Las Vegas casinos shut their doors in mid-March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, sending Nevada’s unemployment rate to a worst-in-the-nation 28.2 percent (nearly twice the U.S. average). And although some of the biggest casinos plan to reopen Thursday, questions remain as to whether Las Vegas’ appeal can survive given that Sin City specializes in gathering large groups of people indoors for gambling, conventions and entertainment.
“I’m starting to get nervous that shows are never going to reopen,” Nina Kane, a dancer and aerialist who has made her career on Vegas stages, told The Wall Street Journal. “There’s just not going to be this industry anymore, is what my real fear is.”
Troy Walters of IHS Markit told the Journal that Las Vegas could be looking at a very long walk back to recovery, with unemployment possibly still in the 20 percent range by first-quarter 2021’s end. “We think consumers are still going to be pretty reluctant to travel very far, stay in hotels or take part in gaming until there is a vaccine,” he said.
And no matter what the relative hunger is for return to the roulette table, there will still be strict capacity limits in place when Vegas opens for business again this weekend.
Still, some within the industry are more confident about gaming’s ability to make a big return. John Flynn, vice president of administration at MGM Resorts International, believes the many social-distancing changes that Vegas resorts are putting in place will make a big difference to tourists who are considering a return.
“It’s a little bit of an art form,” he told NPR during a tour of the Bellagio last week. “But we think that a lot of the safety mechanisms that we’ve put in place are absolutely the right direction and the right things to do.”
Those mechanisms include roping off roughly 50 percent of the Bellagio’s gaming tables and slot machines in accordance with capacity limits. The casino has also outfitted the remaining tables with Bellagio-branded plexiglass panels to separate guests from casino staff and each other. The barriers include small slots where players and dealers can exchange cards and chips while remaining cloistered in their own spaces.
Moreover, Flynn noted that the casino would disinfect poker chips every time they leave the table. Staffers will also regularly replace cards. Additionally, attendants will walk the floor, ready to disinfect on demand. Handwashing stations are also part of the floor design, placed strategically between slot machines and various table games.
“When people look at our industry here, [they don’t realize] it is very highly regulated,” Flynn told NPR. “We are rule followers. When new rules are set out, we’re going to follow them.”
But whether a Las Vegas where people follow rules appeals to customers used to a city whose motto has been “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” remains to be seen. The situation has only become complicated by protests over the George Floyd police killing in Minneapolis.
With civil unrest sweeping the nation, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters on the famed Las Vegas Strip in recent days. Earlier this week, authorities shot and killed an armed man and a police officer was wounded. Meanwhile, the National Guard responded to riots in Reno after the mayor there declared a citywide emergency.
“Sustained protests certainly don’t help bring back a wider audience of leisure and group customers,” Barry Jonas, a SunTrust Robinson Humphrey gaming analyst, told CNBC. “But we don’t see those segments returning in full force anytime soon anyway given [the] coronavirus.”
Apart from concerns about conditions for tourists, there are also concerns among casino workers that employers won’t properly protect their safety at the group attractions Vegas is known for.
Geoconda Arguello-Kline, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, said the group’s roughly 60,000 members want hotels and casinos to make their full COVID-19 mitigation plans public instead of just the partial plans disclosed so far. Workers have also called for casinos to regularly test all employees for coronavirus. “The government here is not putting the worker’s life as a priority,” Arguello-Kline said. “The workers want to come back to work, but they want to come back safe.”
But many individual workers are just waiting to see what a recovery will look like if it’s coming at all. “The new normal is being written,” banquet server Stephanie Graham told the Journal. “Now we just get to wait and see which position will get to be part of it.”