ATLANTIC CITY — Without its casinos, especially as it began to feel like summer, you could make a case that Atlantic City itself found a bit of an unexpected groove.
Alcohol restrictions on the Boardwalk were ended, and what better place to go for banana-daiquiri-hopping? Old stalwarts like Dock’s Oyster House set up tents for outdoor diners. Unlike other Shore towns, Atlantic City never closed its beaches or Boardwalk during the coronavirus shutdown.
Beer gardens sported rooftop DJs and drive-up comedy shows. The much-touted Orange Loop, three Monopoly-themed blocks of bars and restaurants, suddenly seemed essential in a town with nine closed casinos.
A Boardwalk bicycle ride took you past yoga studio pop-ups and private boxing lessons with the ocean lapping up to the seawall. Dogs chased tennis balls in a park near the Absecon Lighthouse. Beaches filled up. Enormous fish were caught off piers. Surfers paddled out off States Avenue. Lots of alcohol was consumed. Lines formed for the cannabis dispensary.
Woah, stop that rose-colored jitney! Could this really be a glimpse of Atlantic City’s laid-back future?
There were plenty of reality checks, none more sobering than the frequent food distributions aimed at the 26,000 casino employees put out of work when casinos were ordered closed March 16, giveaways sponsored by the Casino Reinvestment Development Association, churches, and other donors.
On Thursday, even as casinos prepared to reopen at 25% capacity, some as early as July 2, others in the days after, cars of casino workers again lined up in Bader Field by the thousands to pick up crates of food.
The volunteers at the food distribution were themselves out-of-work casino workers, like Fre Howard, of Philadelphia, a member of the Stagehands union, Local 917 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts.
Howard, a single mom, makes a living doing wigs, makeup, and wardrobe at Atlantic City casinos (Lionel Richie and Mary J. Blige for two). Her prospects for returning to work in the near future are doubtful.
“It’s been very, very hard,” Howard said. “It’s been an emotional journey. It’s been rough. But with my brothers and sisters in union, it’s been a lot easier. We’re the forgotten people. It’s going to take a minute for it get back to normal for us.”
For Archie Womack, a housecleaner at Caesars for the last 25 years, seeing so many other workers at the food giveaway gave him pause. He’s still waiting for his unemployment benefits. “Welcome to the program,” he said. “Welcome to the family.”
He’s also still waiting for the call to go back to work, and put his hands together in a little prayer as he loaded up a shopping cart to wheel back to his nearby home.
A Black Lives Matter protest on May 31 laid bare the city’s racial inequities and frustrations and led into widespread looting along the city’s signature Tanger Outlets and along some neighborhood stores. Many of the outlets are still boarded up.
The next morning, Mayor Marty Small Sr. organized a citywide cleanup and promised that the famously resilient city would be able to rebound, as it has from hurricanes, bankruptcies, casino closures. Small soon pivoted to signing an executive order allowing open containers of alcohol on the Boardwalk, Gardner’s Basin, and Orange Loop.
Next was a news conference to announce the planned implosion of the former Trump Plaza building, an eyesore in the center of the Boardwalk owned by Carl Icahn, and a reminder of what counts for progress in this town.
Now, with casinos and amusement parks (Atlantic City has its iconic Steel Pier) poised to reopen, the city has a chance to put some of its pieces back together and test its historic resiliency.
“We‘ve had a ton of momentum going into this closure,” said Terry Glebocki, the CEO at Ocean Casino, the former Revel, a spacious building built in 2012 that has more often struggled to put enough people in the building, not worry about if they’re too close to one another. Ocean will be open July 2.
The 3½ months of coronavirus-induced casino closures have left their toll, but casinos say they are ready to welcome back customers and avoid the problems that have plagued other venues like Las Vegas, where mask usage was spotty among customers.
“Our guests have come to love the property,” Glebocki said, as she walked along a casino floor busy with cleaners, every other slot machine turned off. “We miss them. We’re looking forward to their return.”
Bob McDevitt, the president of Local 54, says he thinks three-quarters of the union’s 10,000 members working in Atlantic City will get their jobs back, because even with casinos at 25% capacity, staffing is being increased to keep things sanitized. The union is also concerned about health-care benefits running out for those who remain out of work and has been organizing car caravans in protest.
Glebocki says Ocean Casino is uniquely situated for a reopening during a time of worry about a global pandemic. Its air filtration system continuously brings air in from the outside, she said.
“Ocean is the newest building,” she said. “Because it’s so new we have the benefit of 50-feet-high ceilings. We have a very, very spacious casino floor. Social distancing is very easy to have here.”
As with other casinos, Ocean has a detailed plan for reopening and keeping casinos floors continually sanitized and people masked and distanced. Slot machines are being turned off, and stools removed. Table games are limited to three players. All employees will have their temperature taken with technology that measures their temperature when they scan in their work IDs at the security entrance.
Casinos are still waiting for the final requirements from the state, but anyone inside the casino will be required to wear masks, when they’re not eating or drinking.
At Hard Rock, opening at 6 a.m. July 2, guests will have their temperature screened before being allowed to enter, and anyone with a temperature of 100.4 or greater will not be allowed inside.
Especially in Atlantic City, these casinos, and their workers, are experienced at emerging out of crises. It’s hardly the first, and new slogans await. Hard Rock, the music-themed casino, is calling its new protocols “Safe + Sound.”
“It was the cards we were dealt,” said Small, the mayor. When all else is on pause, alcohol has long been a winning strategy in the seaside town that famously scoffed at Prohibition.