Las Vegas Casinos Help Set Record But Virus Effects Apparent
Over the last few decades, I’ve visited Las Vegas scores of times, often for professional reasons. At the risk of dating myself, I still have plastic cocktail stirrers and matchbooks from most of the casinos that were imploded.
Without being cognizant of the impending timing at the moment, I was there in March 2020. I left just before the March 17 shutdown that was initially expected to be a month-long response to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic but wound up turning Vegas into a post-apocalyptic ghost town for months.
The reopening of the Nevada casino industry, including the famous Strip and downtown’s Fremont Street, occurred in stages with June 1, 2021, a milestone date for businesses returning at full-throttle, meaning 100% occupancy.
Lately, the COVID virus’ Delta variant forced a return to a masks-on policy in public places indoors, including in casinos.
Regardless of some anticipated inconveniences, for me, it was time to return to Las Vegas. I was far from being the only one to get the itch.
In fact, for several months beginning in the spring, visitors have been finding their way back to Vegas – as evidenced by Nevada’s gaming revenue numbers. In July, Nevada posted its fifth straight month of gaming revenues topping $1 billion. The July figure was $1.36 billion, a single-month record that beat May’s $1.23 billion.
Lingering Evidence of COVID-19 Lockdown
Yet, the numbers aside, this is not quite the same Las Vegas I left in March 2020. The pandemic has left its fingerprints. Some restaurants and shows that were shut down by the pandemic were still not re-opened and some are gone permanently. There is a noticeable absence of international visitors because travel restrictions are still an impediment.
There’s an emphasis on no-touch protocols from mobile hotel check-ins to QR codes on restaurant tables for diners to see menus. Businesses, including casino floors, are pushing contactless transactions. While being techy fashion-forward and designed to promote public health, the digital fetish for as little human interaction as possible lent a distinctly less personal feel to the travel experience – and was a reminder that we should all be mindful of the persistent virus.
As much as any place, Las Vegas is affected by the shortage of labor. That was apparent, but not to the extent that it took away from the Vegas experience. You could tell that front-line restaurant workers were stretched thin sometimes when they simply forgot a minor request. And I wondered if the limited menus I often encountered were the result of supply chain issues or were abbreviated to take pressure off the kitchens.
One day, the hotel room (it was a high-end Strip resort) wasn’t serviced. Turn-down, even at the most expensive casino-resorts, is definitely gone for now. These changes are all understandable – yet the hotel was still boldly charging $20 for an in-room bottle of spring water.
I made sure to thank front-line workers, to take a minute to recognize their difficult times, and to tip as generously as possible. The appreciation was reciprocal. From parking valets to wait persons to entertainers, Vegas folks that I encountered were grateful that visitors were showing up.
An oddity is that on this visit, dogs were everywhere. Dogs were walked on the Strip, moved through hotel lobbies, hung out on casino floors and were even held by their owners at roulette tables and slot machines. I asked why and it was suggested that pet owners had become so attached during their months of COVID-19 confinement, they were now bringing Sparky everywhere. It was as good of a rationale as any.
Vegas Has Big City Problems, Enduring Appeal
Vegas has always evolved, but for those who haven’t been in a while, or haven’t been at all, it may come as a surprise that it is truly a Big City now tackling Big City problems, such as infrastructure. Unlike many visitors who prefer ride-hailing services and cabs, I get a rental car and drive in Vegas.
More than ever, the streets are torn up with road projects that will go on for months, maybe years. Meanwhile, pedestrian traffic on the Strip is as heavy as ever and the chutes-and-ladders arrangement of escalators and overpasses that allows for movement along Las Vegas Boulevard is plagued by too many mechanical failures with the escalators.
I am a fan of Downtown’s Fremont Street and the commercial attempts being made along Fremont East. In more recent years, I have stayed there more often than on the Strip, including in March 2020. But for the moment, it has changed.
Always a raucous, carnival-like atmosphere, Fremont has taken a gritty, cacophonous turn. Buskers have been replaced by the unfortunate panhandling for money. Medical marijuana was legalized in Nevada in 2013 but the consumer rollout was slow for a few years. Distribution has apparently improved. During one evening visit, an eye-watering pungent cloud was trapped under the Fremont Street Experience canopy from end to end.
In short, Vegas is back but there are differences. It’s sort of like listening to a musical artist doing a slightly modified rendition of their own all-time hit. It’s entirely familiar but not quite the same.
To be fair, Las Vegas is still working its way out of a once-in-a-century pandemic that has changed all of American society. So why should anyone expect Vegas to entirely escape without some after-effects? But what is encouraging is that the macro-indicators of monthly gaming revenue reports and at least one four-night boots-on-the-ground visit reinforce the faith that Las Vegas is possessed of an indominable resilience to be what it has always been – a place like no other in the world.
A longtime reporter and editor who began writing on casinos and gaming shortly after Atlantic City’s first gambling halls opened, Bill covered the world Series of Poker and wrote a syndicated column on travel to casino destinations for a decade.