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Coronavirus shakes Las Vegas casinos like never before

The Esplanada shopping area at the Encore in Las Vegas.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Before the clock struck midnight, armed security guards at casinos across the Las Vegas strip finished collecting chips from baccarat tables. Slot machine screens turned black and bartenders removed bottles of wine and liquor from the shelves.

Blackjack dealers, sensing the surreal unfolding before them, snapped selfies while janitors sprayed disinfectant and wiped door handles. The high-rollers packed up; the entertainers and musicians went home. And suddenly this city of hustlers and romantics, which rides on the crests and dips of the U.S. economy, shuttered Wednesday and changed in a way it never had before.

“I’ve never seen how a casino shuts down in my 35 years working on the strip,” said one Treasure Island employee while pouring out bottles of juice. “Only when they open up.”

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By morning, talk of the coronavirus was incessant but the familiar sting of cigarette smoke no longer enveloped casino floors. Without the beeps of the machines, whirs of the roulette tables and chatters from patrons, the music blaring from the speakers hovering above echoed louder.

There is perhaps no city that more accurately reflects the promise of the American spirit than Las Vegas. Full of dreamers and those seeking fortunes big and small, it is a city of ambition and optimism, a blaze of neon in the desert, where, with a bit of luck and fine-tuned work ethic, you can make enough money to buy a house and live more comfortably than in most places.

But the painful flip side to that gilded coin was revealed Tuesday evening when Gov. Steve Sisolak announced he was ordering a statewide shutdown of businesses deemed non-essential — gaming, bars, restaurants, movie theaters, nail salons. It would start with the casinos at midnight, giving Nevada just under six hours to put the brakes on a gambling industry with over 5,400 table games and 163,000 slot machines.

Transmission electron micrograph of new coronavirus particles, isolated from a patient.
Transmission electron micrograph of new coronavirus particles, isolated from a patient.
(National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases-Rocky Mountain Laboratories)
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The global coronavirus pandemic and rising cases in the U.S. have brought travel and tourism to a virtual standstill. But it is devastating for Las Vegas, where revenue from Strip properties alone amounts to $6.6 billion annually. In 2018, hotels and casinos in Southern Nevada employed roughly 164,400 people, representing 16.8% of the region’s total employment and 18.7% of all private employment.

Las Vegas shutting down is significant. It is meaningful. In a city where nearly anything is possible, a closure of this magnitude deals a specific blow to the American psyche — one that strikes at the heart of hope and confidence in this country. This city of over 2.2 million people in the metropolitan area, founded in 1905 as a way station between California and Utah, is fastened solidly to the whims of the U.S. economy.

When things are good, they are very good. And when there’s bad news, few who live here are immune to its effects. Things are bad now. There were 42 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Clark County as of Tuesday, with one death. The number of confirmed cases nationwide has grown to 7,769 with 118 deaths.

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The Las Vegas Strip on New Year's Eve
(Mark Damon/Las Vegas News Bureau)

If there’s one thing you could count on in Las Vegas, it was the continual, permeating din of the casinos: the gentle clacking of chips, the cheerful electronic noises from the slot machines, the occasional outburst from a craps table where someone is having a good run. But that — at least for the moment — has evaporated into the dry desert air.

Multiple dealers and managers confirmed: A shutdown like this has never happened. Not during the 2008 financial crisis. Not on 9/11. Not after the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history that killed 59 people.

Never.

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One dealer, a 25-year veteran of the industry, said that the last time the casinos in Vegas closed, for any reason, was after JFK was assassinated. “And that was for one day,” he said.

The morning after Mayor Garcetti closes all dining rooms, things look a lot different at this Melrose restaurant.

Given the unprecedented nature of the shutdown, it all happened with frightening alacrity and smoothness. The gaming areas, which were slow to begin with due to the drop-off in tourism over the past week, closed without too much of a fight.

One man on the floor at the Venetian tried to sneak in an extra hand of blackjack and threw a $100 bill onto the table. “No more,” said the dealer. The man protested. A floor manager approached: “The table is closed,” he said. “The casino is closed. The city is closed.”

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Meanwhile, it was business as usual for the few straggling tourists.

Whether gripping onto the last few minutes of normalcy in the adult playground that offers the usual escape from the stresses of life, or perhaps indifferent to Gov. Sisolak’s plea just a few hours earlier to not go out, a few diners at the Grand Luxe Cafe chose to end the evening cheers-ing glasses while crunching on chips and double-dipping them in salsa.

Caleb Bucinski, a student at Purdue University, sat at the Triple Cash Wheel, getting in some last-minute slot play. “I’m on this machine because it’s doing good for me right now,” he said. The shutdown, he said between spins, was “morally the right thing to do.” He was decidedly less sanguine about what coronavirus might do to the city, and the country. “To stop this is like stopping the wind,” he said.

Horse racing is on display at a sports book at Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on March 13, 2020.
(AFP via Getty Images)
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Hospitality and gig workers sensed the looming disaster days before as word spread on the Strip that colleagues had been let go and furloughed.

Such was the case for 39-year-old Zach Lopez, who lost his job at a concession stand when the five-day Conexpo-Con/Agg construction trade show wrapped up 24 hours earlier then scheduled over coronavirus concerns. The Chicago native, who moved to Sin City in December 2019, said losing that job cost him $300.

Despite his unlucky streak, he still considers himself fortunate.

He has money saved up and relatives back home with steady jobs who can support him hard times press in. And other than the $650 he spends on rent in the three bedroom house he shares with a roommate, he doesn’t have many outside expenses aside from groceries or food and drinks when he ventures out with friends. He reckoned he’d stay home and watch his favorite TV show, “The Walking Dead.”

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Some of his friends who are Las Vegas natives find themselves in much more precarious situations. Many of them are not the only ones in their families who’ve lost jobs.

“People are panicking,” he said. “I can tell in their tone of voice.”

Still, he catches himself struggling to process his new reality at times. “Right now it’s still all new,” he said.

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The Fremont Street Experience glows with nostalgia.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Over on Fremont Street, there was an almost fatalistic cheer to the atmosphere at Atomic Liquors, the oldest free-standing bar in Las Vegas. It owes its name to the nearby nuclear testing that took place in the 1950s — locals would watch the blasts from the roof. Atomic bartender Faron Palmer, who moved to Las Vegas four years ago, was optimistic about her own situation. She had some savings. “Things will reopen,” she said. “But when they do, are people going to have any money?”

“I think a lot of people thought it would be a couple of weeks, but 30 days — that’s a significant amount of time. That’s two paychecks,” said Justin Desmarais of the Downtown Project, Tony Hsieh’s small-business investment incubator. Desmarais, who has lived in Las Vegas since he was six, counted himself lucky to still have a job. “But this is really going to affect the locals. People who will have to declare bankruptcy. People who can’t pay their rent.”

A long-haired bartender in a kelly-green Atomic Liquors T-shirt stopped and poured beers and mixed drinks long enough to look up and grin balefully: “Welcome to the apocalypse,” he said.


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