Las Vegas back in business after coronavirus casino closure


Steve Marcus

John Landin, center, celebrates after winning a hand of blackjack during the reopening of The D in downtown Las Vegas Thursday, June 4, 2020.

Published Wed, Jun 3, 2020 (2 p.m.)

Updated Thu, Jun 4, 2020 (1:55 a.m.)

Nevada casinos reopened at 12:01 a.m. after nearly 80 days of state-mandated closures to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Finally, for the first time since March 18, the slot machines are spinning and cards flying at the table games as the gaming industry begins its slow recovery after nearly 80 days of being dormant. 

But Las Vegas will have to walk before it can crawl.

Not all properties are open today as casino companies gradually bring back their brands. MGM Resorts International, for instance, is only opening Bellagio, MGM Grand, New York-New York and Signature this week. Excalibur will follow June 11. And Caesars Entertainment is bringing back Caesars Palace, Flamingo and Harrah’s.

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.

Neighborhood casinos and those in downtown were the first to welcome visitors with most opening at 12:01 a.m. The Strip properties, such as Wynn, were waiting until the morning.

Each property’s reopening plan had to be approved by the Gaming Control Board. The plans included enhanced safety standards, such as limiting the number of players at table games, sanitation stations at every turn, and thermal scans for employees and guests before entering the property. A fever is one of the symptoms of COVID-19.

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

“There’s a tremendous amount on the line, not only for casinos, but for the community and the state,” said Alan Feldman, a longtime casino executive now a fellow at the International Gaming Institute at UNLV. “This is an extremely important moment.”

The first customers to arrive are expected to be area residents, then motorists from nearby U.S. states followed by air travelers.

“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 walkthrough of the Bellagio casino floor. “But I think it will be memorable, personable and special.”

Our reporters around town documented the return — a historic moment for a state dependent on gaming.

1:30 a.m.

It didn’t take long for Beth Toy, a Red Rock Resort regular, to start her night off with a bang.

Toy, who lives just a few minutes from the property, landed four aces on a Double Super Times Pay video poker machine less than an hour after Red Rock opened.

The hand netted her just over $4,000.

“This makes sure I can play now for a long time,” Toy joked minutes after her jackpot. “This is great. I wanted to be here — I wouldn’t have missed this opening. I was here when Red Rock originally opened. What more fun is there than going to a casino in Las Vegas? This, right here, is my stress reliever. I love Vegas.”

12:25 a.m.

Inside the Red Rock Resort minutes after opening, guests wasted little time finding open slot machines to play. 

Because of social distancing guidelines, some chairs were removed to ensure people have the appropriate six feet of personal space. 

Blackjack tables had three chairs instead of six, but the night’s first players didn’t seem to mind. One let out a shout, apparently because of a winning hand, at 12:15 a.m. 

About a half-dozen Metro Police officers strolled the gaming floor. 

Casino employees were busily wiping down surfaces, including gaming machines, railings and chairs.

About half of the patrons appeared to be wearing face coverings.

12:01 a.m.

Minutes before the Red Rock Resort reopening at 12:01 a.m., about 100 people waited outside the main entrance. 

Not far away, in a parking area, Navella Kunitz waited with her husband, Joe, and a friend. 

She had on her “party dress,” and plans to play some video poker once inside. 

“It’s really good just to get out,” Kunitz said. "We lost our social spot. We were here when they closed on March 17, and I wanted to be here for the opening, too.” 

As the clock struck midnight, patrons walked past tables with bottled water and welcoming employees. 

At the main valet entrance, Red Rock Vice President and General Manager Scott Nelson addressed a throng of media members and employees. 

“Over the course of the last two-and-a-half months, Station Casinos team members have worked tirelessly to ensure the safety of all of our guests,” Nelson said. 

12:01 a.m.

As the clock neared midnight on Fremont Street, a throng of revelers stood outside The D casino. A man yelled "midnight," and the crowd cheered. As virtual fireworks exploded on the Fremont Street Experience canopy, the line into the D began to push forward.

A man videoed his excitement across from The D, jubilantly declaring it was his first time in Las Vegas in 19 years.

The street cleared out quickly as casinos began to open their doors, leaving the previously busy street bars as secondary entertainment to Vegas' main attraction. 

