Nevada’s casinos are increasing the capacity on their gaming floors from 25 percent to 35 percent, and could expand it to 50 percent next month.
The increase commenced February 15 under a new forward-looking state plan that calls for turning over control of Covid mitigation to counties and cities by spring.
Under the new rules, public gatherings that had been limited to 50 people can increase to 100 people, or 35 percent of fire code capacity, and up to 250 people, or 50 percent of code, starting March 15.
The new limit also encompasses non-gaming restaurants and bars and those venues, mostly taverns, that hold licenses for operating up to 15 machine games per location.
“The goal of this plan is to avoid a scenario where I have to come before all of you again and pause our efforts,” Governor Steve Sisolak said at a virtual press conference to announce the easing. “I believe this plan can work, but we must all invest in making it successful.”
MGM Resorts International responded by announcing that it would restart 24/7 operations at three of its premier Las Vegas Strip properties—Mandalay Bay, Park MGM and The Mirage—on March 3. The three have been closed weekdays amid massive declines in tourism to since the pandemic first hit last winter.
Chief Executive Bill Hornbuckle termed it “an important step for us,” one the company said will be accompanied by the return of several live shows beginning this month.
“We remain optimistic about Las Vegas’ recovery and our ability to bring employees back to work as business volumes allow us to do so,” Hornbuckle said.
Noting that the city has several large conferences on tap for June, the first such gatherings slated for the convention mecca in almost a year. He added, “I’m hoping by end of spring, as we go into June, we’ll see yet another significant rollback.”
Sisolak imposed the 25 percent restriction in November in response to a surge in Covid infections across Nevada that peaked early in December at a daily average of 2,709. By mid-January, more than half of the hospitals in and around Las Vegas were at 90 percent capacity or greater. One suburban medical center declared a capacity crisis, with more patients than beds, nearly half of which were occupied by Covid patients. On January 21, the death toll hit 71, the highest for the state ever in a single day. The toll for the month was 1,132, the worst since the pandemic first hit the state last March. December was second.
“The way we typically interact with people in Las Vegas is not one that stops the spread of Covid,” said Brian Labus, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and a member of Sisolak’s medical advisory team. He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “We want people in close contact, we want big events, we want nightclubs. How do we let people interact, but do it in a way that’s safe? That’s something we haven’t quite figured out yet.”
That said, the situation has improved greatly. The 14-day average of new infections statewide was down last week to 650, according to news reports. The rate of positive tests dropped to around 14 percent from mid-January’s 21 percent-plus. On February 17, the state reported its lowest single-day total of infections in more than five months. The two-week positivity rate at that point was the lowest since mid-November.
The pandemic has taken a withering toll on gaming and tourism, Nevada’s principal industries.
Visitation was down by more than half in 2020 to 19 million, compared with 42.5 million in 2019. Gaming revenues declined 34.6 percent to $7.87 billion, the lowest annual total since 1997. Strip gaming revenues declined 43.7 percent to $3.73 billion, the lowest 12-month total since 1996. The state’s take from a 6.75 percent tax on win was down 40 percent. Unemployment went from an all-time low of 3.6 percent last February to a worst-in-the-nation 30.1 percent in April. The rate was down to 9.2 percent in December.
Sisolak last month announced that casino and hospitality workers would be among the first groups to receive vaccines, though the exact timeline remains unclear.
“It’s important everyone that has a face-to-face interaction with one of our tourists gets a vaccine,” the governor said. “It protects our workers and residents, and I want everyone coming here to know this is the safest place for a vacation.”
The Las Vegas sports scene will also benefit. The NHL Vegas Golden Knights submitted plans to Sisolak to welcome fans back to the T-Mobile Arena matching 20 percent capacity. And the Pennzoil 400 NASCAR race scheduled for early March would allow 14,000 fans at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The minor league baseball team, the Las Vegas Aviators, also expect to welcome a limited number of fans to their games starting on April 15.
Statewide, more than 307,000 first doses of the vaccine have been administered to date and more than 82,000 second doses.
“The hope is that we can make Las Vegas, the health (and) safety capital of the world,” said James Murren, the former MGM chairman and CEO who now heads Nevada’s Covid-19 Response, Relief and Recovery Task Force. “That, I think, is going to help consumer confidence, which will bring people back.”
He likes the chances of this under the Biden administration.
“I’m a big fan of the current president,” he told the Review-Journal. “I have great confidence and comfort in the national response to this pandemic, finally, after a series of inexcusable blunders over the last year. So I just feel like we’re going to get a lot more vaccines into the state. The amount of supply nationwide is increasing.”