The odds of 2021 putting Atlantic City casinos back in the black got much better this week.

NJ Gov. Phil Murphy signed Executive Order 230 increasing indoor capacity to 50% for AC’s nine casinos, restaurants, bars, entertainment and recreation venues, gyms, and personal care facilities. The new rules go into effect March 19 at 6 a.m.

Seating at bars is still prohibited.

Indoor capacity had been limited to 25% until recently, when it was expanded to 35% on Feb. 5.

“We feel confident in these steps given the data that we have been seeing over the past five weeks, since the last time we expanded the indoor reality,” Murphy said.

NJ has been among the more deliberate states in reopening its economy as the public threat from the novel coronavirus slowly wanes. Infection rates, total cases, and fatalities have declined in NJ with the availability of COVID-19 vaccines.

“When our restaurant capacity last changed, our hospitals were treating just under 2,900 patients,” Murphy said. “That number has come down by 1,000 and been consistent since then.”

What it means for Atlantic City casinos

Increasing indoor capacity will have little effect on casino floors. Where it will have an immediate impact is casino restaurants, bars, spas, and entertainment venues.

Atlantic City casino executives have been steadfast in their belief that their properties are among the safest indoor public places. Between strict regulatory oversight, industrywide health protocols, and the sheer size of the casinos, executives have been pushing the state to increase occupancy limits.

More than anything, the casinos want the governor to lift restrictions on large indoor gatherings so the industry can resume much-needed midweek convention and meeting business.

“We need meetings and conventions, and an increase to 50% (for indoor dining),” Steve Callender, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey and regional president of Caesars Entertainment Inc., said in November. “We feel pretty passionate that we can do this, and we can do this well.”

2020 was devastating in AC

To say that the last 12 months have been devastating for Atlantic City casinos would be a gross understatement.

Thousands of casino workers lost their jobs or had their hours reduced. Millions of dollars in gaming revenue disappeared. Billions of dollars in economic activity for the greater Atlantic City region vanished.

Online casino and sports betting were the only saving graces last year, as both segments experienced explosive growth.

When Murphy ordered AC’s casinos to close last March, it put an end to a 21-month streak of year-over-year total gaming revenue increases.

The 108-day shutdown of the entire industry in 2020 also halted a three-year growth streak of annual casino win (table game and slot machine revenue). In 2019, casino win reported by the nine gambling parlors was just under $2.7 billion. Last year, that figure fell to $1.5 billion, a decline of almost 44%.

Light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel

As bad as 2020 was for Atlantic City casinos, 2021 has given the industry signs of hope

Total gaming revenue (a combination of casino win, online, and sports betting) increased 9.4% in January 2021 over January 2020. The increase is due entirely to online gambling and mobile sports betting, but it is still an overall net positive.

While casino win in January 2021 was collectively down 16.6% for the nine Atlantic City casinos, two properties posted increases. Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City and Ocean Casino Resort reported casino win increases of 23.9% and 21.3%, respectively.

As an added piece of good news, a recent survey conducted by Stockton University found a majority of people felt safe inside Atlantic City casinos and will be returning.

AP Photo/Wayne Parry

About

David Danzis is an award-winning journalist who has covered business, politics, government, education, and sports in New Jersey. Most recently, he wrote about Atlantic City casinos, online gaming, and sports betting for The Press of Atlantic City. David is a graduate of Rutgers University.