ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - For a year, Gary Scromo of Staten Island, New York, would either walk outside one of Atlantic City's casinos if he wanted to smoke a cigar or just do without one if the weather was bad.
But last weekend, he was once again able to light up inside the casinos as a year-long ban, inspired by the coronavirus last July, expired.
"I walked inside and saw the ashtrays, and knew: Smoking is back," he said.
Smoking is indeed back at the nine Atlantic City casinos. But not everyone is happy about it, and even the state's governor is hinting he might look favorably on a bill that would permanently ban it inside the gambling halls. Democrat Gov. Phil Murphy said last week, "I would be very constructive on that," stopping short of saying he would sign the legislation.
Smoking foes are making a major push to eliminate the so-called "casino loophole," the one big exemption to New Jersey's law banning smoking in most indoor places, including restaurants and bars. They held a rally last week on the Boardwalk calling on the state's legislative leaders and Murphy to enact a permanent smoking ban in the casinos.
"In my 20 years as a dealer, I've seen too many of my coworkers experience serious health issues due to exposure to secondhand smoke," a casino dealer, Nicole Vitola, said at the rally.
Murphy lifted the ban, which was part of a health emergency that was allowed to expire as the state continues to vaccinate residents and case numbers decline.
The situation is now what it was before the pandemic: Casino patrons can smoke on no more than 20% of the casino floor, signs designate areas where smoking is allowed, and the casinos have invested heavily in air filtration systems.
But smoking opponents say those systems are not the answer, stating there is no healthy level of secondhand smoke.
Several casino executives declined to comment on the resumption of smoking at their properties this week.
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Earlier this year, the Casino Association of New Jersey, the trade group representing the Atlantic City casinos, said a permanent ban would do great harm to the industry.
"Banning smoking permanently would have long-term financial implications for the industry and the region," the group said in a statement. "Going completely nonsmoking would place Atlantic City casinos at a competitive disadvantage with other nearby casinos that allow smoking."
Such a ban would lead to fewer customers, fewer casino jobs and lower tax revenue, it said.
Scromo, the smoker from Staten Island, said the current arrangement is workable.
"There is a certain area where it's allowed, and that's it," Scromo said. "People don't have to sit there if they don't like it. I enjoy smoking at the casino when I play, but I'm usually at the slot machines. I can see where at a table, the dealer has to stay there, so I don't smoke at the tables."
Shay Trowery of Philadelphia is a smoker who recently started visiting Atlantic City casinos. But she opposes allowing smoking to return right now.
"I feel like COVID is still around," she said, adding it is impossible to tell whether a person has COVID-19 and could be spreading it through airborne smoke particles.
Baaqir Muta'ali of Atlantic City also smokes, but he, too, thinks it's a bad idea to let it resume in the casinos.
"Secondhand smoke is bad; we all know that," he said. "Even before the pandemic, I felt that smoking inside the casinos was bad."