LAS VEGAS – Six weeks ago, thousands of New Year’s parties gathered under the neon-lit tents on the Las Vegas Strip – even though the big annual fireworks display was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The sight of the large crowd, including many people without masks, spurred fears that COVID-19 infections would skyrocket, followed by hospitalizations and then deaths. That was exactly what happened. January was Nevada̵
Now the virus is transforming a tourist destination built for excessive and known for bright lights, large crowds, indulgent meals and headline shows. Visitors come to find some limited liberties and some famous attractions closed, but parking and good prices are plentiful. Major performances and conventions are still pending.
“We have an industry that invites people from all over the world to come here, and unfortunately when they come here, they can bring disease with them,” said Brian Labus, a longtime epidemiologist at the Regional Southern Nevada Health District who now teaches the public. health at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “The concern is that it is spreading among the locals.”
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In mid-January, more than half of the hospitals in and around Las Vegas reported being at least 90% full. A medical center in the suburbs declared a capacity crisis, with more patients than beds. Almost half of its 147 beds were occupied by coronavirus patients.
Deaths in Nevada broke a one-day record of 71 on January 21st. On Thursday, the total death toll from COVID-19 was 4,637 since the pandemic began.
As in other cities, some overwhelmed funeral homes have used refrigerated trailers to keep the dead, said preliminary correspondent Michael Murphy.
“There’s nothing I’ve ever experienced in my nursing career,” said Dina Armstrong, a nurse at MountainView Hospital in northwest Las Vegas. “Coping with this disease is impressive – stress and the environment.”
On the streets, the result is many fewer tourists and “a completely different experience,” said Marilinda Sepulveda, a repeat visitor, as she and her husband waited to take pictures next to the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign.
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The couple from Mission, Texas, spent two nights at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in the heart of The Strip. “Nightlife is: You gamble, you go, you go to your room,” Sepulveda said.
Speaking through a cloth face mask, her husband, Ozzy Benavidez, said they would have gone to magic shows and restaurants. Instead, the couple bought take-away meals and ate in their room.
Some tent properties have been idling, including the Mirage casino and its iconic man-made volcanic eruption on The Strip.
Others, such as the Wynn Resorts property Encore, are closed during the week but open on weekends. The unused conference room in the sleek arched 2700-room tower was converted into a vaccination center run by the region’s public hospital. Almost 11,500 people have been shot there.
At the Las Vegas Convention Center, where a large new wing is expected to open in time for the major consumer electronics street show in early January, officials opened a facility for people receiving their second dose of vaccine. CES was held virtually.
Up and down the strip, from the renovated Sahara to the gleaming golden window of Mandalay Bay, visitors have found quiet game floors, enclosed showrooms and affordable prices.
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Daniel Pangau, pastor of an Indonesian Christian church in Brea, California, found that a three-day stay at the Delano Hotel for his family of six cost less than half the price before the pandemic.
Tourists find plenty of parking spaces and signs everywhere that remind them to wear masks. They do not see the thousands of workers who are still out of work.
When casinos closed in mid-March, 98% of the 60,000 members of local culinary unions and bartenders’ unions were threatened. Union spokeswoman Bethany Khan said only about half are back at work now.
At least 115 union members and immediate family members have died from COVID-19, and nearly 2,000 have been hospitalized with the virus since March, Khan said.
Unemployment in Nevada rose from a very low of 3.6% in February 2020 to a worst record of 30.1% in April. The figure was down to 9.2% in December.
From mid-March to January 30, more than 834,000 people filed first-time unemployment benefits, according to the State Unemployment Office. This figure is particularly startling when weighed against the size of the entire government workforce a year ago – 1.4 million people.
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The number of visitors was reduced by more than half in 2020 – only 19 million – compared to 42.5 million in 2019, according to data collected by regulators for tourism, airports and games.
Casino tax revenues, a key source of funds in a state without personal income tax, fell 40% during the calendar year, the gaming regulators reported.
Major conventions stopped completely in March and have not resumed. Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak reopened casinos in June with pandemic restrictions. In November, he introduced what he called a “break” in reopening.
Referring to progress against the virus, the governor announced on Thursday that restrictions on businesses and gatherings could be lifted over the next three months.
Casinos, gyms, bars and restaurants will increase from 25% to 35% capacity from Monday, with seating, mask assignments and social distance. Casinos can go to 50% capacity next month. Clubs and nightclubs remain closed.
Before the show resumes, some veterans may be gone, said Alan Feldman, a longtime casino executive who is now a fellow at the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“A fee that has not yet been measured is the loss of talent,” Feldman said. “To what extent have people moved to other careers or back to school or out of state? It has not yet been decided. ”