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Primary ballots may not arrive in time for election, voters should prepare to go to polls

Voters soon may want to either use one of the county’s five secure drop boxes or hand deliver vote-by-mail ballots to the Atlantic County Board of Elections.

Either option may be better than mailing the ballots back, said board Chair Lynn Caterson on Monday.

The overwhelming number of ballots being sent out and received by county offices is making it difficult to get ballots into everyone’s hands early enough to count on the mail for returning them on time, she said.

On top of that, voters who have applied for a vote-by-mail ballot and are still waiting for it to arrive may not get one by the July 7 Primary Election Day. Their only option may be to vote at the polls, Caterson said.

Her office has already received about 28,000 filled-out ballots by Friday afternoon, Caterson said. About 105,000 such ballots were sent to registered voters who declared as Democrats or Republicans. A number for previously unaffiliated voters who requested a primary ballot was not available.

The U.S. Postal Service is recommending that voters mail their ballots at least one week before the due date — next Tuesday, July 7, said USPS spokesman Ray Daiutolo.

Daiutolo said Atlantic County’s ballots are prepaid for First Class mail, which is usually delivered within 2-5 days. Under state law, ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day to be counted, and for this election can be received by the board up to seven days after the close of polls.

However, voters can still request a vote-by-mail ballot through Tuesday, June 30, a week before the primary vote. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for the application to be vetted and a ballot sent out in time.

Potential voters can also appear in person any time up to the day before the election to request a ballot.

Problems with the Statewide Voter Registration System, the computer system relied on by clerks to do that research, have also complicated the process, Caterson said. It has been crashing due to high volume of use.

“Legally, it’s in time (to request a mail-in-ballot) if received today,” Caterson said. “But, we are hearing from the head of USPS he cannot promise that, even if timely mailed, it will get there before Election Day.”

The time frame is shortened by the major holiday weekend.

Each town will have at least one polling place open, with machines for the handicapped only. Many towns will have several polling locations open.

But under Murphy’s order, most people who go to the polls on Election Day must vote with a provisional paper ballot.

“It is going to be hot, and masks are required as well as 6-foot social distancing,” Caterson said. “We do not want to make those lines longer, but given what USPS has actually said, if you haven’t mailed it in by now, go to the polls.”

Murphy ordered a mostly vote-by-mail election as a way of minimizing spread of COVID-19 infection.

The hotly contested Democratic primary in the 2nd Congressional District for the right to try to oust U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, is no doubt driving some of the voting volume.

Longport’s Brigid Callahan Harrison, a professor at Montclair State University; Brigantine’s Amy Kennedy, a mental health advocate and former teacher, and Vineland’s Will Cunningham, a former staffer with the House Oversight Committee in Washington, D.C., all have raised enough money to have to file Federal Election Commission reports.

West Cape May Commissioner John Francis is also in the race, along with Brigantine’s Robert Turkavage, a retired FBI agent.

“Voters in Ocean County traditionally like to go to the polls,” said Ocean County Freeholder Virginia E. Haines, liaison to the Ocean County Board of Elections. The county is one of the few in which Republicans outnumber Democrats. There are 89,000 registered Democrats and 145,000 registered Republicans, according to state data.

The Ocean County Clerk and Ocean County Board of Elections staff will be available to assist registered voters in person during special extended hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., starting on Tuesday, June 30 through Friday, July 3, and also on July 6 and 7. Staff members will be helping voters in the Mancini Room at the Ocean County Library, 101 Washington St., Toms River.

Extended hours with in-person help will be available starting June 30 as this marks the last day an application from an unaffiliated voter can arrive by mail at the Ocean County Clerk’s office.

Staff will be available to assist registered voters who may need to obtain a vote by mail ballot to get one in person.

“Voters can not only obtain a vote-by-mail ballot during these extended hours, but can actually vote the ballot and return it to the Board of Elections all at the same time in one location,” said Ocean County Freeholder Gary Quinn, who serves as liaison to the county Clerk’s Office.

During the last few weeks, more than 234,000 ballots have been sent to registered voters, according to the county. And as of June 24, almost 53,000 ballots had been returned to the Board of Elections, Haines said.

“Four years ago, during the last Presidential Primary Election, 5,928 mail in ballots were received and almost 83,000 votes were cast at the polls,” she said.

AC Boys and Girls Club announces plan for STEAM workforce development program

ATLANTIC CITY — From designing a logo and website for a neighborhood business to developing and coding the technology of the future, the Atlantic City Boys and Girls Club is rolling out a new STEAM Lab program this summer to prepare the city’s youth for careers beyond hospitality.

