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Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Greenwald: Atlantic City is Running Out of Time

By Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, May 28 2020 3:14 pm

OPINION

While the coronavirus has been a brutal test to our resilience, the silver lining is that we are not alone in this fight. By the time New Jersey received its first positive case of COVID-19 in March, we had already seen the coronavirus bring healthcare systems all across Europe and China to their knees.

By listening to our heroes in the health care community and with Governor Murphy’s swift action, we were able to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Today, we are seeing a declining curve and fewer hospitalizations.

Although it isn’t over yet, with Governor Murphy’s recent announcement to increase testing capacity and expand contact tracing efforts, we are indeed winning this fight and it is now time to turn our attention on the next looming crisis: our economy.

For nearly three months, businesses throughout New Jersey have closed their doors in a unified effort to fight this pandemic. I am personally grateful to every business that put their employees’ health above all and agreed to “push pause” while public health officials worked to control the spread of the coronavirus.

As we begin charting our path to a new normal, balancing reopening plans and protecting public health, it is imperative now more than ever that we continue a data-driven approach.

The data reported from Department of Health show New Jersey is not experiencing the exact same outbreak statewide. For example, counties in southern New Jersey experienced a delayed peak in total hospitalizations compared to the northern and central regions. Furthermore, counties in southern New Jersey benefited greatly from early intervention strategies which lead to overall fewer hospitalizations, fewer positive cases and fatalities. According to the South Jersey Chamber of Commerce, as a region and individually, the seven lower counties in New Jersey: Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem have seen less than two percent of their population impacted by the coronavirus.

New Jersey’s re-opening strategy should reflect these regional differences. Our neighbors in Pennsylvania and New York have developed comprehensive regional strategies that take into consideration data and use clear metrics to ease stay-at-home orders and restore the economy safely and gradually. In fact, most states have adopted regional strategies.

Re-opening plans for New Jersey cannot be a one-size-fits all approach. New Jersey was one of the last states to fully recover from the 2009 recession. We lagged the nation by nearly two years in our recovery efforts; however, South Jersey recovery efforts were even worse.

According to the South Jersey Economic Review, by the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, the effects of the coronavirus on South Jersey’s economy could be greater than $5 billion, a devasting blow to much of the progress we have made since the Great Recession, particularly during the continued rebirth of Atlantic City as a vibrant, job-creating regional economic center.

Without a clear re-opening strategy from Governor Murphy, we are running out of time in Atlantic City.

The single hardest hit sector in our state is the gaming and hospitality industry. From gambling to lodging and restaurants, this sector accounts for 15% of the southern region’s economy. With all nine casinos closed, the American Gaming Association estimates Atlantic City will see a $1.1 billion loss of economic activity, which is a debilitating blow.

For a city already on life support, this loss of revenue will be crippling, perhaps even fatal. After all, it was only five years ago that we debated whether Atlantic City would be the first municipality in the last century to declare bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, Nevada just announced a tentative reopening date for casinos with conditions that include disinfecting elevators, required facial masks, strict capacity limits and large venues within, such as nightclubs, remaining closed.

Here in New Jersey, the Casino Association announced it is collaborating with AtlantiCare to develop a comprehensive plan to re-open gaming and tourism in Atlantic City that prioritizes public health, yet a tentative reopening date to help these businesses plan, seems unattainable by this Administration.

As summer months quickly approach, a plan that puts the safety and health of all New Jerseyans first could take weeks to enact, and if we fail to launch it could be cataclysmic for Atlantic City, its workers, our region and overall health.

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 and its residents will need far more than tax deferments to stimulate the economy and keep people in the workforce.

Louis D. Greenwald, Democrat of Voorhees, is the Majority Leader of the New Jersey State Assembly.

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