There is no place in the world that has not felt the effects of the coronavirus, but for a resort like Las Vegas where tourism is the main driver of the economy, the pandemic has been a disaster. All of the attractions, from its glittering casinos and star-studded concerts to the stadiums that house its growing crop of sports teams, have been closed for months.
Nobody in Las Vegas wanted to shut the city down, as everyone knew what it would do to the economy of the state, but it was impossible to go on as normal. It is a city fuelled by tourism – with twenty visiting thrill seekers to every one resident – and that made keeping the casinos, restaurants and other venues open too risky given the contagiousness of the virus. Everything was shuttered in March and there was no certainty about when everyday life could be resumed.
That question was answered this month though, with a number of casinos and restaurants opening on June 4th. Among the big casinos to open for business on that date was the Bellagio owned by MGM Resorts, with Caesars Palace and the Venetian also making the move. Despite doubts about whether people would be willing to come along, the re-launch was a roaring success – with casinos and restaurants packed during the first weekend back. Even with the risks, it is easy to see why the Governor Steve Sisolak made the decision: Vegas attracted 42.5 million visitors and generated revenues of close to $8.8 billion during 2019. That came almost entirely from its entertainment venues and their closure saw Nevada unemployment reach 28% – higher than any other state in the US. Nevada needs Vegas back in business and the public response suggests it agrees.
Not everyone is sure it is the right move however. It has been widely reported that many of the visitors hitting the city for the big reopening were failing to follow social distancing regulations and were often not wearing safety masks. The casinos and other venues have sought to minimise danger by installing transparent barriers at games tables and hand-washing stations, but whether this will be enough is up for debate. As some have pointed out, the fact that the overwhelming majority of people in Las Vegas are there temporarily makes it much harder to keep track of potentially infectious people. Casinos are legally obliged to contact health authorities should a person suffering from coronavirus symptoms be discovered, but only if this happens while they are staying there. There is no across-the-board strategy when it comes to casino visitors after they go back home. The results of the decision to prioritise the economy over health risks will be closely watched by the rest of the country.
The next few months will determine whether the decision to reopen Las Vegas was the right one, but the bleak economic and employment situation created by the shutdown makes it easy to understand.