ATLANTIC CITY — Gov. Phil Murphy has decided to roll the dice and allow casinos to reopen in time for the Independence Day weekend.
Murphy announced Monday that Atlantic City’s nine casinos can reopen July 2 at 25% capacity.
The governor’s announcement was welcome news in Atlantic City, where casinos have been closed since March 16 to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The 106-day closure will go down as the longest stretch Atlantic City has gone without operational casinos since legal gambling began in the seaside resort in 1978.
“It’s exciting news. This is the first step to getting our economy back open,” said Mayor Marty Small Sr. “Hopefully, we’ll see droves and droves of people here, in a safe way, on the Fourth of July weekend.”
Experts say the timing of the reopening is important for the casino industry to recoup some of the lost revenues experienced during the nearly four-month shut down.
“In the past two years, Atlantic City’s casinos made 30% of their total net revenue for the year in the third quarter (July-September), so the next three months are crucial for them to regain some financial stability,” said Jane Bokunewicz, interim coordinator of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute for Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton University.
“Allowing casinos to reopen in time for Fourth of July weekend, traditionally one of the busiest of the year, is fantastic news for the casino industry, the employees, the casino customers and the businesses that depend on the casinos.”
Additional heath and safety guidelines are expected to be released in the coming days, but Murphy made clear that face masks — a recommendation in most other states that have reopened casinos — will be mandatory in Atlantic City for both guests and employees.
Individual casinos will have their own health and safety protocols, in addition to industry-wide standards the state will require for reopening.
“If any visitor refuses to comply with our simple safeguards, they’ll be escorted out,” Murphy said. “We’re not going to tolerate any knuckleheads trying to ruin it for those who wish to enjoy themselves responsibly.”
The governor did not immediately provide any details about how capacity rules would be applied, but occupancy limits within the casino properties exist for specific locations, such as the gaming floor, restaurants and bars, entertainment venues and hotel towers.
Atlantic City Fire Chief Scott Evans said officials are still waiting on clarification, but are currently gathering casino property data to determine the capacity limitations for each.
The official reopening date provides the casinos with a little more than 10 days to rehire staff and train them on updated health and safety protocols.
The time frame is in line with what casino industry executives have said they need to rehire and train employees, as well as ensure the properties can effectively operate under the new guidelines.
“We’re very comfortable and confident we’ll be able to open up safely and securely,” said Joe Lupo, president of hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. “We’ve been preparing and hopeful that we’d be open some time prior to the summer, so it was really a matter of getting the date. With over a week’s notice, we should be fine.”
With reduced guest capacity, fewer employees will be needed at each casino.
More than 26,000 people have been out of work since mid-March due to the casino closures and many have been unable to collect unemployment benefits because of the state’s overloaded system.
Bob McDevitt, president of Unite Here Local 54, the casino workers union that represents more than 10,000 hospitality and hotel employees in Atlantic City, said enforcement of the health and safety protocols was of “great importance,” and lauded Murphy’s commitment to them. McDevitt said some gaming companies, including those who have properties in Atlantic City, have been “grossly irresponsible” with enforcing protocols in states such as Nevada and Mississippi.
“(The governor’s) office has been very focused on the health and safety protocols, which will protect workers and our guests by utilizing masking and temperature checks for all who enter the properties,” McDevitt said Monday, adding he was confident the state would ensure strict compliance.
As evident in other states that have reopened casinos, there is a pent up demand for gamblers to return to their usual haunts. The threat of contracting COVID-19 does not appear to be a deterrent for gamblers such as Walter and Cheri Bukowski, of Gloucester City.
“At first, we thought it was (a good idea to close down the casinos) because (COVID-19) seemed like a serious thing,” said Walter Bukowski. “But now, it seems it’s not as serious as we thought it was.”
Others, such as William and Petty Allen, of Cherry Hill, said they are going to hold off on gambling for a little while.
“Not right away, but eventually we’ll come back,” Petty Allen said. “Safety-wise, we want to see what’s going on.”