Coronavirus shuts down Sin City
LAS VEGAS - Don Gummerson and Josh 'Pepper' Clarke left The Flamingo and sauntered alone down the sidewalk of the Strip, past locked casino doors and outdoor daiquiri machines shrouded in black trash bags, to the only restaurant serving food for a half mile in either direction: McDonald's.
The oil workers from Manitoba were in town for a wedding: Gummerson married Clark's stepmother at 11 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, the last nuptials at the tropical casino for the foreseeable future, a day after Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, announced a shutdown of all casinos, hotels and "nonessential" businesses in response to the rapidly moving coronavirus pandemic.
As Clarke slung a $7 bottle of Wycliff champagne from his hip to his stubbled lips, Gummerson, in a matching black tuxedo, lamented their lonely journey through an eerily quiet Sin City.
"That's gonna be our wedding f------ supper," he said. "McDonald's."
The sudden closure of all Nevada casinos was an overreaction, they insisted, drawing an expletive-laced tirade about how they didn't think Las Vegas would throw in the towel. Clarke was especially upset because he thinks the virus is really affecting only old people: "I don't believe that this should be happening."
The men were among the few remaining tourists navigating the Las Vegas Strip as no one has ever seen it: nearly devoid of revelers, gamblers and street hawkers. The governor's directive, which fell on some deaf ears around the city (including those of an 18-and-over strip club offering drive-by lap dances), became a mandate. Sisolak announced that police action would be taken as a last course of action against businesses that refused to comply with measures to stem the spread of a virus in a city reliant on the opposite of social distancing.
As casino floors fell silent -- many for the first time since their construction -- a desert town built on tourist traffic from around the globe boiled with anxiety. In local union headquarters, homeless shelters, around-the-block gun store lines and churches, people of all stripes braced for an uncertain future. It was almost unthinkable, this city up against the only true showstopper it has ever experienced: An insidious virus that was first detected on the other side of the world.
Traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard has fizzled, and the continuous buzzing and beeping inside the monolithic casinos has given way to the low hum of electricity, whooshing air conditioning and 1990s pop hits played for an audience of security personnel and cleaning staff.
The waters of the spiraling Bellagio fountains lie still, though a few of the hotel marquees remain illuminated at night, painting the sky blue, white and gold on an empty desert soundstage. A few mumbling panhandlers remained seated on Strip sidewalks. Unable or unwilling to seek alternatives in this strange new reality, they held up cardboard signs with marker-scribbled messages to a handful of people in no mood.
"Disabled marine veteran. Homeless. Only God can save us now."
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The shutdown has not just been unpopular with departing tourists, it also has infuriated Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who offered a stern rebuttal to the governor's decision at a recent City Council meeting. A shutdown of this magnitude was unprecedented, she said. Neither the events of 9/11 nor the October 2017 mass shooting that took 58 lives at a music festival here had the effect of a 30-day freeze in tourism.
"I know we, and they, cannot survive any total shutdown of the economy for any length of time beyond the immediate week or two," Goodman said. "Please, governor, we need to be able to live our lives, support our families and, yes, keep Nevada strong, but together."
She called for an eight- to 10-day shutdown, shorter than what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says can be a two-week incubation period for the virus. Goodman's challenge to Sisolak, which was ignored, divided many Las Vegans as it has many people across the country. What's better? An economically crippling shutdown long enough to ensure the virus is in the past, or fewer restrictions on everyday life and the risk of widespread infection?
"As someone in the tourism industry, I really liked what Mayor Goodman had to say, for selfish reasons," said Tim Brooks, owner and general manager of Emerald Island Casino in Henderson. "But I don't really know what's realistic. Would I like to be back at work and not have these families suffer? Yes. But at what risk?"
The Emerald Island, a single-story casino with a bar and 24-hour restaurant, is far less reliant on tourism than most casinos in the heart of Las Vegas. Think "Cheers" with slot machines. Late last week, it dawned on Brooks that the front door of his 24-hour casino hadn't been locked since he opened the place 18 years ago. Where on earth are the keys? Anticipating a shutdown, Brooks called a locksmith on Monday and had a new lock installed. When the news came, he gave last call for the first time ever, at 11:50 p.m.
The next day, his staff went about the unfamiliar business of closing a casino. Slot machines were emptied of cash and wiped down with disinfectant spray. Liquor bottles were capped and keg tap lines blown clear.
A month on the shelf will mean a six-figure loss in revenue, Brooks says, and he's keeping 20 to 30 essential staff members on board and letting go of more than 130, most of whom trickled into the Island between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Friday to get educated on unemployment benefits.
"We were humming right along and planning an expansion at the end of the year and to employ 50 more people," Brooks said. "We're hoping the state will step up to the plate and ease some of the restrictions for all the people collecting unemployment. What hurts me more than anything is that it's affecting the livelihood of the people we know and love."
