Atlantic City Considers Reopening Strategy

Following the lead of Governor Phil Murphy (l.), the casino industry will collaborate with AtlantiCare to formulate a plan to re-open the gaming halls.

At some point, Atlantic City will open for business again. Shoppers will stroll the stores at The Walk. People will play blackjack at live tables, and shove the equivalent of $20 bills into slot machines.

Guests will stay in hotel rooms. Dine at restaurants. See a show.

The overhanging question in the age of a coronavirus pandemic is when. And equally important, how.

Not everything will welcome customers at once. And customers will not rush the city like its Black Friday. The return will be measured. And it won’t be as the world was on March 16, when the casinos and so much more shut down.

Temperatures may be taken at the door for both employees and customers. Slot machines will practice social distancing. Tables games, too. Cash might be banned.

Plexiglas barriers could separate visitors and dealers. Masks for everybody, gloves as well, especially for games that involve touching cards or chips. Workers will wipe disinfectant on anything touched by hands, including elevator buttons.

Annoying? Yes. Required. Almost certainly.

Even with these additions to the environment inside a casino hotel, reopening could be weeks, if not months away, according to the Associated Press.

“It’s important to focus on safety,” said Jim Allen, president of the worldwide Hard Rock casino and hotel chain. “But I sincerely feel there are those who do not have a clue as to the economic challenge this is creating. The ripple effect of the trillions of dollars in debt we’ve just put on the United States…is something that we all need to be very focused on.”

Said Dennis Levinson, county executive for Atlantic County, “It’s not going to be easy. We won’t get back to where we were anytime soon.”

But revenue is not coming in, for the casinos, the city, the county, the state, he said. More than 30,000 people are out of work, plus those who supply the casino hotels.

“It’s a nightmare for them. There needs to be a clear strategy put in place,” Levinson said.

Local leaders want a regional approach to reopening soon, in recognition of both the smaller number of cases in South Jersey and the special needs of seasonal businesses here.

Atlantic County ranks 16 out of 21 counties with 868 cases and 35 deaths as of April 29. Cumberland County had 659 cases and 10 deaths, while Cape May registered 299 cases and 20 deaths. Compare that to the higher populated, much denser Bergen County with 15,251 cases and more than 1,000 deaths and Essex County with over 13,000 cases and almost 1,100 deaths.

“We said in the beginning that it’s not one size fits all in the state,” Levinson said.

Atlantic County Freeholder Chairman Frank Formica said county officials in Atlantic and Cape May counties are working together on a regional plan they hope the governor will support, according to the Press of Atlantic City.

“…the Cape Atlantic has to be under completely different criteria than the rest of the state,” Formica said.

But Governor Phil Murphy said despite the disparity, he is going to move the state forward as one, he told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press.

And that’s the way it ought to be, said Michael Pollock, managing director of the Spectrum Gaming Group.

“There aren’t enough potential visitors in South Jersey alone to justify the expense of a widespread opening,” he said.

Said Executive Director, Rummy Pandit, of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at Stockton University, “Standards are in place to provide a baseline of protection for all individuals and are a matter of public health and safety and must be adhered to and applied uniformly.”

When asked about the push to be open on Memorial Day, Pollock quoted California Governor Gavin Newsom. “The virus does not take weekends off. From the standpoint of Atlantic City, the virus is not observing Memorial Day.”

There is certainly a great deal of interest across the region in salvaging as much of the 2020 tourism season as possible. “The opening will to a large extent depend on what the pandemic numbers look like,” Pandit said.

To that end, Murphy released a six-point plan to get the state economy back on sound footing. “Our priority is to use science, data, and facts to put New Jersey on the road to recovery. In order to restore economic health, we must first promote public health,” he said.

Benchmarks include:

  • Sustained reductions in new cases and hospitalizations.
  • At least doubling the current testing capacity.
  • Contact tracing.
  • Resources for isolation and quarantine.
  • Economic restart plan, including social distance measures, face coverings and such.
  • Prepare for resurgence in cases in the future.

“The Division of Gaming Enforcement continues to engage with the casino industry in developing plans for the safe reopening of Atlantic City’s casinos when authorized by the Governor. These plans include protections for both casino employees and patrons,” said spokesman, Leland Moore.

According to a source in the industry, the casinos and the sportsbooks at the race tracks will be given directions similar to what the gaming houses did to reopen after Superstorm Sandy.

In addition, the casinos will compare protocols for Las Vegas counterparts like Wynn Resorts, MGM Resorts and Sands, a lot of it coordinated through the Casino Association of New Jersey. The association has sought guidance from John Hopkins, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Restaurant Association.

The casino association on April 29 announced a collaboration with AtlantiCare to develop a comprehensive plan that will prioritize the safety and well-being of employees, guests and the community.

“The pandemic not only threatened our health and safety, but the stability of the gaming and tourism industry, the industry’s workforce and families, and our state and local economies,” said Lori Herndon, President and CEO, AtlantiCare. “Reopening it at the right time, along with rest of our shore and regional businesses, must be our shared priority.”

AtlantiCare will provide resources in the weeks and months ahead including regional healthcare metrics, data, and forecasts; information about the effectiveness of protocols and best practices AtlantiCare adopted within its own health system; and assistance with other potential healthcare partners.

”We want Atlantic City to be ready to open as soon as the government determines it is appropriate. That is why we are working with our regional healthcare provider to ensure our properties are prepared and ready,” said Steve Callender, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey.

Callender went on to say the casino industry will make changes as needed, exceeding local or state-imposed mandates, restrictions and occupancy limits.

Pennsylvania is in the same boat.

“We do not know specifically when state and local government in consultation with health experts will give the OK to reopen,” said Kevin O’Toole, executive director of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. “The board staff will coincide with responsible initiatives taken by licensees to ensure appropriate social distancing throughout the gaming floor along with other protections like cleanliness of gaming equipment, furniture, restrooms, cage and cashier counters, and any area that patrons or employees access.”

Governor Murphy’s plan sets a high bar, and it is not likely that all points will be met, Pollock said. “Most important, it is not likely that there will be sufficient demand by Memorial Day among nervous consumers to take the risk and return in anything close to pre-Covid-19 numbers.”

Atlantic City has to be patient, Pollock said, as the risk of opening too soon outweighs the risk of opening too late.

“The ramp up will hinge on the operators ability to staff properties adequately, as well as implement new guidelines,” Pandit said. “Additionally, consumer confidence with regards to their safety will dictate visitation. Disposable income for recreational purposes will always be a consideration. It seems likely that achieving pre pandemic levels will take the better part of this year.”