The monster storm is forcing Atlantic City's casinos to shut down for only the third time in 33 years, a blow to an industry suffering a long revenue decline.
"We had a full hotel last night and we would have had a full one tonight, too," said Don Marrandino, eastern division president of Caesars Entertainment, which owns four Atlantic City casinos. "Calling people up and telling them not to come feels very unusual. `Stay away' and `Please leave' are just not in our vocabulary."
All 11 casinos were shutting down Friday evening after the governor set a noon Saturday deadline for them to close. The Golden Nugget said it would try to keep open its hotel and restaurants.
"We have 300 rooms rented, and if people are stranded and have no place to go, I'm certainly not going to throw them out into the storm," said Tom Pohlman, the casino's general manager.
Under the governor's directive, casino hotel guests in all the gambling halls who found themselves stranded due to travel logistics problems were permitted to stay in the hotels.
In order to ease the emergency response to Atlantic City and southern New Jersey, authorities decided to close the southbound lanes of the Garden State Parkway to civilian traffic south of exit 98 in Wall. Traffic into Atlantic City was to be blocked at 6 p.m. Friday.
Since gambling was legalized in 1978, the only other times the resort closed were during Hurricane Gloria in 1985 and again for a state government shutdown in 2006.
Moments after Bill Wischuck put $20 into a slot machine early Friday at Resorts Casino Hotel, security officers came running over to him.
He hadn't won a jackpot. They were there to tell him to cash out at once because the casino was closing.
"They all came running over saying, `You gotta get out! We're shutting down!"' said the 66-year-old retired crane operator from Coatesville, Md. "So we're getting out of town."
Resorts, the first to close, boarded up all its ground-floor windows with plywood. Workers also filled more than 400 sandbags to protect against possible flooding.
"We're focused on trying to help everybody get back home," said Resorts co-owner Dennis Gomes. "If anybody comes in, we tell them the casino is closed and that we are shutting down."
Gomes estimated the lost weekend could cost his casino $3.5 million to $4 million in lost business at a time when Atlantic City's casino industry is stuck in a 4 1/2-year revenue slump due to increased competition and a bad economy.
"Business had been very good this summer in Atlantic City," said Robert Griffin, CEO of Trump Entertainment Resorts and president of the Casino Association of New Jersey. "This would have been one of our best weekends of the year. It's unfortunate that it came during a catastrophic hurricane."
Guests were shooed out of their rooms as early as 5 a.m. in some casinos, though others were still straggling out by late afternoon.
"We got kicked out," said Livette Phillips of College Park, Md., as she dragged her rolling suitcase down the Boardwalk. "We were OK last night, but at 5 o'clock this morning there was a notice under the door saying we had to get out. It's time to go, so we're going."
At the Tropicana Casino and Resort, crews removed beach chairs and umbrellas from an outdoor storage shed Friday morning.
"We're taking every precaution we can to secure the building and remove anything loose from outside the building and the roof, but it's actually beautiful weather out right now," president Tony Rodio said.
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