‘Vegas is back!’ says social media. Not really, says Gaming Control Board.

Caesars Entertainment
New guidelines for operating casinos amid coronavirus pandemic include employee wearing face masks and a reduced number of chairs at table games. (Photo: Caesars Entertainment)

Videos of go-go dancers wearing face-shields and unmasked crowds of people intermingling between slot machines quickly made rounds on social media last weekend as casinos opened their doors after almost three months shuttered. Cliche lovers everywhere proclaimed: “Vegas is back!”

But there is still a long way to go.

According to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, 90.2 percent of licensees statewide reopened on June 4 — the first day they could.

But, on the Las Vegas Strip, which generates the biggest chunk of gaming and tourism revenue for the state, only 59.6 percent of licensees did. 

Casino giants MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment Corp. both took a phased-in approach, opting to reopen only some of their multiple properties on day one. A second batch of properties are set to open in the next week. Most seem prepared for reopening by July 4, according to gaming control board staff, though the situation is “fluid.”

Only two licensees have permanently closed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic — Lakeside Inn and Casino in South Lake Tahoe and Colorado Belle in Laughlin.

All of the casinos that have reopened — or plan to in the following days and weeks — must follow new safety guidelines set by the gaming control board, including operating their gaming floors at a maximum of 50 percent capacity. Some opened with fewer because of reduced demand or social distancing considerations.

What that works out to, according to a presentation from the Gaming Control Board, is an estimated 40.9 percent of slot machines, 37.7 percent of table and counter games, and 32.2 percent of card games statewide were operational reopening weekend.

On the Strip, 31 percent of slot machines, 31 percent of table and counter games, and 31.7 percent of card games were available reopening weekend.

Nevada Gaming Control Board Senior Research Specialist Michael Lawton presented the estimates to the Economic Forum, an appointed panel of five private-sector finance people tasked with forecasting the revenue projections used by the governor and Legislature for the state budget. That task will no doubt be a herculean effort this year, given the unprecedented move of shutting down nonessential businesses in mid-March to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Lawton told the panel gaming operators reported that while opening weekend brought in crowds, it was “not a lot of high-end play.”

“Locals will come back first,” he said. “The Strip will need airlift to grow. We’ve heard good reports. Flights are being added.”

Lawton added that it is also unclear when conventions will return. Many casinos rely on those “corporate customers” to help midweek business. Under Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, gatherings are capped at 50 people.

Looking beyond gaming, restaurants inside casinos are capped at 50 percent occupancy — same as other restaurants currently operating under the state’s Phase 2 guidelines. There are no additional restrictions on hotel occupancy.

Nightclubs and pool dayclubs at resorts remain shuttered, as do most of the shows and entertainment options that typically abound.

According to the Nevada Resort Association, the tourism industry supports one in three jobs in the state and accounts for 40 percent of general fund revenue. While the state knows that gaming revenue dropped to near zero in April and May, the full impact of the shutdown has yet to be seen because of the timeline of how gaming taxes are paid.

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.