Atlantic City Casinos Are Back — With Limitations

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A visitor to Hard Rock Casino in Atlantic City at 7 a.m. on Thursday momentarily fumbled with his mask as he entered the premises for a reopening more than 3½ months in the making.

Immediately, a masked employee very politely — but very clearly — stepped up to remind the visitor that the mask must cover both the face and the nose to be most effective.

And so it went on Thursday during visits to the five Atlantic City casinos to reopen that day (Caesars, Harrah’s, and Bally’s reopen on Friday).

No state so far has had its casinos dip its toes back into the waters as carefully as New Jersey, after Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday night suddenly declared that the casinos, already ordered not to exceed 25% capacity, could not offer indoor dining or alcohol.

And the already limited smoking options at the city’s casinos? Gone, for now.

Borgata, the market leader, put off a reopening indefinitely off Monday’s surprise curveball.

AC casinos had tough choices to make this week

Did Jim Allen, the Hard Rock CEO, think for a moment about doing the same?

“Oh, yeah, we certainly looked at all the options,” Allen told NJ Online Gambling. “It was a last-minute thing that we had to adjust to. But we felt it was really important — we had promised our employees we were going to have a job for them here, so we stayed with our plans while obviously respecting the governor’s order. ”

Allen conceded that many high rollers might stay away for now given the limitations beyond gambling.

“What we’ve seen in our other locations that have been open for six or seven weeks is that people will adapt,” Allen said. “But most importantly, that type of individual is [staying]in a suite anyway. So we’re able to offer all those amenities in the suite itself. We have seen a lot of interest because of that.”

Hard Rock CEO Jim Allen spent part of his morning doing media hits

Can Hard Rock survive a summer with such limited casino-floor amenities, though? (The Hard Rock Cafe was open for breakfast, but that doesn’t quite count.)

“Well, we need to see what the business volumes will be,” Allen said. “The [25%] capacity is one issue, but if we max out the capacity that we have, we certainly can stay afloat. But if the visitation is down because people are apprehensive, then we’ll certainly have to revisit the business model.”

As if to underscore Allen’s point, a few minutes later the video boards at the casino showed a clip of Jersey legend Jon Bon Jovi singing “Livin’ on a Prayer.”

Walk right in, no waiting

We didn’t see any lines to get in to any of the casinos, and there were many reasons. The most obvious was the lack of secondary amenities. Also, there were five openings in one day — and the openings were staggered to as early as 6 a.m. for Hard Rock and Golden Nugget.

Our next stop after Hard Rock was Ocean Casino Resort. While that opening was announced as 8 a.m., we walked right in five minutes early. And as at Hard Rock, the number of visitors was minimal.

“A Clean Hand Is A Winning Hand,” read one sign on the casino floor at Ocean, where hand wipes were conspicuously available.

Ocean Casino had to compete with the ocean itself for customers on a sunny day

Another morning visit, to Resorts Casino, revealed that the DraftKings Sportsbook wasn’t open in spite of Korean baseball being shown on a screen a few dozen yards away. The empty Jimmy Buffett-themed Five O’Clock Somewhere bar, meanwhile, was just another reminder that Atlantic City casinos still have a long way to go.

But a more hopeful note was felt at Resorts from its sign reading, “Welcome Back, We Missed You! Stay Safe. You’re One Of A Kind To Us.”

After taking a break that included recording this week’s Gamble On podcast, up next was lunchtime visits to Tropicana and to Golden Nugget.

The afternoon in Atlantic City

Another hopeful message was registered at Tropicana: “Welcome Home. We Have Missed You.” The six-foot-apart social distancing markers, meanwhile, were shaped like colorful gambling chips.

Signage at Tropicana

The sportsbook at Tropicana was open — but to an audience of one fellow half-watching a replay of a Seahawks-Rams NFL game from 2019. A minute later, that attendance registered as zero.

Still, the few hours’ difference was noticeable. Countless young families at both casinos in the later visits were in the midst of checking in, with beach gear piled up for a weekend that didn’t suggest that indoor dining and drinking was in the cards anyway.

Instead, the Atlantic Ocean beckoned on a sunny, warm day.

A craps table at the Golden Nugget was just about the closest thing to having a “normal” feel, with six players participating.

Still, the croupier had plexiglass on her left and her right to keep her — and the players — safe. The players seemed to enjoy not all being encircled in such material, and other tables at Golden Nugget featured just two to three players but no barriers between players.

Sports betting is not really a top gambling attraction right now anyway

But unlike many casinos around the U.S., mask usage was mandatory and universal. No “rogues” were spotted over several hours of canvassing.

For those table-game players a little leery at sitting with a dealer clad merely in a mask, some of the casinos had dealers don clear plastic shields as well as the mask.

Dreaming of concerts? Dream on

In an final, non-gambling note, Allen provided a wakeup call for concert lovers. Hard Rock blends gambling with music as well as any casino brand, so Allen is an authority.

“As for live entertainment, we don’t foresee that happening at least through the end of the year — but maybe sometime next year,” Allen said.

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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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