Will a stripped-down version of the city attract the same number of visitors who used to come party at pools, dance in nightclubs and gamble in casinos?
For decades, the El Cortez Hotel & Casino in downtown Las Vegas has been known for single-deck blackjack.
But when the casinos and resorts open up — tentatively early June — after weeks of being shut down, players will no longer be able to touch the cards. About 100 slot machines at the casino have been removed, and the remaining 750 are now farther apart. Tape on the floor at the craps tables shows players where to stand to meet social-distancing requirements.
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"The days of 16 people standing around the dice table high-fiving one another are over for now," said Adam Wiesberg, general manager of the El Cortez, whose previous owners include gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky.
While many cities and states grapple with the process of reopening, the stakes are high for Las Vegas, which has been hit particularly hard. About one-third of the local economy comes from the leisure and hospitality industry, more than any other major metropolitan area of the country. And when the city opens up after weeks of being shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, it will be a very different place.
For starters, many of the flashiest hotels and casinos on the Las Vegas Strip will remain closed. The famed all-you-can-eat buffets will be gone. So will the nightclubs. It is unknown when big conventions, must-see live shows and sports events will return.
For towering giants like MGM Resorts International, Wynn Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Sands, which offer their clientele white-glove service, gambling accounts for about a third of their revenues. The remaining two-thirds comes from hotel rooms, restaurants, nightclubs, spas, pool parties, shows and other entertainment.
Will the stripped-down version of the city attract the visitors who previously came to party poolside during the day, rock out at concert venues at night and dance at nightclubs into the wee hours of the morning?
"Part of the reason these guys can charge $25 for a watered-down vodka soda is the energy and vibe around their resorts," said Chad Beynon, an analyst at investment bank Macquarie Group. "If these clubs aren't open and you're not permitting the same party atmosphere, will people still come?"
For many, the point of Las Vegas is the antithesis of social distancing.
"Nobody comes to Vegas to spend time by themselves," said Brian Labus, an assistant professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who is also a member of the medical advisory team for Governor Steve Sisolak of Nevada. "It's a place people come to be social with one another."
Before Sisolak shut down all nonessential businesses in Nevada in mid-March, Las Vegas was booming. The city had been one of the last to bounce back from the financial crisis of 2008 that sent foreclosure rates on residential properties soaring and collapsed home prices in the region.
But by earlier this year, more than 3 million visitors a month were flocking to the city, filling up the hotel rooms and cramming into the casinos, Cirque du Soleil performances and restaurants. For three consecutive months through February, gambling revenues in the state totalled more than US$1 billion.
The city's fortunes filled its skylines with multibillion-dollar projects aimed at attracting vast crowds of people, including the 65,000-seat Allegiant Stadium that will be the new home for the National Football League's Raiders; the nearly 17,000-seat MSG Sphere at The Venetian; and the mega-resort project Resorts World Las Vegas. Circa Resort and Casino, a two-story casino being built downtown, features temperature-controlled rooftop pools large enough for 4,000 people to watch games and other entertainment on a giant outdoor video screen.
"Things were really bullish here in Las Vegas," said Stephen Miller, a professor of economics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "And now, as a result of the virus, the public health crisis and the government shutting down the economy, it looks to me like Las Vegas is going to be once again one of the hardest-hit metro areas in the West."
In fact, Nevada's unemployment rate skyrocketed to 28.2 per cent in April, the highest in the country and in the state's history, as casinos and other nonessential businesses laid off or furloughed hundreds of thousands of employees.
Last week, Sisolak signalled that casinos could reopen as early as June 4.
But guidelines issued this month by the Nevada Gaming Control Board limit capacity to 50 per cent and require new cleaning and social-distancing policies. Casinos are now taking out slot machines — which can make up half of the gaming revenue at many establishments — and considering raising minimum bets at card tables. Regulators have capped capacity at three players a table for blackjack and four for poker.
Executives at Wynn, which reported a 42 per cent drop in revenue in the first quarter and saw a US$105 million profit from a year ago turn into a US$402 million loss, say they plan to open both Wynn and Encore properties. The stock price of Wynn Resorts is down 46 per cent this year.
Executives at MGM Resorts, which runs more than a dozen casinos on the Strip, told Wall Street analysts in late April that the company would likely first open the Bellagio, home to the famous water fountain show, and New York, New York, a midrange property that features a roller coaster. MGM's stock has dropped 53 per cent this year.
All the hotels and casinos are taking safety measures. The Venetian, which is owned by Las Vegas Sands Corp., has installed thermal cameras at entrances, put up plastic barriers at hotel check-in desks and removed about half of the chairs at its pools, rearranging the others to meet social-distancing protocols.
At the El Cortez, Wiesberg said he scrambled in recent weeks to purchase face masks, gloves and gallons of hand sanitiser for the property when it reopens.
A local design firm, Screaming Images, created and installed clear, removable plastic partitions between players at card tables that Wiesberg said he will use on some blackjack tables to see how they function and how customers respond.
And while players won't touch the cards in games, Wiesberg brought in Elite Chip Care, a local business that cleans and sanitises chips using ultrasonics, in mid-May to clean 28,000 chips and is using an antimicrobial protectant on the chips that claims to protect surfaces for 60 days. Employees will have temperature checks, but he doesn't think it's practical to take the temperatures of guests entering the casino through one of the dozen doors from the street where outside temperatures can reach 43C.
In an effort to try to cover costs, given casino capacity limits, Wiesberg said he is likely to raise the midweek minimum bets on some blackjack tables to $10 from $5, and on roulette, to $5 from $2. The casino will continue to have a high limit table for big betters.
But while this may be the toughest test for Las Vegas, Wiesberg, like other casino leaders, still likes his odds.
"It's going to bounce back," Wiesberg said. "Las Vegas is part of the American culture. And I think it will come back better than ever."
Written by: Julie Creswell
Photographs by: Roger Kisby
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