Mark the calendar for May 19. That’s when New Jersey and New York lift most restrictions in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The list of businesses able to open to 100 percent capacity include restaurants, retail stores, casinos, salons and barber shops, gyms, swimming pools, both indoor and outdoor, amusement parks, and places of worship. The caveat, social distancing and masks remain as requirements, according to the Press of Atlantic City.
“Should the CDC revise its 6-foot distancing guidance, we will revise our requirements accordingly,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said. “My guess is that that 6-foot number will come down.”
The there are no longer limits to the size of a party per table in restaurants; no limits to outdoor gatherings; a 250-person limit on catered events, funeral or memorial services, performances, political activities, and commercial gatherings; and a 30 percent capacity limit for indoor fixed-seat venues with 1,000 seats or more such as concerts and sporting events.
As of May 7, socially distanced bar seating is now acceptable in New Jersey. For restaurant tables and bars, seating can be closer than six feet if there are barriers in place. Buffets also can go back into business.
“These are the most aggressive steps we have taken to reopen to date,” Murphy said. “We have done exactly what we said we would do. We made decisions on our public health metrics and not on politics.”
The new orders come as close to normal as possible, said Michael Chait, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce.
This “significantly helps the restaurant business,” he said. “The smaller restaurants can’t really expand because of the six-foot restrictions, but it really helps the larger businesses.”
Murphy moved up the start dates for the increased capacity limits for gatherings from May 10 to May 7.
Credit the declining number of cases and hospitalizations and the growing number of vaccinated residents which stands at more than 3.2 million.
“It’s a step, a meaningful step, in the right direction,” Murphy said.
According to Murphy, casinos like at Ocean, Borgata and Hard Rock could use the 250-person limit per room, and the 30 percent capacity for large venues to hold conferences.
“I’m not suggesting that it’s full on open for business, but I think it’s a pretty meaningful step,” Murphy said.
People now have the confidence to get together and visit small businesses as the summer approaches, said Lori Pepenella, chief executive officer of the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce.
While many businesses have praised the lifting of restrictions in New Jersey, officials say trade shows and conventions have been ignored. They gathered on April 30 at Kennedy Plaza on the Atlantic City Boardwalk to complain.
“Ideally, it’s about consistency with some of the regulations,” Chait said. “So if you look at a casino floor, it’s not much different than a convention space and they’ve been occupied at 50 percent for a while now.”
Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo submitted a reopening plan to Murphy and awaits a response. The Governor expected to address the situation this month.
Since March 2020, sidelined events include the Atlantic City Boat Show and the annual Air Show, the latter still uncertain for this year. The convention center hosted just 21 events in 2020, compared to 87 in 2019. Even if Murphy eases the restrictions, the calendar for conventions in 2022 may be impacted given the long lag time for trade show planners.
“We cannot risk losing conventions and trade shows that bring in nearly $2 billion in revenue a year to Atlantic City and provide jobs for thousands of residents across the area,” Atlantic County Commissioner Caren Fitzpatrick said. “New Jersey has been a national leader in its response to the pandemic and throughout the vaccine rollout. It’s now time that we set an example to the rest of the country on how to hold larger events like conventions and trade shows safely.”
Mayor Marty Small Sr. agreed that safety first is required. “But we are a town that depends on entertainment and conventions. That’s what drives our visitors here, and I stand in support to open up more. People are going to flock here. We have more to offer than anyone.”
Further lifting of restrictions depends in part on the rate of vaccinations in the state. There are 3.26 million New Jersey residents who have received the Covid-19 vaccine and the goal is to hit 4.7 million or 70 percent by the start of summer.
Harrah’s relies on the Waterfront Conference Center for a significant amount of mid-week business. Other casino hotels spent significant money on convention and meeting space, according to the Associated Press.
“We are ready to go,” said Maureen Kern, national sales manager for the Atlantic City region for Caesars Entertainment. “We are losing business not just now, but for years down the road. Unless you can tell them ‘you can have your meeting,’ they can’t commit.”