11:30 p.m.

Tahira Alag, a Chicago resident, said she's been to Las Vegas three times since March. The exceptionally low airfare, she said, can't be beat. 

This will be her first time in town, though, when the casinos are in full swing, and she's excited.

"I don't even know what it looks like full-tilt," she said. Gambling isn't generally her thing, she said, but she might try her luck at the Golden Nugget just because. 

She said she wasn't too concerned about the health risks in reopening. 

"As long as I'm healthy, I'm happy," she said. 

Crowds downtown picked up by 11:30, but they were still more sparse than they were pre-pandemic.

11 p.m.

Despite casinos not opening until midnight, many visitors had begun to trickle onto Fremont Street by 10:30 p.m.

The nighttime crowd was nowhere near the standard for downtown Las Vegas, which is generally flooded with tourists and revelers but was shut down for months because of COVID-19.

With casinos still closed, most of the crowd focused on grabbing drinks from streetside bars and walking the length of Fremont Street.

Between The D and Four Queens, a human statue street performer sat perfectly still, a familiar downtown sight before the shutdown.

Over his silver-painted face, though, he donned a mask. 

• • •

The Fremont Street Experience reopened Wednesday about 10:30 a.m., and Tracy and Rick Haney were among the first Las Vegas visitors to step foot on the usually busy walkway under the Viva Vision canopy. The couple arrived from Lexington, Kentucky, earlier this morning and planned to check in at the Golden Nugget.

“We just didn’t know it doesn’t open until three,” laughed Tracy. “We had planned this trip about a year ago, and we pushed it back, changed our flights, and it was like, 'Do you want to go? Do you feel safe?' We thought we’d give it a shot.”

With casinos all over the Las Vegas Valley cleared to open Thursday, many more visitors are expected to return to the downtown area and the Strip this week. Although the Haneys had to jump through several hoops to adjust their air travel and hotel reservation plans, they said they were happy to be back in Las Vegas for the first time since November.

“Of course we want people to be safe, and there’s a lot going on right now, but even though we don’t live here, we’ve been ready for Vegas to reopen,” Tracy said.

“We watched the governor’s remarks on Twitter and stuff like that,” Rick said. “I thought it would be open by Memorial Day at the latest. But we just kept pushing it back. We usually stay down on the Strip and come up here once or twice, and I think this time we’ll come back here more. We’ll probably stay [other nights] at MGM or Wynn, and we also want to go to the Stratosphere.”

Along the Fremont Street Experience, the six-block entertainment district and open-air promenade that was closed on March 18 after the governor ordered all casinos and nonessential business to shutter to slow the spread of coronavirus, several casinos, including the Golden Nugget, the D and Golden Gate, are set to open just after midnight. Other nearby properties like the Four Queens and Binion’s are holding off until 10 a.m. Thursday.

Some gift shops, convenience stores and other nongaming businesses are opening up along the tourist-focused pedestrian thoroughfare, but the kitschy kiosks along the attraction won’t reopen until Thursday.

The Coyote gift shop opened for business today but its staff was not expecting many visitors.

“I hope so, but I’m not sure,” said employee Tiffany Perez. “Once the casinos open we will have more customers, but we might see less people until then. We’re just excited and hopefully everything goes back to normal. We expect to see the same customers.”

The attraction’s 1,500-foot-long, 90-foot-high video screen known as Viva Vision completed a $32 million renovation during the winter, making its innovative musical light shows seven times brighter with four times the resolution. When the reopening of the pedestrian mall was announced, the attraction also planned to put a countdown clock on the screen to generate excitement for casino reopenings, but it was turned off when some scheduled openings changed.

Several venues at Neonopolis on the east end of the Fremont Street Experience opened Friday, including Cat’s Meow, Notoriety, Rockstar Tattoo, Don’t Tell Mama and Banger Brewery.

The Slotzilla zipline that stretches the length of the Fremont Street Experience was originally planned to resume operations at 4 p.m. Thursday, adhering to guidelines put forth by the Global Association for the Attractions Industry. But a zipline worker said today that the attraction’s opening is still to be determined.

Sun reporters Brock Radke, Bryan Horwath and John Sadler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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