Vegas sees a coronavirus spike; could a temporary casino smoking ban be an answer?

Vegas sees a coronavirus spike; could a temporary casino smoking ban be an answer?

  • Howard Stutz
July 18, 2020 8:00 AM

A week ago, I turned down a news radio station’s request to come on and discuss rumors of Las Vegas casinos closing once again due to a surge of coronavirus cases in Nevada.

A few days later, Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered bars and bar top areas in restaurants and taverns closed in the state’s most populous counties, which eliminated a large portion of Nevada’s slots-only restricted gaming business.

Internet-fueled rumors of Las Vegas Sands closing its Venetian on the Strip forced the company to respond twice on Twitter. On the Fourth of July, the Venetian’s Twitter account posted, “This social media rumor concerning a planned closure of the resort is false.” The Venetian posted the same message 10 days later. In between, Las Vegas Sands said it would no longer accept hotel reservations on weekdays for the Palazzo starting this Tuesday, but would keep public areas, including the casino, restaurants, and Grand Canal Shoppes, open.

Welcome to the schizophrenic world of Las Vegas in the ongoing age of COVID-19.

Casino operators in the nation’s largest gaming market have touted their health, safety, cleanliness, and social distancing protocols while slowly reopening their resorts. Less than half the Strip reopened at the outset last month, but others have since been returned to limited operations.

Properties quickly embraced the order for facial coverings or masks for everyone – including customers – as mandated by the governor on June 25. Frankly, that directive should have been given when casinos restarted on June 4.

MGM Resorts International spent six hours on Thursday installing a roughly 9-foot by-5.5-foot mask across the replica Statue of Liberty in front of New York-New York that reads “Vegas Safety.”

Yet the headlines aren’t being written by tourism and gaming leaders.

Statue of Liberty at New York-New York in Las Vegas with its ‘Vegas Safe’ mask/Photo courtesy of MGM Resorts

On Friday, Culinary Workers Local 226 and Bartenders Local 165, which represent non-gaming employees at Strip and downtown Las Vegas resorts, said 352 of their members, spouses, or dependents have been hospitalized thus far due to COVID-19. The unions said 22  members and their spouses or dependents have died from the disease.

Last week, The Associated Press reported that at least 123 visitors to Nevada tested positive for coronavirus while visiting the state in recent weeks or shortly after returning home, according to state health data. Three times in the past week, Southern Nevada’s Clark County reported more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19, including a single-day record 1,315 cases on Thursday.

So what can be done?

A potential solution might be a smoking ban inside casinos, albeit temporary, as a way to slow the spreading of the virus. Masks can be removed while dining or drinking, but they need to stay in place while gambling, especially at table games.

Mallika Marshall, a practicing Boston physician and health reporter, said in May, “The virus doesn’t necessarily hitch a ride on smoke, but whenever someone smokes or vapes, they’re breathing out respiratory droplets. So if you’re near someone who is smoking and you can smell the smoke, and that person is sick with COVID-19, you’re at risk of getting sick yourself.”

Some properties are slowly implementing the idea.

Las Vegas Sands has banned smoking – and vaping – by table game players, and Wynn Resorts has designated its table games that lack a Plexiglas barrier as nonsmoking areas. Customers are still required to wear masks at table games where the barriers are in place unless they are smoking.

Banning smoking in Las Vegas casinos – long advocated by various anti-smoking groups – is one of the city’s most divisive issues, bringing out heated rhetoric on both sides of the debate.

In Atlantic City, casinos reopened with a smoking ban, along with a 25% max capacity and without indoor dining.

CDC Gaming Reports writer Mark Gruetze reported last Sunday that more than 125 casinos and dozens of other gaming sites across the U.S. that allowed smoking in pre-coronavirus days are now nonsmoking.

This may be a radical suggestion, but a ban on smoking for a few months is a small sacrifice compared with shutting down casinos for a second time.

Las Vegas has just suffered through a 78-day closure that decimated revenues and tax dollars and is now increasing unemployment. Boyd Gaming permanently laid off approximately 2,500 workers in Southern Nevada, and WARN Act notification letters filed in March, April and May will come due at the end of this month and throughout August. Las Vegas could see thousands of additional layoffs in the very near term.

Not every Strip casino is back in business. MGM Resorts reopened the non-gaming Vdara last week but has kept Park MGM and The Mirage closed. Caesars still has Cromwell and Planet Hollywood shuttered, but Bally’s Las Vegas is set to reopen on Thursday. Penn National Gaming’s Tropicana Las Vegas began accepting room reservations, albeit starting Sept. 1.

June’s gaming and tourism numbers won’t be available until the end of this month, but the figures will be far from the halcyon days before coronavirus. If sending smokers outside for a few months can help improve the health of those figures even marginally, it’s likely a step – radical or not – worth considering.

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