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Atlantic City Casinos Reopen In A Changed Pandemic World

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (CBS/AP) - For the first time in 108 days, slot machines will beep, dice will tumble and cards will be dealt at Atlantic City's casinos Thursday as they reopen amid a coronavirus pandemic that has drastically changed things both inside and outside the casino walls.

Casinos are allowed to reopen at 25% capacity as long as they follow social distancing and other health and safety guidelines.

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Gamblers will not be allowed to smoke, drink or eat anything inside the casinos. They will have to wear masks while in public areas of the casino, and they will have their temperatures checked upon entering.

Five of the nine casinos - Hard Rock, Ocean, Resorts, Tropicana and Golden Nugget - opened their doors Thursday morning, the first day New Jersey allows them to. Three others, Caesars, Bally's and Harrah's, will reopen Friday, after allowing their highest rollers a one-day head start on Thursday.

At the Hard Rock there's a long list of safety precautions in place to keep patrons and employees safe. They have a "safe and sound clean team" which has been formed to sanitize all surfaces in the casino, with a special emphasis on high-touch surfaces and common areas.

Thermal imaging will also take the temperature of guests as they enter the building. More than 200 hand sanitizer dispensers are in place, and the casino now has 1,000 new air filters.

As for gaming, you'll see more glass barriers, and social distancing will be enforced on the floor by limiting the number of playable slot machines, gaming tables and seats at each table.

"I feel safe here. I think it will work as long as you keep your distances and you do what you are supposed to do. Everything will be fine," guest Karen Varela, from Ocean Grove, New Jersey, told Eyewitness News.

Only the Borgata, the city's top-performing casino, will remain shut. It quickly decided to scrap its planned reopening after New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy canceled permission for indoor dining in the state, and imposed smoking and drinking bans on the casinos. The Borgata has not set a reopening date.

The last-minute changes, announced in a late-night press release Monday, rocked Atlantic City's casinos, forcing them to abandon reopening plans they had spent months making.

"Honestly, we were totally surprised," said Ron Baumann, regional president of Caesars Entertainment, which owns three Atlantic City casinos. "Our plans were to open up the restaurants at 25% capacity, and we were ready to do that. We've spent the last 2 1/2 days scrambling to come up with a new plan."

The casinos can offer take-out food to be eaten outdoors or in hotel rooms. Those that have outdoor beach or Boardwalk bars will use them; others are improvising by bringing food trucks to their entrances, or, as Harrah's is doing, moving a portable version of its Gordon Ramsay steakhouse to a tented rooftop area, dubbing it "Ramsey On The Roof."

Guests won't have to walk far to find hand sanitizing stations on the casino floor. The Borgata has built large hand-washing stations on its casino floor, fixtures that will remain even after the pandemic is over.

Resorts is using ultraviolet light among its disinfectants, and each of the casinos has brought on extra cleaning staff to give extra attention to slot machines, kiosks, bathrooms and guest rooms.

Many casinos have erected glass barriers to separate card players, and most have turned off slot machines at specific intervals to enforce distance between people who play them.

New Jersey shut down the casinos on March 16, and visitors returning to Atlantic City will notice some changes since then. They'll drive past billboards on the Atlantic City Expressway advertising concerts by '70s pop acts that were never held. And when they stop at the first traffic light at the end of the Expressway, they'll notice some stores in Atlantic City's outlet mall district that are still boarded up from a night of protests on May 31 over the death of George Floyd days earlier.

The 3 1/2-month shutdown has been devastating to the casinos' finances, as well as those of the thousands of people who work in them. In April, the first full month the casinos were closed, Atlantic City's gambling revenue declined by nearly 69% compared with the same month a year earlier. Statistics for May and June were similarly dire.

And many laid-off casino workers - including some who until Monday night expected to be back at work within days - will remain without a job. Bob McDevitt, president of the main casino workers' union here, said 60% of his union members had been scheduled to return to work this week. Now, as few as 30% may go back because restaurant and beverage workers will not be needed.

"Unfortunately for our team members, we had to re-lay off a fair amount of people," said Baumann, the executive whose company owns Caesars, Bally's and Harrah's. "It's excruciatingly difficult to do that."

(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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