Atlantic City Casinos Resume Dining And Drinking — But Not Smoking

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The Atlantic City casino industry last week was given the green light to resume offering indoor dining — at up to 25% of capacity — as well as alcohol service and smoking.

But the latter amenity soon went up in … well, smoke, in what appears to be a push by a lobbying effort that worked on Gov. Phil Murphy.

An executive order posted last Tuesday allowed for gamblers to partake in a cigarette as part of their experience: “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.”

Atlantic City casinos have a limited degree of leeway in permitting smoking. And after the initial pushback, a spokesman for Murphy on Wednesday said that the executive order merely “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.”

But Murphy said that he might reconsider “if we can find a way to prove that health realities are worsened as it relates to COVID, in specific.” The COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of Atlantic City casinos in mid-March until most of the facilities reopened on the July 4 weekend.

Smoking resumed … until it didn’t

Smoking resumed in the casinos at 6 a.m. on Friday — only to be reversed a few hours later.

“We have looked closely at the science and agree with the experts who have concluded that allowing smoking is too big a risk to take,” Murphy said on Friday.

The issue of smoking in casinos is complex in general — and even more complex in the COVID-19 era.

As with reopening of schools, indoor dining, and other decisions, the debate comes down to balancing health concerns with economic ones.

The city’s casinos lost $112 million in the second quarter of 2020, and banning smoking may keep some major players away, and thus lead to fewer employees being able to return to work.

But union representatives for table game dealers and other industry workers point out that there is some science that suggests that smokers may transmit droplets that increase the risk of contracting a virus that particularly can be harmful — or even fatal — to older casino workers.

That’s the dilemma that Murphy faces, and it may explain why he landed on both sides of the equation in the same week.

Smoking a potential carrot for out-of-state gamblers

The fact that neighboring New York and Delaware ban smoking inside casinos also cuts both ways.

On the one hand, that can tempt a governor to follow suit. On the other hand, it also means that Atlantic City offering smoking — in however limited a fashion — may lure gamblers from both states to spend their money on the Boardwalk or in the Marina District.

Attracting discretionary spending from outside state borders, as opposed to simply seeing such spending move from one in-state sector to another, is a gold standard for economists.

State Senator Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, led a push for a reversal of smoking in casinos — at least for the time being.

“The science and facts are clear, COVID-19 overwhelmingly spreads when we breathe,” Vitale said in a statement last week. “Second-hand smoke and vapor from electronic cigarettes are enough, but there is absolutely no reason to believe smoking would not also spread the coronavirus because there is simply no way to smoke and wear a face covering.

“The governor is well within his power to prohibit nearly anything in this state if it would prevent the further spread of the virus. He has played on the safe side with most reopenings and regulations, and that is why allowing smoking indoors is so baffling.”

Bipartisan pushback

Murphy also was slammed by a Monmouth County Republican for his initial stance.

“The administration is consistently hiding behind emergency powers lately until they apparently need to do a favor for … who the hell knows,” said Declan O’Scanlon in a statement. “When the governor relaxed the rules for eating indoors he also says that now you can smoke indoors at a casino. I don’t care what anyone thinks about smoking indoors at casinos in normal times — whatever your position might be — but the idea that the governor would allow this now during a pandemic is ludicrous.”

O’Scanlon also pointed out that Pennsylvania — which previously allowed smoking in its casinos — has banned smoking during the pandemic.

Murphy ultimately agreed with those joint sentiments.

Vitale, meanwhile, wants to extend the ban permanently.

“This temporary ban can serve as the perfect model for a permanent ban that protects the public and casino workers,” he said. “Permitting smoking in any indoor space is barbaric, and in the case of casinos, driven by money.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

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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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