LAS VEGAS — At the MGM’s Bellagio hotel and casino, patrons are welcomed with branded pouches stocked with hand sanitizer, face masks and a stylus they can use to push elevator buttons. At the Cosmopolitan’s elevated pool, an L.C.D. screen flashes the message, “Face masks are the new tan lines.”
In typical Las Vegas style, the hospitality industry is going overboard to make sure visitors feel safe, and to make the precautions the pandemic requires feel luxurious.
Visitors can check in using their phones and take advantage of hand- washing stations. On the gambling floors, chips, cards and dice are disinfected between players. Hotel rooms are being deep-cleaned. Most properties have made their hygiene plans — pages upon pages of procedures, including frequent sanitation of high-traffic surfaces and public areas — available to the public.
After 78 days of mandatory closures, it was a relief to see the Las Vegas Strip pulse back to life this month. At the height of the shutdown, hotel occupancy in Nevada sank to 3 percent. At one point, 28 percent of Nevadans were out of work, the highest state unemployment rate ever recorded.
So for my community, the stakes of this reopening are high, and success depends upon carrying it out safely. A resurgence of coronavirus cases here would be devastating for those who will be unemployed if the casinos have to close down again, not to mention those who are still waiting to be called back to work at restaurants and attractions that haven’t yet reopened.
But casinos’ lax rules for entry combined with cavalier attitudes on the part of patrons give those of us who live here cause for concern.
Although casino employees are required by the state to wear face masks, they have only been “strongly encouraged” for guests, and based on what I’ve seen, the majority are ignoring the suggestion. After videos from the reopening weekend showed crowds gathered in casinos without wearing them or practicing social distancing, and after strong pushback from locals, the Nevada Gaming Control Board finally tightened the rules, but just slightly. Face masks will now be required, but only for guests playing at tables that don’t have barriers separating the dealer from players. Visitors who aren’t playing these games — for example, those who are sitting at slot machines or walking around casinos — are still allowed to be mask-free.
The state’s “Road Map to Recovery” limits casino operations to 50 percent occupancy, and the board does require casinos to submit “adequate” Covid-19 mitigation plans as a prerequisite for reopening, but safety precautions aren’t standardized enough.
At one end of the Strip, patrons have their temperatures taken as they enter a casino. At the other, signs politely ask that people who feel sick go home. Some, but not all, casinos are requiring their employees be tested for infection before returning to work.
Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents over 60,000 casino workers in the state, created a website to compare casinos’ Covid-19 prevention standards, and the lack of uniformity and information is concerning.
“We want the Gaming Control Board to have mandatory requirements for all hospitality workers in Nevada, union and nonunion,” said the local’s secretary-treasurer, Geoconda Argüello-Kline. “We have a lot of casino properties, and everyone should have the same standards, particularly mandatory testing.”
If masks and social distancing are just suggestions and visitors can move from one casino to another without being subject to consistent safety requirements, it’s fair to wonder if the precautions are doing much to control the spread of the virus. The dousing of surfaces in sanitizer may seem comforting, but it’s just the newest Vegas show. According to the C.D.C., it’s close person-to-person contact, not surface transmission, that remains the biggest threat.
Meanwhile, at a time when caution about air travel means a higher percentage of visitors are expected to come from nearby states, coronavirus cases are rising in Arizona, California and Utah.
A few days after casinos reopened, cases in Nevada spiked. Last week, Nevada reported its largest one-day increase in virus cases. While it’s true that the higher numbers could reflect increased testing in the state, we know the virus is still spreading in Clark County, where Las Vegas is situated.
Many of the people arriving in Las Vegas with plans to gamble and relax came here to escape the drudgery of life under stay-at-home orders. Wearing a face mask and staying six feet apart while doing that doesn’t seem like too much to ask of visitors, but the reality is that this city has always branded itself as a place to indulge in vice and rebellion.
With the casino’s limited precautions, the safety of us who live and work here is at the whims of the tourists. Whether they’re responsible about preventing the spread of the virus or not, we can’t survive without them.
Brittany Bronson is a writer.
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