Atlantic City Casinos About To Get Back To (Almost) Normal

But the convention side of the AC casino industry likely won't be so fortunate
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Effective this coming Memorial Day weekend, every Atlantic City casino will be free to welcome visitors with no mandate in place, either for mask-wearing indoors or for social distancing.

That’s thanks to an executive order signed and announced by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday.

That means casinos — just as they head into their most lucrative three months of the calendar year — can now, along with other businesses in the state, permit dancing on dance floors as well as eating and drinking while standing at bars. Casinos are specifically mentioned in the end-of-social-distancing-requirements portion of the announcement, along with retail stores, gyms, weddings, funerals, sporting events, and performances.

Private businesses will retain the option of mandating mask usage anyway, but face the risk that many entertainment-starved consumers will be free to ditch the mask at the place next door or across the street.

Conventions, trade shows can’t be quite as nimble

It’s pretty simple for a casino to remove its mask-requirement signs and take down other signs indicating that tables or other areas are closed due to the pandemic.

But it isn’t as simple for conventions. At a press conference last month urging quicker action by Murphy regarding conventions, South Jersey business leaders and elected officials explained why there was such a sense of urgency.

Murphy’s additional announcement Monday setting June 4 for an end to indoor gathering limits won’t make that sector of the city’s casino industry whole. The removal of the 30% capacity limit for indoor large venues with a fixed-seat capacity of more than 1,000 people won’t send a trade show or convention to Atlantic City in just a week or two. The logistics of putting on such events takes time.

Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce President Michael Chait last month noted inconsistencies in the COVID policy.

“I can only have 25 people in a meeting room, but I can have 225 people in a banquet hall,” Chait said at a press conference on the Boardwalk. “I can have 50% capacity on the casino floor, but I can only take 25 of them and put them into an adjacent meeting room.”

Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo of Atlantic County said that trade shows and conventions account for nearly $2 billion in annual revenue in the city.

“If you sign a contract today, it’ll probably be six months, a year, two years” before the event happens, Mazzeo said on April 29. “The Convention Center, hotels, and local businesses surrounding the area greatly depend on this revenue to survive.”

Gaming conference no exception

New Jersey’s largest annual conference for the gambling industry, the East Coast Gaming Congress, provides an ideal example of the logistical challenges faced by organizers.

The event originally was scheduled for April 27-28, but by mid-March the pandemic obviously made that target impossible.

With hundreds of guests, some of them traveling internationally, ECGC planners were not in a position to just guess as to when Atlantic City casinos would reopen, much less allow for such events.

So more than two months ago, the venerable event was rescheduled to Oct. 25-26. That goal now seems almost certainly achievable barring an unexpected setback in COVID-19 cases in the region.

As one of the largest such events in the U.S., attendance could be strong once again. But earlier in October, an even bigger event — the Global Gaming Expo, known as G2E — takes place in Las Vegas.

For those who live a round-trip flight away from both events, attending both in the same month may prove daunting.

Casino with the most to lose

One casino hit particularly hard in this sector of the industry is Harrah’s, which in 2015 opened a $125 million Waterfront Conference Center with 100,000 square feet of meeting space. Rival casinos have since upgraded their own spaces available to large groups, producing a revenue stream not dependent on the whims of the gambling public.

The ECGC will be back at Harrah’s this year — but Atlantic City is not Las Vegas in terms of being a year-round destination. Many trade-show organizers who planned to host events this summer could decide to skip another year and start planning ahead for 2022, rather than squeeze in a mid- or late-fall date with potentially tepid weather in the forecast.

Still, all nine casinos in Atlantic City have weathered the pandemic so far. Better times clearly lay ahead — even if trade show and convention business won’t fully bounce back until next year.

Extra note: In his press conference Monday, Murphy said he had “no update on smoking, nothing there” regarding casinos. Murphy previously has suggested he was intrigued by extending the current, pandemic-related smoking ban at casinos to a permanent ban.

Photo by Shutterstock

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