Viva Las Vaxx Us: Inside The Delicate Issue Of Casinos Requiring Vaccine Passports

Experts say properties are reluctant to put up a “barrier to visitation”
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Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak isn’t mincing words when it comes to the role vaccinations are playing and will continue to play in his state’s recovery from COVID-19.

“It’s what we do now,” Sisolak said during an April 13 news conference, “that will allow us to return to more normal Nevada on June 1 and focus on a strong economic recovery — remaining vigilant, wearing a mask, and most importantly, getting vaccinated as soon as possible.”

Sisolak’s goal is to have all counties in the state reopened at 100% capacity by June 1, which he believes can be achieved safely if enough employees and visitors have received their injections of the vaccines — which all adults in all states were eligible for as of Monday, April 19.

It’s a simple calculation for the gaming and hospitality industries that drive the Las Vegas economy: More vaccination equals less risk of viral spread, which equals a safer and more “normal” casino environment — and that “normal” includes, eventually, a dropping of mask-wearing requirements.

So it should come as no surprise that casinos are encouraging vaccination. Some are even incentivizing vaccination.

But requiring vaccination? That’s a subject too sensitive to touch. For now, it’s a bridge too far to extend toward employees — and several bridges too far for patrons. But the highly charged topic of so-called “vaccine passports” is almost certainly creeping into the private discussions among the casino industry’s power brokers, who would surely love to see a gaming floor without masks sooner rather than later.

Wynn win in employee vaccination

Wynn Las Vegas made waves on April 8 when it announced a new policy for employees, requiring either COVID-19 vaccination or weekly proof of a negative test. And clearly the former is the company’s preference.

“Our primary goal is to create the safest possible environment at Wynn, for both employees and guests,” said Wynn Resorts CEO Matt Maddox in a statement. “Vaccination rates are increasing throughout the country, and requiring our employees to either be vaccinated, or tested on a weekly basis, will make Wynn one of the safest vacation destinations in the U.S.”

Wynn noted that about 60% of its employees had been vaccinated at the time of the announcement.

Some properties are directly incentivizing employee vaccination. The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas is reportedly dangling straight-up cash bonuses:

The Cosmopolitan public relations department declined comment when US Bets reached out for further details.

Boyd Gaming spokesman David Strow told CDC Gaming Reports, “We continue to strongly encourage our entire workforce to get vaccinated as soon as possible and have been offering a full paid day off to team members once they complete their vaccinations.”

Up and down the Strip, properties are going out of their way to get workers vaccinated. But no representative of any casino organization we reached out to was willing to say a word about proof of vaccination for customers at this time.

The closest statement we could find was in an April 7 press release from MGM Resorts, announcing its “comprehensive health and safety program to bring meetings back to Las Vegas.” Therein lies a bullet point regarding MGM’s “Convene with Confidence” protocols:

  • “MGM Resorts has partnered with CLEAR, the secure identity company, to leverage its Health Pass technology — a mobile app experience that links verified identity with COVID-19 health insights, including a real-time health questionnaire, COVID-19-related test results, temperature checks via integrated kiosks, and soon the ability to link to COVID-19 vaccination records.”

An app that covers vaccination records at the entrance to an event space? It’s not a “vaccine passport.” But it sounds like the first step in that direction.

Are vaccine passports being used elsewhere?

Vaccine passports are a touchy subject in all walks of life, but in some countries, most notably Israel, they are being used at certain businesses. It’s a complex topic, from the potential to counterfeit proof of vaccination, to medical exemptions, to arguments about invasion of privacy.

It’s also a politically charged debate, with a recent Monmouth University poll showing 43% of Republicans wanting to avoid vaccination altogether compared to just 5% of Democrats. There’s a direct and obvious correlation between being unvaccinated and feeling vaccination-based access is discriminatory.

Some casinos outside Las Vegas, such as Gun Lake Casino in Michigan, have taken to incentivizing customers who show proof of vaccination by providing them gaming credits, or “free play.”

Anthony Curtis, the longtime publisher of Las Vegas Advisor, fully expects such promotions to come to Vegas soon.

“That’s an easy thing, to incentivize people with free play,” Curtis told US Bets. “That’s just a promotion — it would actually draw people to the casino. It’s a smart way to play it. And I think we’ll see some of that, although I haven’t seen any actual examples of that yet in Vegas.

“Casinos, they’re looking at it from all these different angles: incentivize the customer, incentivize your staff, do all these things to play along and do the things that look right and will be well received and perceived.

“But to actually say they’re going to bar people from coming in unless they have proof or a passport, that’s where I think they stop short. When it comes to putting up a barrier to visitation, that’s something that they’re usually unwilling to do.”

The legality issue

Can a private business legally require proof of vaccination for entry, even if boardroom discussions should happen to reach the conclusion that there’s a positive cost-benefit analysis to barring some customers while assuring others of their safety?

