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Questions abound in post-pandemic Las Vegas

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Wade Vandervort

A sign displayed table closed on the gambling floor at Treasure Island during the COVID-19 government mandated shutdown, Thursday, April 9, 2020.

Sun, Apr 26, 2020 (2 a.m.)

Standing in a luxury suite on Treasure Island’s 34th floor, Don Voss pondered what the reopening of the desolate Las Vegas Strip below might look like.

More than a month ago, the neon blinked off, the slot machines stopped chirping and hundreds of thousands of tourists vanished amid the coronavirus pandemic.

When they will return and what they will find when the do are the kinds of questions Las Vegas has never faced.

Voss, vice president of hotel sales and marketing for Treasure Island, believes Las Vegas will have to focus heavily on the regional market when it reopens, at least initially.

“California, Arizona, any drive market — and we know there will be some demand because people are going to want to get out of town and escape reality,” Voss said.

“It’s probably going to be the bold and the brave and the younger and healthier that will be willing to initially make that trip,” he said. “It’s going to be a gradual thing.”

To curb the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Steve Sisolak in mid-March ordered casinos statewide closed for 30 days, later extending the shutdown until at least April 30.

As of last week, Treasure Island was booking room reservations starting May 15, though it’s up in the air whether it will be allowed to welcome guests by then.

Sisolak said this past week reiterated that he would consult medical experts before deciding when and how to eventually lift the lid on the state’s economy.

“There’s just so many unknowns right now,” Voss said. “Let me put it this way, I’d be shocked and pleased if we sell out this hotel anytime between now and New Year’s. We’re usually at 94 or 95% occupancy. If we’re back to half of what we were at by July or August, I’d be happy with that.”

Whenever the resorts reopen, they’ll do so with strict sanitation standards — many of which were being instituted when the closure kicked in. Those measures include: hand-sanitizing stations, workers wiping down machines and chairs, and efforts to minimize crowds. So, for instance, certain slot machine clusters will be turned off to help with social distancing.

The same with occur at table games, where reports indicate players will be limited per game — such as three players on each side of the craps table. Guidelines also could call for masks to be worn by casino dealers and using thermal cameras to check potential patrons’ temperatures. (Those confirmed above 100 degrees would not be allowed on property, since an elevated temperature is a primary indicator of COVID-19.)

In a report released April 19, Wynn CEO Matt Maddox called for an early-May reopening of the resort corridor, detailing planned safety precautions. Under the Wynn plan, players and dealers would wear gloves, staff would sanitize chips and tables hourly, and some tables would be removed to promote social distancing. Additionally, limits would be placed on the number of patrons allowed into a resort at any given time.

“I have been on calls almost daily with one of the country’s leading public health and pandemic preparedness experts, as well as various leaders in our medical community representing our hospitals,” Maddox wrote in the report. “...They agree that an incremental reopening makes sense, and that science and data must lead us out of this in a safe fashion.”

MGM Resorts International CEO and President Bill Hornbuckle posted a video a few days later saying, “We’ll also be operating differently [going forward] … everything from how often we clean to how we greet or guests could and will change. Our casino floors will look different, and our restaurants will ultimately be impacted as well. … We have to consider every aspect of our business, so we can welcome our guests safely. … I have every confidence that we are up to this challenge.”

The Nevada Gaming Control Board on Tuesday issued a policy memo outlining steps for casinos to reopen, though it did not set a date for when that might happen.

“A safe, thoughtful, and efficient resumption of gaming operations in this state will help both Nevada and its residents recover from this pandemic,” board Chairwoman Sandra Douglass Morgan said.

The memo says casinos must submit a plan at least seven days before reopening, or as soon as possible thereafter.

Resorts must also identify gaming, entertainment and nightclub areas that will be reopened and which will remain temporarily closed.

The Strip is the economic engine that powers not only Las Vegas but the entire state. According to the Nevada Resort Association, the state’s tourism industry is responsible for 40% of Nevada’s general fund revenue, $20 billion in annual wages and $75 billion in annual economic output.

Last year, Las Vegas welcomed more than 42 million visitors. Stephen Miller, director of UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research, said people eventually would return, but only when they feel safe. Initially, those visitors will come from drive-markets such as California, which accounted for 23% of the visitors in 2018, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s annual survey.

“The resort hotels will likely go to great lengths to convince the traveling public that the facilities are extremely safe,” Miller said. “In the long run, Las Vegas will come back as an international destination for entertainment.”

Treasure Island does not plan to resume operations at full capacity, Voss said. “We’re not going to open everything, because we won’t have demand for that,” he said.

“We won’t know exactly how everything will look until we get there,” he added. “In my opinion, Vegas is flexible, nimble and, whatever the situation is, Vegas will figure it out.”

Bo Bernhard, executive director at UNLV’s International Gaming Institute, agrees there will be a desire to travel once concern over the virus is diminished or lifted. That said, it’s still anyone’s guess as to whether events like professional sporting events, concerts and shows will be allowed to take place in Las Vegas in 2020.

“There is an enormous pent-up demand to get out, to have experiences we once took for granted, and to be among large groups of people who are similarly celebrating,” Bernhard said. “What remains to be seen is whether and how long health concerns continue to override that impulse, which in turn depends upon the health news and scientific developments.”

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