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The Las Vegas Strip had a brief jolt of life this week when 10,000 casino workers caravanned down the celebrated boulevard.
On Tuesday evening, the parade of cars backed up traffic for miles as occupants honked their horns and held signs out their windows that read “transparency = safety” and “don’t roll the dice with workers’ lives.”
Led by housekeepers, bartenders and frontline workers, the event was organized by Unite Here’s Culinary Union Local 226 to demand that casino companies “share their full reopening plans.” The union’s 60,000 members in Las Vegas have been out of work since mid-March, when the Nevada governor, Steve Sisolak, ordered the mandatory closure of all non-essential business to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
As Nevada begins to reopen, there is uncertainty among workers, residents and tourists about what a post-pandemic Vegas will look like. The hospitality-centered economy has been strained under the shutdown and has pushed the state government into deficits, stripped its primary tax revenue, and drained the unemployment fund dry. Now, many are worried the public and private sectors can’t hold out for much longer.
The union wants greater transparency from casinos and strict employee protections before their members return to work. Despite what the Las Vegas mayor memorably claimed, culinary union workers refuse to take part in an experiment.
In mid-April, the Nevada gaming control board posted a memorandum detailing six pages of reopening procedures, but exactly when casinos will be allowed to start implementing them is unclear, although most are preparing for the end of the month or early June. The state officially entered phase one of its “roadmap to recovery” last weekend, but the casinos at the heart of the state’s economy remain closed. Casino executives have made it clear that they are ready and prepared to reopen, but without a clear go-ahead from the governor, the industry remains in limbo.
Over the weekend, phase one eased restrictions on “non-essential” businesses located off the Las Vegas Strip, including restaurants, salons and retail stores. Some Las Vegans, such as Pam Cartwright, a hair stylist, returned to work. Although her salon can only operate at half-capacity, on reopening weekend, her chair was fully booked.
When asked how her workplace is coping with the restrictions, Cartwright described clients leaving the salon with wet hair (the state is discouraging blow-outs to prevent the spread of pathogens). She detailed sanitizing sinks and credit card machines between clients while trying to maintain social distancing via salon-style musical chairs.
“There’s so many things you don’t even think about,” Cartwright said, describing keeping the workplace safe and clean. But the most obvious challenge has been completing her highly physical work constricted beneath a face mask.
“Any chance I can get between clients, I take the mask off. It’s hot. It’s hard to breathe. It’s not meant to wear for eight hours or more.”
Cartwright also works as a union bartender on the Strip, although she has been furloughed. She said her employer had not communicated any details about a reopening plan and she worried it could take months.
For public-facing service industry workers like Cartwright, the anxieties extend far beyond the idiosyncrasies of operating a virus-free workplace. For many hospitality workers, there is a lingering fear that temporary furloughs could become permanent layoffs.
“Returning the economy to a sense of normal is going to take time,” said John Restrepo, a principal consultant at the Vegas-based RCG Economics. “What that new normal is, we don’t know yet, but it’s not going to be where casinos are operating on the weekends at 90% occupancy.”
Bigger casino companies such as MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment have made it clear that they will reopen in phases. MGM Resorts plans to open two properties at a time with 25% occupancy. In a video shared with team members and posted to YouTube, the Caesars Entertainment CEO, Tony Rodio, told furloughed employees the most difficult part of their reopening plan was that “we will not be able to bring back everyone immediately”.
For those union workers under a collective bargaining agreement, most contracts include language that requires companies to recall laid-off workers by seniority. But with properties opening in phases and casinos bringing back staff based on demand, there is a growing possibility that some may not return to work for months.
The federal Cares Act increased the weekly unemployment benefit and the number of weeks individuals can receive it, which has alleviated some of the financial burden for Las Vegas workers. But the enhancement is scheduled to expire at the end of July.
“I think we’re in for a pretty long haul of economic disruption,” Restrepo said. “A city like Las Vegas depends on consumer confidence and purchasing power by outsiders … Until we find a cure for the virus or an effective treatment, we’re on ‘virus time’.”
As casinos, unions and the state iron out the details of safe, phased reopenings, a successful recovery ultimately depends on demand. Once Vegas is open for business, will fears about the virus keep tourists from visiting at all?
“For those of us who are out of town, there’s a lot of pain points before we can even get to Vegas,” the Chicago resident and travel podcaster Adam Bauer said. “We have to trust the flying process. We have to trust that our hotels are safe. A lot of people will ask: is my money and my time worth it?”
Casino properties such as Wynn Resorts have provided extensive details on how they will create a safe environment for guests. They plan to implement significant changes across hotel procedures, from check-in to dining to table games. But with cards being dealt face up and dealers disinfecting dice between shooters, necessary sanitation protocols could disrupt the prime gambling experience that people travel specifically to Las Vegas to get.
“It’s smart to be cleaning chips and dice, but one thing that gamblers like is action,” Bauer said. “If the pace slows down considerably, that’s going to be tough to sell.”
In the coming weeks, Las Vegas can only offer best guesses on how to keep that pace up during “virus time”. Until casinos are allowed to turn the lights back on, the city will have to wait to see how its chips will fall.
This article was written by Brittany Bronson in Las Vegas from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.