City Without a Pulse

By Megan Cassella
·5 min read

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — The boardwalk is empty, the beaches are deserted, and the casinos, though partially reopen, are limping into their fifth month of severely curtailed operations after four months of shutdowns. The coronavirus pandemic skewered the economic engine of this beachside town, taking the city’s vibrancy and its residents’ livelihoods out with it.

Signs of the downturn abound. The devastation is hardly unique to Atlantic City, but few places have fared worse than this historic resort turned gambling mecca. Roughly one out of every three workers was out of a job here in the late spring and early summer, a sky-high unemployment rate that still remains above the national average even after months of improvement.

Even as some of the strictest stay-at-home orders were lifted, the trickle-down effects persisted: Less money flowing through the ice cream shops and hair salons that make up a local economy, fewer tourists funneling in to crowd the boardwalk and pack the casinos, the city’s lonely sidewalks and darkened storefronts a stark reminder of the isolation that has shaped 2020.

Now, as Thanksgiving comes and goes and the country prepares for a long coronavirus winter, the situation here appears poised to take a turn for the worse. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy imposed strict new limits on indoor dining earlier this month, prompting Atlantic City’s top casino to lay off or cut the hours of more than 400 workers. Some unionized casino employees say they have now been jobless for so long that they’ll have to reapply to their former jobs should their casinos decide to hire them back at all.

A local food bank recently handed out enough turkeys and food boxes to feed 2,400 families ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, and hundreds of cars had to be turned away when their supply ran out.

“No one’s thriving here,” said Carlos Rodriguez, the president and CEO of Community FoodBank of New Jersey, which helped set up the holiday food drive.

Are Americans thriving anywhere in this country, nine months into a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands, stripped millions more of their jobs and livelihoods, wiped out our small businesses and sent our kids home from school?

Some are, sure — at least in an economic sense. The country’s personal savings rate remains higher than it’s been in nearly a half-century. Employment nationally has more than recovered for those making more than $60,000 per year. And the stock market continues to regularly hit record highs.

But those numbers belie the more painful story, the one playing out here and across America. More than 20 million workers in the U.S. are receiving jobless benefits, a number that’s expected to increase as the virus surges and new shutdown orders begin to take effect. Nearly 1 in 7 households with children told the U.S. Census Bureau earlier this month that they sometimes or often don’t have enough food. And a handful of relief programs that are in place — including expanded unemployment benefits, a national eviction moratorium and delays for student loan payments — are set to expire at the end of the year, at the same time that both the pandemic and the economic havoc it has wrought are growing worse.

Atlantic City thrives on the industries the coronavirus hit the hardest — entertainment, tourism, service, hospitality — leaving it particularly vulnerable. It’s also the latest hit against a beleaguered city, which was slammed by Superstorm Sandy eight years ago and teetered on the edge of filing for bankruptcy more recently.

But some residents are weathering the storm easier than others. Employment for middle- and high-wage workers in this county is up roughly 6 percent from January. But for low-wage workers, those making less than $27,000 a year, the employment rate remains down more than 16 percent from the start of the year, according to Harvard’s Opportunity Insights economic tracker.

“It’s just about surviving,” Rodriguez said. “And hopefully not being worse off on the other side of this.”

It’s a modest goal, but potentially a lofty one: The risk of permanent economic scarring is severe, and the likelihood of some lasting effects increases further the longer the pandemic lasts and the need for restrictions on indoor dining and other activities remains acute. A business that could lean on its savings and some summer tourism dollars to get by until now, for example, might not be able to make it through the cold winter months the same way.

“Atlantic City is going to lose the little charm and hospitality that we have left,” John Exadaktilos, owner of Ducktown Tavern, told a local reporter recently, after Murphy ordered restaurants and casinos to close indoor dining at 10 p.m. each night. “What are we doing?”

Still, others remain more optimistic, framing the city’s storied and difficult history as a strength rather than a weakness. Marty Small, the Atlantic City mayor, acknowledged both the frustration among business owners over the restrictions and the real pain residents have been feeling. But when it comes to people writing off the city, he said, “this isn’t our first rodeo.”

“Our people are resilient. We’re the ultimate comeback story,” Small said. “As I tell everybody, please be patient with the city of Atlantic City. God isn’t through with us yet.”