Ocean Casino Resort

Smoking is temporarily banned inside Atlantic City casinos because of COVID-19.

ATLANTIC CITY — Indoor dining and beverage service on the casino floor will return Friday morning, much to the delight of the gaming industry, employees and guests.

But, along with permitting food and drinks inside Atlantic City casinos, Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order also allows for the resumption of smoking indoors, a decision that raised health concerns from employees and guests.

“I felt safe at first coming back with all the (security measures in place),” said a casino dealer who spoke on condition of anonymity because casino employees are not authorized to speak directly to the media. “Now, how is letting indoor smoking safe? Not only to us, but our families and our nonsmoking guests. ... I feel like no one cares about us.”

As of 6 a.m. Friday, all nine Atlantic City casino properties will permit smoking under the same state guidelines that existed before the coronavirus pandemic. Per COVID-19 regulations, guests must wear a mask when not smoking or drinking on the casino floor and must remain seated while doing so.

By local ordinance, casinos are allowed to have smoking on 25% of the gaming floor at both table games and slot machines.

Steve Callender, regional president for Caesars Entertainment Inc. and president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, said the industry acknowledges the risks of smoking indoors, particularly for table games dealers who are stationary. Callender said individual casinos can, in some instances, accommodate a dealer’s request to work a non-smoking game, and many of the properties offer face shields to table game employees. He also noted that all table games have partitions between players and dealers.

“I think we protect them as best we can,” Callender said. “And, we’re just following the governor’s rules.”

William Douville, bargaining chair of UAW Local 1127, the union representing table game dealers at Bally’s, Caesars and Tropicana casinos, said permitting smoking during the pandemic was “ridiculous.”

“We would like them to issue a no-smoking order in Atlantic City until the end of the pandemic,” Douville said.

A spokesperson for the Governor’s Office responded to several questions about allowing smoking in the casinos by stating that Monday’s executive order “reverts back to existing state law, which generally prohibits smoking in almost all indoor areas, including all indoor restaurants, with the exception of certain areas that are specified in statute, such as casino floors.”

Murphy addressed the smoking issue Wednesday during his COVID-19 briefing, stating, in part, that action could be taken “if we can find a way to prove that health realities are worsened as it relates to COVID, in specific,” or if state legislators amended the 2007 New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act, which carves out a smoking exemption for Atlantic City’s gambling halls.

Casinos in Atlantic City briefly went non-smoking in 2008, but the backlash from guests was immediately evident and the industry pressured the city to reverse course within weeks. Revel Casino Hotel (now Ocean Casino Resort) was completely non-smoking, but the prohibition contributed to the property’s downfall, according to most industry experts.

The easing of COVID-related restrictions comes at a crucial time for the casino industry, which just reported a $112 million operating loss from being closed for the entire second quarter of 2020. Even after Murphy permitted casinos to reopen in early July, prohibitions against indoor dining, floor beverage service and smoking remained.

On Monday, Murphy issued Executive Order 183, which reads, in part, “After 6:00 a.m. on Friday, September 4, 2020, any retail, recreational, and entertainment business that is authorized to open its indoor premises to the public may allow the consumption of food, beverages, or smoking in those indoor premises, when otherwise permitted by State law.”

Jennifer Constantino, of Marlton, Burlington County, is among those casino patrons who believe the smoking ban should have remained. Constantino said if the entire industry was forced to comply with a smoking ban, then no casino operator would be at a competitive disadvantage, unlike when Revel decided to do it alone.

“I think that New Jersey is making a mistake allowing the smoking back in the casinos,” she said. “This was the perfect opportunity to continue the non-smoking in the casinos across the board.”

Since information about COVID-19 is evolving, the connection between smoking and the virus is not exact. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said smokers “might be at an increased risk” for contracting the virus. A recent article in Health magazine explored the idea that someone could contract COVID-19 from secondhand smoke.

“It’s plausible to presume that a plume of smoke, which is comprised of respiratory droplets, can result in COVID-19 transmission,” Dr. Osita Onugha, a thoracic surgeon and assistant professor of thoracic surgical oncology at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told the magazine.

Robert Zlotnick, executive director of Atlantic Prevention Resources and co-founder of the Smoke Free Atlantic City Coalition, said the group’s membership — which includes active and former casino employees — was concerned that allowing smoking indoors, particularly during a pandemic that affects the respiratory system, would increase the likelihood of guests and workers getting sick.

“While we are concerned about the long-term effects of secondhand smoke in the workforce in the Atlantic City casinos, this is not necessarily about that right now,” Zlotnick said. “This is more about the spread of the coronavirus.”

A 2008 Atlantic City visitor profile survey (no such study has been conducted since) performed by Spectrum Gaming Group for the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority found that 23% of casino customers smoke. As of 2018, the CDC estimated that less than 14% of Americans smoke.

Contact: 609-272-7222

ddanzis@pressofac.com

Twitter @ACPressDanzis

Staff Writer

I cover Atlantic City government and the casino industry since joining The Press in early 2018. I formerly worked as a politics & government reporter for NJ Herald and received the First Amendment: Art Weissman Memorial NJPA Award two years in a row.

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