Covid-19 dealt the city a tough hand, but many expect casino crowds to return with vigor.
By Steve Adubato | June 2, 2021 | Appears in the May 2021 issue
Atlantic City is known for its casinos, Boardwalk and beaches, but crises like Hurricane Sandy and, more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic have shown that New Jersey’s gambling mecca is also a place of resiliency and grit.
“We fall down, we get back up,” says Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr. “We are a town that is continually reinventing itself. We are standing strong in these tough times.”
Tough times indeed. Battered by Covid-19, casino employment dropped 21.8 percent between August 2019 and September 2020. And although Governor Phil Murphy increased casino capacity from 25 percent in July 2020 to 50 percent this past March, the city is still a long way from bringing back all of its jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, Atlantic City’s unemployment rate is at 18.5 percent, more than triple the national average of 6.6 percent.
“The casino industry is the number-1 job supplier in Atlantic City,” says Small. “It is simple mathematics. You can’t have 100 percent of the workforce when the occupancy is 25 percent. We are excited about the increase to 50 percent, but it has been extremely tough for a long time given Covid-19.” [Editor’s note: Governor Murphy increased casino capacity to 100 percent on May 19, 2021.]
Still, the city is doing its best to provide much-needed support to residents. Specifically, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has been helping with food insecurity since the pandemic hit more than a year ago. In January, the CRDA approved a $1.5 million grant to the Community FoodBank of New Jersey to continue its Feed AC program through 2021. That comes on top of the $1.4 million they spent in 2020 on food-distribution programs for casino workers and city residents. Small says 3,780 senior citizens have been fed two hot meals per week since the pandemic hit.
As for the pandemic’s financial impact, according to the state’s Division of Gaming Enforcement, casinos lost $112 million in the second quarter of 2020, when all nine casinos were closed due to Covid-19. That compares to a profit of $160 million in the second quarter of 2019.
Fast forward to 2021, and things are looking up. Steve Callender, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey and eastern region president of Caesars Entertainment, says new revenues are helping the city’s big employers through the crisis. “During this difficult time, while our brick-and-mortar casino revenues were adversely impacted, we have continued to see tremendous growth in online gaming and sports betting in New Jersey,” says Callender. Thanks to those new sources, Atlantic City’s casinos saw 9.4 percent more revenue in January 2021 than in the same month last year.
Callender has a sunny outlook for the coming months. “We are optimistic about this summer,” says Callender. “A recent survey conducted by the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton University showed that over 70 percent of respondents plan to visit Atlantic City within the next six months.” (The survey sample was drawn from visitors to the Do AC website.) Callender adds that as the vaccine is distributed and meetings and conventions start up again, the casinos look forward to bringing more people back to work.
Small is also optimistic. “Tough times don’t last, tough people do,” he says, adding: “It’s a great day here in Atlantic City.”