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Bettors Gamble With Their Money, and the Virus, as Atlantic City Reopens

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Terril Tate left his house an hour before dawn on Thursday to be one of the first players at a craps table when the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino reopened at 6 a.m.

He was hoping for a win, and maybe a date. But Mr. Tate, 41, said he was also on a mission to pave the way for people who don’t yet feel safe enough — he called them “worry bots” — to venture into indoor recreational and leisure spaces.

“There’s got to be someone who goes into the fire first,” said Mr. Tate, a truck driver from Toms River, N.J. “Once enough people see it’s OK, they’ll come back.”

As cases of the coronavirus surge in states that reopened earliest, New Jersey forged ahead Thursday with its plan to allow casinos in Atlantic City to begin operating for the first time since March 16.

In the morning, workers vastly outnumbered bettors, but a mood of cautious celebration grew as the day wore on and long-dormant hotels began to fill with guests on the eve of a long holiday weekend.

The reopening came several days after Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, abruptly decided against permitting indoor dining based on troubling signs that spikes in the virus in other parts of the country were linked to crowds gathered in confined, indoor spaces like restaurants and bars. On Wednesday, New York also indefinitely suspended indoor dining.

The difficulty in striking a safe balance between the still-real threat of the virus and the economic needs of a region crippled by the shutdown was on full display at casinos up and down Atlantic City’s storied boardwalk.

Masks were mandatory on the sprawling gambling floors, and food, drinks and smoking were forbidden. Plexiglass separated players at poker tables manned by dealers in face shields. Signs filled with catchy, cautionary phrases — “A clean hand is a winning hand,” “Have a heart, stay 6 feet apart”— were as common as hand sanitizer.

At the Hard Rock, as soon as a customer stepped away from a slot machine, cleaning crews dressed in lime-green “Clean Team” T-shirts descended with spray bottles and wipes.

When Atlantic City’s nine casinos shuttered, 27,000 workers were instantly thrust out of work, leaving many to rely on food banks as they struggled to access unemployment insurance through a system bogged down by delays and glitches. An analysis by the Brookings Institution found that the economy of Atlantic City could be the third hardest-hit by the pandemic in the country.

Casinos in Las Vegas reopened a month ago with fewer safety restrictions than are in place in Atlantic City. Last week, a union representing casino workers in Las Vegas filed a lawsuit claiming employees were not immediately told that co-workers had tested positive for the virus.

Masks were initially optional in Las Vegas casinos, but are now mandatory as the number of cases in Nevada increases.

Early on Thursday in Atlantic City’s casinos, it was easy to maintain a safe social distance as crowds were sparse, which would not be unusual even in normal times.

At 10 a.m., there were 109 people at the tables and slot machines of the Ocean Casino Resort, in a space with a maximum capacity of 14,000, according to Mike Donovan, the chief marketing officer.

“I feel less at risk than in the supermarket,” said Virginia Hight, 71, of Mount Laurel, N.J., sweeping her arm toward Ocean’s empty rows of slot machines and open floor space. “You could bowl in this place.”

Ms. Hight said she came to play the slots mainly to get out of her house, and away from the constant reminders of her husband’s recent death. His death was unrelated to Covid-19, she said, and any qualms she had about her own safety were outweighed by her need for a diversion. The oxygen tank she uses to help her breathe rested discreetly at her feet.

“Probably I shouldn’t be here,” she said. “But it was good to get a shower, do my hair, put on my mask and come out.”

Some of the earliest arrivals at the casinos wore gloves, or carried damp washcloths, to protect themselves from germs. Most spoke of simply needing a break from the monotony of the pandemic.

“Just to clear my head — it’s relaxing,” said Rosetta Williams, 30, of Philadelphia. She was all smiles after winning $136 at a slot machine. And it was still only 6:15 a.m.

Mr. Tate said he was reveling in the newfound freedoms.

“Just the freedom of doing what you want, when you want,” he said. “Just back to the normal. Not ‘don’t do this, don’t do that.’”

Security precautions appeared to vary widely.

At the Hard Rock, every person who entered the building had their temperatures scanned by thermal imaging monitors. At Ocean, only the temperatures of employees were taken.

Another casino, the Borgata, decided not to reopen at all after the governor backtracked on indoor dining and drinking, limiting the nightlife that is so central to Atlantic City’s character and profit margins.

The chairman of Hard Rock International, James F. Allen, said he had also considered remaining closed.

“We probably are not going to make a lot of money,” he said in an interview. “But it’s just important to get people back to work.”

About 60 percent of the Hard Rock’s employees were back on the job, he said.

The casino, he said, decided early on to make an investment in imaging technology, given the likelihood that the coronavirus will be a prolonged threat in the United States.

“We just decided that this was not going to go away in a couple weeks, and it was important to invest in a long-term mind-set for the safety of our employees and guests,” Mr. Allen said.

The temperature devices also provide a facial record of everyone who enters the building — information that can be easily paired with surveillance cameras and the electronic cards most players use to place bets, creating an efficient contact-tracing system.

The inability to reopen restaurants and bars did lead some customers to cancel reservations at Ocean’s 1,400-room hotel, Mr. Donovan said.

“That’s a pretty tough combination to overcome,” he said. “But we’ll get through it, and hopefully in a couple weeks we’ll be able to have more expanded offerings.”

Still, he said the hotel expected to reach full occupancy by Friday night.

The Hard Rock decided to book only 75 percent of its rooms. Of the rooms available, 90 percent were filled on Thursday and it was sold out for the weekend, said Tanya Scalisi, a spokeswoman.

Joe Arnashus has the following of a celebrity as the founder of Everything A.C. Casinos, the largest gambling-related Facebook group of its kind on the East Coast.

He was invited to play the first ceremonial round of cards at Ocean Casino after a ribbon-cutting ceremony that featured dancers festooned in feathers and sequined face masks.

He said the safety precautions necessitated by the pandemic were a temporary inconvenience.

“We can live with it for a while,” Mr. Arnashus said. “We do the best we can with what we’re dealt.”

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