Silent and vacant, Las Vegas struggles to survive the shutdown

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LAS VEGAS –
The slot machines are turned off, the casinos are boarded and barricaded.

The sidewalks are largely deserted and electronic marquees which, once flashed in neon, call for nightclubs, magic shows and topless magazines instead broadcast dark safety messages.

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

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

“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 mysterious silence to take photos at the neon welcome sign. the Las Vegas Strip. “It’s like the end of the world. “

Instead of hosting crowds of visitors for one of the busiest seasons of the year, with March Madness attracting swarms to sports books, or the now scuttled plan to host the NFL draft this week weekend, transporting players in boats to a red carpet scene on Bellagio Lake, Las Vegas is trying to survive.

Nevada’s tourism, entertainment, hospitality and gambling industries account for one in three jobs in the state – making the state more dependent on tourism than Alaska for petroleum.

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

With the industry effectively shutting down 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 revenue.

The politically independent Mayor of Las Vegas, Carolyn Goodman, has launched public calls asking Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak to end the closure of statewide casinos and non-essential businesses, which she describes as “Total madness”.

“For heaven’s sake,” said Goodman at a city council meeting in April, “the closure is already killing us, and killing Las Vegas, our industry, our conventions, and our tourism activities that we have all worked on. hard to build. “

Sisolak has refused to give a date by which it will begin to loosen the restrictions, saying the state must see at least two weeks of lower deaths and new cases, as well as more widespread testing and follow-up, before starting to gradually relax the rules. .

Sisolak said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday evening that he did not want workers to have to choose between their paycheck and their life and noted that the casino workers’ union had reported 11 deaths in its ranks due to the virus.

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

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, which go away within two to three weeks. For some, especially the elderly and people with existing health conditions, this can cause more serious illnesses, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.

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

The 49-year-old woman was laid off from her bell desk dispatcher position at the Mirage Casino-Resort, where she worked for a decade.

She lives off her savings and unemployment, and also supports her adult daughter, on unpaid maternity leave, and a new grandson, born a few days after the casinos are closed.

“The money is running out. He is getting weak for the majority of us, “she said.

Ireland said employees of its casino have received no indication of their return or what it may be like upon their return. At the moment, she doesn’t think Las Vegas is ready.

“Everyone wants to get back to work. Everyone wants to go back to a semi-normal state, ”she said. “I don’t think it’s safe. “

Victor Chicas, a restaurant waiter at the Mandalay Bay casino hotel, was facing the foreclosure of his home before the virus closed the city and the 54-year-old man was fired.

He immediately shut down his cable and internet service to cut costs and drained his pool to cut his electricity bill. He is still waiting to see if his home loan modification will be approved and whether he will have the chance to try to keep his house while supporting his sister and two children, who immigrated to the United States from Guatemala.

“Now when we get back,” he said, “I’m going to be underwater. “

Like Ireland, said it wanted its employer to pay him during the closure, but disagreed with the mayor’s call to reopen Las Vegas.

“Life is more important than anything else,” he said. “You are not going to buy life with money. “

While about 24% of the state workforce has filed for unemployment benefits since March 21, this does not include waves of others who have been unable to cross the system. overload. It also does not include the self-employed and concert workers, who are newly eligible for the benefits of a federal aid program that the state is struggling to adapt to. Nevada officials say the state may not have a website ready to apply for benefits until mid-May.

Those who rely on Las Vegas entertainment in a non-traditional way are trying to find a way to endure.

Dressed in a white rhinestone jumpsuit, a thick black wig, a shiny gold chain on his bare chest and matching sunglasses, Morehouse, the imitator of Elvis, captured the sunny weather and the worried locals visiting one of the few tourist attractions still open in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic – the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. He brought a speaker to make karaoke and a few cans of beer, which he sipped while singing and swinging in the outdoor park while people in groups of two or three always came to take a photo with the sign.

With pedestrian traffic low, Morehouse hopes it could attract curious drivers to the sweater.

“They see an Elvis here. They think something is going on, “he said. “I am like the sign. “

As night falls and the dim lights begin to shine, many locals slowly drive several miles from the Strip, with their car windows down and their phones raised to photograph and film the most blazing party in the United States reduced to an empty and silent spectacle, a post-apocalyptic vestige of a time before social estrangement and orders to stay at home, where excessive and wild attractions were the main attraction.

Brandy Little, a 35-year-old economist and a Las Vegas native, said she cried the first time she drove the empty Strip during the closure, knowing how devastating it was for the city.

“It wouldn’t have been bad if we were only there for a short time,” she said of the coronravirus. “But the whole world is really touched by this, and we are counting on the world to come here and play. If they are in pain, they may not come to play. “

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