New Borgata casino president on leading during a pandemic

Melonie Johnson had her work cut out for her. She only started her job as president and chief operating officer of the Borgata in Atlantic City on May 29 amid the raging coronavirus pandemic that forced casino closures across the nation.

Just days earlier, the nation had been horror-struck by the police killing of unarmed Black man George Floyd in Minneapolis, which triggered protests nationwide, some turning violent. 

“During this current climate, there was just so much going on with Covid-19, Black Lives Matter,” Johnson recounts, about getting the call asking her to move from MGM Resorts’ National Harbor property in Maryland to New Jersey. “Relocating from Virginia, to Atlantic City, was somewhat scary for me. But I knew the company needed me at this property.”

Though new to New Jersey and all the challenges of a city that was struggling to burnish its brand even before the pandemic, Johnson isn’t new to casinos. She joined MGM in 2015 as president and COO of the Gold Strike Casino in Tunica, Mississippi before leading National Harbor. She had also worked for Caesars and for several Hollywood casinos. 

But the Borgata job requires a new kind of nimbleness thanks to the virus that continues to spread unabated in many parts of the country. 

Johnson presided over a closed casino for the first month — without ever meeting most of her employees face-to-face. But she knew many of them were scared, dealing with disabilities or caring for family members at high risk for infection.

“We’re all human beings first, and think about how you would want to be treated and start with that. It’s like, how are we going to open this business,” Johnson told CNBC.  “We can’t just be dollar focused … All businesses are in business to make a profit. But right now we’ve got to put humanity first.”

Still, Johnson says when she asked workers to come back, 94% of them said, “Yes.”

But just as the New Jersey cleared the way for casinos to reopen on July 2, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy put the brakes on indoor dining because of rising infection rates around the country where restaurants had reopened.

That created a huge, immediate headache for Atlantic City’s casino-resorts that needed to figure out how to feed casino visitors and hotel guests. 

Caesars, Hard Rock, Ocean Casino and others on the famed-boardwalk cobbled together outdoor dining options or “to-go” food and opened July 2.

The Borgata opted to delay opening for another three weeks.

“We held back until we felt that we were ready. And we could provide the experience that our guests had grown to expect.”

Now with outdoor cafes, food truck and in-room dining, the Borgata reopened, by invitation only July 23rd — and will welcome back the general public Sunday. 

The employees who’ve come back will find a very different workplace with plexiglass shields, mandatory masks and a new boss. 

Johnson, the first African-American woman to lead an Atlantic City casino, is confident in Borgata’s ability to recover and makes it clear safety for employees and customers is the top priority.

When asked about her first day in a new job, in a new city, reopening amid a pandemic and how it’s going, Johnson replied with a smile, “Better than I could have imagined.”

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