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Indoor dining reopens Friday, but 25% capacity doesn’t work for some

After being closed for 24 weeks, restaurants can offer indoor dining Friday with a slew of safety protocols and at 25% capacity, Gov. Murphy announced Monday.

But 25% doesn’t work for every restaurant, especially those with smaller dining rooms.

“It doesn’t work too good for us,” said Angelo Mancuso III, owner of Angelo’s Fairmount Tavern in Atlantic City.

Spacing inside his restaurant is a challenge, as the dining space is broken up into smaller rooms. Because of this, he won’t open indoor dining until Murphy allows restaurants to operate at 50%.

Since outdoor dining was permitted in June, Mancuso created a 172-seat outdoor dining experience in his parking lot. At 25% capacity inside, he would only be allowed to have 68 seats inside.

“For me, I’m not going to do both inside and outside,” he said. “Even at 50%, we’ll still have more seats outside.”

To accommodate ongoing outdoor dining, Mancuso bought outdoor heaters for when the nights get cooler in the fall.

Maria Gatta, owner of Red Room Café in Ventnor, has the same challenge.

“My capacity is not worth it,” she said. “My capacity is 49 people at 100%. At 25% that is 12.5 people.”

The new guidelines include: parties capped at eight people; tables must be 6 feet apart; staff must wear masks at all times; diners must wear masks when they are not in their seats; and food and beverages can only be consumed when seated.

Restaurants that serve food to customers seated at the bar may do so as long as customers are 6 feet apart. Up to four people in a party can sit at the bar together, but must be 6 feet apart from other parties and individuals. Buffets, salad bars and other self-service options remain closed.

The governor said windows must be open and air conditioning units must be turned to allow outdoor air to flow into dining areas.

Murphy also said patrons are asked to wear masks while waiting for their food and once they are finished eating and drinking.

Walking around with a drink indoors will not be tolerated, he said, explaining that a server is the only person allowed to serve customers their drinks and food.

Like Angelo’s, Gatta said she’d open when she can operate at 50%. To help her business, the city shut down a portion of the side street next to her restaurant to allow for a tent and outdoor tables until Sept. 30, a date Gatta said will be extended.

“We’ll continue to do what we’re doing,” she said. “We purchased heat lamps, and who knows, it could change. I’m just looking forward to things getting back to somewhat normal.”

Local business leaders and officials said the governor took too long to reopen.

“Twenty-five percent is going to help them to some extent,” said Michael Chait, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce. “Some restaurants are only going to have one (to) three tables, but at the same time it’s something to get them open. It’s something to help employees keep working. It’s a start to get us living during the pandemic.”

Ocean City Boardwalk Merchants Association President Wes Kazmarck said it’s “too little, too late.”

“Governor Murphy’s announcement is a slap in the face to our members that were devastated all summer by his draconian one-size-fits-all solution to restaurants,” Kazmarck said in statement. “Allowing boardwalk restaurants — which are largely open to the outside — to open at the same capacity as fully indoor restaurants the day before our summer season ends is a cruel joke.”

Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said that even at 25% capacity, restaurants will continue to struggle.

“We missed Memorial Day, we missed Fourth of July, we missed Mother’s Day, we missed Father’s Day, so what do we get? Labor Day?” Levinson said. “Going forward I just think that it was overly cautious and very destructive.”

But for other restaurants with larger dining rooms, limited capacity could work.

Eddy Fernandez, general manager of Jo-Jo’s Italian Grille in Pleasantville, said he’s excited for both restaurants and customers.

“We’ve been waiting for it,” he said.

He added that all safety measures will be put in place and all staff, from bartenders to busboys to kitchen staff, will be brought back.

Frank Dougherty, owner of Knife and Fork, Dock’s Oyster House and Harry’s Oyster Bar in Atlantic City, said his restaurants will open for indoor dining but will keep outdoor dining “as long as we can.”

“We wish it would’ve happened earlier, but we’ll take what we get,” he said. “I don’t know why (Murphy) woke up Monday morning and gave restaurants four days notice, but we’re looking forward to a busy Labor Day weekend.”

breaking top story
Atlantic City casinos ready for indoor dining to resume

ATLANTIC CITY — The lifting of the statewide indoor dining ban was welcome news to casinos and their patrons.

Without indoor dining or casino floor beverage service, guests have been forced to eat and drink outdoors or in hotel rooms.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement Monday that indoor dining can resume at 25% capacity beginning 6 a.m. Friday also means thousands of casino restaurant and bar employees who have been out-of-work since March can return to their jobs.

The governor’s office has not responded to a question about whether beverages can be served and consumed on the casino’s gaming floors.

