Psst … casinos might be – gasp! – covid superspreaders

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(Photo: Bridget Bennett)

Early this month, Gov. Steve Sisolak was asked if casinos might be closed again.

“All or our options remain open,” the governor said. “If we identify that is the major problem, that’s where infections are coming from, we would have to take appropriate action. Is it the casino or the pools of the casino? Is it the restaurant or is it the gaming area?”

Or does it have nothing whatsoever to do with the resort industry? At the same press conference, Sisolak suggested the culprit for covid spikes in Nevada was “family gatherings.”

Goodness. What are the hippest, most popular covid-share hot spots ’round here?

It sure is a mystery.

And evidently one the state of Nevada is not eager to unravel anytime soon. As the Review-Journal recently explained, events, venues and such where corona has clustered are publicly identified in some states.

Nevada is not one of them.

Meanwhile, even before a national cell phone tracking study in ProPublica last week suggested Las Vegas is a potential superspreader just cold spreading covid around the country with nary a care, multiple national media outlets had started writing stories about Las Vegas casinos turning into the petri dish of Mayor Carolyn Goodman’s dreams.

Since the ProPublica report, Las Vegas and its casinos have been referred to as a “superspreader” in countless headlines, not only in news media but in other venues, from Frommer’s travel website to WebMD.

Asked earlier this week about naming names, so that employees and consumers and the public might know if some, ahem, places are more risky than others, Sisolak said, “I think that’s an option that’s available.”

Which is undeniably true. It is an option! It is available! And the governor got some headlines locally and in the gambling, er, gaming industry press along the lines of “Nevada may start naming coronavirus ‘superspreader’ sites.”

That, too, is true. Nevada might.

Or it might not.

The rest of Sisolak’s remarks earlier this week, like so much of what he has said during the pandemic, were carefully tailored to protect and serve the resort industry.

“We have to be very careful to make sure businesses aren’t harmed by half-information being put out there,” Sisolak said. Because “businesses” is the word you use when you think casinos would prefer that you not use the word “casinos.” 

The pandemic has put every governor in the nation in an impossible situation — try to revive the economy without killing everyone. The position is made even less tenable by the utter lack of guidance from an AWOL and serially plan-averse national government. And Sisolak’s position is harder than most: For all the cheering and boasting and ill-conceived tax breaks and offensive public subsidies in the name of economic diversification, Nevada’s is still effectively a one-horse economy.

And what if identifying a resort company — let alone, heaven forbid, a major resort company with many employees — as a superspreader might be bad for that one cherished and sacrosanct value Nevada has always prized most: profit?

Sisolak’s reluctance to name names is hardly surprising. Nevada is one of the nation’s premier examples of “regulatory capture,” where industry controls the regulators instead of the other way around. Sisolak, like the rest of Official Nevada, doesn’t want to upset his captors. That may be far from a laudable or honorable state of affairs, but at least it’s understandable.

This is what’s harder to understand: If state and local officials started identifying casinos as covid superspreaders, why would the resort industry even care?

Before casinos reopened in June, the resort industry assured everyone that all the proper health protocols would be followed to the letter and public health and safety was the utmost concern and rigorous protective measures would be observed, etc.

And then the nation was promptly treated to videos of people carrying on in casinos as if there was no corona and even if there was they were so over it.

Why did the resort industry let that happen?

Because they don’t care. Not just with respect to protecting employees and customers. The industry obviously doesn’t care about them, so long as companies are shielded from lawsuits (thanks Nevada Legislature!).

But the industry also doesn’t care if the rest of the country points fingers at Las Vegas casinos and says “whoa, superspreaders.”

As someone observed in late May before the casinos reopened, when MGM sued all the victims of the Oct. 1, 2017 massacre on the Strip, it looked like horrible public relations. But MGM had confidence in the American public’s famously short attention span. A little immediate PR pain, no matter how odoriferous, was easier to bear than the burden of explaining large legal costs to MGM’s powerful “activist” shareholders.

A similar calculation seems to be at work now. Sure, Las Vegas is a national laughingstock because it puts its holy sacred casinos ahead of public health and common sense, and ha ha what could be more Las Vegas-y than that?

But everyone everywhere will just forget about it and/or brush it off later, right?

It’s a callous calculation, one truly befitting an industry deliberately designed to separate money from people who often can’t afford it in as cold and heartless a manner as possible — including and especially people who have addiction problems.

As has been noted on multiple occasions, resort industry executives are far and away the most brilliant people in Nevada. So the calculation must be right. Covid schmovid, just stay open and make whatever cash there is to be made now and hope the pandemic washes out and everyone forgets sooner rather than later.

With the resort industry clearly in damn-the-torpedoes mode, what’s the risk of giving the governor and other state and local officials permission to name the superspreaders? No one expects the state to shut down a property, and certainly not one of the big corporate ones. At most there might be a nickel-ninety-eight fine, accompanied with faux stern statements from officials and solemn assurances from management to do better.

According to the Daily Beast’s reporting, the Cosmopolitan almost seems to be deliberately ignoring the coronavirus. The Cosmo might even welcome a little covid scofflaw notoriety. It would help them build their new brand.

But employees, customers, and members of the general public who are concerned about their own safety as well as that of their families would be better informed if area gambling, er, gaming titans would tell the state hey it’s OK to name names. Can’t the industry at least do that?

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and author of the Las Vegas Gleaner political blog. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and editor at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.