One year ago, Atlantic City casinos sat empty.

Forced to close because of the coronavirus pandemic, the city’s nine gambling parlors were devoid of guests for nearly four months.
One week ago, the state of New Jersey increased indoor capacity limits to 50%. That is double the occupancy permitted in the fall and 15% more than two weeks ago.

For a struggling industry like brick-and-mortar casinos, the modest increase is a step in the right direction.

But, executives say whether the capacity limit is 25%, 35%, or 50%, the impact on gambling at Atlantic City casinos is relatively small.

“From a casino floor aspect, it doesn’t do a lot for us,” said Steve Callender, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey and regional president of Caesars Entertainment Inc.’s three Atlantic City casinos. “(The capacity increase is) not the biggest thing in the world but every little bit helps.”

Not much will change at Atlantic City casinos

In simplest terms, casino floors in Atlantic City won’t be changing much, even with the eased restrictions

There will still be partitions between seats at table games, with a player cap on every table. A percentage of slot machines will still be turned off to promote social distancing.

To be clear, Atlantic City casinos are not kicking a gift horse in the mouth. They accept the realities of the global pandemic and recognize that things could be worse.

“We just hope to continue to work on (easing) the restrictions and make us more business-friendly,” Callender said.

Keep your distance, please

The real benefit for Atlantic City casinos is the increased business volumes at non-gaming amenities.

“The 50% really (has) an impact in our restaurants, which, on weekends when our restaurants are full and we’ve had long waits, that’s where we weren’t able to accommodate,” said Joe Lupo, president of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. “Atlantic City guests come down here for a multitude of activities. They come down here for the whole experience.”

The catch, however, is similar to what non-casino restaurants and bars have to contend with. Namely, that an increase in capacity means very little in a finite space where social distancing mandates remain in place.

“The six-foot distancing is really inhibiting or intruding on the occupancy levels,” Lupo added. “Unless you want to put up Plexiglas bubbles everywhere, it’s limiting the number of people in some spaces, like our lounges.”

Dinner with an ocean view, deja vu?

A silver lining to last summer’s total indoor dining ban was the expansion of al fresco options. Atlantic City casinos adapted and came up with some creative alternatives to offset food and beverage profit losses.

Visitors to Atlantic City can expect to see many of those same outdoor dining concepts return this summer, Callender said.

“Obviously, last year we did it out of necessity, but people really liked it,” he said. “We have beautiful views here of the ocean and if we can get guests outside, why not (do it)?”

Atlantic City casinos need conventions, entertainment

The one thing Atlantic City casinos all say they absolutely need is meeting and convention business.

The new capacity rules only apply to certain businesses. New Jersey still has limits on the total number of people for indoor gatherings and on select indoor locations, such as banquet halls or large meeting rooms.

In Atlantic City, meetings and conventions drive midweek and non-summer business, the casino executives said.

The East Coast Gaming Congress, for example, is now taking place Oct. 25-26 instead of late May at Harrah’s Resort.

A revival of headlining live entertainment would help, too.

“It’s truly about entertainment and convention business, which books out months in advance,” Lupo said. “So, until there is a more definitive understanding of when occupancies go up, those are the two areas where we’re handcuffed.”

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.