“We are very pleased to resume indoor dining this Friday, allowing us to bring valued team members back to work,” said Joe Lupo, president of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. “We have seen tremendous success with our outdoor dining venues, although weather variables have been a real challenge. Opening indoor dining brings back a key amenity that our guests know, love and deserve.”

Atlantic City’s nine casinos were shuttered March 16 to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Murphy permitted the gambling parlors to reopen July 2 and was also going to allow indoor dining to resume the same day.

But just days before the reopening, Murphy reversed course on indoor dining, citing a spike in COVID-19 cases.

The change of heart irked Atlantic City’s highest performing casino, Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, which elected to push off its reopening until late-July to better accommodate outdoor dining service.

Limited by their own 25% capacity restriction in addition to the indoor dining ban, Atlantic City’s casinos saw a decline in visitation and gaming revenue in July.

Jane Bokunewicz, coordinator of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton University, said “having restrictions lifted before Labor Day is a decision that is certainly welcomed by the (casino) industry.”

In the third quarter of 2019 (July, August and September), food and beverage generated more than $163 million in revenue for Atlantic City casinos.

“Although food and beverage revenue represented only 17.5% of total revenue, having indoor dining will make a visit to the casinos more attractive, especially to visitors who may have postponed their summer vacation plans,” Bokunewicz said.

Several casinos will continue to offer outdoor dining, weather permitting, in addition to indoor dining. Exact details regarding what will be open this weekend were still being worked out at each property, as of Monday afternoon.

Mark Giannantonio, president and CEO of Resorts Casino Hotel, said the Boardwalk property would be among those offering a mix of indoor and outdoor dining options, noting considerable efforts to expand al fresco offerings over the last two months.

Giannantonio said Resorts is “prepared and ready to safely welcome back guests to dine indoors at our award-winning restaurants,” and the casino is “committed to providing a clean and safe experience for customers.”

Ocean Casino Hotel said guests should check the casino’s website for updated information. Borgata said two of its pop-up outdoor concepts — Sunbar at The Water Club and Borgata Street Eats — would be closing Friday, but all of its signature restaurants, including Bobby Flay Steak, Old Homestead Steakhouse, Angeline by Michael Symon and Izakaya by Michael Schulson, would reopen Friday.

breaking topical featured
Gov. Phil Murphy's boat tax hike faces opposition in South Jersey

In his revised 2021 state budget, Gov. Phil Murphy plans $7 million in additional taxes on boat sales, a potential blow to an industry active in South Jersey that was just starting to do better during the pandemic.

Murphy proposed hiking the sales tax back to 7%, from its current level of 3.5%, and eliminating the $20,000 cap on how much tax any boat buyer would pay.

“I think that’s a terrible idea,” said Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, on Thursday. “One of the few highlights I believe (of the COVID-19 era) is the boating industry is doing pretty well. Why try to hurt that?”

The reduced tax rate was put in place in 2015 to try to help the industry, which had struggled with federal luxury taxes in the 1990s and again after the Great Recession of 2008 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

“People should realize that the boating industry recovered much slower from the Great Recession than other industries,” said Viking Yacht Co. President and CEO Pat Healey. Viking Yacht is based in New Gretna, Burlington County. “We were in a recession right through 2015. The sales tax exemption ... marked the beginning of steady growth, and for the first time in many years we saw an uptick in boat registrations.”

Mazzeo said he talked to Democratic leaders during a voting session Thursday, and “they think it’s not going to fly too well in the Assembly. Hopefully (the boat tax) is dead on arrival.”

Melissa Danko, executive director of the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey, said it would likely drive business to nearby states with a lower tax rate.

Her organization said Delaware, in easy reach of New Jersey consumers, has a 0% sales tax on boats; Maryland caps it at $15,000, while New York caps it at just under $20,000.

“While we acknowledge the serious financial condition the state finds itself in due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we firmly believe that greater economic benefit will come from maintaining the reduced tax and cap than would be realized from increasing the tax,” said a MTANJ statement.

State Senator Michael Testa Jr., R-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, called the $7 million the tax would raise “less than a simple rounding error in a $40 billion budget.”

“We are already the most tax burdened citizenry in the United States of America,” Testa said. “The last thing we should be doing is raising taxes, especially ... when citizens have alternatives.”

Testa said Murphy doesn’t understand shore communities’ reliance on boats and the boating industry.

“I think it plays into his version of identity politics,” Testa said. “It looks like he’s punishing the wealthier set ... but boating is an activity open to so many people — not just in the upper class but the middle class as well.”

Danko said the boat building industry has been struggling for years.

“Boat registrations have been plummeting since 2000. We’re down about 100,000,” Danko said.

