Vegas hitting jackpot as pandemic-weary visitors crowd back

LAS VEGAS — To Mike Anger in Midland, Michigan, a $100 round-trip airline flight and $260 for five nights at a Las Vegas hotel made it too easy to say yes.

“How could I turn that down?” the 39-year-old electrician asked, holding a tall vodka drink, basking in 90-degree temperatures, and soaking in the sights of street entertainers and tourists on Friday in a downtown casino pedestrian mall.

“I’m having a blast,” said his friend, cosmetologist Jade Topor. “Pretty much what I expected.”

Las Vegas has been almost elbow-to-elbow lately with pandemic-weary tourists looking for excitement and entertainment, after casinos rose from 35% to 50% occupancy March 15 under state health guidelines.

Capacity limits in Las Vegas casinos drop again Saturday — allowing 80% occupancy — while person-to-person distancing goes from 6 feet (1.8 meters) to 3 feet (0.9 meters). Masks are still required.

“People were just yearning to go someplace and let loose,” said Alan Feldman, a former casino executive who is now a fellow at the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Among the first arrivals were people ages 60 and older who were recently vaccinated with time and disposable income, he observed.

Analysts said pent-up demand, available hotel rooms and $1,400 pandemic recovery checks from the federal government have contributed to the rush.

“People are feeling more comfortable traveling as science appears to be getting ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Jeremy Aguero, principal analyst at Applied Analysis in Las Vegas.

“Late spring and early summer tend to be strong months for traditional, domestic leisure travel,” Aguero said.

Economic markers now are ringing up a revival on the resort corridor that was was ghostly quiet a year ago.

Statewide casino winnings in March topped $1 billion, the best monthly mark in eight years. Half those winnings were reaped on the Las Vegas Strip, state regulators said.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which just launched a new ad campaign promoting freedom and a return to pre-pandemic normalcy, tallied more than 2.2 million visitors in March.

The figure was down 40% from March 2019, but a huge jump from a year earlier, when casinos closed from mid-March to early June. That drove the Nevada jobless rate in April 2020 above 30% — the highest ever in any state. The state now reports the rate at 8.1%.

Every Sunday, another weekly measure of demand arrives: A nearly 20-mile (32-kilometer) line of vehicles jamming southbound Interstate 15 near the Nevada-California state line. Lanes reduce from three in Nevada to two in California.

“You have visitors coming throughout the week, all leaving at the same time,” Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Travis Smaka said. “It’s very busy every Sunday.”

Carlo Santarelli, gaming analyst at Deutsche Bank Securities, said the boom “really accelerated in March, driven by increased vaccinations, spring break, and March Madness,” the NCAA basketball championship tournaments.

“It’s pool season, better weather,” said Lori Nelson-Kraft, senior spokeswoman for the Convention and Visitors Authority. “It’s still cold in the Midwest and Northeast.”

Restaurants now can go to 80% occupancy, accept walk-in diners and seat tables of 12. Buffets can allow self-service supervised by employees.

Casino day clubs and nightclubs can open, but designated dancing areas remain closed until a specified community vaccination rate is met.

Clark County plans to allow 100% casino and business occupancy once 60% of its 1.8 million eligible residents get a first COVID-19 vaccine dose.

As of Friday, 45% of people ages 16 and older in the county had received at least one shot, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services, and almost 33% were fully vaccinated.

But inoculation rates have slowed, prompting Gov. Steve Sisolak to visit an MGM Resorts International employee shot clinic Thursday at the Mandalay Bay resort and at a church in heavily Hispanic east Las Vegas on Friday.

“The comeback is here, now,” he declared.

The Democratic governor has set a June 1 target for lifting almost all coronavirus mitigation restrictions statewide. Mask mandates will remain in place indefinitely.

That will let the convention authority host its biggest event since March 2020 — the World of Concrete trade show beginning June 8 — and debut its nearly $1 billion Las Vegas Convention Center expansion.

It will also showcase a new $52.5 million underground Tesla vehicle people-mover system drilled beneath the convention center by Elon Musk.

Show attendees, exhibitors and staff members will have to wear masks, undergo temperature checks and observe social distancing, Nelson-Kraft said, at least until Clark County changes pandemic response rules.

“We are not, and I have not heard from any of our show producers, that they are requiring proof of vaccinations,” she added.

More than three-quarters of diagnosed coronavirus cases and deaths in Nevada have been in the Las Vegas area, where almost three-fourths of the state population lives.

State health officials say 4,300 people have died from COVID-19 in Clark County and 243,942 cases have been reported. Statewide, there have been 5,464 deaths and 315,000 reported cases.

The county’s 14-day test positivity rate on Friday was 5.6% — above the World Health Organization’s goal of 5% or below to relax restrictions.

Still, March proved to be a good time to open Virgin Hotels Las Vegas and its Mohegan Sun Casino. They debuted five weeks ago after $200 million and more than a year of renovations of the former Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

“The last week, the best way to describe it is like a light switch,” Richard “Boz” Bosworth, president and CEO of J.C. Hospitality, the property owner, said Friday. “You could just feel the energy rebuilding.”

“What we’re all looking forward to is June 1,” he added.

At least 50 resident shows have resumed, including mainstays such as David Copperfield, Fantasy revue, Carrot Top, Penn & Teller and the Laugh Factory. But not all acts at all venues are going forward.

Events drawing more than 20,000 people can reopen after case-by-case reviews of safety plans by the Southern Nevada Health District.

The Electric Daisy Carnival disappointed ticket-buyers when it postponed from May to October its multi-day event at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

But a July 10 MMA fight featuring Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier quickly sold out more than 20,000 seats at T-Mobile Arena. The venue has been hosting NHL Vegas Golden Knights games with limited audiences.

Newly announced big names include Bruno Mars July 3 at the Park MGM and Usher scheduled in August at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace.

Cirque du Soleil resumes the first of its big acrobatic productions, “Mystére,” on June 28, and its aquatic-themed “O” at Bellagio on July 1.

Still, gambling is what draws many Las Vegas fans. And lately, slot machine jackpots have taken on a bell-clanging rate.

A tourist from Alaska won more than $2.1 million last weekend; a visitor from New Mexico won a $10.5 million Megabucks payout on Tuesday; a man won $2.9 million Wednesday on a Wheel of Fortune machine; and someone won $1.2 million early Friday at a downtown casino. None of the winners have been publicly identified.

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