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Jose Triana emerged from the front desk of his health clinic Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m. to unlock the front door and tell a towering, mohawked man coughing into a blue medical mask that drive-through testing for covid-19 was over.
"I would rather you call tomorrow. It's insane right now," said Triana, 29. When the man asked how long he'd have to wait to be tested, Triana's pain and exhaustion broke through his N95 mask and medical visor. "I don't know. I really wish we could, I really wish we could. It's just . . . I can't afford it, I can't afford to pay my staff."
Sahara Urgent Care and Wellness was one of just a few clinics here offering coronavirus tests, available to people exhibiting symptoms. For three days, employees directed cars through a maze of traffic cones linked with white rope to a spot where technicians waited with nasal swabs. When the results were in, patients waited several hours after they were obtained to be notified if they had tested positive for the virus. Cars circled the block each day, and after more than 700 tests, the clinic limited them to appointment by phone or online.
"We're not getting the support that we'd like," Triana said as the man retreated to his parked car, where a woman in a mask waited in the passenger seat. "Our resources have been exhausted. Honestly, everyone that was coming in, they looked bad. We really didn't turn away anybody."
Triana said he wasn't allowed to share how many confirmed cases his clinic has reported to Clark County -- which includes Las Vegas and Nevada's second-largest city, Henderson. According to the Southern Nevada Health District, 126 positive cases of covid-19 were reported in Clark County as of last week, with two deaths, both being people in their 60s with underlying medical conditions. But the threat of transmission is especially high compared with the rest of the country, experts said, because in the region's more than 200 casinos, people handle chips, cash, cards, slot machines and touch screens, all in proximity to one another.
Six medical providers at five hospitals who spoke with The Washington Post said each had been inundated with patients seeking tests after exhibiting covid-19 symptoms. Such was the demand at Valley Hospital Medical Center, two nurses said, that security was concentrated in the admissions areas to deal with overflow and assist in screening. That provided an opportunity for badness: Thieves broke into five cars belonging to members of the hospital staff, and they took multiple garage door openers and registrations bearing home addresses, staff members said. The two nurses spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a hospital rule against unauthorized contact with the media. The Las Vegas Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
"When I first heard about it, I thought, no, that's gotta be fake news," said one of the nurses. Then she saw the pictures and spoke with those whose cars were targeted. "We're just trying to do our jobs and trying to help people, and it feels like there's no one helping us. It just doesn't sound real. Who attacks the people trying to help them?"
Four miles away, at the Briarhawk Firearms and Ammunition store, more than 30 people waited in line to purchase guns and/or ammunition when the store opened at noon, mirroring a scene at multiple other gun stores here. Some customers said they were motivated by stories circulating on social media of home invasions. Three cited a specific item they had seen on Snapchat that described a home invasion in nearby Henderson, in which men apparently dressed as utility workers held a family at gunpoint and stole supplies. Many such stories and claims from around the country -- many debunked -- have been circulating online and on social media for days, stoking fear; the Henderson Police Department said the posting was not deemed credible and has urged people to stop spreading rumors.
Shawna Sanders, one of the first in line when Briarhawk opened at noon recently, said she had heard stories of break-ins and seen videos of fights in grocery stores. When she read that someone was stabbed over supplies in another state, she figured the violence was coming to Las Vegas. She moved here four years ago from New Jersey to live with her mother, a decision she has come to regret. The single mother of two worked as a bartender until the shutdown, which caused her to be laid off. On Monday she Googled "guns for women," then showed up at the Range 702, a local shooting venue, with an idea of which pistols she wanted to try out. She narrowed the options down to two small, light guns -- a Glock 40 or a Glock 9 -- both in the $400 to $600 range. "I can't be out here trying to live life with a knife," she said. "I need real protection."
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Representatives from more than 130 nonprofit organizations in southern Nevada joined a United Way conference call, hosted by Kyle Rahn, 60, the first female president of the United Way of Southern Nevada. Homeless shelters, meal providers, drug and alcohol treatment centers and state and local health and emergency assistance representatives joined in, aiming to take stock of resources and encouraging collaboration. Many anticipate that the shutdown of one of the nation's largest county's will put the people on the fringes of Las Vegas' economy at great risk. Rahn three weeks ago set up an emergency assistance fund for the nonprofits, anticipating a shutdown.
"It's no longer business as usual," Rahn told the group. "And it may never be again."
It's the kind of work that can't be done from home, so throughout the week a core group of five women came to the United Way offices every day, diligently washing their hands and maintaining social distancing while organizing a growing network of volunteers and nonprofits re-purposing themselves for a tsunami.
One of the women on the call, Terry Ruth Lindemann, runs Family Promise of Las Vegas, a group that helps newly homeless families find temporary housing in motels and with religious organizations. Lindemann requires visitors to wash their hands upon entry. After that, parents are introduced to case workers and go through the often-painful process of explaining how they got there. Children sprawl on couches and watch Pixar DVDs in the main room; the office is packed with stacked boxes of diapers.
She has been working 13-hour days, answering hundreds of emails. "I'm still not convinced that I'm not a star in an episode of the Twilight Zone," Lindemann said.
Clark County, she says, typically finishes each school year with about 14,000 children listed as homeless, which she estimates to mean as many as 5,000 families are living in cars or otherwise oscillating between homeless and housed. Family Promise has about 40 families on its caseload, with plans to expand to 100 in 2020 with an operating budget of $700,000 per year, a portion of which is public funds.
Closing the Strip, she says, will create "a lot of need for food banks, for rental assistance, for motel shelter," she said. "That means that this community is going to have to come together as we never have before, and we are beginning to respond in that way, much in the way they had to for Katrina and Sandy."
As she spoke, the first housing casualties of the shutdown walked in from the street and parked on the Family Promise couch: A family of five, led by a single mother, who just last week made the pilgrimage from Utah to Las Vegas in search of work.
Two miles east, at the Culinary Workers Union headquarters, the largest union in Las Vegas and arguably the city's most powerful, workers called in and filled the waiting room, wondering about their paychecks while casinos and hotels sit vacant.
"We're negotiating that this week with casinos," said Bethany Khan, director of communications for the culinary union. "For most workers that the culinary union represents, nothing will change. They'll be paid throughout this. We are demanding that all employers, union and nonunion, pay their employees during the closure."
While some nonunion casinos did offer compensation for furloughed employees -- including notoriously anti-union Las Vegas Sands owner Sheldon Adelson -- most smaller casinos, hotels and small businesses that exist on the periphery of the Strip will not. And with about 40 percent of residents not being members of a union, the impact of a month-long pay freeze will be long-lasting and severe, said Rusty McAllister, executive secretary-treasurer of the Nevada State AFL-CIO,
"If you look back at 9/11, we were one of the hardest-hit cities, and it took the longest for us to come back," McAllister says. "If people are worried or people have to look at places to cut back, one of the first places they cut back is on their vacation plans. That has an immediate impact on our city. We're one of the first to feel it and the last to come out of it when something like this happens."
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For small business owners beyond the reach of the union, but no less reliant on a vibrant Las Vegas Strip, the length of the shutdown and the decisions handed down by the state and federal government may mean the difference between owning a business and not. Lisa Ortiz, owner and operator of The Hair Lounge, says the future of her business is reliant on her hair stylists paying rent at a time when none of them are working.
"If they pay their rent, and we bounce back, I will waive some stuff and try to get everyone on their feet," she said. "But if they don't, it may not bounce back. It honestly depends on whether or not this lasts longer than 30 days. Everything's up in the air right now."
So she'll wait. On a recent evening, Ortiz brought her young son to the shop to meet one of her stylists who needed to pick up supplies. She had spent the week clearing out hair products, intending to sell them via social media at cost, and securing the shop against looters: locking up mirrors and expensive salon equipment. She had seen the home invasion claim on Snapchat, too. And the salon recently experienced a break-in after hours. Tucked in her jean waistband as she buckled her toddler into a car seat was a small loaded pistol.
"It just feels like anything can happen," she said. "You don't know what to believe."
For others, the math ahead of them portended more desperate measures. Walking the aisles of a Cardena's grocery store, Oscar Ibarra and Judy Luis contemplated what was required to feed their 10-month-old, Catalina, pay rent and feed themselves after both lost their jobs. She was a hostess at the Grand Lux Cafe on the Strip, and he worked for a pool-builder.
"Because of this whole shutdown, the clients don't want us around right now, because they think someone might have it," Ibarra said. "I have a little bit saved away, enough for the next few weeks."
They've been buying in bulk, and skipping meals. That should work for four weeks. If the shutdown lasts longer than a month, the family might have to move to Portland, where his mother lives: "Unless they tell us we don't have to pay rent for the next month, there's not much else we can do."
And while some walked grocery store aisles and performed the painful calculus of how long they might last in a Las Vegas without work, the last of the tourists who once propped up the city made their way home.
On the Strip, crossing paths with the hungry Canadian wedding party, Matt Cross and Gio Feusi had carry-ons rolling in tow. They had been asked to leave the Cosmopolitan two nights into a three-night stay that, combined with airfare out of San Francisco, cost just $480 in an economy gripped by the virus.
"We got out of San Francisco because things were shutting down, and it was so cheap to get here," Cross said. Added Feusi: "We didn't think Vegas would ever shut down."
In this, they were not alone.
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