Traditionally, when the autumnal chill sends beachgoers and boardwalk strollers home Atlantic City becomes a destination for conferences, conventions, trade shows and other large-scale events. The conference season in the resort town is an economic boon, ensuring a steady stream of visitors year-round.
Over the course of a typical weekend, tens of thousands of guests descend upon Atlantic City, with its nine casino hotels and varied restaurant, retail and hospitality offerings. That’s a problem this year: although the delta variant outbreaks of the late summer and early fall have begun to trail off, public health officials are nonetheless warning of COVID-19 spikes from holiday gatherings, and a “twindemic” of the flu season.
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention caution people to avoid crowded indoor spaces, and to wear masks indoors, especially in areas with high COVID-19 transmission rates. Most important, anyone who can get the vaccine and booster should absolutely get it, according to the CDC.
Many of those recommendations could pose a problem for a city and industry that depend on indoor meetings during the fall and winter. Limits on in-person gatherings last winter and spring limited profitable events at casinos and other venues, hurting Atlantic City’s economy and driving up unemployment rate to among the highest rates in the state.
Public health experts questioned by NJBIZ agreed that in-person events could be risky, but that vaccine or negative test requirements and mask mandates could help to mitigate those risks.
“While these measures certainly help minimize risk, attending large gatherings cannot be considered risk-free, and this risk increases with the number of attendees and the amount of ventilation within the space,” said Corey Hannah Basch, a public health professor at William Paterson University.
Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiology professor at Montclair State University, expressed a similar concern, while adding that some events, like meals, outside could reduce the risk of transmission. “The problem is that while you can wear a mask on a conference floor or in meetings, these events often include cocktail hours or sessions with food where wearing a mask is impossible and this can create an environment where the virus can spread easily,” she wrote in an email. “Of course, the risk will still not be zero and in that case each individual will need to assess their personal risks and the risk of those they are likely to come in contact with,” Silvera continued.
And Michael Cerra, head of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, which has its annual conference at the Atlantic City Convention Center in November with an expected turnout of 22,000 attendees, said many people are willing to take that risk. “The market is telling us they want to go out in public,” he said. The event was held remotely last November.
Other event organizers and venues that NJBIZ contacted have indicated that so far, the conference season is going at full steam.
A spokesperson for MGM Resorts, which owns Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa, the largest casino in Atlantic City, said the property is still receiving business inquiries for the upcoming conference season, and that events have not been cancelled.
Larry Sieg, president of Meet AC, which operates the Atlantic City Convention Center and 10,500-seat Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall, a concert venue, told NJBIZ that since the convention center fully reopened this summer, it has hosted 68,000 attendees across several events.
Still, events elsewhere have been postponed and others cancelled. For example, the rock band Joan Jett and the Blackhearts was scheduled to appear Oct. 29 at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Atlantic City, but the show was pushed back to April 2022.
Meanwhile, the Arett Sales Open House, scheduled for the first week of September at the 500,000-square-foot convention center with an expected 1,500 attendees, was cancelled.
Gov. Phil Murphy has not publicly indicated that the state would restrict in-person gatherings, or place limits on crowd sizes at venues, restaurants, retail and casinos. “As long as we continue to operate without any capacity restrictions, we will continue to conduct safe, in-person business,” Sieg said.
The convention center and Whelan Hall are owned by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, a state agency, meaning that at a minimum, face coverings are required inside both properties.
“We continue to provide a world-class, safe experience with our enhanced safety protocols and additional health and safety measures to better accommodate convention groups,” the Casino Association of New Jersey said in a statement.
Jane Bokunewicz, casino industry analyst, said that local COVID-19 outbreaks or vaccine-r
esistant strains could threaten the success of Atlantic City’s conference season. Conference attendance is down, while other economic factors such as global travel restrictions, a lower volume of air travel and shrinking corporate travel budgets could also pose problems, she added.
Along with the League of Municipalities convention, several other major events are still on. The New Jersey Education Association’s 2021 Exhibition is scheduled for Nov. 4 and 5 with an expected 10,000 attendees. The cheerleading competition Spirit Cheer 2022 is slated to take place early January with a projected turnout of 25,000, while the Atlantic City Classic Car Show and Auction 2022 in February is expected to draw 30,000 attendees.
All those events require masking, given that they’ll take place in the state-owned building, Sieg said. But as for the negative COVID-19 test no more than 48 to 72 hours prior to the event, or proof of a COVID-19 vaccine, “that is completely up to the client or show organizer.”
“People are eager to meet in-person again and we are taking every precaution to continue a clean, safe and healthy environment,” he said.
The NJEA and the League are both requiring proof of a COVID-19 vaccine for attendees, as did the sports industry TEAMS Conference and Expo 2021, held in late September. The East Coast Gaming Congress, a trade show for the casino industry and held at Harrah’s Atlantic City, is also requiring proof of vaccine for admission.
Many events have a hybrid of in-person and virtual events, such as the NJEA’s conference.
Bokunewicz, coordinator of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton University, said the remote offerings add “resiliency” and a buffer for the events if the pandemic worsens and those gatherings need to be cancelled.
Trish McCormick, manager of the Pool and Spa Show being hosted by the Northeast Spa and Pool Association in January, said she and other event organizers plan to look at how earlier events pan out to get an idea of what to put in their playbook.
“I have the luxury of saying I don’t know yet,” said McCormick, whose event is expected to attract 11,000 guests. “The shows in November, they don’t have that luxury.”
Since the Hard Rock opened in the summer 2018 the luxury resort has hosted a multitude of big-name musical acts. Mike Woodside, the vice president of entertainment of Hard Rock AC, maintained that many musical performers continue to put on shows. While some have cancelled, they’ve nonetheless “been very eager to reschedule for the near future,” while in other cases “we picked up new business.”
The Hard Rock is typically one stop across many states with a patchwork of COVID-19 protocols, Woodside said. “It might be different in Tennessee than it is in New Jersey,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s difficult to route those shows.”
As a result, shows like Pitbull at the 7,000-seat Etess Arena have been pushed back to Oct. 29, rather than their original June 25 concert dates.
Meanwhile, a member of the band OAR’s camp tested positive for COVID-19, and so the show was rescheduled from Aug. 28 to Sept. 17. Hard Rock executives said it was a resounding success at their 7,000-seat Sound Waves Theater.
None of the public shows scheduled at the Hard Rock AC imposed requirements for masking, proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. But Woodside said some bands might institute a combination of those protocols for their staff. That’s important “especially when you’re talking about folks that are working very closely with some of our entertainers. … We want to make sure we keep the live entertainment healthy and moving forward.”
Cerra said he realizes that many organizers are looking at how this year’s League conference goes from a public health perspective. “A lot of us have been talking to one another, we would share information and what the best practices are and what we’re doing,” he said.