Muted and vacant, Las Vegas struggles to survive shutdown

  • In this April 18, 2020, photo, a lone worker wearing a mask cleans a pedestrian walkway devoid of the usual crowds as casinos and other business are shuttered due to the coronavirus outbreak in Las Vegas. Nevada's governor closed the glitzy casinos and nightlife attractions in mid-March, leaving much of the famous gambling mecca empty, barricaded and abandoned. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • In this April 18, 2020, photo, a man wearing a mask as a precaution against the coronavirus takes pictures along the Las Vegas Strip in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

LAS VEGAS — Slot machines are powered down, casinos boarded up and barricaded.

Sidewalks are largely deserted and electronic marquees that once flashed neon calls for nightclubs, magic shows and topless revues instead beam somber messages of safety.

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The famous fountains of the Bellagio casino, where water choreographed to lights and music shoots hundreds of feet in the air, are still. Throngs of visitors who made it tough to maneuver on sidewalks have been replaced by the occasional jogger or skateboarder.

On the always busy, always noisy, never sleeping Las Vegas strip, you can now hear birds chirping.

“It’s crazy,” said Chris Morehouse, a 70-year-old Elvis impersonator who spent a recent afternoon sipping Miller High Life and posing with a few locals who took advantage of the eerie silence to take photos at the neon-bedecked welcome sign on the Las Vegas Strip. “It’s like the end of the world.”

Instead of hosting throngs of visitors for one of the busiest seasons of the year, with March Madness drawing swarms to sportsbooks, or the now-scuttled plan to host the NFL draft this weekend, ferrying players in boats to a red carpet stage on the Bellagio lake, Las Vegas is trying to survive.

Nevada’s tourism, leisure, hospitality and gambling industry accounts for one in three jobs in the state – making the state more dependent on tourism than Alaska on oil.

Workers are expected to lose $7.7 billion in wages and salaries over the next 18 months if the tourism industry is shuttered between 30 and 90 days, according to a study from the Nevada Resort Association.

With the industry effectively closed for more than five weeks now, more than 343,000 residents have filed for unemployment, and state and local governments could lose more than $1 billion in tax revenues.

The politically independent mayor of Las Vegas, Carolyn Goodman, has issued public pleas calling for the Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak to end the statewide shutdown of casinos and non-essential businesses, which she calls “total insanity.”

“For heaven’s sake,” Goodman said at an April city council meeting, “being closed is killing us already, and killing Las Vegas, our industry, our convention and tourism business that we have all worked so hard to build.”

Sisolak has declined to give a date for when he’ll start easing restrictions, saying the state has to see at least two weeks of declines in deaths and new cases, along with more widespread testing and tracking, with before he will start gradually easing rules.

Sisolak said in an interview on CNN Wednesday night that he didn’t want workers to have to choose between their paycheck and their life and noted that the casino workers’ union has reported 11 deaths among its ranks due to the virus.

“We will rebuild our economy. Las Vegas will continue to thrive. But I can’t do that if I lose more people,” he said.

So far, the casino closures are expected to extend at least into May, leaving workers like Kimberly Ireland struggling to find a way to hang on.

The 49-year-old was laid off from her job as a bell desk dispatcher at the Mirage casino-resort, where she worked for a decade.

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She’s living off her savings and the unemployment, and also supporting her adult daughter, who is on an unpaid maternity leave, and a new grandson, who was born days after the casinos were shuttered.

“Money is running out. It’s getting low for the majority of us,” she said.

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