Georgetown University law professor and public health expert Lawrence Gostin recently told CBS News, “It is lawful and ethical for a business to require proof of vaccination as a condition of working or getting service. The employer must offer medical and religious exemptions. Businesses have a legal and ethical obligation to provide a safe environment. Requiring vaccinations is the best way to do that.”

That’s just one legal opinion, of course — and one that would surely face challenges.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), a government entity funded by hotel room tax dollars, is for now stopping far short of advocating for casinos and hotels to require vaccination.

“We don’t believe vaccine passports are needed — we are really just focused on encouraging vaccines,” LVCVA Senior Vice President of Communication Lori Nelson-Kraft told US Bets. “We’re big proponents of advocating and encouraging people to get vaccines. We believe that’s what it will take to fully recover and give everyone confidence to travel.”

The LVCVA organized an initiative called “Vegas Smart” and has a comprehensive online reference page breaking down each Vegas property’s health protocols.

But LVCVA is understandably staying neutral as to each casino’s decision regarding vaccination requirements.

“It was certainly an innovative, important step that Wynn Resorts took in requiring either vaccination or proof negative tests for employees, and I believe every gaming company and every resort is making the responsible choice for them of what is best for their business,” Nelson-Kraft said. “And so we respect those independent business decisions.”

Correlation between vaccination and visitation

Las Vegas — like many domestic businesses and travel destinations — has been on the upswing since the vaccine rollout began to gather steam early this year. Weekend occupancy rates got all the way back up to around 95% in March — although vaccination was just one of several factors in crowds flocking to Sin City.

“There was a further loosening of restrictions in Nevada during March, vaccine distribution and administration has increased, plus there was a little bit of pent-up demand — it was spring break, March Madness,” Nelson-Kraft spelled out. “But we do believe vaccination played a big role.”

Numerous properties, including those operated by MGM, Caesars, Wynn, and Station Casinos, have taken to hosting on-site vaccination clinics for employees and their families, and Curtis thinks providing that for patrons could be a next step.

But from there, it gets complicated. One option casinos could theoretically be exploring — if actually banning unvaccinated customers is a non-starter — is creating isolated areas of the casino that require vaccine passports for entry and might therefore not require all the masks and plexiglass.

“I think that would be difficult in terms of execution, the logistics of it,” Curtis said. “But it’s similar to smoking bans, and there have been these smoke-free areas on casino floors for years and years. So to say that that’s a possibility, and that it’s being discussed, I think absolutely it is.

“I’m sure there’s a whole lot of discussion going on about all of the things that they might be able to do, but they don’t know what they want to do, and they’re waiting to see what everyone else is going to do,” he added. “Nobody wants to take the first step. It’s always like that in this industry, and especially in Vegas. If someone takes the first step and has even a modicum of success, then all of a sudden you see them start to fall in line. It’s very much follow-the-leader in Vegas.”

Convention-al wisdom

For now, the focus is on individual participation in the Las Vegas experience — things that can be done alone or in small groups, such as gambling, eating, drinking, and hotel stays.

But the focus will gradually shift to larger-group activities such as conventions. The LVCVA owns and operates the Las Vegas Convention Center, so it has a vested interest in the return of conventions.

“We have not heard any of our shows inside the convention center requiring a vaccine passport as of yet,” Nelson-Kraft said. “What they’re doing is a combination: They all have their own robust plans that the show producers, exhibitors, and attendees will follow, and that will be layered on top of, and in conjunction with, our protocols as operators of the convention center.”

For those who love to gamble, the granddaddy of all Vegas conventions is the World Series of Poker, a two-month festival drawing poker players to tables for 10 (including the dealer) in rooms packed with row after row of those tables. After having to cancel the in-person 2020 series, the WSOP unsurprisingly pushed the 2021 event back from summer to fall, with plans to get cards in the air Sept. 30.

At this early stage, nobody knows whether masking or dividers will be part of the equation — although both are highly problematic for TV cameras, which like to see faces and reactions and would be in a state of glare hell if clear partitions exist between every seat.

“I would think it’s more likely that they’re going to implement some sort of testing rather than require a vaccine passport or something of that nature,” Curtis said. “What they’re really hoping for is that by the time the World Series of Poker happens, this whole thing has mostly blown over, that the vaccines are super successful and the transmittal rate goes way, way down. Hope is not a strategy, but they’re all hoping behind the scenes.”

In the end, Curtis, said, the decisions casinos make regarding employees, customers, and conventions are largely driven by perception.

“They’re very nervous about what they should be doing, and what’s the right play, and vaccination is such a touchy subject,” Curtis said. “In my opinion, everybody wants to look like they’re doing the right thing. But what’s good about that is that looking like you’re doing the right thing often means that you are doing the right thing.”

Photo by Kaspars Grinvalds / Shutterstock

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