(CNN) — Dice were flying, restaurants were jam-packed, and Las Vegas was hopping reopening weekend as Sin City returned after more than two months of shutdown due to public health concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
The good news: Hotels and attractions were far busier than expected, prompting many local resort companies to accelerate plans to open more of their properties over the coming weeks.
The bad news: According to field reports from casino floors and the busy sidewalks lining Las Vegas Boulevard, few visitors were wearing face coverings or practicing social distancing — two precautions that local and federal public health officials have encouraged in order to slow the spread of Covid-19 through the summer.
Put simply, Vegas is back, but it may not be as safe as visitors might like during these trying times.
Scott Roeben, owner of VitalVegas.com
“Mr. Las Vegas,” Wayne Newton welcomes guests to Caesars Palace.
Courtesy Denise Truscello/Caesars Palace and Flamingo
Before unpacking how seriously Las Vegas visitors were taking the pandemic, let’s focus on the most important issue: There were people. Lots of them.
Considering that Covid-19 cases are climbing in roughly half the 50 states, local tourism officials and casino executives weren’t sure how much interest a newly reopened Las Vegas would generate during “reopening” weekend.
They got their answer almost immediately — Sin City reopened at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, June 4, and all over town, destinations were packed.
The vibe on casino floors was electric — at Venetian Las Vegas, gamblers cheered as they raced through the doors. At Caesars Palace, actors dressed as Caesar and Cleopatra donned face masks and joined forces with Wayne Newton (they call him Mr. Las Vegas around the Vegas Valley) to welcome back guests.
Not much of a gamble
Downtown, under the video canopy of the pedestrian-mall known as Fremont Street Experience, visitors posed for selfies with bartenders wearing bikini tops and giant plastic face shields.
Bob Finch, COO of Station Casinos, which opened six of its 10 resorts in Las Vegas this weekend, said he was “incredibly pleased with the positive response and turnout,” and noted that guests had “taken to social media and let us know they are excited to return and are impressed with the safety protocols we’ve rolled out.”
Derek Stevens, owner of The D Las Vegas, Golden Gate Casino, and the under-construction Circa Las Vegas, agreed. Stevens instructed staff members to pour glasses of sparkling wine for every hotel guest at check-in, and he greeted guests personally.
“We wanted to make sure we welcomed everybody back and got them off to a good start,” said Stevens, who last week sponsored a promotion through which he gave away 2,000 one-way airplane tickets to Las Vegas from 33 cities around the country. “By the time they hit the casino, everybody was in a great mood.”
Social distancing signs, such as this one at Caesars Palace, did not deter some visitors from congregating.
Courtesy Denise Truscello/Caesars Palace and Flamingo
Those who run local attractions were also surprised by the demand.
Noel Bowman, owner of ICEBAR at The LINQ Promenade, said he and his team planned on closing at 10 p.m. that first night but stayed open until 2 a.m. to accommodate the crowd of guests.
“We were unexpectedly slammed with heavy traffic and guests ready to spend money,” said Bowman, whose attractions essentially are bars made of ice. Bowman added that despite protests rejecting institutionalized racism, “our crowd was as diverse as can be and everyone was treating each other with kindness and respect.”
Rod Taylor, vice president of Lake Mead/Mohave Adventures, said crowds also came to Lake Mead National Recreation Area, about 30 minutes southeast of McCarran International Airport. Taylor’s company operates several marinas with boat rentals. He said this weekend was his busiest of the year.
“We haven’t seen demand at these levels since before the last recession,” he said, harkening all the way back to 2008.
Guests play craps on a table with plexiglass safety shields at Bellagio Resort & Casino.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Restaurateurs reported similar data. Brian Howard, chef and owner of Sparrow + Wolf, a global cuisine restaurant in Chinatown, said his eatery has been sold out since the gates opened back up on Thursday, and noted that despite rules that limit the place to 50 percent of normal capacity, the energy and life of the busy room are coming back quickly.
“It’s a great feeling to see the guests singing to the songs of the playlists, laughing and enjoying each other again,” he said. “You get the sense that everyone is ready to celebrate being out again.”
The Bellagio’s coronavirus welcome kit
Courtesy Bellagio Las Vegas
In addition to unexpected demand, Las Vegas reopened with several other surprises last week — some good and welcome, others not so much.
For starters, many casino resorts decided to waive parking fees, and some have promised not to bring the fees back for at least a year (if not longer). At least one resort, the SAHARA, also vowed to waive resort fees on stays through the end of the month, a savings of about $38 per night.
“We expect to see visitation continue to increase in the coming weeks and are thrilled to be back doing what we do best,” said Paul Hobson, senior vice president and general manager at the SAHARA.
