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What’s prime time look like at Atlantic City casinos? ‘It’s so discouraging.’

“We’re trying really hard to be normal,” said Kelly Hart, who spent Saturday night inside Hard Rock and other casinos in Atlantic City.

Leo Canayunan cleans the main walkway on the casino floor just after 10 p.m. at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. Because of a resurgence of coronavirus cases, food and beverage service ends at 10 pm.
Leo Canayunan cleans the main walkway on the casino floor just after 10 p.m. at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. Because of a resurgence of coronavirus cases, food and beverage service ends at 10 pm.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

ATLANTIC CITY — It was Saturday night at the Hard Rock Casino Hotel and all Joe Lupo could do was grimace. Last call had come and gone at the almost comic pandemic hour of 9:50 p.m., and the exodus had begun, as gamblers carrying their takeout noodles in brown bags headed for the escalator.

“It’s so discouraging,” said Lupo, president of Hard Rock, which two years ago took over the old Trump Taj Mahal, during the casino’s nightly governor-imposed shutdown of food and beverage service. “We were doing really well. We were really gaining some ground.”

He flashed back a year ago, when 5,500 people would have been exiting the Etess Arena from a Mariah Carey show, flooding the casino floor, the nightclubs just opening, and ballrooms filled with holiday parties. Prime time in any self-respecting Atlantic City casino would be just starting, not ending.

But these days, with coronavirus cases soaring, New Jersey restrictions forbid late-night dining or serving of alcohol inside the casinos, not to mention sitting at a bar. Atlantic City’s signature 24-hour industry, with assists from online gambling and revamped ventilation systems, is just trying to stay afloat.

Inside the Plum Lounge for high rollers

Inside the Plum Lounge, a dining area for X Card holders, a step up from the music-themed casino’s Rock Royalty, Raymond Saleeby, 75, of South Orange, leaned back in his chair and pondered what he was doing spending Saturday night at the Hard Rock during a pandemic.

“We’re just trying to live our lives,” Saleeby said. “The alternative is to go crazy at home. I watch the mask. I worry about it. I’m of the age when it’s a problem.”

» READ MORE: New Jersey’s restaurants and casinos do the math on reopening indoors

Risk takers by definition, the people inside Hard Rock don’t need reminding they were rolling the dice. Masking is enforced, new outside air is rotated into the Boardwalk casino 10 times an hour, temperatures are checked on the way in, and masked dealers preside over wheels of plastic-glass dividers.

Some were there to relieve boredom, others to pick up another coveted giveaway, like the boxed buffet warming trays being carted all around the Hard Rock one recent Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s amazing what people come in for,” Lupo said.

Some X Card regulars, like Debbie and Rob Lynch, of Edgewater Park, N.J., tuck inhalers into their purses and have spent most weekends at Hard Rock since July. “I feel like I’m in control,” Rob said.

Asked Tuesday how her visit to Atlantic City was going, Dina Trezza, of Atlantic Highlands, whose leopard mask matched both her shirt and the Double Leopard slot machine she was playing, responded: ”It started out good. It ended badly last night, and this morning, we’re back up.”

She did allow being a little leery of coming down to Atlantic City, but, “We figured they’re probably going to be shutting down again.” After 10 p.m., she said, it’s “drinks in our room.”

Ellis Johnson of Bridgeton, N.J., said he opened a successful soul-food restaurant, Little Mamma’s Kitchen in Vineland, during the pandemic with $10,000 in casino winnings. He was back Saturday at Roulette, winning another grand from behind a blue surgical mask.

» READ MORE: Beach home sales at the Jersey Shore are surging during the coronavirus outbreak

“I felt lucky,” he said. “I’m paying over six figures in taxes this year, and we opened up during the coronavirus. I’ve been winning $2,000 or more every week, four weeks straight.”

Outside Hard Rock, smokers forced outside under pandemic restrictions gathered alongside limos and taxicabs.

