NJ Governor Finally Hints At An Atlantic City Casino Reopening Date

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After several leading fellow Democrat elected officials have expressed frustration in recent days over a lack of specifics from Gov. Phil Murphy about timelines for various reopenings, the New Jersey governor on Sunday offered a target date for Atlantic City’s casino industry for the first time.

“It’s probably still too early to give you a very specific answer, but there’s a lot of work going into that right now,” Murphy told South Jersey radio station WOND. “But we are trying like heck to get toward, I hope, before the Fourth of July or at least by the Fourth of July to be in a position where we can say, you know what, subject to a lot of different parameters, the casinos can be open again.”

The July 4 mention may have been a nod to Atlantic County Democratic Committee Chairman Michael Suleiman, who last week suggested that date as a reopening goal.

Democrat Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, meanwhile, just had an op-ed article published on Friday. “Re-opening plans for New Jersey cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach,” Greenwald wrote, noting that the vast majority of more than 11,000 COVID-19-related deaths have occurred in the northern portion of the state — at least 100 miles from Atlantic City.

“I agree with Governor Murphy, data should always drive policy, and deciding when to re-open the economy should be done with extreme caution. However, with less than one percent of Atlantic County impacted by the coronavirus, they are unnecessarily being handcuffed to other areas of the state that have been impacted far greater by this virus. As a result, Atlantic City is simply running out of time.”

Murphy’s target also matched a date suggested last week on Twitter:

Senate boss weighs in

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, also from South Jersey, recently said of Murphy, “They haven’t shared any information with any of us on their modeling. It would be nice to have a better idea of what’s going on.

“They need to get back up and going,” Sweeney added. “They need to get people back to work.”

Two factors weigh particularly heavily on Murphy’s difficult reopening decision for the casinos.

The first is that Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods have just reopened their doors, making them the first casinos in the Northeast to do so. Dozens of Las Vegas casinos plan to follow suit on Thursday, and overall almost one-quarter of the nation’s nearly 1,000 casinos have done so, according to the American Gaming Association. The more casinos open elsewhere, the more that is likely to be pointed out by those supporting reopenings in the city.

The other key issue is one of timing. Atlantic City’s fortunes are much more seasonal than Las Vegas’ are.

While AC’s casinos raked in $2.7 billion in revenue in 2019, the 12 months hardly were equal.

High season beckons for AC casinos

July and August of 2019 accounted for a combined 21% of the industry’s revenue, while January and February — the only two full months for the city’s casinos in 2020 so far — last year combined for just under 14% of the revenue.

This year the casinos also were open only for the first half of March — and without March Madness NCAA men’s basketball games, which again would have boosted visitation to the casinos.

Hence the urgency among some supporters to open up — with a heavy dose of health and safety precautions.

Also not to be dismissed is the fact that more than 25,000 casino workers are now unemployed, leading many to turn to local food banks to survive.

However, Murphy points out that, from a safety perspective, casinos are “a tough nut”: indoors, with limited ventilation, and encouraging of sedentary activity such as sitting at a slot machine for long periods of time.

The existence of online casino gaming and mobile sports betting — the latter limited of late with obscure sports such as Belarus soccer and Ukrainian table tennis leading the way — offers the casinos only modest consolation.

April 2020 revenue came in at $82.6 million, less than one-third of the previous April’s revenue, which included brick-and-mortar.

Horse racing return is official

After saying on Friday that horse racing at the Meadowlands Racetrack could resume “as soon as next weekend” — meaning June 5-6 — Murphy on Saturday issued a four-page executive order cementing the issue.

Technically, the state’s track’s are now allowed to offer racing immediately. The Meadowlands, which held qualifying races on Saturday, will move forward with its plans for spectator-less harness racing this weekend.

The order also appears to pave the way for Monmouth Park to begin stabling up to 1,600 horses at the site this week, ahead of a planned July 3 resumption of thoroughbred racing at the Oceanport site.

Freehold Raceway, the state’s other active racetrack, is not scheduled to resume its harness races until late August.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

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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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