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How do Murphy, Sweeney view reopening Atlantic City casinos?

As pressure to reopen smaller businesses across New Jersey continues to grow, the state’s top two elected officials appear to be moving at different speeds when it comes to restarting South Jersey’s largest economic engine.

A scheduled teleconference Friday with Atlantic City casino operators and state officials about industry-wide safety procedures and a potential timetable for reopening could ease some of the tension between Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney, but for now, the two Democrats are not on the same page.

On Thursday, Murphy said the casinos were “an overwhelmingly important employer and element of our economy” but added gambling parlors are “a tough nut” and are more complicated than most businesses to reopen right now. Murphy said that although casinos have an advantage with large physical footprints that help promote social distancing, the indoor spaces are not well ventilated and sedentary.

State GOP sues Murphy over executive orders

The state Republican Party filed a lawsuit Thursday in state Superior Court in Cape May County seeking to overturn Murphy's executive orders shuttering nonessential businesses.

Sweeney told The Press of Atlantic City in an editorial board meeting Tuesday the governor’s administration was sitting on a plan submitted by the Casino Association of New Jersey and AtlantiCare.

“(The casinos) need to get back up and going again. They need to put people back to work,” he said.

The governor, when asked specifically about that plan Thursday during his daily COVID-19 media briefing, said it was being reviewed.

Unite Here Local 54 President Bob McDevitt said his labor union, which represents nearly 10,000 Atlantic City hospitality and hotel workers, and the casino industry were negotiating a health and safety protocol, but were still discussing “the finer points.”

At stake are millions of dollars in state taxes and fees generated from Atlantic City’s casinos, but also nearly 27,000 jobs and countless other ancillary businesses that support and depend on the gaming industry. The American Gaming Association estimated a two-month closing of Atlantic City’s casinos could result in nearly $1.1 billion in lost regional economy activity. A Stockton University economic professor put the potential impact closer to $5 billion for all of South Jersey.

Murphy ordered an indefinite closure of the city’s nine casinos March 16. The governor has recently started to permit certain “nonessential” business to resume, but many of the state’s small retail and service operators remain closed.

Sweeney said the casino industry is taking safety and health precautions seriously and is working in conjunction with some Las Vegas operators to implement best practices. He said if Murphy or the state Division of Gaming Enforcement wanted to make changes to the industry’s plans, they should, but that any action needs to happen sooner rather than later to offset long-lasting economic harm to South Jersey.

Sweeney admitted that casinos were among the toughest “things to bring back,” but, with two consecutive months of record declines in gaming revenues, he said the industry was “in trouble.”

Gaming regulators in other states, such as Nevada and Pennsylvania, have already approved and publicized reopening plans and protocols for casino hotels. Required social distancing and capacity restrictions, in addition to enhanced cleaning and sanitation policies, will be an industry standard in most gaming jurisdictions.

GALLERY: Gov. Murphy's Thursday COVID-19 press conference

Outdoor cinema to attract movie lovers in Vineland and Hammonton

As opening night of the drive-in movie season approached, Jude DeLeonardis, co-owner of the Delsea Drive-In Theatre in Vineland, used every available minute to prepare her theater for the influx of people to come.

“I feel obligated to keep it going. I feel every season, the sense of responsibility,” said DeLeonardis, who reopened the South Delsea Drive theater with her husband in 2004. “The bottom line is we will do what we do. We will fall short of some people’s expectations, meet some people’s expectations and exceed other people’s expectations.”

Compared to other years when DeLeonardis and her husband, John, operated the drive-in, people will be particularly happy to arrive at her property this spring, because currently, the Delsea Drive-In and Karpool Cinema at the Kathedral in Hammonton are among the few places in the state where people can see movies on a big screen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Delsea Drive-In has two screens.

DeLeonardis wants cars to be parked more than 6 feet apart to accommodate social distancing, so she said she will not sell tickets to more than 300 cars on a given night.