Diane Grieco waited outside her white stretch limousine — for a group of teenagers and a mom from Howell, N.J., celebrating a Sweet 16 at Hard Rock’s Sugar Factory.

Erin Downey, newly 16, gave the experience a thumbs-up. “I like the vibe in there,” she said before ducking into the limo.

A long, slow winter

The American Gaming Association says casinos nationwide recovered 81% of their revenue from a year ago, and earned $9 billion overall in 2020′s third quarter. Its COVID-19 casino tracker counts 880 casinos currently open and 116 closed, including Philadelphia’s Rivers Casino.

In Atlantic City, where casinos were closed altogether for nearly four months, fortunes have varied. Borgata reopened nearly a month after other casinos in July, when Gov. Phil Murphy initially prohibited indoor dining. Last month, it announced it was laying off 73 workers and reducing the hours of 349 others, in light of Murphy’s 10 p.m.-to-5 a.m. prohibitions. Its third-quarter gross operating profits dropped 97% from last year.

» READ MORE: Summer residents are enrolling their kids in schools down the Shore. But will they stay?

Others, like Ocean Casino Resort, saw operating profits more than double compared with last year, no doubt helped by the Borgata’s sitting out most of July.

Hard Rock has stayed steady near the top of the pack, grossing $28.8 million in October, second to Borgata at $41.2 million. But Lupo sees massive missed opportunities (alcohol-free New Year’s Eve countdown, anyone?), especially for a business that typically peaks between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.

“It’s going to be a long, slow winter,” Lupo said. “And there are going to be less people here and less people working.”

The pandemic economy has taken a severe toll on casino workers, especially tipped workers like cocktail servers and bartenders, says Bob McDevitt, head of Unite Here’s Local 54, which, pre-COVID-19 had 10,000 employed workers in Atlantic City and now has about 7,000.

Overall, Atlantic City casinos reported employing about 22,000 people in October, down 17% from 2019.

McDevitt said the union has had about 200 workers test positive, but “almost none of them we could trace back to work. It was almost always a family member, a gathering.”

“The numbers in Atlantic City are far lower than you’d expect in a place where there’s a lot of people, eating and drinking going on,” he said. The industry hoped for some kind of carve-out from the governor regarding late-night food and drink, but “there would be a howl of disapproval,” McDevitt said. And so far the industry has avoided a shutdown of late-night gambling.

Like the gamblers, most workers are focused on finances. “The vast majority of my members would go back to work with a day’s notice,” McDevitt said.

Lizzo covers at 8 p.m.

Hard Rock is trying to keep some of the old feeling alive, as best it can. It’s programmed a December Motown show inside a showroom. Saturday night, Steal the Sky, a duo at the lobby bar located just past the temperature checks and Elvis’ Rolls-Royce, delivered Lizzo covers as employees wiped down railings.

A group of friends from South River, N.J., tried to whoop it up, waving Wet Willie plastic cups over their heads as they sang along. All the bar stools had been removed.

“I don’t feel normal, but I have to try to feel normal,” said Kelly Hart. “We’re so over the COVID thing. We’re trying really hard to be normal.”

The casinos have seen a drop in the older demographic. “The older the customer, the less frequent they have visited since reopening post-COVID, especially those over 60 years of age,” said Nikki Balles, a Hard Rock spokesperson. Customers are primarily traveling from within a 150-mile radius, she said.

Others, such as Theresa Kennedy, come over from another part of town. Tuesday, she sat at a slot machine right by Marc Gawel, Hard Rock’s lead Wild Card Center supervisor, who announced the “Hot Seat” $500 slot credit winner every 30 minutes between 2 and 5 p.m.

These days, it’s what passes for entertainment.

“I’ve been here a lot since coronavirus,” said Kennedy, a real estate agent who lives in the Venice Park neighborhood. “I come multiple times a week. There’s really nothing else to do. I’m not able to travel. I’m staying overnight, even though I live in Atlantic City. I’m just trying to keep my spirits up.”