“What COVID has done for all of us, specifically at the Boys and Girls Club, is recognize the need for a diversified work opportunity,” said Mia Williams, the STEAM Lab director for the Atlantic City Boys and Girls Club. “As much as we love hospitality here in Atlantic City, we see what a pandemic can do to it.”

The STEAM program, which received initial funding from former state Sen. William Gormley and his wife, Ginny, as well as Lee and Sandy Levine, is bringing in big names in technology and local leaders to create educational and career exploration opportunities in science, technology, engineering, arts and math for students from Atlantic City, Brigantine and Ventnor.

Advisers to the STEAM program include Lisa Jackson of Apple Inc., formerly head of both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection; Salesforce Executive Vice President Suzanne DiBianca, daughter of Ginny Gormley; Stockton University President Harvey Kesselman; John Farmer Jr., director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute; Tony Rodio of Caesars Entertainment; and the Rev. Jon Thomas of Our Lady Star of the Sea.

“One thing about STEAM education is it helps people have a bigger vision. And when you can relate that to your own community, it’s easier to grasp,” said Stephanie Koch, executive director of Atlantic City Boys and Girls Club.

Koch said helping kids have a career interest early in life will help to curb the drop-out rate for high school students and keep them engaged in their education. She said she hopes that the program has a direct, social impact on the community where a fickle tourism-driven industry has led to high rates of joblessness and poverty.

Federal Census data show the median income for an Atlantic City household is less than $30,000 a year.

Unemployment in Atlantic City and surrounding areas was, for several years, one of the highest in the nation as the tourism industry here was slow to recover from the 2008 financial crisis. Then, just as the area was rebounding from the economic downturn, the region suffered another blow from the new coronavirus. A report earlier this month showed one-third of residents in Atlantic County were jobless.

For more than a decade, local officials have been attempting to diversify the region’s economy with higher paying jobs in technology and engineer. The nearby William J. Hughes Federal Aviation Administration Technical Center is one of the county’s largest employers, and a new aviation and technology park next door is hoping to draw in more, similar employers.

Atlantic County Institute of Technology Superintendent Phil Guenther, who is helping the Boys and Girls Club develop its program and curriculum for the STEAM Lab, said that it’s all connected.

“The aviation industry is an industry that we are looking to develop in Atlantic County, and it will take a wide set of skills for students to take advantage of those opportunities,” Guenther said. “It will only get better over time.”

Workforce development and training in STEAM is not new for the Boys and Girls Club, which last year debuted a Live Classroom concept with Jingoli and wind farm developers Orsted to train high school students at the club’s Teen Center in wind turbine technology. That program was put on hold in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That was actually one of the pieces to this puzzle,” Koch said of the Live Classroom. “We did have little bits and pieces of STEM education. What we’re doing is really focusing and deepening those career courses and pathways.”

The Boys and Girls Club has three locations — Chelsea Avenue, Drexel Avenue and the Teen Center at Pennsylvania Avenue — that serve about 2,000 kids.

The Teen Center was renovated last year to provide hospitality, health and technology training.

Renovation of the Chelsea location is underway for the STEAM Lab, which will focus on robotics and coding for seventh- and eighth-grade students. The Teen Center will house programs in graphic design, music and video production.

The Club is currently running a Donate Your Commute fundraiser to raise money to purchase vans, which will transport students from school to the clubs, between clubs, and home at night.

Elizabeth Terenik, president of the Chelsea Economic Development Corp., was already working with businesses in the Chelsea neighborhood, which spans from Texas to Annapolis avenues, beach to the bay, to determine ways to improve the area. When one of the priorities for stakeholders and residents was opportunities for youth, she began conversations with the Boys and Girls Club.

“We just started doing some digging, understanding how can we start moving in some better paying jobs in our community,” said Terenik, who is also project manager for the Atlantic City Development Corp., which developed Stockton University’s city campus and South Jersey Gas corporate headquarters. “We identified what are the jobs that are here or coming, and how do we make sure that the people in the Atlantic City community are prepared to be hired for those jobs.”

The STEAM Lab will, hopefully, play a large role in that preparation process, she said. In her role, Terenik will help to identify future funding sources to continue the program, including the state’s Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit Program.

Williams said the program will “set a groundwork for occupational opportunities for the kids to do something different.”

“I’ve seen kids at a high school level believe their only means of success would be to leave the city,” said Williams, also a teacher in the Atlantic City School District.

