Tales from the Strip: Gambling with Our Health

Las Vegas Strip

Vegas, what happens here stays here, right? Well as it turns out, COVID-19 is an inconsiderate and dangerous guest overstaying its welcome. I love living in Las Vegas and want to see a return to pre-COVID-19 prosperity, with events, shows, and concerts as soon as possible. Unfortunately, based on my front line observations, we may be in for a long wait. 

I live on one of the most iconic corners in the world — the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street. Surrounded by casinos, there are hipsters to the east and gamblers to the west. My office window faces directly at the sparkling ’80s El Cortez sign and straight down Fremont East to Tony Hsieh’s (founder of Zappos) artsy, eclectic, small business paradise. North facing neighbors get the rush of the freeway, the south gets bombarded with laser light shows and bass lines spun from rooftop bars. The west side? They get a steady stream of 30 second screams from adrenaline seekers hurtling down ziplines beneath the world’s largest LED screen. They used to, anyway.

On March 17th, the incandescent bulbs went out on the El Cortez sign and a strange, hushed darkness fell over our vibrant, boisterous neighborhood. Governor Sisolak announced the show mustn’t go on, and in just over two months the unemployment rate jumped to 28%, the highest in the United States. Gone were the roar of planes delivering tourists to pay our income taxes. Encapsulated ecosystems of hospitality ground to a halt. 

Just as I acclimated to the chirp of crickets, birds, and that one chatty air conditioning unit perched on the roof across the street — the switch was flipped. Like a scene out of a horror movie when the carousel suddenly lights up and slowly gains speed, I’m watching the wheels of commerce drive the city back to work. Once again, the bass lines from the bar around the corner thump till 2 am. The whooers (as I affectionately call them) make a racket below my balcony, but with every whoop and holler, I find myself concerned. I imagine each is an indication that the tension downtown finally gave way to violence. Our streets are filled with unemployed locals wandering from bar to bar, most mask free, blowing off steam from the months of financial uncertainty and frustration with the slow government response. 

If I sound apprehensive about the reopening of Las Vegas, it’s because I am. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not easily shaken. I live on Fremont Street where daily you’ll find your senses alternating between being dazzled by the glamour, street art, music, plays, and great food, and being accosted by brief whiffs of human waste, bewildering human behavior, and the acute awareness of the expanse between the haves and the have nots. It’s the most authentic part of Vegas.

The only problem is that the lifeblood of this beautiful hot mess has always been the intoxicated masses — a pandemic’s buffet, if you will. And as our neighbors in Arizona recently found out, maskless drinkers, lowered inhibitions, and cramped spaces result in a COVID-19 smӧrgåsbord.     

Vegas has a daunting dilemma. What makes us interesting is at direct odds with containing a pandemic. We don’t have FOMO — there is a reason we are one of the event industry’s favorite destinations. Between the conventions, concerts, and shows, there’s no shortage of entertainment and I haven’t even gotten to the main attraction! 

The Casinos: any kind of food your heart desires, a bar in every direction, endless peddlers of merchandise, and gambling venues galore. I braved two casinos to assess what safety measures have been implemented, should you be bold enough to travel here. What I found was astounding and dismaying at the same time. 

In Downtown Las Vegas, casinos have added plexiglass to the tables to promote distancing, a plethora of signage, and personal protective equipment in vending machines. In some rows, you’ll find every other one armed bandit marked out of service to promote distancing. But on the whole, the floor looks much the same and maskless people loiter around the bars with no distancing at all.

On the Strip, at the Bellagio specifically, the policies are clearly posted and protective items readily available for free. There are handwashing stations intermittently spaced — nice ones plumbed right into the casino floor, with staff refilling the mask and latex glove boxes, and wiping the sinks down. The masks were required for anyone who, sitting between plexiglass partitions, was gambling at a table. While I didn’t test my luck this time around, I can imagine that the experience of being seated at a table, sectioned off from other players, unable to see their faces, takes all of the exhilaration out of the whole experience. Like playing a sports ball game without the fans. Yet all the while, people are milling around maskless.   

The Bellagio had fully plumbed sinks spread out across the casino floor.
Casino workers constantly wiped down the sinks to keep them clean between uses and restocked free masks and latex gloves.

Two startling things vexed me: very few people were taking advantage of the protection freely offered, and the vast number of small humans (yes, I mean children … but in a casino?!), more than I’d ever seen on the Strip in one place. I’d guess less than 25% of the people roaming the casino floor were wearing masks (and even less wearing them correctly), many of whom had maskless children in strollers or in hand. The only explanation I have to account for this is that these locals (remember the no flights thing, and also, who in their right mind flys four kids to Vegas now?!) must not believe there is a pandemic at all.

The policies and significant infrastructure changes implemented by the casinos are an incredible step in the right direction but in reality they fall flat. Just three days after my investigative escapade into the casinos, the Gaming Control Board passed regulations requiring the wearing of masks by all patrons while on the casino floors. The catalyst, you ask? A rapidly declining number of guests utilizing them. This was swiftly followed up by Governor Sisolak mandating that all Nevadans wear masks in public.

Aside from the aforementioned consumer behavior, I observed a casino worker who was lackadaisical in her cleaning efforts, with a spray bottle and haphazard swipes of a towel across the tabletops. And, while I was initially impressed by the use of an hourglass clearly meant to make sure the disinfectant had time to break down the lipid layer of the virus, I observed the hostess seating the table twice before even half the sand had trickled through. Did she feel rushed because of assumed customer expectations? Practically speaking, hospitality staff are obviously unequipped to enforce any measures in an industry with a history of explicitly accommodating customer whims. A perfect example of a good procedure failing due to human error. 

This hourglass was implemented to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

It comes to this — we can not overcome COVID-19 until it is taken seriously. That means active measures implemented correctly. If we can’t manage it at the leisurely pace of a piano bar, how are we going to manage anything more? When you scale this to an event scenario, how can we depend on workers and fellow attendees to do their part to keep all of us safe? 

Jacqueline Wayment

Jacqueline Wayment