Springtime was good for the Las Vegas casino industry, as customer visits and gaming revenue across Nevada reached pre-pandemic and even historic levels in May.
The start of summer has brought new uncertainties for the tourist mecca, however, with COVID cases resurging at among the highest levels in the country and new local government recommendations and mandates issued relating to masking.
There’s no indication yet that Clark County’s rise in reported illness — and the publicity surrounding it — will deter gambling-oriented vacationers from their continued uptick in flying or driving in from around the country. Still, there may no longer be the short odds that existed a couple months ago suggesting coronavirus-related economic troubles were distant in the rearview mirror.
Last Friday, the Southern Nevada Health District issued a recommendation that masks be worn for health and safety purposes by everyone in indoor public spaces, regardless of their vaccination status.
Then, on Tuesday, the Clark County Board of Commissioners met in emergency session and voted to require that employers — casinos included — have their workers wear masks in public spaces. Businesses are also to post signs publicizing the health district’s recommendations suggesting everyone wear facial coverings. Casinos quickly assured they would comply, if they hadn’t already.
There is no return yet to the widespread masking mandate that was lifted in May, and which Los Angeles County recently returned to in response to its own rising COVID caseload from the widespread Delta variant. The Clark County commissioners plan to revisit the topic Aug. 17 after gauging the effectiveness of new efforts to curb the illness.
“We have already been through a shutdown and a startup,” Commissioner Jim Gibson noted at Tuesday’s meeting, while cautioning, “We can’t afford to have major conventions choose to go elsewhere.”
May figures were impressive, June to be announced soon
The casino industry nationally was rocked starting in March 2020 by COVID-related shutdowns and the public’s hesitation to return to crowded settings after reopenings. It was especially devastating for Nevada — and specifically for Las Vegas as a destination center so dependent on people’s willingness to board airplanes and fly in from around the country.
By May 2021, with the biggest COVID fears seemingly dissipated and usurped by pent-up demand for entertainment and travel, the public was back in droves on the Las Vegas Strip as well as at locals casinos across the state. Nevada’s casinos saw record monthly gaming revenue of $1.23 billion that month, and gaming revenue of $655.5 million on the Strip was 26.7% higher than in May 2019.
Revenue figures for June won’t be released until next week, but there’s no reason to think such strides haven’t continued, including into July as well. And that’s without the normal help the market receives from international travel and from convention business, which aren’t yet back on track.
“You’re seeing the release of the cabin fever among patrons who are ready to come out and enjoy things,” said Stephen Grogan, Las Vegas-based vice president of economic development for the Spectrum Gaming Group consulting firm. “It’s not yet as crowded as it can be, but the streets are busy, the town’s busy. Things are coming back, and that’s a positive.”
The COVID concerns returned because Nevada has recently reported its highest level of cases since February, with more than three out of four of those found in Clark County. The state’s vaccination rates are well below the national average, with less than half the population fully vaccinated. A recent White House report identified Las Vegas as No. 1 in new COVID transmissions among metropolitan areas of at least 1 million residents.
“Our numbers are trending in the wrong direction,” University of Nevada Las Vegas epidemiologist Brian Labus was quoted saying in a USA Today story. “Our recommendations have to change to match what the virus is doing.”
Officials are loathe to see more economic devastation
Grogan said it’s good for Las Vegas casinos both that the public has become accustomed to expectations such as any mask requirements, and that state and local government officials appear to be cautious about issuing any new orders that could cause economic harm similar to last year’s shutdowns.
Of present COVID concerns tied to recent increases, he said, “If there’s any impact on revenues at all, I would say it would be very slight. … I think there’s going to a slow, steady growth, even as we’re going through waves as these variants pass through.”
He noted some casino customers already wear masks themselves for protection without being required to, and he expects others would willingly do so if it comes to such orders again.
That was the viewpoint as well of Amanda Belarmino, a UNLV assistant professor of hospitality who noted the fine line facing public officials and the industry in meeting health concerns while allowing for an atmosphere that attracts customers.
“It’s hard to tell people again they’re going back to restrictions, but, I think most people would rather wear a mask than not be able to leave home,” she told The Associated Press.
Casinos have generally backed the idea of having their employees wear masks while continuing to make the coverings available to patrons on a voluntary basis and advising them of the suggestion that they wear them.
“In response to new recommendations from the Southern Nevada Health District, we now require that all Team Members (vaccinated or not) wear company-issued face masks while working in indoor public spaces, and in indoor areas where people congregate,” Keith Salwoski, spokesman for The Venetian and other Sands properties, said by email. “In addition, we have revised our signs posted at public entrances to share this new SNHD recommendation. Complimentary face masks are available to our guests at front desks, grazie desks, and concierge desks.”
The Nevada Resort Association, representing casinos collectively, said it backed the recent actions by both the health district and county commissioners, as “after vaccinations, masks are our most effective tool people have for protecting themselves and the people around them.” It said casinos have worked actively to promote vaccinations among employees as “our most effective method of ending the pandemic, and many resorts have achieved workforce vaccination rates of more than 80%.”
Increasing vaccination rates and reducing the level of transmissions — more than 800 new COVID cases a day across Nevada have been recently reported — would presumably inspire confidence for the resumption of important Las Vegas convention business, which is just now starting to get back on track.
“There are approximately 30 conventions with more than 5,000 people scheduled to take place at the [Las Vegas Convention Center] for the balance of the year, and the schedule for 2022 is filling in strongly,” said Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority spokeswoman Erica Johnson.