When the Boys and Girls Club opens its summer camp program July 6, Williams will begin working with about 40 kids in Adobe Photoshop training. After the camp ends, about 10 of those students will continue on in the training, which will last a total of six months and end with an associate certification in the program.

She said the students will be helping local businesses and putting their skills to use within the community.

“It is beyond refreshing be a part of Atlantic City and to also know that you have a bigger hand that actually sees the potential of something like this,” Williams said.

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WATCH NOW: Ocean Friendly Restaurants offer good food sustainably

As if the laundry list of restrictions for restaurants opening amid the new coronavirus aren’t enough, some eateries in South Jersey have been imposing even more conditions in preparing and serving meals — strict guidelines aimed at environmental concerns.

Restaurant take-out is one of the top contributors to single-use plastic pollution, according to the Surfrider Foundation, a national, nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect the world’s oceans and beaches. The Ocean Friendly Restaurant program, which includes 25 local businesses in South Jersey, is one of those networks.

Participating restaurants agree to actively reduce their plastic footprint by eliminating the use of single-use plastic and plastic foam. Instead, the emphasis is on using only paper straws, and offering reusable foodware rather than disposables when dining inside the establishment.

To step it up a notch, many of the restaurants in southern New Jersey are making an effort to use locally grown food, offering locally caught seafood. Others are also discouraging eating red meat and employing conservation measures like rain barrel water collectors.

“The Ocean Friendly Restaurants program started in New Jersey about four years ago to bring attention to the wasteful use of plastics by restaurants, especially in their takeout, where it’s really hard to get people to do the right thing,” said Bill Steumpfig, co-chair of the South Jersey branch of Surfrider.

Steumpfig said the response from restaurants and customers has been very positive. Restaurants get added exposure from a Surfrider marketing program and customers get to leave feeling good about their dining decision, which hopefully sparks a behavior change.

“We really wanted to do this because we have a natural love and desire to protect our ocean,” said Sarah Visalli, owner of Bandanas Mexican Grill, in Wildwood Crest. Bandanas is the first restaurant to join the program in southern New Jersey.

“Any seaside town economy depends on the health of the ocean. As business people, we have a responsibility to implement sustainable business practices if we want to keep doing what we’re doing.”

You won’t find any plastic when you order takeout from Bandanas. But you will find locally caught, and sustainably caught, seafood, Visalli said. And tucked away behind the restaurant, Visalli tends to planters filled with vegetables and herbs she grows for use in preparing meals.

“The coolest thing about this program is being able to contribute to the health of the environment,” she said. “It’s so rewarding to be able to implement sustainable business practices.”

The biggest reward, she said, is starting a dialogue about sustainable practices with customers. Another reward is watching parents explain to their children why ocean conservation is so important. The kids love the beach, she says, so it’s important to teach them how to protect it.

“Teaching the next generation about it and opening up the dialogue for people has been really, really enriching for us,” she said.

While some customers at Bandannas were not aware of the Ocean Friendly Restaurants program, once they were told about it, they all agreed it is a great idea and one that will keep them coming back.

“I think it’s ideal, especially since we’re right on the ocean, to be more environmentally conscious and responsible,” said Kelsey Rudzinski, from Scranton, Pennsylvania, as she waited for her order.

“A lot of people think that pollution is a mostly visual problem, that it’s unsightly and it’s dirty,” Carol Steumpfig said. “I don’t think they realize how destructive it is. It’s destroying the environment.”

Carol Steumpfig is an avid sailor who completed six transatlantic trips in small sailboats. On one of those trips she saw a large sea turtle breach the surface and swallow a large latex balloon that it may have mistaken for a jellyfish. Sea life depends on the ocean to be safe, she said, and the amount of debris floating in the water creates a hazardous environment. According to Steumpfigs and Surfrider, much of that debris is generated by restaurants.

The Surfrider Foundation is also offering participating restaurants free rain barrel collectors, made by the Steumpfigs, as part of the Ocean Friendly Gardens program. The couple constructs and decorates the rain barrels at their home in Tuckahoe. The water collected can be used for gardening to offset using drinkable water for outside use and keeps large amounts of water out of the drainage system.

Behind the Steumpfig home, their ocean friendly garden is filled with native flowers and plants watered by three rain barrel collectors attached to their rain gutters.

One of the rain collectors went to Goji Juice Bar, in Somers Point, where the water is used for its organic garden that sits in front of the restaurant off New Road.

“We found out last week that one inch of rain across a 250 square-foot roof produces about 50 gallons of water,” said Goji owner Scott Lindsay.

