Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the writer and not PlayNJ.
There is a sad-but-true sports analogy to Gov. Phil Murphy’s abrupt policy reversal to postpone statewide indoor dining.
A team scores a game-winning touchdown, but the celebration is marred by a penalty flag. And it’s a bad call.
That’s what hit restaurants in general and casinos specifically on Monday. Amid the buzz of Thursday’s scheduled reopening of Atlantic City casinos, they were suddenly gut-punched by Murphy’s decision.
AC casinos rethink their plans
Some reverberations were instant.
Borgata had planned a so-called “soft opening” by invitation only Thursday, the first day Atlantic City casinos are permitted to reopen. It was going to open to the public on July 6.
Now, there is no scheduled date to come back. Thousands of employees just witnessed, figuratively, a delay-of-game penalty.
“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 casino’s parent company, MGM Resorts International, said in a statement shortly after Murphy’s unexpected announcement.
“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.”
Casinos that do open Thursday will not be able to serve alcohol on the gambling floor, according to an Associated Press report.
Murphy’s administration drew up reopening protocols that it delivered directly to casino operators Friday night, the report said. The rules included a ban on serving alcohol to gamblers on the casino floor.
“They told us no free drinks, no cash drinks,” said Steven Callender, who runs the Tropicana casino and is president of the Casino Association of New Jersey. “We can do room service, grab-‘n-go, but no alcohol on the casino floor.”
Several other casinos are weighing reopening options.
‘Knuckleheads’ spoiled the AC casino party
This is a strange, unwelcome about-face by the governor. Murphy, who has said throughout this process that “data determines dates,” went off-script.
The data — positive testing of less than 3% and transmission rate of less than 1% in New Jersey — drove the optimism that fueled last week’s press conference announcing the casino reopening. He also said then that casinos would not allow a few “knuckleheads” to ruin it for the thousands of people who want to return to work and that anyone not following social-distancing rules would have to leave.
Well, a few “knuckleheads” actually ARE spoiling the party.
Nobody inside a casino has committed a social-distancing offense, yet the industry now lacks dining, a customer-service catalyst.
The majority of patrons expect amenities. Meals, especially for loyalty-club members, is one of them. Not to mention New Jersey sportsbooks who are eager for a public gleefully extracted from the throes of PASPA. (Thank goodness for online books and mobile apps.)
Without the sit-down experience, many gamblers won’t come. And that reality unfolded from viral videos showing over-crowding at seashore outdoor bars this past weekend. Not from a casino.
The establishment owners and their mayors probably cared little in enforcing social-distancing guidelines and Murphy’s anger could be justified there.
But that should not impact casinos, who have too much invested in their operations not to comply with regulations.
Something is wrong with this knee-jerk response. It went too far, too fast, and was too broad.
Do casinos have a bone to pick now?
Murphy’s Monday announcement appeared arbitrary because last week he announced 25% statewide indoor dining capacity and expected it to go up shortly. Now it’s zero, based on nothing done by any casino.
This is destabilizing. The decision may disrupt casino plans after the properties have reached out to patrons, invited them for reunions, and promised certain benefits for their return. Those plans may be uprooted.
The casinos have a beef here if they want to express it. A big beef.
Murphy has already established the precedent that COVID-19 numbers are subject to interpretation. They were shelved during the recent protests when social distancing was not observed. And when many protestors did not wear masks. At the same time, church service gatherings were limited.
Murphy defended the discrepancy as outdoor activities being less punitive than indoor activities, a thin justification in the context of thousands of protestors and less than 50 church-goers.
If there are no COVID-19 rules in some cases, how can there be in others? Each policy contradiction strips away the altruistic image of battling the pandemic together.
Atlantic City casinos are ready for the responsibility
Murphy is correct — and rightly concerned — about indoor coronavirus spread. But he has applied that concern unevenly.
With Monday’s announcement, he appears to have gotten no input from the casino industry, which offers a wealth of cutting-edge capability and supports the state with hefty tax contributions. This decision came from outside the bounds of the regulator speaking with the regulated. It was strange.
Murphy’s warnings about restless people relaxing their COVID-19 crusade has been consistent. But this was a departure from that systematic approach.
It’s a decision he should rethink.
Casinos can handle the responsibility. Give them a shot at it.
In true gambling parlance, make it double or nothing. Let them work quickly up to 50% capacity, which they really need, and shut it down to zero if they can’t make it work.
The odds they would make it work? At least -260.