Murphy’s Law Draw Fire in A.C.

The latest restrictions on restaurants and bars in New Jersey have industry people in Atlantic City pushing back on Governor Phil Murphy’s (l.) broad brush approach. The number of total cases and cases per capita pale in comparison to North Jersey, yet the restrictions apply equally across the state.

Murphy’s Law Draw Fire in A.C.

As of November 12, Atlantic County reported 6,012 cases of Covid-19, right behind Gloucester, but ahead of only six other counties. The numbers fall well behind those in populous Essex, Bergen, Hudson and Middlesex counties, all with over 20,000 cases, according to the latest data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Using cases per 100,000 residents as a yardstick, Atlantic County’s 2,280 also falls well behind most counties in North Jersey. Passaic County reported 4,607 cases per 100,000; Essex, 3,516; Union, 4,059; and Hudson, 3,777.

Yet if you run a restaurant or bar in Atlantic City, whether inside a casino or not, you fall in lock step with Governor Phil Murphy’s latest executive order to shut down at 10 p.m., a move designed to stem the growing number of cases in the state.

Does that seem fair?

Depends on who you ask.

“We do believe there should be a regional approach as many areas of the state don’t have high numbers and this will at least help those businesses,” said President Marilou Halvorsen, of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association.

Then again, there is a point to be made that Atlantic County can’t go just by who lives in the county.

“I understand the desire to have a more targeted regional approach. But it would be difficult to make decisions based solely on number of cases per county per capita as visitors come to the city from multiple counties in New Jersey and several other states. The county by county approach is more feasible in non-resort locations where customers are typically locals,” said Jane F. Bokunewicz, coordinator of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at Stockton University.

Bokunewicz said the restrictions—which also include a ban on seating at a bar—seem a better solution than a complete shutdown of indoor dining.

Still, the restrictions will clearly impact customer service and limit guests’ ability to enjoy all the amenities Atlantic City has to offer, she said.

“Most casinos in Atlantic City have at least one 24-hour restaurant because casino guests enjoy dining at all hours while they are on vacation or on an overnight stay,” Bokunewicz said.

But even in areas prone to high risk, there are other options, more palatable ones, Halvorsen said. Instead of having no bar seating, put up Plexiglas partitions to achieve the same results without impacting livelihoods more than they do.

Worse still, is the uncertainly from week to week, she said. “Businesses need to plan and forecast.  Having specific data to look for and anticipate is critical,” Halvorsen said.

Food and beverage operations and their employees already feel the effects of the 25 percent indoor capacity limit, Bokunewicz said. Employers can only bring back a certain number of staff.

“Further restrictions could make recovery even more difficult. Requiring restaurants and other food and beverage services to close at 10 p.m. will reduce the number of staff members that can return to work and limit work hours for those employees who have already returned,” Bokunewicz said.

In a briefing in Trenton on November 9, Murphy defended his actions. “The last thing I want to do…is to shut our economy back down, and thankfully, we are not at that point. No one up here wants to take the type of broad and all-encompassing actions like those we had to take in March. We are acting with more precision-based actions on what we are seeing on the ground.”

Murphy’s new edict did not score high marks in South Jersey especially with the one-size-fits-all approach.

“Businesses in South Jersey are hurting. New blanket restrictions are not what we wanted to hear,” Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, posted on Facebook. “These new restrictions were put in place due to soaring North Jersey Covid cases.”

The Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey put out a statement 9 expressing disappointment with Murphy’s refusal to “consider the vast disparities in health metrics throughout different geographical areas of the state.”

John Exadaktilos, owner of Atlantic City’s Ducktown Tavern, said he was “sick to his stomach” following Murphy’s announcement. He already told his 27 employees to file for partial unemployment, according to the Press of Atlantic City.

“Anybody who wears the same shoes I wear is nervous and mentally irate at the decisions because it does not make sense,” he said.

Since July, there have been 251 reported positive cases among those who work at a casino, with more than 60 percent occurring in October, based on data collected by the state Division of Gaming Enforcement. Of the total, 172 involved employees who work directly for a casino hotel, among them executives, housekeepers, bell hops, security personnel, kitchen workers, administrative staff, slot attendants and dealers. Another 79 cases work at various restaurants and bars.

Indoor dining resumed in early September.

While 251 sounds high, the numbers represent little more than 1 percent of the casino workforce, based on September employment figures. The low numbers speak to the success of health and safety policies implemented as part of the reopening plan.

In a statement, the Casino Association of New Jersey, which represents the nine casinos, said such policies are working.

“The industry has taken extraordinary measures to safely welcome back thousands of hardworking employees and valued guests, while also helping to minimize the exposure to Covid-19,” President Steve Callender said in the statement. “We will continue to work to give our guests the exciting experience they have come to expect from our first-class properties.”

And, he said indoor dining outlets remain open except between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Room service is available 24/7. So is the casino floor.

“As we see a rise in cases across New Jersey, we are focused on the health and safety of our employees, guests and fellow residents and will continue to work with AtlantiCare, our regional healthcare provider, as well as local and state officials, to refine and update protocols as local and state mandates evolve,” Callender said. “We remain dedicated to complying with, or exceeding, local or state-imposed mandates, restrictions and occupancy limits to try to maintain a healthy environment.”

(Casino) operators have to maintain the highest level of vigilance to stem the spread of this virus, said industry consultant, Daniel Heneghan. “A number this small shouldn’t come as any great surprise.”

Articles by Author: Bill Sokolic

Bill Sokolic is a veteran journalist who has covered gaming and tourism for more than 25 years as a staff writer and freelancer with various publications and wire services. He's also written stories for news, entertainment, features, and business. He co-authored Atlantic City Revisited, a pictorial history of the resort.