Elsewhere around town, several resorts have invested in goodie bags for overnight guests.
At Bellagio, for instance, each stay for the foreseeable future includes a bag with two casino-branded face masks, a small bottle of hand sanitizer, and two metal tools that look like giant keys. The tools are designed to enable guests to pull open doors and push elevator buttons without touching any foreign surfaces.
The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas also gave hotel guests takeaway bags with masks, sanitizer and other swag.
There were other changes. Many restaurants were offering menus and wine lists that visitors can view on their personal devices through QR codes. Some hotels also had rolled out technology that enables guests to check in to hotel rooms on a mobile app; once they go through this process, the guests’ personal devices become keys to unlock the room doors.
Other reopening rituals around town revealed surprise fees and extended closures.
Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab at the Forum Shops inside Caesars Palace, rolled out a new “COVID-19 offset fee” in the amount of 4 percent on all checks — a new policy from the restaurant’s parent company, Lettuce Entertain You.
Mon Ami Gabi, a restaurant inside Paris Las Vegas, also was charging the fee. Company officials said through a statement that the fees are entirely optional, and that guests at both restaurants may decline the fee if they wish.
Safety was a big issue going into reopening weekend — especially considering that the nation (and the world, for that matter) is still in the throes of battling a global pandemic. On this point, reviews were mixed.
Resorts and casinos certainly tried to cultivate a safe environment. Just about every property (and many attractions around town) installed multiple hand sanitizer stations across each property. A handful of casinos installed plexiglass barriers on table games such as blackjack, craps, and roulette. MGM Resorts even rolled out actual sinks with water and soap and paper towels.
In an interview the week before reopening, John Flynn, vice president of administration at MGM, said his company was willing to do whatever it could to keep guests safe and protect them from catching the virus. This week, after reopening, he said the new experience wasn’t too different from the old one.
“The energy we felt this weekend was further proof that doing Las Vegas safely is still the same Las Vegas experience guests have come to know and love,” Flynn said in a statement.
Up and down Las Vegas Boulevard, casino executives went on record saying visitors did a great job of embracing new safety precautions.
But field reports painted a different picture — one in which many people around the city were neither distancing nor staying on top of minimizing exposure to germs.
Social media captured most of this evidence. A Twitter video posted by Los Angeles Times sports columnist Arash Markasi around 12:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 6 captured a two-minute walkthrough of the casino floor at The Cosmopolitan during which few patrons were wearing masks and most visitors were congregating as if nothing at all was amiss.
Tim Haughinberry, owner of Back Bar USA
Tim Haughinberry, a Las Vegas resident and owner of Back Bar USA, a local beverage marketing firm, made similar observations.
In an email, Haughinberry said he spent much of the weekend checking out the vibe at several different bars and restaurants around town. His takeaway: People didn’t appear to be taking public health recommendations seriously.
“What I noticed is zero consistency,” he wrote. “Overall, nobody seemed to care that there was a pandemic.”
Roeben, the man behind Vital Vegas, noted that casino workers told him privately that they weren’t seeing guests wearing masks or distancing appropriately. Some workers went so far as to admit it made them uncomfortable.
“I think [visitors] are ready to let loose, and I am starting to get the feeling it’s translating into a kind of wishful thinking; that if you ignore the threat, it doesn’t exist,” Roeben wrote in a direct message on Twitter. “We all know this isn’t permanent, it’s the ‘new temporary.’ Vegas isn’t meant to be done with masks or worry. It’s an escape.”
What’s next: deals, deals, deals
While reopening weekend definitely jump-started the Las Vegas economy, it’s still too early to discern the impacts on public health; because Covid-19 has an incubation period of anywhere from 7-14 days, Las Vegas won’t know if visitors were exposed to the virus until mid-June at the earliest.
In the meantime, buoyed by strong demand, casino resort companies have accelerated plans to reopen secondary properties around town. MGM opened MGM Grand, Bellagio and New York-New York last week; there are now plans to open Excalibur on June 11.
Caesars Entertainment, the parent company of Caesars Palace, the Flamingo Las Vegas, and other resorts, plans to open some of its other properties soon, too. This means deeper discounts on hotel rooms — especially during the week.
Station Casinos is offering a deal with up to 25 percent off regular room rates on a 2-night minimum stay with a $50 food and beverage credit. JSX, a hop-on jet service based in Dallas, Monday promoted a new package with private jet service to Las Vegas, a king-bed suite at Wynn Las Vegas, and a dining credit for $50 to select restaurants inside the casino.
As more restaurants reopen, more shopping venues relax restrictions and the return of professional sports entices bettors to return to local sports books, now may be a perfect time to go back to Vegas.
Just be sure to stay six feet from strangers, and to wear a mask.
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