Patrons will have to buy tickets in advance through the Delsea website — delseadrive-in.com — to control the number of cars that arrive. Concessions will be available, but not bathrooms.

During the 15 years DeLeonardis and her husband have been operating the theater, they have attracted visitors from as far away as Delaware and Staten Island, New York, so she doesn’t think this summer with neighboring states in various stages of shelter-in-place will bring more people from out of town than usual.

With Hollywood not scheduling any new theatrical releases until July at the earliest, for its opening weekend, Delsea will screen the previously released “Midway,” “I Still Believe,” “Sonic The Hedgehog” and “Jumanji — The Next Level.”

DeLeonardis has a movie booker and does not pick the films herself.

“It’s a whole political thing. I have very little say-so in the process,” DeLeonardis said.

The first drive-in movie theater in the country opened in June 1933 in Pennsauken, Camden County. The Delsea Drive-In was built in 1949 and closed in 1987 until the DeLeonardises took it over.

Steven Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture & Television Commission, said he grew up with drive-in theaters, but they became endangered. The Delsea remains popular because it’s an alternative way to see movies, and it has a nostalgic factor, Gorelick said.

“There has been talk of several drive-ins opening in the state. Actual moviegoing can’t be replicated at home,” Gorelick said. “We should absolutely support the Delsea.”

One of those drive-ins that has opened in wake of social distancing is the Karpool Cinema at the Kathedral Event Center on South Egg Harbor Road in Hammonton.

Little Richard, flamboyant rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, dead at 87

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Little Richard, one of the chief architects of rock ‘n’ roll whose piercing wail, pounding piano and towering pompadour irrevocably altered popular music while introducing black R&B to white America, died Saturday after battling bone cancer. He was 87.

On May 13, Gov. Phil Murphy signed Executive Order No. 142, permitting car gatherings for the purpose of drive-in and drive-through events.

In less than 24 hours, Karpool Cinema was up and running for an in-car-only, outdoor showing of “Toy Story 4” May 14 through 16. This weekend, “Sonic The Hedgehog” and Disney’s “Onward” will be shown. The Kiwanis Club of Hammonton is sponsoring this weekend’s screenings.

Kathedral Event Center can handle 75 cars for each screening, with cars spaced 10 feet apart for social distancing, and will have a 40-foot screen up this weekend, said Maximilian Rodio, executive director of Kathedral Event Center.

“We had quite a bit of interest as soon as we put it out,” said Rodio. “This is a different experience, a change of atmosphere. People are able to bring food and drink (bathrooms are not available). We are charging by the carload.”

“We hope we are offering something for the community to do that is relatively inexpensive because of people’s financial hardships,” he said.

GALLERY: A look back at South Jersey movie theaters

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Health officials shutter defiant NJ gym days after it reopens

BELLMAWR — Health officials have shuttered a gym in Camden County that reopened this week in defiance of a state order that shut down nonessential businesses to help stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Orange stickers from the Camden County Health Department declaring an embargo and a four-page notice from the state Department of Health were found Thursday taped to the door of the Atilis Gym in Bellmawr. The gym’s owners said the signs were placed on the storefront overnight.

The gym reopened Monday and had continued daily operations, receiving summonses each day for violating the state order. Ian Smith, a co-owner of the gym, told WTXF-TV in Philadelphia that he and partner Frank Trumbetti plan on “dealing” with the notices and reopening Friday. Smith said the gym could have opened Thursday, but they did not want to violate the Health Department’s order.

Smith posted a video on Instagram on Wednesday morning in which he spoke about the 2007 Galloway Township crash that killed 19-year-old Kevin Ade, saying his past has nothing to do with the gym’s reopening.

The gym’s owners have said the decision to resume operations at the members-only facility was not about financial gain, but rather a question of Constitutional rights. They have also cited several steps they have taken to ensure social distancing.

