“People could just come in droves. We don’t know. It’s a holiday weekend,” said Jason McKnight, a union shop steward at Harrah’s. He’s anxious, as Atlantic City’s casinos tweeted the news that the nine gaming halls will reopen July 2, but at only 25% capacity, following three months of lockdown that put tens of thousands out of work.
For McKnight it’s still not a sure bet. “Hopefully, I’ll get a call, and I’ll get to go back,” he said. “But I may not make this round. I mean, 25% occupancy is a very low occupancy. So we don’t really know.”
Joe Lupo, president of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, confirmed that hiring will be limited. “Unfortunately, I think you’re going to see much larger unemployment numbers than expected,” he said. “Just saying we’re open doesn’t mean we’ll be bringing back all our employees. Not at 25 percent occupancy.”
Lupo sees this soft opening as a chance to show Gov. Phil Murphy the casinos can handle guests with proper health and safety protocols. He has reduced hotel bookings at Hard Rock, and plans no big shows.
The Borgata will reopen July 2 by invitation only and won’t welcome the general public until July 6. Resorts is promoting a new air purifier.
Masks and health screenings will be mandatory for guests and staff, industrywide.
The governor issued a warning Monday to patrons who don’t take COVID-19 precautions seriously.
“If any visitor refuses to comply with these simple safeguards, you will be escorted out of the casino,” he said. “We’re not going to tolerate any knuckleheads trying to ruin it for those who wish to enjoy themselves responsibly.”
Lupo picked up on Murphy’s theme. “In the business of casinos, we deal with knuckleheads all the time,” he said. “We’re pretty adept at that. So with the better air filtration, to be able to have contact tracing, masks, plexiglass, occupancy limits, I really think we’ll be able to provide a safe atmosphere for our guests.”
Lots at stake for Shore resort
“In a perfect world I hope to see droves and droves and droves of people flocking to Atlantic City,” said Mayor Marty Small, adding, “with masks and social distancing, of course.”
The scaled-back July reopening comes just in time. Atlantic City casinos historically count on big, third-quarter earnings, and the city depends on casinos for jobs and tax revenues but gaming profits incurred record losses in April and May. A bill that just passed New Jersey’s Senate would give the industry millions in tax breaks.
“I think they need something,” said David Fiorenza, an assistant professor of economics at Villanova University. “If it’s not a tax break, they need something to have a Band-Aid for the next few months to push them, so that if we do open up at one hundred percent they will be ready to open up. I believe a lot of these places have spent a lot of their own money with plexiglass, and installing a lot of things for temperature taking, sanitation.”
The bailout bill could reduce the share of casino profits that support programs for the elderly and disabled, and it also imperils funding for city projects like a supermarket.
But the bill’s sponsor says that those funds would be in jeopardy, anyway, if the casinos don’t get any help.
“The casinos fund so many programs, for seniors and disabled, and if we don’t do something to help them get moving again those funds everyone’s worried about going away are going to go away,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.
He noted that the bill also provides $100 million for small businesses.
Meanwhile, casino workers plan more protests Wednesday to demand that the industry pick up health care costs that expire June 30 for 10,000 workers. Lupo said that’s contingent at least in part on getting Sweeney’s bill signed.