As employees unplugged slot machines, Angelica Garcia heated up sandwiches. Garcia had been working as a barista at the Rio for 18 years, and in a matter of hours she watched it transform into an unfamiliar place. The lights turned off. The trill of video poker ceased.
“At that point I said, ‘Things are going to change in Las Vegas,’” Garcia says.
Amid the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Steve Sisolak had ordered a 30-day business closure that temporarily shuttered the Rio along with every other casino in the state. Garcia gave away the sandwiches that would otherwise go bad, and then went home and filed for unemployment. It would be another month before she finally received it.
For Calina Lynne, a bartender at Blondies Sports Bar & Grill inside the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood Resort, the days before the closure were defined by a noticeable shift in conversations among patrons. Lynne was used to hearing tourists discuss basketball games, but the NCAA had recently cancelled March Madness. Now the TV screens were showing news of the spreading coronavirus.
“The bar talk changed from sports and betting to ‘Is my flight going to get canceled?’ and ‘Will I still have a hotel room tomorrow night?’” Lynne says.
After the March 17 closure went into effect, the Las Vegas Strip turned into a ghost town populated only by security guards outside locked casinos and locals in face masks riding bicycles down empty stretches of Las Vegas Boulevard. The last time the Las Vegas Strip shut down was in 1963 for John F. Kennedy’s funeral. That was for a day. Economically speaking, some Las Vegas business owners compare it to the 2008 recession, but the LED signs that read “Cover your mouth” tell the story of a different kind of crisis.
According to the American Gaming Association, all 989 casino properties in the United States are closed. More than a quarter of those — 219 — are in Nevada, affecting approximately 206,000 employees. Data from the UNLV Center for Gaming Research shows that there were 96,037 casino employees in Las Vegas as of 2019, which helps explain why the unemployment rate in Nevada rose 2.7 points between March 17 and April 17 — the highest increase in the country.
During that month, service industry employees who had been counting on income from Las Vegas’s traditionally busy spring season found themselves furloughed.
Gregory Mercado, a bartender at Sushi Roku inside the Forum Shops at Caesars, was looking forward to a lucrative summer before the Strip shut down. Now he fills out job applications for Walmart and Smiths. As a bartender on the Strip, he fears he will be one of the last food and beverage employees to go back to work in the hospitality industry.
“A lot of people are saying that’s why you should have savings, but if you’ve been in Vegas as a bartender, this is supposed to be the busy time when you would be stacking your money for the slow season,” Mercado says.
While he has not received compensation from Sushi Roku during the closure, the restaurant did put together a grocery package for its staff. Many employees at other properties, such as Treasure Island, were not offered any kind of relief.
Yolanda Scott, who has been a server at Treasure Island for 27 years, has been calling the unemployment number “500 times a day” with no luck.
“It gets a little scary because we haven’t received any money from Mr. Ruffin to help us,” says Scott, referring to Phil Ruffin, the owner of Treasure Island. Ruffin has a net worth of $3.1 billion and also owns Circus Circus and 50 percent of Trump International Las Vegas.
Billionaires like Ruffin have drawn criticism from Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents 60,000 workers in Las Vegas and Reno.
“Many gaming corporations are owned by straight-up billionaires, like Phil Ruffin at Treasure Island, Alex Meruelo at the Sahara, and David Siegel at Westgate,” says Bethany Khan, director of communications and digital strategy for the culinary union. “Those are three billionaires who are not paying their workers anything during closure and have left them to figure out food banks and fend for themselves. It’s shameful that they abandoned their workers during a global crisis.”
Compensation for employees during the COVID-19 closure in Las Vegas has not been uniform from property to property. While some companies, including Caesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts, offered two weeks’ pay to furloughed employees, others have offered nothing. Wynn Resorts committed to paying full-time and part-time employees through May 31. According to CEO Matt Maddox, who recently called for a “conditional” reopening of the Strip, this costs $3 million per day.
As the COVID-19 pandemic and related closures evolve, Las Vegas hospitality workers continue to face health and financial concerns — two issues which are often at odds with each other. Before the Strip shut down, Yolanda Scott recalls the fear she felt at the prospect of working in a high-volume food and beverage setting every day. The hordes of tourists she served at Treasure Island seemed unconcerned. She and her coworkers only had access to the standard disposable gloves they used every day to make toast.
“We deal with a lot of tourists,” Scott says. “In my opinion, we need to be the last place to open.”
Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman feels differently. Since Gov. Sisolak ordered the initial statewide closure, Goodman has been a vocal proponent of opening Las Vegas back up. In an April 21 MSNBC interview with Katy Tur, Goodman repeatedly emphasized this.
“We’ll find out the facts afterwards,” Goodman said.
The following day, Goodman appeared on CNN in an interview with Anderson Cooper to double down on her statements. After calling Cooper “an alarmist,” Goodman appeared to offer the city of Las Vegas as “a control group.”
“It’s unbelievable for her to make those comments,” Yolanda Scott says. “Very embarrassing.”
Other employees, as well as some Nevada politicians, agree.
“We are not an experiment,” Angelica Garcia from the Rio says. “Most of our union members are women and minorities and we’re going to be used as guinea pigs. I don’t want to go back and risk myself and my family getting sick just for money.”
On the same day as Goodman’s MSNBC interview, Sisolak held a press conference providing an update on the novel coronavirus in Nevada and when the state might start to reopen businesses.
“We are in a better spot than we were six weeks ago,” he said, while also making it clear that the number of cases indicated a plateau rather than a decline. Sisolak went on to outline a slow, prospective timeline that would allow businesses to gradually reopen. This procedure is dependent on a consistent downward trajectory in COVID-19 cases, capacity at health care facilities, and a sustained ability to protect at-risk populations. On May 9, the tentative first phase of reopening began, allowing restaurants to operate at 50 percent seating capacity. Bars, nightclubs, and casinos remain closed. While some flickers of life can be seen among the darkened storefronts in Downtown Las Vegas, the Strip still appears vacant— so vacant, in fact, that a group on horseback were observed riding down empty Las Vegas Boulevard on the same day as the first phase of reopening.
“The lives of Nevadans are more important than profit,” Sisolak said.
The sentiment, while seemingly simple, was a markedly different idea from the ethos Goodman has repeated again and again, whether it be from the sidewalk of the now-boarded-up Arts District or via a statement on Twitter that suggested desert heat as a mitigating factor for the virus.
In her April 21 MSNBC interview, Goodman said, “Let’s go forward, open up the city.” At that time, there were 3,937 COVID-19 cases and 163 deaths in Nevada.
As of May 10, there were 6,098 COVID-19 cases and 307 deaths in Nevada. The overwhelming majority are in Las Vegas.