‘Get a shot, spin a slot:’ Nevada’s gaming industry grapples with pandemic mitigation issues

‘Get a shot, spin a slot:’ Nevada’s gaming industry grapples with pandemic mitigation issues

  • Howard Stutz
December 16, 2020 12:30 AM

Less than 24 hours after Nevada’s governor said he wasn’t closing the state’s casino industry for the second time this year despite rising COIVD-19 numbers, the initial shipment of the much-anticipated Pfizer-produced vaccine arrived in Las Vegas.

Front-line health-care workers and residents at long-term care facilities are first in line to receive the doses, which began being administered on Monday. After that group, a tiered system for those wishing to be inoculated will be in place.

It could be springtime before the masses can receive their immunization shots.

Wynn Resorts CEO Matt Maddox, left, and Gov. Steve Sisolak, tour Wynn Las Vegas. Photo via Las Vegas Review-Journal

While the vaccine alone is one remedy in repairing Nevada’s damaged gaming and tourism economy, don’t expect it to become a casino promotion: “Get a shot, spin a slot.”

It’s too early to determine if the gaming industry has plans for vaccinating its workforce. State gaming regulators are not yet reviewing the legality of mandating casino employees be vaccinated. The hope is that education and informational campaigns will do the trick.

Until COVID-19 infections show a marked decrease, the state’s casino market will remain under strict mask requirements and 25% percent occupancy limits in gaming areas, restaurants, and bars. Live entertainment and convention business are done at least through January 15.

For the last nine months, Gov. Steve Sisolak has been faced with “Sophie’s Choice” concerning Nevada’s gaming industry – the state’s economic engine. Taxes from casino revenues, hotel rooms, live entertainment, and other gaming sources account for roughly 40% of the general fund.

The 78-day casino shutdown in Nevada between March 18 and June 4 helped mitigate the spread of COVID-19. But it came at a steep cost. Sisolak said the state lost an estimated $52 million a month in gaming-tax revenue alone during the shutdown.

The empty Las Vegas Strip

In his most pointed remarks since the pandemic began, Sisolak said Sunday that federal government assistance is needed for Nevada’s residents and businesses. But it wasn’t looking hopeful.

“We have record cases, and our hospitals are under increased strain due to COVID,” Sisolak said. “On the other hand, our families are suffering economically with our unemployment rate remaining in the top two highest in the country and little remaining assistance available.”

The governor then addressed his critics.

“Some say we’ve gone too far. Some say we aren’t doing enough. I understand both sides,” Sisolak said. “The last nine months have been full of decisions with no winning options, leaving us to determine which choice would lessen the blow the most.”

Governors in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois have ordered full casino closures that could extend into early January. But gaming is an ancillary business in those states, not the primary revenue source.

Even at 25% occupancy and reduced operations under Nevada’s health and safety guidelines, every little bit of the tourist dollar helps. Meanwhile, casino operators have reduced operations due to lack of business, including Strip properties operating their hotels just on the weekends.

A report from the White House COVID Task Force included recommendations for mitigating the spread, such as policies implemented at the outset of the pandemic. For Nevada, it was a complete shutdown.

“The federal government has yet to grasp what is so evident to all of us about the complexities of our current situation,” Sisolak said. “For the White House and feds to send that recommendation without including a plan for providing our state with funding to give our families a safety net in this time of great tribulation is downright out of touch and offensive.”

Nevada’s COVID-19 numbers have spiked over the past few weeks. Nevada had the nation’s highest rate of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Anecdotally, however, it’s not believed Strip resorts and casinos are the cause of increased infections.

In late July, the Gaming Control Board opened 156 regulatory cases statewide, relating to non-compliance with COVID-19 protocols and policies. But there were just a handful of stipulated settlements reached with casino operators that blatantly violated the guidelines. Regulators assessed the operators of the Sahara in Las Vegas and Grand Sierra in Reno $75,000 in fines in September. The properties are both owned by Los Angeles-based Meruelo Group.

Maybe the rest of the casino industry got the message.

The coronavirus vaccine is just one of several pieces that must fall into place for Las Vegas and Nevada tourism to attract visitors again. The reopening of international travel increased airline flights from domestic markets, and the return of a healthy convention and business gathering market are necessary components.

And it might take years.

Howard Stutz is the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He can be reached at hstutz@cdcgaming.com. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.