Atlantic City Casinos And NFL Action: Back To Normal, Almost

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Were Atlantic City casino visitors “ready for some football” on the first Sunday of the NFL season?

No doubt about it.

Boardwalk sportsbooks took on a formidable amount of patrons, with chatter among the happy crowd being all about “normal,” “the new normal,” and “normal enough.”

The casinos are restricted to 25% capacity in light of the COVID-19 pandemic — but that is for overall square footage. For the sportsbooks, that did not necessarily hold.

Those familiar crowds

At Ocean Casino, home to one of the more spacious sportsbooks, proper mask wearing was consistently observed — as has been the case at the city’s casinos since most of them reopened on July 4 weekend.

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But six feet of social distancing was not as widely observed during an early afternoon focused mainly on the Eagles vs. Washington game, and a number of fans gathered in groups around tables did not necessarily seem as if they had “quarantined” together.

Customers also could lower their masks, of course, to consume their adult beverages — and they did.

Did it seem dangerous? It’s all relative. None of the scenes we witnessed could hold a candle to Las Vegas casino news of their cultural attitudes, for instance.

And those who chose to patronize the sportsbooks were a self-selected crowd of those relieved to revert to a familiar experience, with mask-wearing an acceptable tradeoff.

One bettor couldn’t resist showing off to NJ Online Gambling a complicated parlay that seemed headed toward turning his $40 wager into $1,325 as long as the Dallas Cowboys won on Sunday Night Football. (Thankfully, his next comment was, “I gotta hedge the hell out of that one.”)

Standing-room space available

By halftime of the early games at the DraftKings Sportsbook at Resorts (pictured at top of article), the book was roped off for being at capacity — a good sign. But there was plenty of “standing room only” space, and a security official took care to allow entry for an eager straggler or two once another patron had departed.

The city’s largest sportsbook was formerly known as “The Book” at Bally’s. But by Sunday, it had rebranded to “William Hill Sportsbook” — giving Las Vegas’s largest casino bookmaker rights to four of the eight physical books in Atlantic City. Ocean, Bally’s, Tropicana, and Harrah’s now operate under the William Hill umbrella.

An interesting twist at the Bally’s site was that the main seating area had a $15 cover charge. That is no big deal for a serious bettor, but many smaller fish settled for standing room spots in the spacious sportsbook.

For the more pandemic-phobic visitors (though not so phobic that they won’t enter a casino), the cover charge provided plenty of elbow room — and very comfortable seating.

Dining, drinking making a difference

New Jersey also resumed indoor dining at limited capacity on Sept. 4, including at Atlantic City casinos.

That no doubt helped lure the solid crowds overall on Sunday — although not all of the restaurants were open, so a would-be visitor would be wise to check on whether a favorite spot is available on the day of a visit.

At Ocean, for instance, Villain and Saint restaurant and Rocket Fizz Soda Pop and Candy Shop were closed on Sunday, as was the Exhale fitness center.

And keep in mind, in a reversal by Gov. Phil Murphy, indoor smoking is not permitted.

Slots and table game crowds

While sportsbooks in some cases featured somewhat crowded areas, that was not the case on casino floors. The slot machine areas had countless machines shuttered for social distancing purposes, and table-games players had plexiglass separating them from fellow customers and from dealers.

For somewhat wary casino visitors, then, the casino floors appeared less alarming than the sportsbooks.

Manual temperature checks were the order of the day on Sunday at all but Bally’s. Most casinos in the Northeast now feature the brief manual check, which is more reassuring than “non-invasive” protocols that allow all to walk through, with only those flagged for high temperatures being detained.

The only thing better than repeatedly being informed of a normal temperature, after all, is the tangible knowledge that all of your fellow patrons have passed the same test.

The most unusual sight of the afternoon was a “PPE vending machine” at Ocean. A $10 purchase was good for three COVID masks and some hand sanitizer.

As for the iconic Boardwalk, pleasant weather drew good crowds — and the summer-heated ocean did not lack for frolickers.

Atlantic City — still standing

One of the grimmer scenes of NJ Online Gambling’s “March Sadness” visit to Atlantic City during what would have been the first day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament until the pandemic struck was to see the locally famous Bill’s Gyro Souvlaki stand shuttered. The steel door that locked down the premises seemed to mock the “NEVER CLOSED!!!” sign on the awning just above.

But on this NFL Sunday, Bill’s was back in business — as were most of the mom-and-pop shops all along the Boardwalk.

It may have been mostly a lost summer for Atlantic City businesses, but fortunately, many found a way to survive.

As state poet laureate Bruce Springsteen famously wrote of Atlantic City, “maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”

In this case, the businesses apparently didn’t die — they just hibernated, in the high heat of the summer. Now, they rally to try to recoup their losses before the usual long winter returns yet again.

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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