to format

NEW YORK — The presidential debate commission says it will soon adopt changes to its format to avoid a repeat of the disjointed first meeting between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.

The commission said Wednesday the debate “made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.”

One possibility being discussed is to give the moderator the ability to cut off the microphone of one of the debate participants while his opponent is talking, according to a person familiar with the deliberations who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The next presidential debate is a town hall format scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami.

Moderator Chris Wallace struggled to gain control of Tuesday’s debate in Cleveland because of frequent interruptions, primarily by Trump. The candidates interrupted Wallace or their opponent 90 times in the 90-minute debate, 71 of them by Trump, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.

Wallace, of Fox News, pleaded for a more orderly debate, at one point looking at Trump and saying, “the country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions. I’m appealing to you, sir, to do that.”

“Ask him, too,” Trump said.

“Well, frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting than he has,” Wallace said.

Biden on Wednesday called the debate “a national embarrassment.” But despite some suggestions that the final two presidential encounters be canceled, both campaigns said they expected their candidate to attend.

Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said the commission was “only doing this because their guy got pummeled last night. President Trump was the dominant force and now Joe Biden is trying to work the refs.”

ABC News’ Martha Raddatz, who moderated one of the three debates between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016, said Wallace was put in nearly an impossible situation. Faced with the same behavior, she said she might have called a full stop to the debate for a moment to recalibrate.

She never had the option, technically, to cut off the microphone of a candidate four years ago, she said. It also wasn’t in the rules that were agreed to in advance by the candidates and commission.

“To say, ‘He’s not going to follow the rules so we aren’t, either,’ It’s an unprecedented situation,” Raddatz said. “That was so out of control.”

Twitter was ablaze with criticism for Wallace early in the debate for losing control of the proceedings. That was illustrated by MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, who tweeted “What is Chris Wallace doing? He has no control over the debate. He asks a question and lets Trump continue yelling. This is a disgrace.”

By the time he was on “Morning Joe’’ the next morning, Scarborough had cooled off. He called on the debate commission to act.

“While it was extraordinarily frustrating, I think all of us need to walk a mile in his shoes before saying the morning after, ‘He could have done this, he could have done that,’” Scarborough said.

Some of the president’s supporters felt that Wallace was too hard on their candidate. Trump himself suggested he was also debating Wallace, “but that’s no surprise.”

Wallace even got some criticism from opinion personalities on his own network. “Trump is debating the moderator and Biden,” prime-time host Laura Ingraham tweeted during the debate.

Another Fox colleague, Geraldo Rivera, expressed more sympathy.

“The guy signed up to moderate a debate and he ended up trying to referee a knife fight,” he said.

Wallace, host of “Fox News Sunday,” was not immediately made available for comment by Fox.

There is some skepticism about what the commission can do that is really meaningful. “I’m not sure that there’s a format change that can solve that problem,” said Sen. Pat Toomey, Republican, of battleground state Pennsylvania.

Wallace is the only presidential debate moderator this cycle with prior experience, after receiving praise for handling the final Clinton-Trump debate in 2016. The other two moderators are Steve Scully of C-SPAN and Kristen Welker of NBC News.

Scully moderates the Miami debate, a town hall format where citizens get to ask questions, which may make interruptions more difficult.

“Having prepared for these, the town hall is a completely different event in the debate Olympics,” tweeted David Plouffe, an adviser to former President Barack Obama. “If Trump brings the same nastiness to Florida, it will be doubly painful to watch but it will be doubly painful for him politically.”

The Nielsen company’s estimate on how many people watched Tuesday’s debate was expected later Wednesday.