By: Wayne Parry & Michael Catalini
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday postponed the resumption of indoor dining, and banned drinking and smoking at Atlantic City’s casinos as they reopen this week, causing one casino to scrap plans to reopen anytime soon.
Murphy said he acted because of a lack of compliance over the use of face masks and social distancing as the coronavirus outbreak continues to rage in many parts of the country.
The decisions had an immediate effect: Atlantic City’s top-performing casino, the Borgata, dropped its plans to reopen soon. It had planned to hold an invitation-only “soft opening” on Thursday and open its doors to the general public starting July 6.
Now, neither of those things is happening for the immediate future, and it was unclear late Monday whether the one-two punch of a smoking and drinking ban would cause other casinos to postpone their reopenings as well.
“No smoking is very bad for casinos,” said Steve Callender, head of the Tropicana casino and president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, told The Associated Press. Asked Monday night whether the smoking ban could be a deal-breaker that could cause additional casinos to choose not to reopen under such restrictions, Callender said, “I very well think it could.”
Murphy revealed the smoking ban in a press release emailed to reporters shortly before 10 p.m. Monday. The release also confirmed verbal reports from earlier in the day that the administration was prohibiting the serving of alcohol on the casino floor when casinos reopen.
In fact, the executive order was even more draconian, prohibiting the serving of any beverages or the consumption of any food inside the casino.
Atlantic City tried a smoking ban in 2008, but quickly dropped it after just 20 days when casino revenue plunged and gamblers complained. Since then, smoking has been restricted to no more than 25% of the casino floor.
The Borgata’s parent company, MGM Resorts International, said in a statement the conditions just aren’t right for them to reopen.
“Our guests expect a special experience when they come to our property and if we cannot provide that level of hospitality, we feel it best that we remain closed until such time that the governor lets us know it is safe to offer food and beverage,” the company said. “The health and safety of our employees and guests are at the center of all that we do, and we regret that, at this time, we are unable to welcome back the thousands of employees who are anxious to return to work. We look forward to a time when it is safe to welcome everyone back.”
The Borgata was the first casino to react to Murphy’s cancellation of indoor dining, and the Ocean Casino Resort said it planned to stick to its scheduled Thursday reopening. Executives at most other casinos said they were waiting for additional information from the state before announcing whether their reopening plans would need to be changed.
Murphy cited the spike in other states as well as reports in New Jersey of people not correctly wearing, or failing to wear, face masks as well as maintain distance.
“Unfortunately the national scene compounded by instances of knucklehead behavior here at home are requiring us to hit pause on the restart of indoor dining for the foreseeable future,” he said. Asked about a time frame, he replied, “I don’t think it’s a matter of days, but a matter of weeks. We have enormous sympathy but the alternative here is worse and unacceptable.”
New Jersey has been slowly reopening, and on Monday indoor shopping malls were cleared to start business again.
Indoor dining was to begin again Thursday at 25% capacity. Casinos are also set to reopen Thursday, also at 25% capacity. Murphy said that can go forward.
New Jersey has been among the hardest-hit states, which Murphy hinted at when rescinding the restaurant reopening.
“None of us, none of us want to go back to that hell. We’ve worked too hard to get here,” he said.
New Jersey reported 156 new cases overnight for a total of 171,000, Murphy said. There were 18 new confirmed deaths since Sunday, for a total of 13,138 confirmed COVID-19-related deaths. There are 1,854 suspected coronavirus-linked deaths.
The delay in reopening comes as the state progresses through Stage 2, of three, of restarting. So far, indoor retail has reopened, along with salons, barber shops and massage parlors.
Also set to reopen Thursday are amusement and water parks, playgrounds, museums, aquariums and libraries.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness or death.