Summer at the Jersey Shore, and particularly in Atlantic City, could be salvaged because it’s a driving destination accessible to one-third of the nation’s population – but only if nonessential businesses get state permission to reopen soon, panelists on a Stockton University webinar said Wednesday.

Participants in the 12th annual Jersey Shorecast, sponsored by Stockton’s Lloyd D. Levenson Institute for Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism, said that while decision on a reopening date and coronavirus-related restrictions are out of local hands, the industry will play a big role in marketing that steps are taken to ensure a safe visit.

Larry Sieg, director of communications and marketing for the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, said CRDA has long tried to message that Atlantic City is clean and safe and now must add healthy to its pitch.

“I think the question is when is the season going to begin. That’s number one. And then we can determine what it’s going to look like,” Sieg said. “Right now that’s very difficult because the season could be fall, which is going to be a completely different message than it would be for summer.”

Michael Busler, a professor of business studies and finance at Stockton, said he expects the economy will spring back fairly strongly by late summer but that he’s particularly concerned about Shore small businesses that have already missed out on Easter and the spring shoulder season.

“We have got to get this economy opened literally now,” Busler said.

Busler thinks Gov. Phil Murphy should allow businesses in Atlantic and Cape May counties to reopen starting May 15, a week from Friday, so they can gear up by Memorial Day weekend. He said that virus infections in South Jersey aren’t nearly as prevalent as in North Jersey and that businesses will close permanently if they’re closed until late June or July.

“I have a feeling this will drag in to some time in the middle of June before they allow everything to open. That will be disastrous, especially for small businesses,” Busler said.

Atlantic and Cape May counties have the smallest concentrations of confirmed cases in New Jersey – one for every 212 residents in Atlantic and one for every 243 in Cape May. Statewide, there’s one case confirmed for every 67 residents.

Sieg noted that Atlantic City’s main feeder markets – New York, Philadelphia and North Jersey – include some of the regions hardest-hit by coronavirus.

Lori Pepenella, chief executive officer for the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce that represents the Long Beach Island area, said the hospitality industry must use technology to make people comfortable about how lodging, dining and shopping will work and the steps taken to keep them safe.

“Access to information for both the small businesses and consumer is going to be key to this season,” Pepenella said. “Everyone has a lot of very important, very individual questions and concerns.”

A number of speakers thought Atlantic City and the Jersey Shore are well-positioned to attract tourists who are itching to get out of their house and limited in how far they’re willing or able to travel on planes.

“Our local economy will benefit when it opens from pent-up demand because we do have that drive-in market and we’ll be able to benefit from a day trip or an opportunity to visit the beach and the boardwalk,” said Donna Albano, an associate professor of hospitality and tourism management studies.

“The beach is our greatest asset,” said Michael Chait, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce. “What are going to be the restrictions of social distancing associated with that? Because the weather is going to break and people are going to be on the beach, and they’re going to want to come in the ocean, and we’re going to be ready for them.”

Michael Tidwell, director of sales and marketing for the Seaview, a Dolce Hotel in Galloway, said it’s too soon to know what the year will be like and what would happen if a second wave of coronavirus comes.

“It’s such a fluid situation. We’re still talking to clients about now fall events,” Tidwell said. “Another perspective for Seaview is we do so many weddings, and think about a December wedding with 150 people and maybe only a hundred people will be allowed to gather in once place at that time.”

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