“We were thrilled to become a part of the Ocean Friendly Restaurant program,” said co-owner Julia Lindsay. “It matched our values as a company. We strive for sustainability.”

Goji offers reusable bottles for their juices, Julia Lindsay said, which decreases waste, and customers feel good about being a part of the sustainability effort.

For a list of Ocean Friendly Restaurants in South Jersey visit southjersey.surfrider.org/programs/ocean-friendly-restaurants

This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting Hub project.

No Borgata, no alcohol, no indoor dining when Atlantic City casinos resume business

ATLANTIC CITY — Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa will not reopen when gaming is allowed to resume Thursday as a result of Gov. Phil Murphy’s surprise announcement Monday that indoor dining would be indefinitely suspended.

Casinos were also informed Monday that beverage service of any kind, including alcohol, would not be permitted on gaming floors or at indoor bars.

As of Monday evening, only Borgata announced plans to not reopen.

“Our guests expect a special experience when they come to our property, and if we cannot provide that level of hospitality, we feel it best that we remain closed until such time that the governor lets us know it is safe to offer food and beverage,” a statement from Borgata’s parent company, MGM Resorts International, read Monday.

Borgata had initially planned to welcome back invited guests July 2 for a “friends and family” soft opening before the general public would be permitted back July 6.

The decision by the Atlantic City market-leader came Monday afternoon after Murphy reversed course on indoor dining and also informed casinos that beverage service would not be permitted.

“All of the casino operators are in the same boat and are still waiting for official guidelines in regards to reopening,” Golden Nugget Atlantic City General Manager Tom Pohlman wrote to loyalty program card members Monday. “This is a very fluid situation and we continue to adapt as we receive new information.”

Murphy nixed plans to resume indoor dining at a limited capacity over a lack of public adherence to social distancing and face mask policies.

“Compliance is not a polite suggestion. It is a requirement,” Murphy said during a news conference Monday.

The governor cited the spike in other states as well as reports in New Jersey of people not correctly wearing, or failing to wear, face masks as well as maintain distance.

“Unfortunately the national scene compounded by instances of knucklehead behavior here at home are requiring us to hit pause on the restart of indoor dining for the foreseeable future,” he said. Asked about a time frame, he replied, “I don’t think it’s a matter of days, but a matter of weeks. We have enormous sympathy but the alternative here is worse and unacceptable.”

Casinos are permitted to reopen Thursday at 25% capacity.

“We are waiting for details from Gov. Murphy’s executive order before updating our guests and team members on business operations,” said Joe Lupo, president of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. “We are disappointed that we cannot provide the experience our guests expect and deserve, as our brand has always excelled at prioritizing a premium guest experience. We are confident our enhanced ‘Safe + Sound’ protocols are a responsible approach to safely opening our property and bringing our team member back to work.”

Murphy shuttered all nine of Atlantic City’s casinos on March 16 to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. The 106-day closure will go down as the longest stretch Atlantic City has gone without operational casinos since legal gambling began in the seaside resort in 1978.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Cumberland, Salem, expressed surprise over Murphy’s announcement to not permit indoor dining following a Senate voting session Monday.

“I just got off the floor and heard about it,” Sweeney said, when asked what he thought of Murphy’s decision to postpone reopening of indoor dining, but not casinos. “I need to find out what the administration’s thoughts are.”

Prior to Borgata’s announcement, Sweeney said he did not think casinos would reopen if they can’t have indoor dining.

“That was a huge, huge piece of opening the casinos,” Sweeney said. “Who wants to go to a casino if you can’t get dinner or a drink?”

Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, released a statement Monday evening sharply criticizing Murphy’s decision.

“This is no longer about safety. This is Governor Murphy forcing businesses to die; businesses that just spent months investing and preparing to open at a time to which he gave his word,” Van Drew said. “How is going to a busy big-box store any safer than a prepared restaurant? ... I am completely disgusted and my heart aches for the pain these business owners are feeling after their dreams are being smothered by Governor Murphy’s cruel change of mind.”

Further complicating matters is the uncertain future of health insurance benefits for thousands of out-of-work casino employees. Unite Here Local 54, the casino workers’ union that represents nearly 10,000 employees in Atlantic City, has organized two caravans protesting the potential lapse of insurance on June 30.

The union covered insurance benefits for members for April, May and June, while all of Atlantic City’s casinos temporarily extended health insurance.

Staff writer Michelle Brunetti-Post contributed to this report.

Sports betting at Borgata in Atlantic City