Atlantic City Panel Looks Back On 2020 — And Ahead To 2021

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The greater Atlantic City region suffered more than many areas of the country in 2020, given that tourism and casino visitation normally begin to pick up right around the time of year when the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shut the industry down.

But now that the region has gotten through the summer season, Stockton University last week invited key stakeholders to participate in a remote panel titled: “Jersey Shoreview: Fall Tourism and Business Panel Discussion.”

The general tenor was one of cautious optimism, as businesses found ways to adapt to the times.

“We kept looking for the new normal, and we never really found it,” said Anthony Catanoso, the owner of the iconic Steel Pier on the Boardwalk. “We’re still searching for it.”

For Caesars Entertainment executive Jim Ziereis, the company’s Atlantic City casinos were aided by a more noticeable adherence to safety protocols.

“We have employees tested every day, and we checked with patrons as they came in to make sure they didn’t have any active symptoms,” Ziereis said.

Cleaning efforts go into the limelight

And whereas before efforts were made to keep sanitary measures on the casino floor below the radar — well, times have changed.

“You have a day shift when people are cleaning, and we decided, let’s celebrate these team members who are being seen by customers,” he said. “It gives [visitors]peace of mind to see what’s happening right in front of them.”

Ziereis added that vigilance in contacting patrons whose masks slipped below their noses also helped.

“If we see the mask down, we educate them while being polite about it,” Ziereis said. “That has been well-received — people are cooperating.”

Atlantic City casino officials, in the wake of the mid-March global shutdown, initially had Memorial Day weekend as a reopening goal, Ziereis said. Instead, July 4 weekend became the real reopening.

“We had to do a lot of problem solving with all the moving goalposts — we had to be able to turn on a dime,” Ziereis said. “For the summer, we did fairly well. We did have a different mix of customers. Some of the core customers, who usually got ‘comped’ rooms, they didn’t all flock back.”

A pleasant summer of weather helped, Ziereis added, allowing for groups of visitors to gather outside under large tents while still safely social distancing.

What’s ahead for the AC region

Asked about the prospects for 2021, Ziereis said that “right now, entertainment is still on hold.”

Indoor gatherings are still capped at a capacity of 25 by state mandate, but Ziereis said that there have been discussions about raising that figure as high as 250, given the lack of outbreaks in the region.

Convention and trade show groups, Ziereis said, initially pointed to safety concerns as a reason to be reluctant to visit. But more recently, the issue has been more a lack of funding.

As far as safety protocols, “I think a lot of these things that we’re implementing will be here to stay,” said  Ziereis.

That also applies, said Michael Brennan, executive chef at Josie Kelly’s Public House in nearby Somers Point, to outdoor dining as “one of the new norms” for the region.

Several panelists said that visitors who might otherwise have eaten indoors took a liking to the al fresco vibe. Brennan said that he found that customers ordered more food and less drink than he expected.

And with evening diners, Brennan said the menu shifted a bit to “heavier” meals that also held up better if the food cooled along with the outdoor temperature.

Surprises from pandemic

There were all sorts of unintended consequences from government response to the pandemic, with Catanoso and Cape May County Chamber of Commerce President Vicki Clarke pointing to much-needed federal relief that also wound up making it difficult to attract part-time workers who would take in less money by being on the job.

For Catanoso, his Steel Pier staff had to enforce a ban on dancing that could lead to transmission of the coronavirus.

“We were the big bad wolf,” Catanoso said, as outdoor music acts enticed visitors to want to make some moves. “It sounds ridiculous, but it was a big problem.”

Clark said that the closing of the Canadian border for the summer presented a major loss for the greater Atlantic City region.

“On the other hand, we got new customers who had never taken a vacation at the Jersey Shore before,” Clark said. “We also had a considerable increase in our camping industry — the original social distancing experience. We had a surge in people purchasing RVs, and at the same time we had to teach people how to camp and how to build fires.”

Oliver Cooke, an associate professor of economics at Stockton, said that ultimately “it’s going to be the consumer who probably decides how this all shakes out. It’s going to be largely this tug between folks that really feel comfortable in a variety of situations, whether it be in an airplane, a restaurant, or a casino floor, versus those who kind of hold back. It’s hard to say which way that goes.”

Clark said that a slight uptick in the local population stems from “people coming and staying in their second homes, and also people looking to rent and to be here to get out of the cities. They saw Cape May County as a safer place to be.”

As far as casino convention events go, Ziereis pointed to one tradition that may be gone for good.

“I don’t see long lines of double-sided buffets, where everybody gets up at once,” Ziereis said. “There will be a lot more individual serving.”

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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