Las Vegas dices with Delta as the casinos roar back to life

City yearns for a time before Covid pandemic plunged it into most acute crisis in its history

The cast and crew of O by Cirque du Soleil, one of Las Vegas’s longest-running productions, celebrate its return  at the Bellagio Resort & Casino on July 1st. Photograph: Denise Truscello/Getty Images/MGM Resorts International

The cast and crew of O by Cirque du Soleil, one of Las Vegas’s longest-running productions, celebrate its return at the Bellagio Resort & Casino on July 1st. Photograph: Denise Truscello/Getty Images/MGM Resorts International

 

Whether for the Elvis Presley years or the heyday of ’80s glam rock, Las Vegas has always unashamedly trafficked in nostalgia.

Right now the city yearns most for the days of 2019 – a time before the coronavirus pandemic plunged it into the most acute crisis in its 116-year history.

On Fremont Street, the historical centre of Las Vega’s golden era, you would think Covid-19 had never happened. A couple of hundred people huddle around a live music stage as a passable Bon Jovi cover blares out.

At the front, Felicity Shoars (21), cools herself with a fan bearing the words “F*ck it” – her attitude, she says, to the pandemic.

“The fun is worth the risk. We’re here for a good time.”

Around a bar inside the famous Golden Nugget hotel and casino, there is a similar determination to get back to normal. But there is also evidence of the US’s lopsided response to tackling Covid-19 and the divisions that have allowed the Delta variant to take hold.

Christina and Kevin Engel, both 51 and from Baltimore, are here to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary though technically now it is their 26th after having to postpone last year’s trip. “We feel comfortable,” says Christina, saying that she, her husband and her son all got vaccinated as soon as possible.

Two seats down, Sandy Nelson, 58 and from Kentucky, declares the pandemic to be “all bullshit”. “I don’t plan on getting vaccinated,” she says.

In the middle of it all, a 28-year-old barman who says he is hesitant to get the vaccine, hinting at some of the disinformation that has spread online. He wishes more of his customers would wear masks. “We have people from Florida, we have people from Texas, ” he says. It had been exhausting, he says, not to mention dangerous, “telling a drunk person four or five times a day” to mask up.

From June 1st, it was no longer necessary, as Nevada’s governor, Steve Sisolak, brought an end to the state’s mask mandate for people gathering indoors. Now it is back on.

“I know you’re frustrated,” Sisolak, a Democrat, told a press conference last week, following a spike in cases. “I am too. The last thing I wanted to do was make Nevadans put their masks back on.”

It was a step back, he argued, though not quite back to square one. There would be no reintroduction of capacity restrictions or any other constraints that caused visitors to plummet during the worst days of the pandemic. In April 2020, visitor numbers dropped to just 106,900 compared to some 3.5 million in the same month in 2019.

Slot machines

This past April, visitors numbers had recovered to just over 2.5 million, according to data from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

But the Delta variant looms, threatening to ruin what some have predicted will be a “Roaring 20s” for Las Vegas once Covid is defeated.

From April to June, according to figures from the Nevada Gaming Control Board, casinos on the Las Vegas strip recorded their highest gambling takings since 2006, despite the fact that international tourists, who stay longer and spend more, are yet to return.

A sign at the Comedy Cellar at the Rio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas at the weekend. Photograph: Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images
A sign at the Comedy Cellar at the Rio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas at the weekend. Photograph: Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images

The money going into slot machines – the socially distanced gambling option – has never been higher.

Counting casinos across the entire state, the house took in a monthly record of $1.23 billion (€1.04 billion) in May.

“I didn’t see it coming,” said Michael Lawton, senior economic analyst for the gaming board. “It was a really drastic fall, but it’s looking to be a really drastic climb back up to where we were.”

Still lagging is the return of business guests, who typically stay in the down days of Sunday to Thursday.

In early June, the return of World of Concrete marked the first major trade show since the beginning of the pandemic – not just in Vegas, but in the country as a whole. It attracted “tens of thousands” of guests, organisers said, seen here as a turning point.

“Exhibitors are very excited,” said Lori Nelson-Kraft, the LVCVA’s head of communications. “They’re getting good quality attendees, and deals are getting done. But attendance is just going to look smaller until a full recovery happens in the economy.”

That recovery will require a returning workforce. Like many places across the US, employee shortages have put strain on Vegas, where presentational prowess often masks the Herculean logistical efforts going on behind the scenes.

Safety concerns

In many hotels, it means restaurants are running shorter hours and fewer tables. In a mostly unwalkable city – where temperatures regularly exceed 40 degrees – taxi ranks often sit empty and rideshare apps can require wait times of 20 minutes and beyond – if a car can even be located.

The Culinary Union, which represents 60,000 workers in Las Vegas and Reno, blames the resorts for the shortages and not, as others have suggested, the effects of stimulus cheques or safety concerns.

“It’s not because of a lack of workers who want to work,” says Bethany Khan, the union’s head of communications for the Local 266 chapter. “But rather companies haven’t recalled workers back to work.”

Enforcing basic health measures is difficult in Las Vegas, an economy built around bringing people close together at craps tables, at shows or packed into nightclubs.

Trying to introduce strict distancing and additional sanitisation risks removing some of the Vegas spirit, though you can see some valiant efforts. At the Westgate Resort, where Barry Manilow has upcoming shows, guests are told to wash their hands for as long as it takes to sing one chorus of Copacabana.

If the city can manage to stave off another shutdown, locals are bullish about its future. During the pandemic, several new projects moved forward unhindered, including the opening of a 60,000-seat stadium now housing the Las Vegas Raiders football team, recently relocated from Oakland.

And on Fremont Street, the glitzy, adults-only Circa hotel became the first new purpose-built casino in “historic” Vegas for some 40 years when it opened in October. It is already a huge hit, at least among those who can visit. This reporter’s British ID was the first the doorman had seen. Until the world’s partiers return, the Roaring 20s in Vegas will be on hold. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.