Among the precautions the gym owners took were taping off workout stations and operating at 20% of the building’s capacity, meaning about 44 patrons at a time. They also were requiring patrons to wear masks unless they were in the middle of lifting weights.

Gym staff were taking patrons’ temperatures at the door, and anyone at 100.4 or above has not been allowed inside. The gym’s owners have also said it wouldn’t allow any new members to join.


New Jersey Sen. President Steve Sweeney and shared school Business Administrator Nick Brown, who serves Little Egg Harbor, Pinelands and Bass River school districts, meet on Dec. 2 at Pinelands Regional High School to discuss regionalization efforts.

Michael Karas/NorthJersey.com  

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy during his daily coronavirus press briefing at the War Memorial in Trenton, NJ on Saturday, May 16, 2020. Photo by Michael Karas/NorthJersey.com

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New Jersey unemployment applicants up by 41,323

About 41,000 more New Jerseyans applied for unemployment benefits last week, the lowest number of new weekly filings since the COVID-19 pandemic began shuttering businesses in March, according to Thursday’s report from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Nationally there were 2.44 million new unemployment applicants for the week ending May 16, the U.S. DOL said, and almost 23 million are collecting benefits. About 38 million have applied across the country.

More than 1.1 million people have applied for unemployment in New Jersey since March 15, state Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said Thursday during Gov. Phil Murphy’s daily COVID-19 briefing, and 15.3% of New Jerseyans are unemployed.

“That’s a level we haven’t seen since February 1992,” Asaro-Angelo said.

Some of the filers are independent contractors and gig workers who would not normally qualify for unemployment, but who are covered now by the federal government.

According to the U.S. DOL, at its height in the week ending May 9, there were 715,433 people receiving benefits in New Jersey.

For the week ending May 16, the total collecting benefits fell to 601,963 — a drop of 113,470, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

But Asaro-Angelo said the state actually provided benefits to more people last week than the previous week. He speculated the federal number was incomplete.

Good news on unemployment -- for some

Emails went out from the state as promised over the weekend to some of the people who have waited weeks for unemployment benefits, telling them their claims are now payable.

The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development said Thursday it has paid out $3.4 billion in unemployment benefits “as the global pandemic COVID-19 closed out its ninth week of wreaking havoc on the state’s workforce and economy.”

It also said it had moved 139,000 federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims to payable status, and began reviewing tens of thousands of older claims for extended benefits.

Asaro-Angelo said those 139,000 have not shown up in the state numbers of those receiving benefits yet, as they are certifying and will begin getting paid this week and in coming weeks.

Will thousands of "lingering" unemployment claims finally get paid?

Laid-off workers who have been waiting weeks to receive unemployment benefits because they have not been unable to reach a claims agent, are cautiously optimistic after an official said Thursday that 82,000 lingering claims will be paid next week without agent review.

“We’re very pleased to see the balance begin to shift this week with the number of new claims trending downward and the number being processed curving upward,” Asaro-Angelo said. “Our only focus remains getting benefits into the bank accounts of every worker as quickly as possible.”

Asaro-Angelo said the department had also stepped up its communications with claimants by email and text message, giving them information on the status of their applications, including those who had exhausted their 26 weeks of unemployment benefits and are now eligible for federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation for 13 more weeks.

“The first group of these workers will be able to certify for benefits on Sunday,” according to a news release from the department.

Part of the 139,000 were 82,000 people who have been waiting weeks for payments but who had been told they had to talk to a state agent. The department said it was waiving the agent contact requirement to get them paid more quickly.

Last week’s number of new applications would have approached previous highs in pre-pandemic times, but in the business shutdown caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, it seems tame.

The previous state record was 46,000 filings in a single week after Superstorm Sandy in November 2012, the state Labor Department has said.

In the week ending March 21, N.J. unemployment applications jumped 15-fold, from 9,467 to 155,454. The next week they hit 206,000, which has remained the weekly high so far.