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COVID-19 cautious

Businesses warily take ‘wait and see’ approach with coronavirus

To say it is business as usual for many shopkeepers and executives might not be what first comes to mind in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, which as of March 12 claimed one life in New Jersey and infected 23 other people.

Conferences and other major events left and right have been cancelled or postponed, and universities are evacuating their campus housing and ordering all classes to be conducted remotely.

But preparedness has been the mindset that many industry heads and public health officials are striving to maintain.

Michele Siekerka, president and CEO, NJBIA.

Siekerka

“Everyone is responsibly monitoring the situation. People are in a planning mode, and people should be operating [with] an abundance of caution,” Michele Siekerka, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, told NJBIZ.

To date, many employers are left to operate based on the guidance that the Department of Health rolled out on March 2, and more broadly the recommendations laid out by the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Employees should be encouraged to work from home, businesses should take part in routine cleaning and sanitizing of the office space, and workers should continue to practice basic hygiene, according to the DOH.

The CDC recommends flexible sick leave policies and to that end, New Jersey’s health department pointed to the state’s sick leave policy, ensuring workers are granted up to 40 hours of sick time a year.

Employers should not require a doctor’s note for a suspected case of coronavirus, the CDC guidelines read.

“Obviously caution has to be part of this and prudence has to be part of this, but also proper evaluation has to be part of this,” Tom Bracken, who heads the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, told NJBIZ.

Tom Bracken, president and CEO, New Jersey Chamber of Commerce

Bracken 

“Look at the grocery stores, the shelves are empty of certain things,” he added. “This has the potential to have some very serious, long-term negative impacts on our state, and that’s why I think diligence and prudence and making sure that things are done with appropriate responses” is the best route.

 

But many events have been cancelled – conferences up and down the state, for example, and large-scale conventions and events at Atlantic City could be at stake. MGM Resorts, which owns the Borgata Hotel and Casino Atlantic City, is putting a pause on buffet options at its Las Vegas casinos, according to local Nevada media reports.

While on March 10, the coronavirus had not yet reached the level of a “community spread” or “person-to-person transmission without a known COVID-19 exposure,” that showed signs of changing by the next day, according to Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli.

She maintained on March 11, at the Murphy administration’s now-daily media briefings on the coronavirus, that large-scale, “close quarters” events such as concerts and political rallies should be avoided. Only the day before, Persichilli said that those kinds of mass gatherings would have been fine to attend.

Open air events, such as the St. Patty’s Day parades, would still be fine to attend as of March 11, Gov. Phil Murphy said earlier that day.

Other sectors of the state’s economy hang in the balance, such as the 141-mile Jersey Shore, which boasts a tourism industry that brought in $44 billion to the local economy in 2018.

With seasonal hiring underway and many shore businesses ironing out who their customers will be this summer, those are questions which need answers sooner rather than later.

Jersey Shore business owners were, for example, worried about how their ability to hire via the federal J-1 Visa program might be hit by COVID-19, if at all, according to Siekerka.

For years, summer businesses have relied on J-1 Visa workers, who spend several months to work in the United States as a sort of cultural exchange arrangement. Of the 10,119 J-1 participants in New Jersey for 2018, 4,707 were in the state for summer work.

But there has been no indication that the U.S Department of State might tighten the program in light of the virus outbreak. The State Department did not immediately return requests for comment.

“Businesses are going to take lead from the government,” Siekerka added. Workforce during the tourism season is a challenge over the years.”

Interior of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City.

Interior of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. – AARON HOUSTON

NJBIZ interviewed executives at Atlantic City’s casinos and hotels. The seaside town in South Jersey has nine in-person casino-hotels, along with nearby hotels that altogether boast nearly 20,000 rooms.

The city plays home to hundreds of professional conferences and conventions, as well as tournaments, matches, festivals and concerts. Combined with gambling and beachgoers, Atlantic City brings in between 20 million and 30 million visitors a year.
Many of those businesses have beefed up their health and hygiene policies.

Jessica Kasunich, communications manager for the Atlantic City Convention Center, said that they received several cancellations from hotel properties from late March through May, but she did not disclose details of those cancellations. Many clients wanted to know if the center had any kind of approach to hygiene and sanitation in light of the coronavirus, she added.

“At this point, the situation is very fluid,” Kasunich said in a statement. “The destination is fully prepared to handle the inquiries and has streamlined our information and communication to our clients and attendees.”

Most events have been postponed until the warmer months, but not outright cancelled, according to Steve Callender, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, a trade group representing the state’s casinos.

“Atlantic City casinos are proactively installing various hand sanitation stations throughout our properties, frequently sanitizing high-traffic areas, and have implemented a return-to-work process for employees traveling in affected areas,” Callender added.

Some of the major events across the country which have been postponed as a result of the coronavirus include the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California; the NYC Half, a half marathon, and New York Road Runners youth event; and several Ivy League conference sports tournaments.

Tony Russo, president, Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey

Russo

“Will business take a hit – yeah, I think if the fears continue to grow and people pull back, I wouldn’t be surprised if you had an impact on business,” added Anthony Russo, who heads the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey.

Hard Rock Hotel Casino Atlantic City also ramped up its sanitation and hygiene practices, but nonetheless does not expect a drop in customer turnout.

“We have not seen any significant decrease in volume,” Nikki Balles, who heads public relations at Hard Rock told NJBIZ. “We actually have a sold-out show this weekend, and we’re continuing to book entertainment into the summer. We’re not taking our foot off the pedal in terms of booking entertainment.”

And an hour south at the Wildwoods Convention Center in Wildwood, Ben Rose, who heads marketing for the 7,000-person hall, said that events at the center have gone along just as fine.

“We’re booked, starting about the third weekend in January, we’re booked every single weekend with major events,” he said.

“And every weekend we have major events, from cheerleading events to dance events… wrestling, mixed martial arts tournaments.”

“Definitely we have protocol in place right now,” he added. “We’re being cautious.”

Daniel J. Munoz
Daniel Munoz covers politics and state government for NJBIZ. You can contact him at dmunoz@njbiz.com.

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