Melonie Johnson had cut out her work for her. She only started working as President and Chief Operating Officer of Borgata in Atlantic City on May 29 amid the angry coronavirus pandemic that forced casinos to shut down across the country.
Only a few days earlier, the nation had been horrified when police killed unarmed black George Floyd in Minneapolis, sparking protests across the country, some of which were violent.
"There was just so much going on with Covid-19, Black Lives Matter, in this current climate," Johnson said when she received the call asking her to move from MGM Resorts' Maryland National Harbor property to New Jersey. "Moving from Virginia to Atlantic City was a bit scary for me. But I knew the company needed me on this property."
Although new to New Jersey and all the challenges of a city that fought to polish its brand before the pandemic, Johnson is not new to casinos. She joined MGM in 2015 as President and COO of 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 maneuverability thanks to the virus, which continues to spread unabated in many parts of the country.
Johnson ran a closed casino for the first month – without ever meeting most of her staff in person. But she knew that many of them were afraid of being disabled or caring for family members who were at high risk of infection.
"We are all people first, think about how you want to be treated and start with it. It's like opening this business," Johnson told CNBC. "We can't just focus on the dollar … All companies are in business to make a profit, but now we have to put humanity first."
Still, when Johnson asked the workers to come back, 94% of them said, "Yes."
But just as New Jersey cleared the way for casino reopening on July 2, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy slowed down indoor dining because of rising infection rates across the country where the restaurants had reopened.
This caused great headaches for Atlantic City casino resorts to find out how to feed casino visitors and hotel guests.
Caesars, Hard Rock, Ocean Casino and others on the famous boardwalk have cobbled together outdoor restaurants or takeaway restaurants and opened on July 2nd.
The Borgata decided to postpone the opening for another three weeks.
"We held back until we felt ready. And we were able to offer the experience that our guests expected."
Now with street cafes, snack carts and meals in the room, the Borgata was only reopened on July 23 by invitation – – and will welcome the general public again on Sunday.
The returned employees find a completely different job with plexiglass signs, mandatory masks and a new boss.
Johnson, the first African-American woman to run an Atlantic City casino, is confident that Borgata can recover and makes it clear that safety for employees and customers is a top priority.
When asked about her first day in a new job, in a new city, reopening in the middle of a pandemic, and how it went, Johnson replied with a smile: "Better than I could have imagined."