ATLANTIC CITY — Gov. Phil Murphy ordered the closure of the city’s nine casinos, effective Monday night, as New Jersey continues to grapple with how best to minimize the spread of the new coronavirus.
Murphy said Atlantic City’s casinos will stay closed “until such time as it is deemed safe for their reopening,” but online gaming will continue to operate.
“It is no longer time for business as usual,” Murphy said Monday afternoon. “This is real. Stop believing folks who say this isn’t real.”
As of Monday, there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 in Atlantic or Cape May counties, according to state officials. There are now 178 total confirmed cases, including three deaths, in New Jersey.
“The closure of our properties is a prudent decision to ensure the safety of our employees, guests and broader communities,” said Steve Callender, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey and senior vice president of Eastern Regional Operations for Tropicana Atlantic City’s parent company Eldorado Resorts. “During this challenging time, we must all take the necessary measures to help prevent the spread of this virus. We look forward to reopening all of our casino resorts and welcoming back guests and employees as soon as it is considered safe.”
Mayor Marty Small Sr. said the entire city understands the potential impact the closure of the casinos could have on the community and greater Atlantic City region. The casinos have reported 21 consecutive months of total gaming revenue increases, dating to June 2018. Last month, revenue from table games and slot machines from the nine casinos was $218.3 million. Online gaming added nearly $52 million in revenue in February.
“We understand that the casinos are the economic engine, have always been,” he said Monday. “However, no one is exempt. This is a national pandemic. … I think Atlantic City residents’ and visitors’ safety is paramount.”
Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, Bally’s Atlantic City, Caesars Atlantic City and Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City announced plans to offer financial compensation and health benefit extensions during the indefinite closure.
As of March 1, there are 26,450 Atlantic City casino employees, according to the state Division of Gaming Enforcement.
“The reality is that for front-line, hourly workers in the hospitality industry this situation threatens not only their health, but their livelihood as well,” said Bob McDevitt, president of UNITE HERE Local 54, the labor union that represents more than 10,000 workers in New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania. “We call on both the casino/hospitality employers and New Jersey state officials to do everything in their power to ensure that a short-term health crisis does not lead to a longer-term economic crisis for working people.”
The state Legislature is working on passing a package of bills designed to protect workers who will be affected by mandatory closures of businesses throughout New Jersey.
Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato, both D-Atlantic, issued a joint statement Monday after Murphy’s announcement.
“We know it is in the best of interest of public health to exercise an abundance of caution during this pandemic,” the statement read. “The health and safety of casino workers and patrons are our utmost priority. Today, the Assembly will pass strong legislation intended to support families, workers and the business community during these challenging times. We will continue to work to find comprehensive solutions to help our state get through this crisis and emerge stronger.”
The well-being of employees affected by the statewide closure has bipartisan support.
“As someone who fought hard to keep our casinos open, I know nearly 30,000 employees rely on their casino job to support their families and save for their retirement, which they can only do if they and our visitors remain healthy and safe,” said state Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic. “I will continue working with Gov. Murphy, my legislative colleagues, the casino industry and the casino employees to ensure our working families stay well and can make ends meet until the casinos and other businesses reopen.”
The news of Murphy’s forced closure caught some casino workers and patrons off guard Monday, while others had been expecting the announcement.
Paul Robbins, 40, of Atlantic City, works as a shipping receiver at Hard Rock and said the closure would be tough financially, particularly since there is no timetable for a reopening. Between paying for child support and classes at Atlantic Cape Community College, he said, the loss of income will be difficult.
“It’s gonna be hard, real hard,” he said. “This coronavirus is going to have a huge effect on everybody, financially, socially.”
Ebony Mosley, 27, of Newark, was walking out of the Tropicana on Monday after celebrating her birthday there when she found out about the casino’s impending closure.
She didn’t feel rushed to get out of the city, she said.
“I don’t think the panic should be as much as it is,” she said. “But fear is really big.”
A group of four friends was leaving Caesars to head onto the Boardwalk and said that staff hadn’t told them about the shutdown.
“I guess we’re going home tonight,” said Pam Thoman, 32, of Bronx, New York, after mentioning the group would have to change their dinner reservations. “We’ve been monitoring everything back home, but we had no idea they closed anything with the casinos.”
The group was supposed to be staying at the casino until Tuesday to celebrate a birthday with friends.
Since casino gaming was first made available in 1978, Atlantic City’s gambling parlors have been forced to close five times, including Monday. Three times were for hurricanes (Gloria in 1985, Irene in 2011, Sandy in 2012) and once because of a state government shutdown in 2006.
On Sunday, Borgata sent out an internal memo informing employees that three table game dealers had displayed symptoms associated with COVID-19, but had not yet tested positive for the disease.
“This is an unprecedented public health crisis and we must all do our part for the public good and for the good of our employees and communities,” said Bill Hornbuckle, chief operating officer and president of Borgata’s parent company, MGM Resorts. “We will work hard to mitigate the impacts and will reopen as soon as it is appropriate and safe to do so.”
Staff writer Molly Bilinski contributed to this report.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with the correct total of number of Atlantic City casino employees, as of March 1, 2020.
DDanzis@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressDanzis