Waking the Giant: The Strip Reopens
More than two months after hotel-casinos on Las Vegas Boulevard shut down in response to the pandemic, the Strip opened up for business again on June 4. It was festive but subdued — and underlined with more sober emotions, as the nation wrestled with turmoil over racial injustice and lingering fear of a resurgent coronavirus. We spent the day chronicling the Strip’s reopening in stories and images, offering a glimpse of Las Vegas’ lifeblood in a complicated new reality.
9:45 a.m., Icebar Las Vegas, Linq Promenade
Marc Siebmann is sitting on one of the couches in the waiting area outside the entrance to Icebar. His intense blue eyes scan the paperwork and binders spread on the coffee table in front of him, the bar’s new COVID-19 protocols. A few feet to Siebmann’s right is a pile of tool kits and a wheeled bin full of snow. They belong to the nine professional ice carvers responsible for the pounding and whizzing sounds coming from inside the bar — in which, for those new to the concept, everything is actually made of ice, from walls and furniture to décor and cocktail glasses. The team, led by a real, live ice-carving champion named Peter Slavin, is restoring detail and sharpness to the throne, bust of Caesar, and sports-themed wall-hangings. “There's a natural air flow about the freezers,” Siebmann explains, “and after sitting there for two and a half months, things begin to take their own shape — just as they would in the Arctic.”
While the ice sat and slowly rounded, Siebmann grew increasingly busy and stressed. At first, he says, he thought it would be a couple weeks off to spend time with his family. But he quickly realized how serious things were, not just the pandemic, but also — especially, in his mind — the business closure. As director of operations for all three local Minus5/Icebar locations, he had to make frequent trips to the Strip to see that no perishable products had been left behind, the sink faucets were still running, the water heater working, and, most importantly, the temperature in the refrigerated rooms remained at a constant 23 degrees. “When we’re open, we catch things,” he says. “But when you’re closed, and nobody’s in the building, a day or two may go by before you realize something’s wrong.”
An employee carves an ice display at IceBar in the Linq Promenade in preparation for reopening. Photo by Brent Holmes
The low point of the 80-day closure wasn’t the time he had to call the HVAC repairman, though. It was the day some restaurant owners that he knows looped him in on a food drive they were doing for their employees. “I put the word out to our staff, ‘Hey, if anybody needs help with food …’ to come back at me confidentially and I'd get their name on the list. And to have a handful of them come back at you, ‘I need food’ — you just realize, it’s ugly out there. Some of these people have children, and I'm just like... If they're in a situation where they can't collect unemployment, because that system is a nightmare, and they're running low on food, I just want to get open.”
With Nevada's unemployment rate pushing 30 percent, Siebmann's sentiment is widely shared. Of the 60 or so total employees at all three Minus5/Icebar locations, six will be back today, when the one on the Linq Promenade opens its walk-up daiquiri window. Siebmann will bring back a handful of other staff tomorrow for the reopening of the actual ice bar. He’s hopeful all locations will be open for their full 11 a.m.-2 a.m. schedule by mid-August.He says it’s not just important to his company; it’s important for the country. “I think Las Vegas opening up, the Strip opening up, is big for America,” he says. “People are going to look at that and see a city that is a major travel destination — maybe even one of their favorite cities themselves — opening up … Granted, with all these new protocols in place, with social distancing and temperature checks and COVID screening and everything else, but nonetheless, you know, America's getting back on track.”
10:12 a.m., Bellagio lobby
A giddy, frenetic Fountains of Bellagio show to the tune of “Viva Las Vegas” kicked off the opening of the Bellagio at 10 a.m. Cheering and applauding beneath the lobby’s canopy of glass Chihuly flowers, a group of employees and PR people greeted the first visitors streaming through the front doors. The employees seemed to be mostly of the executive gazelle variety: upstairs-office types in trim suits and sleek dresses — and masks. In his understated black togs, Harry Harmon stood out for not standing out. He was there to greet tourists, too, but he was also there to greet the return of his job and his life. The 64-year-old utility worker and houseperson looks happily bewildered by the clamor of the crowd, and by his own momentary celebrity as PR handlers hover around him like he's an A-lister.
Navy veteran Harmon moved to Las Vegas in 1992. His first job was working at a furniture mover whose warehouse was located near Tropicana and Valley View. It was a job with an interesting view: To the east was a restless Strip about to enter a new growth spurt. As new resorts took shape on the horizon — Luxor, Treasure Island, Monte Carlo, Bellagio — Harmon saw a chance at a new career in hospitality.
“I spent five years being a furniture mover on the other side of the freeway and watching the Bellagio being built,” he says. “I always had the impression that when you move to Las Vegas, one of the best possible things you could do is get a job at a hotel with good pay and benefits. Well, I finally got the courage to go over there and put in the application without having the experience. To me, it was a shock in my heart that they were willing to give me a chance. It changed my life 100 percent from where it was. I don’t want to say moving furniture is a dead-end job, but it’s not something you want to do forever.” At the Bellagio, it wasn’t long before he earned the nickname “Harry Spotter” for his skill at removing stains from hotel-room carpets.
But that was before the pandemic. During quarantine, Harmon marked time at his apartment catching up on action movies and working out in his modest home gym. When he was finally called back for the reopening, he didn’t just go back to work as usual. Because the Strip resorts aren’t yet fully open and occupied, they also aren’t fully staffed yet. That means workers like him are filling gaps and juggling new responsibilities — and facing new risks.
“Actually, they changed things now that we came back to where you’re being asked to perform any job anywhere — maintaining hallways, sanitizing walls and curtains, helping the people who clean the rooms,” he says. “And that’s fine with me.” The Strip experience won’t just change dramatically for tourists. It will change dramatically for the workers, too. Andrew Kiraly
A new sign of the times at Treasure Island encouraging social distancing is now a common sight on the Strip. Photo by Brent Holmes
11:17 a.m., Marvel’s Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. in Treasure Island
Quarantine sloth is real. “This morning, when I was getting ready, I realized I didn’t have any clean pants because I’d only been wearing shorts for six weeks,” says Addison Egelhoff (pictured left), normally a merchandise buyer, though this morning he’s manning the photo booth. “So I had to rush to clean my work clothes.” Thor, too, probably.
The retail area, a sizable chunk of the Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N.’s 31,000 square feet, is occupied solely by staffers, two journalists, and a bombastic Avengers soundtrack. Otherwise, it’s as though Thanos kept snapping his fingers until the only customers left were the one family that’s been through the interactive exhibit so far. But it’s still quite early on day one, and most places up and down the Strip aren’t seeing crowds. A few early re-adopters are gambling down on the casino floor, but most of the slots and tables sit idle.
Egelhoff noticed the S.T.A.T.I.O.N.’s stillness first thing this morning. “It’s weird, you know? If felt kinda eerie coming in here at first. Everything being the way it was when we left.” He had to cut short a vacation in California when he got the call to come back. Fine with him, he says. He and the others are happy to be working again — “especially,” he says, “in the midst of everything that’s going on now. It’s something for us to look forward to.”
The walls around him explode with hyper-real figures from Marvel mythology. They're primed for action, but seem almost comic in a world in which Hulk smash! may not be an effective antiviral measure. “Myths are public dreams,” Joseph Campbell tells us. But at this particular moment, as the Strip staggers toward what it hopes is a return to normal, and untold thousands take to the streets pushing for change, and no one knows where we're headed, our public dreams may be too much for figures in tights whose escapades typically end with a city in ruins.The face mask; that’s the only thing getting to Egelhoff. He’s not used to it yet. “I didn’t go out a lot during quarantine,” he says. “You see me messing with my mask this whole time.” Don't let Captain America hear you say that!
12:06 p.m., Secret Pizza at The Cosmopolitan
On the third floor of the Boulevard Tower, hidden among some of The Cosmopolitan’s more buttoned-up eateries, is the slice shop known as Secret Pizza. It can be found at the end of an unmarked hallway lined with records (Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin) and illuminated in red lighting to up the obscurity factor. Secret Pizza’s proximity to The Chelsea and the hotel’s bars and nightclubs have made it a favorite among patrons looking for a late-night slice.
On this afternoon, a young mother, glossy-lipped and dressed in a drapey, blue-and-white-striped dress fit for the Tuscan countryside, follows her two young children down the hallway, feigning confusion about where they might possibly be leading her. As she orders their slices of pepperoni and cheese, the kids climb and swing on the metal rails that indicate where a line might usually be. She pleads for them to stop touching everything: “They’re still weird about germs right now, okay?”
Like all other Strip establishments, Secret Pizza has adapted to enforce social distancing safety measures. Countertops normally filled with communal napkin holders and parmesan or red-pepper shakers are wiped clean, and stools for in-shop seating have been removed. Throughout the rest of the Boulevard Tower, six-foot markers were displayed across floors, though even small crowds of people still gathered in close proximity. More guests were unmasked than not.
Crystal, one of the workers at Secret Pizza, explains that getting used to the new protocols has been a huge adjustment. After each patron is served, she’ll have to wipe down every surface they might have touched. When I instinctively reach for the pen attached to the credit card machine, she instead hands me a Cosmopolitan branded stylus tucked inside a velvet slip. Mine to keep.
As the pizzaioli behind the glass tugs at the dough, Crystal gestures to him and says, “It’s been three months; it’s like we’ve forgotten how to make pizza.”
Whatever she meant didn’t translate into the dough. The very generously sized New York-style slices that I devoured (but not before slipping into a nearby bathroom to wash my hands, despite there being at least three hand-sanitizing stations in close walking distance, and watching hotel staff, all wearing masks and gloves, emerge every 20 minutes or so to wipe everything down), served classically on double-stacked flimsy paper plates and checkerboard printed parchment, were absolutely delicious. It’s no surprise that some of the counter’s regular customers paid a visit within its first couple hours of reopening.Biting into their slices outside the shop were Erica and Colin Browning, local YouTube creators who run the channel “ Living in Las Vegas.” They were on the Strip to scope out the reopening; Secret Pizza was high on the list of sites to visit. On the topic of how the pandemic has factored into the Strip experience, Erica assured: “I'm not scared of it. I feel like the majority of the people that are here right now aren't scared of it.”
1 p.m., Elite Medical Center, East Harmon Avenue
Emergency doctor Nick Karr is on the office computer reviewing and updating a patient’s chart. The hospital’s private owner, Houston-based Facilities Management Group, recently adopted a new electronic medical records system, and Karr (pictured, right) is still getting good at it. In a lucky coincidence, he’s had extra time to practice the new system, and to spend hours each day reading the latest COVID-19 news and research.
Since the pandemic-induced isolation period, Elite Medical Center has seen its daily intake drop from an average 25-30 patients per day to fewer than 10, by Karr’s estimate. At the moment, he’s got four patients.
But he’s not anxious about the private business’s lack of customers. “I think, more than anything, the quarantine gave us a chance to step back and assess the threat we're facing, and let people be able to make a decision,” he says. People can ask themselves, “‘Am I willing to accept the risks of this virus, because the alternative is loss of my sense of freedom and my ability to go out and move about, and I think that's really important.’ Now, people have the ability to make that decision.”
He says the drop in patient numbers at Elite is partially due to the broader trend of people staying away from hospitals for anything other than COVID-19, but mostly due to the shutdown of the Strip. Located just one block off Las Vegas Boulevard behind Planet Hollywood, Elite caters to a clientele that ends up in the emergency room while away from home: tourists, convention attendees, even celebrities, who can avail themselves of the VIP inpatient room. The other 21 inpatient rooms (it also has 15 emergency beds and three observation rooms) aren’t all as hotel-like as that one, but they are more spacious and sunny than in an average hospital; they feature two single beds, one of which is often offered to an accompanying loved one; and guests get amenities like robes and slippers, which they might take in an overnight bag for a hospital stay back home, but are unlikely to have with them on vacation.
With 80 percent of its patients from outside Nevada, Elite considers itself part of the Vegas experience; they want to help make sure that an unexpected trip to the hospital doesn’t deter visitors from coming back to town. Hence the 10-minute average wait time and constant availability of at least one board-certified emergency doctor, along with cardiologists and hospitalists.
That level of private service comes at a price, though, and Elite doesn’t contract with any insurance companies, including Medicare and Medicaid; instead, its physician group bills patients’ insurance companies for care, and, in some cases, the patients themselves for amounts not covered. These practices are the subject of not only some bad online reviews, but also a bill that passed the most recent legislative session requiring existing state-licensed hospitals to accept Medicare by July 2021. (The hospital says it absorbs the cost of treating Medicaid/Medicare patients.)
But Karr isn’t focused on that. He’s thinking about October, when the regular flu season may converge with COVID-19.
“We see a lot of flu patients, and that’s across the board at all the emergency departments where I’ve worked,” he says. “A lot of predictions are, we’re also going to have a big uptick in COVID at that time, so differentiating is going to be difficult.”
With abundant PPE, onsite lab and testing kits, and a negative-pressure room, Elite would be ready should that surge happen — at least for patients who don’t require surgery or an ICU. For that, they’d be sent to one of Las Vegas’ full-service hospitals.
The question is: Will the guests show up? HK
Visitors wait to enter the Bellagio Conservatory, which now features limited occupancy and guide ropes. Photo by Scott Lien
1:04 p.m, Bellagio Conservatory
Suddenly, flowers. Let’s say you’ve spent two months shut into your home, hotboxing the anxious vapors of 2020: from COVID-19 death rates to economic shitstorm; from questionable government competence to empty shelves; from massive, determined protests against racism to the president testily speaking power to truth. No surprise that your headspace is gummed up with steadily mutating definitions of “The New Normal.”
So, once the governor releases you onto the Strip, you make for the Bellagio Conservatory. You wonder, can some 200,000 flowers, this spectacle of fragile beauty, offer an eddy of calm amid the pitiless clatter of current events? The exhibit, Japan Journey: Magical Kansai (open until September 12), with its 14,000 square feet of natural light and Japanese aesthetics, certainly means to take you far from here. To a place, says the resort’s horticulture boss, Jerry Bowlen, where you can “leave all the politics behind.” Check your frazzle at the door. And it seems to be working. It’s easy and soothing to let your mind wander among the fragrant floral sculptures, waterfalls, pagodas, and giant Hello Kitty figure, altogether the work of 125 employees. So meticulous, so mesmerizingly precise. Sure, the flowers’ delicacy — about 30 percent need replacing each week — might eventually remind you of the frailty so many people are experiencing now. But for the dozen guests in the Conservatory at the moment, not all of them attentive to the six-foot rule, it’s right back to selfies as usual.“ Hello Kitty!” scream two little girls, darting forward and expertly staging themselves for a photo op. Should’ve figured not every normal would be new.
2:33 pm, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in the Venetian
Dig if you will the picture: a pint-size Prince, lifelike in every respect other than actually being alive, crowding into your peripheral vision, finger raised as if to say hold that thought ... and even though you know he ... it ... is a wax figure, there’s a split second as you turn to him that you want to ask, Dude, can I help you?
Valleys don’t get much uncannier than that.
Except maybe the one outside. The haunting almostness that inhabits these figures correlates in some freaky way to what’s happening as the street formerly known as the Strip reverts from lifeless facsimile of itself to something that almost — but not quite yet — looks like the real thing. ( Wait until the weekend, everyone says.) It’s a process unfolding in nonstop micro-dissonances: Having come to appreciate the pandemic emptiness of Las Vegas Boulevard, it’s jarring to see liminal trickles of people back on the sidewalks, caramelizing in the excessive heat. So many places we remember undulating with life — stores, restaurants, showrooms, whole resorts — remain in hibernation. In the Venetian’s faux canal, a singer named Marcello serenades a gondola with no guests — from the sidewalk, too, no longer in the boat: socially distant from no one. You can see maybe half-a-dozen people in the distance. “This is the busiest it’s been,” he says, but he still belts it out. Meanwhile, back in Madame Tussaud’s —
“ACK!” yelps a woman visiting from Salt Lake City. She just saw me move, and was startled, so quickly had she adjusted to the prevalence of nonhuman people in this empty museum. I can’t blame her. After two months in my quarantine spider hole, I am feeling waxy and no more real than these 100 eerie wax figures.
“When I first started,” says General Manager Gabriel Hewitt, whom I encounter in the gift shop, “when I’d be in the building by myself, walking around, the figure would be there, and it comes at you — you’d come around the corner and it’s (like) a real person, and you’d jump.” Now, imagine that the figure looks exactly like Justin Bieber.
As with so much about Vegas, these statues achieve their illusion of lifelike nonchalance through massive applications of technology and craft: typically 2,000 measurements and 5,000 in-the-round photos of the posing celebrity, followed by nine months of casting and sculpting. “Each hair is individually inserted,” Hewitt assures me. (I picture a sculptor relieved to learn the museum would portray Andre Agassi in his later years.) This outpost — there are 27 Madame Tussaud’s worldwide — has more of a pop-culture emphasis and Vegas-specific mojo than the others; “it’s edgier,” Hewitt says. Nowhere else lets you pose with “Hugh Hefner” on a bed.
At the moment, though, the bed is empty. Indeed, the wax figure-to-guest ratio is about 14 to 1. All that lavish process presented to practically no one, a resonant microcosm of the reopening-day Strip. “Wait until the weekend,” they tell me at the ticket counter.
“This is one of the few attractions open,” says one of the Salt Lake ladies, pushing her stroller, when I encounter them again. A few minutes later, the three of them are gathered around Elvis as one holds his hand in mock adoration. “Yes, Elvis,” she trills, “I accept.” Lady, his waxen features seem to say, are you for real? SD
Stations for dispensing masks and gloves dot the casino floor of the Bellagio. Photo by Scott Lien
3:11 p.m., New York-New York
Visiting the Big Apple Arcade on the afternoon of reopening feels similar to roaming through an abandoned carnival ground in the wee hours of night. Hundreds of arcade games illuminate the space, their glowing neon and blinking lights reflecting off of polished wood floors, which are still pristine from constant cleaning and a lack of visitors. Automated voices, cartoon theme songs, the revving of race car engines, the 8-bit bleeps and bloops of Ms. Pacman and Galaga, and the distant ringing of slot machines create a cacophonous wall of sound. Human voices, however, are harder to come by.
The few who are here — the parents playing skee ball with their toddler, the young couple playing Mario Kart, the teen boy who stood alone playing Guitar Hero for the better part of an hour — are outnumbered by hotel staff cleaning the space. According to New York-New York’s director of hotel operations, James Healey, workers were hired specifically to sanitize the arcade full-time.
Even with a full-time sanitation staff, a good portion of machines remain inoperable to reduce the spread of germs, rendering a sea of rainbow teddy bears and emoji plushies encased within a claw-machine, unclaimed.
Toward the back of the Coney Island-style arcade is the ticket counter and waiting queue for the Big Apple Roller Coaster. The coaster, which performs a 180-degree spiral and a half-loop maneuver (one of only two coasters in the world to do so), has been a part of the Vegas skyline since the late '90s, and as the Strip’s only roller coaster, remains the New York-New York’s most popular attraction. The coaster’s waiting area, a space designed to fit hundreds of riders, is a desolate maze of social-distancing floor markers.
On a regular June day, the place would be packed, one worker says. Now, at an especially slow moment, you might have the entire coaster to yourself — a perfect place to cathartically scream your head off (as many of us feel the need to do these days). Coaster operators stand ready to do a full cleaning of the train between each cycle. As riders unload from their carts, the team disinfects the seats, lap bars, and shoulder restraints before loading the next group.
While one worker is appreciative to be back at work considering a wave of layoffs, others say that working amid the pandemic is overwhelming, especially because guests are not required to wear masks.
“People aren't taking it as seriously as I had hoped,” says rider Kourtney Kelley, who was recently laid off from her manager position at the Venetian. “A lot of people don't wear masks, or even have them with them. I’ll always move over to the side if people are walking by. I feel like it should be a social awareness to be like, ‘Oh, they're moving over, we should move over, too.’ But it's not.”
In the past few months, MGM Resorts has implemented hand-washing stations, decked with towels and marble countertops, across casino floors. Masks and gloves are complimentary for guests, and they’re strongly encouraged to wear them.
“It's nice to know that hotels care about the consumer’s safety. The hotels have directions, but people won't pay attention. They'll just do whatever they want, and that's kinda frustrating,” says Braynson Rattonavong, a recently laid-off chef.
Despite the abundance of cautionary measures, the unmasked people seemingly unaware of the pandemic-level proliferation of COVID-19 adds to the eeriness of a post-quarantine Strip. While grabbing their belongings from lockers at the coaster exit, a group of teenagers from Utah muses on the Vegas they remember."The cigarette smell is gone. It used to smell like cigarettes and cologne, and now it smells more like cleaning spray."
3:45 p.m., Diana Thomas’ home, Las Vegas
Diana Thomas expected to report to her job as a guest room attendant at the Flamingo today, but she was told she wasn’t needed. She hopes to start tomorrow, Friday June 5, and resume her regular Wednesday-Sunday, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. schedule.
Until then, the afternoon is for putting on the gloves and taking negative emotions out on a heavy punching bag in a corner of her garage. “I’m trying to get my mind right mentally when I’m working out,” she says. During the pandemic, she’s done “a lot of walking, a lot of exercising, a lot of thinking about how my life is going to change, and it’s not going to be the same. It’s going to be totally different. Life is not how it used to be.”
This is partly because of the pandemic. Thomas has had family members die. She’s had 15 fellow Culinary Union members die. She takes COVID-19 very seriously, which is why she volunteered at the massive testing site set up at the Las Vegas Convention Center by the Culinary Union, University Medical Center, and casino companies Boyd Gaming, Caesars, and MGM. Thomas got tested and would like there to be mandatory testing for her co-workers, in addition to the daily temperature checks and verbal screening. The Flamingo has encouraged anyone who wants to be tested to contact HR and find out how to go about it.
“That's not good enough for me,” Thomas says. “I want you guys to make a safe work environment for my co-workers. There are elderly people there. I have an asthmatic son. I don't want to bring anything to him.”
She’d also like hotels to use walk-through fever scanners, rather than hand-held thermometers, in order to keep a safe distance between the screeners and the screened. As a union shop steward, Thomas takes her fellow employees’ safety as her responsibility. She reported to work Monday, June 1, for the first time since the gaming business shutdown, and as she waited in the line that snaked from the employee entrance around the back of the building toward the Linq Promenade, she retrieved COVID screening confirmation codes on her phone for others who aren’t computer literate. She’s been posting information on her Facebook page since the start of the outbreak to help those who were laid off find everything from food to housing assistance.
And health precautions aren’t the only things on her mind. The protests that have erupted since a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd on May 25 have her thinking about racism, too.
As a 53-year-old woman who’s seen her share of strife, Thomas has cried a lot, she says: “But not only that, I care about my co-workers. Most of my co-workers are minority. I see the difference. I see how we're treated. So, it's important for me. That's why I stick up for my co-workers in the union. Most of them are from different countries. They can't stand up for themselves, so I do the standing up for us. You know? … It's our constitutional right to march and protest. We have the right to do that, and nobody should try to oppress anybody. We already had to deal with COVID-19, being secluded in the house, and then oppressed by the police, by racism — it’s horrible. I will not let any of my people be oppressed, no matter if they're white, black, straight, gay, or anything. I will not let it go down.”
She’s glad to see difficult conversations taking place and hopes it will continue. She’s confident that, in the long run, the power of unity will overwhelm the forces that seek to divide people. But in the meantime, she’d simply appreciate more day-to-day kindness toward front-line workers like her.
“When I'm at work, I want to be respected as a person, not just a worker,” she says. “If it wasn't for the workers, the hotel would not be. Don’t use me as a dollar. Respect the people, not the paper. Respect me. I'm a person, just like you.” HK
Do as the Romans do: A masked statue of Julius Caesar greets tourist at the entrance of Caesars Palace. Photo by Brent Holmes
5:04 p.m., Bar Luca in the Palazzo
With their band shirts and tattoos, punk-rock couple Jason Bishop, 43, and Katherine Keyes, 50, might look a bit out of place amid the imperial gleam of the Palazzo, but they’re Vegas diehards. Back home in Riverside, California, Jason is a UPS driver who continued to work through the shutdown; Katherine is a title processor.
“I work from home, so I get a little stir-crazy,” Katherine says, “and Jason’s a delivery driver, so it’s been crazy busy for him, huge volume, just go-go-go, just tough, with the stress and everything that’s been going on, so it was a good time to get away.” They took advantage of a Venetian promotion offering a free night’s stay to essential workers. They just arrived this afternoon; now they're pregraming at this casino bar with some drinks and hatching plans for what's hopefully another wild Vegas trip for the books.
They've got a history here. Long before they became a couple two years ago, they were visiting on solo jaunts and madcap road trips with friends, hitting annual music festivals like Punk Rock Bowling and Psycho Las Vegas, and scouring valley record stores for vinyl. Before that, their Vegas vacations meant being hauled along with the parents on their annual Sin City getaways. Jason used to come here to compete in regional BMX races and would stay at Circus Circus; his parents took him to Vegas for his very first concert, Willie Nelson. On trips with her mom, Katherine would spend hours grinding at the poker tables at the Mirage. For veteran tourists like Jason and Katherine who’ve logged scores of annual blowout pilgrimages and stacked up volumes of misadventures and shenanigans, Las Vegas is a personal memory palace as much as a physical destination.
“Our first real date was actually out here in Vegas, two years ago,” Jason says. “It was our first, official, real, spending-time-together trip. When we went to Psycho Fest.”
“We were here for like, five, six days!” says Katherine. One memory they laugh about: Drunkenly trying to sneak into a single-occupancy Taco Bell bathroom at Planet Hollywood to fool around, but getting stopped by a watchful employee.
“We had a blast,” Jason says. “It was amazing. We’ve been stuck at the hip ever since.” As a second round of whiskeys and margaritas arrive, attention turns to their interrogator. Jason says, “But, okay, you’ve been asking us questions, right? I’m gonna ask you a question. I wanna know about that hotel.”
“That hotel that’s downtown. That’s supposedly haunted. It’s got a Gothic theme? It’s got the pool?”
“Criss Angel, he did like a little episode in there?”
Hm. I’m not sure …
“It’s got like the whole, every-room’s-different kind of thing?”
There’s one casino that comes to mind …
“It’s not a casino. Gothic, like, Victorian-ish …”
“There you go! That’s it! I wanna check that out.”
(But it’s a no-go. Currently, it’s open only to guests.)
What kind of misadventures and shenanigans are on offer in the new Las Vegas? Big shrug. This is shaping up to be a decidedly more subdued trip for them, with live entertainment put on hold and quintessential Vegas amenities curbed, compromised, or canceled. “Driving in, it was definitely quiet,” Jason says. “Definitely not the usual chaos, the usual Vegas atmosphere.” As they nurse their drinks at sleepy Bar Luca, their plan so far is to hit some local record stores; perhaps Katherine will install herself at a table for some serious poker — if the necessary hygiene protocols haven’t dampened the allure. “When you play poker, you want full tables, you want the action happening,” she says. “Them cutting that down in half changes the game a bit. And people are afraid to sit at the tables still, so that affects the game, too. But if I go to the poker room, you’re not going to see me for a while. I’d say four to eight hours.”
“I’ll probably do my own thing,” Jason says. “Probably go get my hair cut or something.” AK
5:20pm, Señor Frog’s at Treasure Island
Señor Frog’s is a bar, restaurant and club known for equal parts kitsch and delight: According to the company’s website, “At Señor Frog’s the only rule is to follow no rules!” This famously give-no-shits attitude was once glowingly described by Pete Wells in The New York Times as “spring break forever.” But at this particular moment, the mood is less Cabo and more the feeling of arriving at a frat party far too early.
Pop music echoes in the near-empty dining room while a trio of women silently digs into a platter of fajitas. A couple orders take-out from one end of the bar and slips out as soon as they get their bags. I ask for the IPA on tap, and the bartender, a cheerful, barrel-chested man named Jason, pulls the handle and … nothing. Next tap over, nothing again. Jason is apologetic, and sets down a chilled can of hefeweizen, on the house.
“I had pretty much 30 minutes to put together everything from three months ago,” he explains. “I’m trying to put a smile on my face even though you can’t see it!” His black mask has the Señor Frog’s logo on it — every employee, without exception, is wearing a mask — though most of the customers de-mask to eat.
At the far end of the bar, Crystal Jackson is just finishing her meal. She flew into Las Vegas to enjoy some downtime after a punishing stretch working as a nurse in New Jersey. “It was four months of hell,” she says. “So compared to that, being here doesn’t feel unsafe.” There’s a certain luxury, I suddenly realize, to sitting at a quiet bar nibbling chips and guac, in a city where no one knows you.
A few more customers filter in, adding a warm buzz of conversation under the music. An employee who had been waiting in the corner with a giant stuffed frog for photo ops finally gives up and joins his crew on the floor. People come up to order two-for-one cocktails in yard-long plastic tumblers, though no one seems particularly festive.
Jason circles back to refill my water. In normal times, he says, this place is really special. “We have a drag show, which is awesome. And we’re the only club on the Strip that does a Latin night,” he says. “We get 500 to a thousand people upstairs on a Friday and a Saturday,” he adds wistfully. “Hopefully, maybe in the next month, we’ll be back better than we were supposed to be.” Sonja Swanson
The Forum Shops at Caesars are open for strolling and shopping, but not for sitting. Photo by Christopher Smith
7:15pm, Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Sign
Between the tall white socks tucked into hiking boots and the gray cargo shorts, squiggly letters in pen ink march down Nacho De Notta’s calves like crooked hieroglyphics. “My four-year-old daughter,” he explains. “She’s learning how to write.” De Notta scrolls through photos of the angelic toddler on his phone — he has time to chat, the lines aren’t long today.
De Notta is a freelance photographer who offers tourists professional portraits at the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Sign. There’s no official system, he says, but he knows the other photographers and they’ve worked out a schedule to avoid stepping on toes: “We help each other out.”
A man with a Turkish football banner walks up to ask for a photograph and De Notta jumps into action, suggesting poses as the man takes off his shirt to flex for the camera. There are signs on the sidewalk demarcating six-foot spacing, but that’s not necessary today — only a handful of visitors circle through at a time on this subdued island of artificial turf amid the traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard South. Birds hop along the perimeter, giving each newcomer a mercenary stare before letting loose a disappointed squawk. It’s hard times for the scavengers, too.
As the sky purples into dusk, a large family in Sunday-best spills out of a car and towards the sign. The couple ahead of them offers to take their photo, and they return the favor, exchanging phones and calling out “cheese!” It’s a beautiful thing about tourist destinations, that we trust complete strangers with important belongings here — and bittersweet, too, that we’re breaking the virus rules, exchanging objects and brushing hands, to do so.
Nacho is back. The world is not built for social distancing, he tells me. “Buses, trains, planes, bars, restaurants, church…” he says, trailing off. “We are human beings, you know.”
A young woman with long dark hair walks up with her parents. De Notta smiles, but doesn’t approach — she has her own DSLR in hand, and her parents untuck their masks, letting them dangle from one ear for a moment while she snaps a photo. Her name is Donna Pajanustan, and she’s a nurse, just returned from the Venetian, where she signed up for the free night they were offering frontline workers.
Despite being locals, Pajanustan says, it’s their first time at the sign. “You’re in your house for so long and you don’t really pay attention to the stuff that was there before. You know, taking them for granted,” she says. I nod. We all took a lot of things for granted. SS
7:04 p.m., Mizumi restaurant in the Wynn Las Vegas
It’s interesting how our luxury resorts negotiate and accommodate the messy real world outside. At Wynn Las Vegas, the thermal camera stations, hygiene officers, and mask stations are going for a look that's tasteful, discreet, almost stately, but they're still reminders of the coronavirus in an environment otherwise devoted to transportive opulence.
You’re meeting a friend for dinner at Mizumi, the fine-dining Japanese restaurant hidden beyond the miniature conservatory with its colorful, meandering mosaic paths. The farther in you go, the more accommodation becomes a kind of aesthetization. The response to the crisis evolves to include style and design. When the masked server pours your sparkling water and hands you a single-use cardstock menu, he points out a curious embossed paper rectangle near your right hand. “A coaster for your mask,” he says with a hint of pride. When you remove your mask to take the first sip of your cocktail, it becomes easy to succumb to the crackle of social cues from other diners that litigate against taking anything too seriously: They’re not wearing masks, so maybe it’s okay? They’re not discreetly leaning away from the server delivering the chilled platter of gleaming sashimi, so maybe you don’t need to? Sure, there are placards on decommissioned tables that read, “Going the distance for your safety,” but you can just squint your way into the benign belief that they’re really just reservation signs for diners who won’t come while you’re here.
Your friend says, “This is kind of like riding a bike again. You’re expecting it to feel awkward or weird, but it feels like the COVID thing never happened, except for a few extra people wearing masks. Sure, I used the sweet electric hand sanitizer on the way in, but otherwise, it’s like it’s no big deal.”
Can vigilance have a place in the Vegas ethos? AK
The Fountains of Bellagio remain an iconic Vegas attraction — now with social-distancing reminders on the sidewalk. Photo by Andrew Kiraly
10:12 p.m., Fountains of Bellagio
The familiar silhouette is at once comforting and concerning to see: Skeins of tourists hugging the balustrade to watch the Fountains of Bellagio burst and sway in sparkling white curtains of water to a Sinatra classic. It’s nighttime on the Strip, which usually means party time. But in this fraught moment in history, the new-normal party time manifests as a collective loosening of caution amid a fluid crowd: as night crawls on, social distancing is a mere friendly suggestion, and masks are, you know, nice and maybe smart to wear but by no means necessary. The new-normal party time in Vegas is about being a little lax.
But not for these two. Local couple Marcia Eason and Jeffery Herman are huddled in one of the balustrade’s Stripside alcoves, taking in the fountain show at a conspicuous distance from everyone else. She’s wearing a mask, he isn’t. Marcia is an LPN who works at an elder care center; Jeffery is a barber who specializes in design cuts. They both quarantined hard but, hey, you gotta go out sometime. How do you have a special, spontaneous date night when you’re practically crawling the walls at home on a hot Vegas night? Very tactically.
“We’re here to see the water show, just right here, this specific spot, and then we’re going right back to the house,” says Jeffery. “I’m gonna stay away from the casinos. I still think it’s too early to open up. We’re not going to be out too much. But right here is cool. And I got my mask—”
“I gave it to him, I tell him to wear it, but he don’t listen!” Marcia says with amused frustration. “I keep a mask because I’m a nurse. I work in a geriatric home, and I’ve seen a lot of positives (coronavirus cases), so I try to use as much PPE as possible.” In the gathering crowd, she recognizes a friend from work, and they call out hellos, but there are no hugs or handshakes. Marcia and Jeffery gradually return to their safe station, and soon they’re another set of silhouettes on the Strip.
As the Sinatra number rises to its flashy finale, the crowd grows, and the lively scene is starting to resemble the old Vegas before the shutdown. In a parallel universe, this would be cause for relief or celebration. But in this one, it might be a problem, and one that’s particularly trenchant for a city hyped as constantly reinventing itself in tireless pursuit of the new: If there was ever a time we needed to live up to our rep and implode the old way of doing things and start over, this is it. But this doesn’t quite seem like a new Las Vegas boldly rising to an unprecedented existential challenge. Maybe that takes more time. Maybe that never happens.
Right now, though, it's easy to forget all that as the fountains dance again. It’s telling that they dusted off a comforting Sinatra classic to mark reopening night, a welcome back to the familiar. But is back even possible? Maybe Sinatra isn’t inviting us to return to the past, and the real message is in the ambition and imperative urgency of the title: “Fly Me to the Moon.” AK
(Additional photos: Addison Egelhoff, Nick Karr, and Diana Thomas by Brent Holmes; Hugh Hefner figure by Scott Dickensheets; Welcome to Las Vegas sign by Sonja Swanson)