Once crowded sidewalks on the Las Vegas Strip were empty on Wednesday, March 18, as casinos closed and remaining tourists headed home. The long-running Fountains of Bellagio ceased its famous show, and digital signs advertising drink specials switched to messages of hope amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday night, a visibly frustrated Gov. Steve Sisolak gave a press conference announcing a mandatory 30-day closure of all nonessential businesses starting at noon on March 18. Standing beside a sign reading “Stay Home for Nevada” (a modified version of the state’s official slogan), Sisolak said, “This is affecting the lives of our citizens. People are dying. Every day that is delayed here, I am losing a dozen people on the back end who are going to die as a result of this.”
For restaurants, the closure requires a shift from dining in to curbside pickup service, delivery, and drive-thru. The mandate also includes casinos, nightclubs, and all gaming devices such as slot machines in grocery stores and gas stations or on tabletop bars.
At a City Council meeting on March 18, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman pushed back against the decision.
“I am painfully aware and sensitive to the very many who live paycheck to paycheck,” Goodman said. “I know we and they cannot survive any total shutdown of the economy for any length of time beyond the immediate week or two.”
As debates about the economic and health impacts of the closure evolved, restaurants in Las Vegas prepared for an uncertain future.
Marc Marrone of Graffiti Bao described the situation as “surreal.” His restaurant is planning on offering curbside pickup, in-house delivery, and delivery via Postmates. Marrone had previously offered 30 percent off for service industry employees affected by COVID-19, but has extended the discount to all who need it. Graffiti Bao is also offering free orange chicken and other select menu items to children.
“Our entire town just got laid off,” Marrone said. “As long as we’re open, kids will eat. I’m a chef. I’m not going to stay at home on the couch. I hate not being in control of the scenario. As long as we have the resources to stay open, we’ll stay open. We’re all in this together.”
Colin Fukunaga of Fukuburger in Chinatown and the southwest has also shifted to takeout and delivery only. His main priority is ensuring that every member of his staff is able to stay employed for as long as possible. “A lot of them are late teens and early 20s and now they’re the breadwinners of their households,” Fukunaga said.
For some restaurants, setting up delivery via third-party platforms such as Postmates and DoorDash has proved challenging. Bryant Jane of Hardyway 8 and Starboard Tack was hoping to partner with a third-party delivery service, but was met with a two-week waiting period and uncertainty over whether or not the platform would be able to perform its usual in-person training with staff. Hardway 8 is currently planning on operating delivery in-house as well as offering takeout. Due to the unique nature of Hardway 8’s license, the restaurant is able to offer wine to-go in addition to food.
“I hope people choose the smaller local restaurants during this time,” Jane said. “Because some of them aren’t going to be open when this is all over.”
As the situation continues to evolve, Las Vegas restaurants have made strides to serve the community and advocate for staff. Elizabeth Blau of the Las Vegas-based Women’s Hospitality Initiative and Honey Salt started a petition aimed at Gov. Sisolak requesting emergency unemployment benefits, tax credits, payroll tax elimination, rent and loan abatement, and halting of state sales tax for restaurants and employees affected by the 30-day closure. The petition states its support of the closure, while noting the severity of the situation.
”These past few weeks, our businesses have faithfully served thousands of guests who have come to show their love and support,” it reads. “Without immediate action taken by your office we will not survive this crisis.”
Other restaurants have taken a more grassroots level approach to the financial implications of the pandemic. Prior to the announcement from Gov. Sisolak, The Sand Dollar Lounge announced a one-week closure, preceded by one last night of business operations during which the bar raised approximately $5,600 in revenue, all of which was given directly to employees. Per Gov. Sisolak’s orders, the venue is now closed for 30 days.
Henderson restaurant The Stove launched a temporary pop-up grocery store filled with essential items such as eggs, canned soup, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper, in an effort to serve seniors and immuno-compromised individuals lacking access to essentials as a result of panic-buying at grocery stores.
The list of restaurants expanding to delivery continues to grow.
“Most people don’t know that we’re open,” Fukunaga said. “But we’re here. This is a monumental time, and we’re always going to refer back to it, but I’m very optimistic. I’m looking at it as a way to make the best out of the worst of times.”