She said the total number of boats registered in the state 20 years ago was about 243,000 and fell to 153,000 by 2017. Today it hovers around 149,000, she said.

“We had been in a downturn for quite some time, but with the recent pandemic had seen more activity as folks are staying closer to home ... and because people have had more free time,” Danko said.

She said the boat tax was cut to 3.5% in 2015 and capped at $20,000 by an overwhelming bipartisan vote, to help the industry recover, and to keep boat buyers from going to other states.

“It took a lot of hard work from (then State Assemblymen) Bob Andrzejczak and Bruce Land, (both D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic) to put bills together. They did a lot of fighting to get that through,” Mazzeo said.

In the Senate, then-Democratic State Senator Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, was a primary sponsor of the tax cut.

“I’m not a boater but was out on a boat a couple weeks ago with friends,” Mazzeo said. “It’s relaxing. You can dock up and support local businesses along the Intracoastal (Waterway). ... Now to double the taxes doesn’t make any sense.”

“We are going to have to look at the budget for October to July,” Mazzeo said. “We have to straddle the line on the health and welfare of the state and try to get us back to where we’re getting revenues where we need them to be. Adding new taxes isn’t an approach I want to see because so many people are hurting already.”

Angelo Mancuso III, owner of Angelo’s Fairmount Tavern in Atlantic City, says the restaurant has fenced off 5,000 square feet of its parking lot for outdoor dining, complete with new lighting, 35 tables and a full bar.

breaking featured
Claridge, Atlantic Club appeal casino regulator's failure to lift deed restrictions

{child_flags:featured}{child_flags:breaking}Claridge and Atlantic Club appeal CCC not lifting restrictions

{child_byline}DAVID DANZIS

Staff Writer


ATLANTIC CITY — The owners of the Claridge Hotel and the former Atlantic Club are appealing the Casino Control Commission’s decision to not remove deed restrictions on their properties when the state regulatory agency approved the merger between Eldorado Resorts and Caesars Entertainment, according to filed court documents.

TJM Atlantic City, LLC and Colosseo Atlantic City, Inc., allege the CCC acted “arbitrarily, capriciously and unreasonably” in rejecting a recommendation to lift restrictive covenants prohibiting casino gaming at the Claridge, Atlantic Club and Showboat Hotel Atlantic City when the agency signed off on the Eldorado/Caesars deal in July.

The Casino Control Commission declined Monday to comment on the appeal, which was filed last week.

Attorneys representing Colosseo (Atlantic Club) and TJM (Claridge) also declined to comment.

The Showboat did not join the appeal, although the former casino property is the only one of the three to explore becoming a gambling parlor again. Bart Blatstein, the Philadelphia-based developer who owns Showboat, has been found qualified by state gaming regulators to apply for a casino license.

Despite public proclamations that he would circumvent the deed restriction and construct a new casino facility next to the Showboat, Blatstein has since turned his attention to constructing an indoor water park instead.

Blatstein declined to comment on the appeal.

The state Division of Gaming Enforcement and an independent economist recommended lifting the existing deed restrictions in submitted reports and during public testimony.

Caesars executives agreed to the stipulation during the hearing.

Prior to the final day of the hearing, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City and Ocean Casino Resort, the two newest entrants into the market, petitioned the commission to be heard in opposition to lifting the deed restrictions. The commission denied the two casinos’ petitions.

The start of the last day of the hearing was delayed nearly 90 minutes without explanation, but two sources with direct knowledge have said the commission was discussing the merger’s implications with members of the governor’s office and staff.

Ultimately, the commission imposed 39 conditions recommended by the DGE, but elected not to force the newly formed gaming company — now the largest single operator in the United States and parent company of four of Atlantic City’s nine casinos — to lift the restrictive covenants on the three nongaming hotel properties.

In explaining the commission’s decision to not impose a condition to lift the deed restrictions at the conclusion of July’s three-day hearing, Chairman James Plousis said that doing so would “greatly complicate” the Eldorado/Caesars deal and that it was an “academic exercise seeking to remedy perceived ills” unrelated to the merger. Plousis suggested that further discussion involving all stakeholders was warranted.

Dan Heneghan, a retired public information officer for the Casino Control Commission and current industry consultant, argued in an op-ed published in a trade newsletter that the commission’s failure to lift the deed restrictions ran contrary to one of the agency’s core obligations, which is to encourage and preserve competition in the Atlantic City market. Heneghan said the commission’s decision would “further suppress” competition in Atlantic City.

The former Atlantic Club has been closed since 2014. TJM sold the property to Colosseo in 2019. The Claridge has been operating as a standalone hotel property since 2014.