Since they were allowed to open July 2, Atlantic City’s casinos have been working hard to try to make up some of the millions in revenue they lost during the coronavirus shutdown. Another shutdown would put them even further behind and put thousands out of work again.
So far, Gov. Phil Murphy hasn’t given any sign he’s considering closing casinos again as the second wave of the coronavirus wallops New Jersey. The state reported 3,998 new coronavirus cases and 15 additional deaths Sunday, while hospitalizations rose for the 23rd consecutive day.
Asked last week about Philadelphia’s decision to close casinos, Murphy said Atlantic City casinos have been responsibly managing their gaming floors to mitigate the risk, though any indoor activity is not risk-free.
“There is not any evidence that there is either bad management of the floor or that there is a big outbreak coming from participating on the floor,” Murphy said.
Despite the precautions — ranging from a 25% capacity limit, masks and plastic barriers — workers have been getting sick. More than 250 workers in the casinos and their restaurants were infected between July 2 and Oct. 16, with 60% of those cases occurring in October, according to reporting by the Press of Atlantic City. The Press said this represents about 1% of the casino workforce as of September.
Casinos were affected by the 10 p.m. curfew on indoor dining Murphy recently ordered. Food and beverage service in casino restaurants and on the casino floor must be suspended between 10 p.m. and 5 p.m.
The governor has said his administration is considering every option to try to reverse the surge of COVID-19 cases in the state. We asked three health experts whether keeping casinos open is a gambling with people’s health. Here’s what they had to say.
Bojana Beric-Stojšíc, director of the Master of Public Health program at Fairleigh Dickinson University:
Beric-Stojšic said that casinos around the world have been open, and noted she hasn’t heard any officials saying that casinos have been the source of any outbreaks. Still, she said, the risk of being in an indoor space with numerous people and shared surfaces is concerning.
“It has to be that they have the ability to clean everything, which is really questionable. I don’t know how they can possibly do that,” she said.
Beric-Stojšic said that to some people, visiting the casino regularly may be important. But this might be the year they should find an alternative, like online gambling.
“I think that we can take this year as just a year in our lives — no matter how old we are — that’s different,” she said. “And that we really need to adjust and change our way of doing things and find alternatives to some things that we have been doing comfortably before.”
D. Brian Nichols, virologist and assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Seton Hall University:
Nichols said casinos would have to really space out guests according to social distance guidelines, even at table games like poker or roulette. And if people are taking their masks off to drink at those tables, they could be exhaling the virus into the area around them.
“When you’re at a casino, people take it off to sip a drink, put it back on, have a conversation, and not everyone wears it correctly,” he said.
And even if you keep your mask on, being in any indoor space with many people is still not risk-free, Nichols said.
“Masks work far better than most of us thought they would at the beginning of the pandemic as far as controlling the virus. But I think we’re a little bit too comfortable sometimes in interactions and it gives us more sense of security than we probably should have,” he said. “I think it’s not really made clear in a lot of places that the mask isn’t foolproof, that it’s part of the response that has to go with the social distancing, the ventilation and the reduced density.”
Perry Halkitis, dean of and professor in the Rutgers School of Public Health:
Halkitis also said that anyone who feels compelled to gamble should consider doing so online because during the pandemic the safest thing for everyone is to stay home as much as possible.
He also worries that casinos have an atmosphere of risk-taking and, for some, drinking, which can combine in a “recipe for disaster.”
“To me, this is another one of those things that falls in the same category as bars,” he said. “People drink, they disinhibit.” And disinhibited people are more likely to forget to stay six feet apart, to keep their masks on or to take other precautions, he said.
Given the numbers of people working and gambling there, the shared spaces and surfaces being touched, there is the potential there could be a super-spreader situation, Halkitis said.
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