Atlantic City should have been bustling with excitement on Thursday, with the city’s nine casinos filled with high rollers and big dreamers mingling from noon til midnight in the bacchanal that is Day 1 of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s 64-team bracket.
The casinos, of course, have been closed since Monday night per New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s emergency order in light of the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus.
But the second half of March is also when the Boardwalk’s mom-and-pop stores tend to reopen, slowly but surely, after a long winter’s nap. The same goes for the tourists, who for decades have been having a reawakening of their own in a parallel sequence.
That Thursday was the official first day of spring, then, only made the scene more poignant — no hustle, no bustle.
One “package goods to go store” on the Boardwalk on Thursday afternoon sported a sign proudly proclaiming, “NEVER CLOSED!” along with advertisements for a $3.45 Hebrew National foot-long hot dog and the availability of an ATM.
But just below the sign was a steel door extended to the ground in capitulation.
As James Bunting tweeted:
When Bill’s Gyro Souvlaki is closed, you know it’s serious. https://t.co/kCZhjitNxF
— James Bunting (@BuntsBratsBrews) March 19, 2020
Open for (nonexistent) business
But while Bill’s Gyro Souvlaki was closed, nearby Peanut World — “Atlantic City’s Largest Souvenir Store” — was open. Sort of. So was “American Owned — Over 68 Years” and “99 Cents Everything.”
As with a handful of other T-shirt and tchotchke stores, those owners or managers stood by gamely in hopes of scrounging up a sale or two in these bleak times. One pizza place appeared to be open. (I did not dare venture in.)
Their bad news was our good news. Unlike the infamous photos and — in another cruel irony — viral videos of mostly young people brazenly ignoring warnings and co-mingling in their own petri dishes, there were no crowds. Only Peanut World even drew a nibble, a pair of women who were nearly alone in walking along the Boardwalk.
The CDC’s “social distancing” protocol of standing six feet away from others to avoid infection was easily met. Twenty or even 30 feet could be managed, in fact, without much in the way of evasive tactics. The ratio of human-per-Boardwalk-block had to be less than 2 to 1.
And this on a partly cloudy afternoon with a temperature in the high 50s and little wind to speak of.
At Bally’s casino, an employee making up the “temporarily closed” sign on the window had the presence of mind to remind anyone turned away that “you can always play with us safely from home at CaesarsCasino.com.”
I drove all over town, worrying that I might see bands of bored teenagers hanging out on a street corner. But while there were people out, they moved in onesomes, twosomes, or threesomes and didn’t seem to be going to meet with anyone.
The long ride home
At the first rest stop up the Garden State Parkway, the Starbucks was closed, as was the pretzel stand and the general store. Only Burger King was open — and it, oddly, posted signs apologizing that “we are out of chicken nuggets.”
There were no other visitors inside, with only a manager and a solitary Burger King worker who appeared to be multi-tasking as cook and cashier — if only there were a customer to be found.
For the first time in my adult life, I drove through Newark at rush hour without a knot of traffic slowing me down. (There were cars, to be sure. But not so many as to cause backups.)
The whole experience fit the various words that keep cropping up, including “dystopian” and “post-apocalyptic.”
But this level of isolation, the nation’s leading medical experts say, is exactly what’s needed to begin to slow the growth of this contagion.
If even Atlantic City — a rebellious culture if there ever was one — is willing to play along, then maybe there’s hope for us yet.
Now excuse me while I go wash my hands.