Atlantic City casinos to close again?
On March 16, 2020, Gov. Murphy ordered a mandatory shutdown of all nine Atlantic City casinos due to health and safety concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. The casinos remained closed for over 100 days.
The Atlantic City casinos finally reopened in July but with many restrictions
The casinos finally received the go-ahead to reopen for the July 4th holiday weekend but only with special health and safety protocols in place. In fact, prior to being permitted to reopen, all of the Atlantic City casinos were required to submit a viable plan outlining their specific steps to protect both employees and guests.
For starters, the casinos needed to be extra vigilant in cleaning and sanitizing and in conducting proper health screenings of their employees.
In addition, attendance was limited to 25 percent of capacity, and social distancing and mask-wearing were strictly enforced throughout each property.
Each casino stationed security personnel at every entrance. This ensured that no one not wearing a mask fully covering their nose and mouth could enter the building. All overnight guests also had their temperature taken. While casinos were not required to check the temperature of other guests and players, many did.
The system was far from perfect, however. The responsibility still rested with those who were sick or who suspected they might have been exposed to the virus to stay away. But not everyone observed those guidelines. Likewise, anyone who had recently returned from a designated state known to have a spike in cases was ordered not to visit a casino for 14 days. That stipulation was also impossible to enforce.
And so far, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, all nine casinos have been able to stay open
Six months later, the virus has not gone away, and all of the aforementioned health and safety protocols remain in effect.
Now many people wonder what will happen in 2021. Will the Atlantic City casinos be forced to close again? Will any of them be hit so hard that, like many restaurants, they will have to close permanently? These questions are not as far-fetched as they might seem. The Pennsylvania casinos were ordered to close again on Dec. 12 after they had reopened last June. They were not given the green light to reopen until Jan. 4, 2021.
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What about indoor dining and drinking?
When the Atlantic City casinos reopened in July, Gov. Murphy ordered no indoor drinking, dining, or smoking outside of designated guest rooms. Initially, the governor indicated he would permit indoor dining and drinking. But he changed his mind at the last minute. The casinos had to scramble to make the necessary adjustments. One property, the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, even postponed its opening until July 26.
On Sept. 4, indoor service at restaurants and bars resumed. But like their outdoor counterparts, they could only operate at 25 percent capacity and with tables spaced six feet apart. Servers were required to wear masks at all times. Patrons were required to wear masks as well except when eating or drinking.
The maximum number of persons in a party being seated together was six at a table and four at the bar. Salad bars and buffets remained closed.
However, on Nov. 12, in response to the recent surge in new virus cases not only in New Jersey but nationwide, Gov. Murphy changed the rules regarding indoor dining and drinking yet again, making them even more restrictive. All indoor food and beverage service would come to a halt daily between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. In addition, patrons could no longer sit at the bar at any time.
As of this writing, all nine Atlantic City casinos remain open 24/7. But with regard to indoor dining and drinking, all of the latest restrictions remain in effect.
After a tough year, Atlantic City hopes to rebound
It goes without saying that the unprecedented casino closure of 100+ days has had a devastating effect on the local economy. However, long after the casinos reopened, their reported profits continued to be way down. Colder weather, reduced amenities, and the continued reluctance of many people to venture out in public all contributed.
In fact, as reported in my Dec. 7, 2020 article for NJ Online Casino, third-quarter Atlantic City casino profits had declined by 37 percent as compared to the same three months (July, August, and September) in 2019.
Once the fourth quarter figures become available, it will be interesting to see how they compare. But meanwhile, consider this bright spot. Unlike the second quarter of 2020 when the Atlantic City casinos reported a combined loss of $112 million, during the third quarter, all nine casinos showed a profit.
Another important factor in helping the Atlantic City casinos to stay afloat has been a tremendous surge in NJ online casino gambling. Internet gambling over the first 10 months of 2020 nearly doubled compared to the same period the previous year.
I foresee better days ahead for the brick and mortar casinos as well. Both reduced attendance and the added expenses that they have had to incur to remain open while fully adhering to the extensive extra health and safety protocols continue to cut into potential profits. But as James Plousis, chairman of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, has pointed out, taking these precautions has also had the positive effect of “minimizing risk and building a foundation for a successful recovery.”
Can the Atlantic City casinos remain open and avoid another shutdown in the foreseeable future?
I don’t have a crystal ball, but I strongly believe that the Atlantic City casinos will not only stay open but will be able to rebound strongly. Here are the reasons why.
- The Atlantic City properties have done an excellent job so far with regard to cleaning and sanitizing and enforcing social distancing and mask-wearing regulations.
- There is much greater awareness now, too, among the general public, as to what a serious disease the coronavirus is. More people realize that the best way to combat its spread and protect ourselves and others is to behave responsibly.
- Contingency plans are in place, if warranted, short of closing the casinos completely. For example, indoor dining could be temporarily prohibited again.
- Closing the casinos again would be the last resort that no one wants to see happen. It would be devastating. On the other hand, if the Atlantic City casinos not only remain open but achieve their previous level of success, that would send a positive message to casinos in other parts of the country that also face difficult times.
- The Atlantic City industry has shown tremendous resiliency in recovering from past misfortunes.
- Lastly, a COVID-19 vaccine is now available. The immediate priority is to give it to those at the highest risk (i.e., health care workers and the elderly). However, by the time Atlantic City’s peak summer season approaches, the incidence of vaccination will be much more widespread. That should translate into relaxed restrictions at the casinos and greatly increased attendance.