Las Vegas reopens its doors to gamblers following Covid-19 lockdown

Gamblers in Las Vegas and elsewhere in Nevada were placing their bets again as the desert city ended its Covid-19 lockdown.

Hotel-casinos in suburban Las Vegas were the first to open at 12.01am, to be followed later in the morning by a restart of the Bellagio fountain and reopenings of several resorts on the Las Vegas Strip.

Wynn Resorts pushed back its planned opening to daylight hours in a nod to ongoing nighttime protests over George Floyd’s death in Minnesota. Floyd, a black man, died after a white officer pressed his knee into his neck.

“The past few months have presented our city with an unprecedented challenge,” said Derek Stevens, owner of two Las Vegas casinos that were shut along with all gambling establishments in the state 79 days ago.

“We are excited to get our employees back to work and to welcome guests to the entertainment capital of the world.”

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Dealers in masks wait for customers (John Locher/AP)</figcaption>
Dealers in masks wait for customers (John Locher/AP)

There are big hopes for recovery from an unprecedented and expensive shutdown prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s a tremendous amount on the line, not only for casinos, but for the community and the state,” said Alan Feldman, a long-time casino executive who is now a fellow at the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“This is an extremely important moment.”

Casino resorts that had been famously always open were shut on March 17 after Governor Steve Sisolak’s emergency order closed non-essential businesses to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Property owners, state regulators and Mr Sisolak, a Democrat who has been criticised for the closure, balanced health concerns against the loss of billions of dollars a month in gambling revenue and unemployment that topped 28% during an idled April.

They’re betting that safety measures, disinfected dice; hand sanitiser and face masks; limited numbers of players at tables; temperature checks at entrances to some resorts; touchless mobile phone check-ins — will lure tourists back.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>People wait in line to enter after the reopening of the D Las Vegas hotel and casino (John Locher/AP)</figcaption>
People wait in line to enter after the reopening of the D Las Vegas hotel and casino (John Locher/AP)

“I’m optimistic that customers will see that gaming properties invested time and effort to welcome them back to a safe and entertaining environment,” state Gaming Control Board chief Sandra Douglass Morgan said.

The regulatory board required detailed health safety plans from resort owners by last week, before giving the go-ahead to reopen.

Mr Feldman said he thinks it will take a long time for the sector to recover.

“This is going to be a pretty long, slow climb,” said Mr Feldman, who was with MGM Resorts when Las Vegas experienced an abrupt air travel stop after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, and later a crippling plunge in business during the Great Recession over a decade ago.

“I’m hopeful it is a consistent climb, without setbacks.”

Recovery from the recession took years — reaching best-ever numbers last January and February, when taxable casino winnings were at one billion US dollars each month and unemployment was at an all-time low of 3.6%.

By April, unemployment reached 28.2%, topping figures in any state even during the Great Depression.

Casino winnings were near zero.

The biggest casino operators, MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment, will not immediately open all their Strip properties.

Executives said they want to see how many people show up.

The first to arrive were expected to be area residents, then motorists from nearby US states followed by air travellers.

“The market still relies heavily on air traffic, and the longer stays in Vegas are usually tied to mass social gatherings, including conventions … concerts and fights, all of which may take longer to recover,” UBS analyst Robin Farley said.

Convention halls, nightclubs, swimming pool parties and arena spectacles will remain mostly dark.

“It may be a little different,” MGM Resorts International chief executive Bill Hornbuckle said during a recent walk-through of the Bellagio casino floor.

“But I think it will be memorable, personable and special.”