Despite reopenings being instituted up and down the Jersey Shore ahead of Memorial Day weekend, and amid a slowdown in the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy reiterated that casinos could be a much tougher “nut to crack.”
That comes as revenue for the state’s nine casinos – closed indefinitely since March 16 – completely evaporates, save for online gambling. And it’s despite assurances from the Senate President – a South Jersey Democrat and one of Murphy’s oft-times political foes – that they can reopen by putting in place health and safety plans drawing upon guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect their patrons and customers.
Casinos, Murphy reiterated, are “an overwhelmingly important employer and an element of our economy.”
“Atlantic City and the casinos, in particular, have just barely got back on their feet over the past couple of years from a recession that was over 10 years ago,” he stated Thursday at his daily COVID-19 press briefing in Trenton. “A huge slug of these folks … basically all of them are out of work.”
As to reasons for staying closed, Murphy cautioned: “It’s indoors. There’s no ventilation. It’s close proximity, and it’s largely sedentary.”
On the plus-side, he countered, “they’re large, big footprint,” which allows for social distancing “in a way that a smaller space clearly wouldn’t.”
Some of the physical distancing guidelines at beaches and parks, such as reduced capacity, might make sense to implement at casinos, Murphy suggested.
In late April, the Casino Association of New Jersey – the trade group that represents the state’s casinos – said it would work with Atlantic City-based AtlantiCare to develop a reopening plan for casinos that would “prioritize the safety and well-being of employees, guests and the community-at-large.”
AtlantiCare will share “regional health care metrics, data and forecasts,” and the “protocols and best practices” for AtlantiCare’s own reopening that were the most effective.
“We want Atlantic City to be ready to open as soon as the government determines it is appropriate to do so,” CANJ President Steve Callender said in April. “That is why we are working with our regional health care provider to develop a comprehensive plan that ensures our properties are prepared and ready to reopen when the stay-at-home order is lifted.”
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, has argued that casinos could need months of runway to implement reopening plans before actually starting to resume business.
“We’ve got to start listening,” he said during a May 12 editorial interview with NJBIZ. “The sooner you can give guidance, the sooner businesses can start to plan.”
Two bills moving through the state Legislature – Senate Bills 2478 and 2479 – would require the New Jersey Health Department to establish statewide sanitation standards for casinos and hotels, respectively.
The closure of casinos and drop in hotel revenue has led to economic shockwaves across the city and chunks of South Jersey, as has the state-mandated closure on virtually the entire retail, food, leisure and hospitality industries.
According to a survey released Thursday by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber, 89 percent of the local businesses interviewed during April and May said they’ve felt some kind of financial pain as a result of the pandemic.