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Las Vegas reopens from historic coronavirus casino closure

Chairs sit on pallets as some are being removed from electronic slot machines to maintain social distancing between players at a closed Caesars Palace hotel and casino Thursday, May 21, 2020, in Las Vegas. Casino operators in Las Vegas are awaiting word when they will be able to reopen after a shutdown during the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/John Locher)

LAS VEGAS — The casino coronavirus closure has ended. Cards are being dealt, dice are rolling and slot machines flashed and jingled for the first customers who started gambling again early Thursday in Las Vegas and throughout Nevada.

“The past few months have presented our city with an unprecedented challenge,” said Derek Stevens, owner of two downtown Las Vegas casinos that were shuttered along with all gambling establishments in the state 79 days ago. “We are excited to get our employees back to work and to welcome guests to the entertainment capital of the world.”

Hotel-casinos in suburban Las Vegas were the first to open at 12:01 a.m., to be followed later in the morning by a restart of the iconic Bellagio fountain and reopenings of several resorts on the Las Vegas Strip.

Wynn Resorts pushed back its planned opening to daylight hours in a nod to ongoing nighttime protests over George Floyd’s death in Minnesota. Floyd, a black man, died after a white officer pressed his knee into his neck.

There are big hopes for recovery from an unprecedented and expensive shutdown prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s a tremendous amount on the line, not only for casinos, but for the community and the state,” said Alan Feldman, a longtime casino executive who is now a fellow at the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “This is an extremely important moment.”

Casino resorts that had been famously always open were shuttered March 17 after Gov. Steve Sisolak’s emergency order closed nonessential businesses to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Property owners, state regulators and Sisolak, a Democrat who has been criticized for the closure, balanced health concerns against the loss of billions of dollars a month in gambling revenue and unemployment that topped 28% during an idled April.

They’re betting that safety measures — disinfected dice; hand sanitizer and face masks; limited numbers of players at tables; temperature checks at entrances to some resorts; touchless cellphone check-ins — will lure tourists back.

“I’m optimistic that customers will see that gaming properties invested time and effort to welcome them back to a safe and entertaining environment,” state Gaming Control Board chief Sandra Douglass Morgan said Wednesday.

The regulatory board required detailed health safety plans from resort owners by last week, before giving the go-ahead to reopen.

Feldman said he thinks it will take a long time for the sector to recover.

“This is going to be a pretty long, slow climb,” said Feldman, who was with MGM Resorts when Las Vegas experienced an abrupt air travel stop after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and later a crippling plunge in business during the Great Recession over a decade ago. “I’m hopeful it is a consistent climb, without setbacks.”

Recovery from the recession took years — reaching best-ever numbers last January and February, when taxable casino winnings were at $1 billion each month and unemployment was at an all-time low of 3.6%.

By April, unemployment reached 28.2%, topping figures in any state even during the Great Depression. Casino winnings were near zero.

The biggest casino operators, MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment, won’t immediately open all their Strip properties. Executives said they want to see how many people show up.

The first to arrive were expected to be area residents, then motorists from nearby U.S. states followed by air travellers.

“The market still relies heavily on air traffic, and the longer stays in Vegas are usually tied to mass social gatherings, including conventions … concerts and fights, all of which may take longer to recover,” UBS analyst Robin Farley said.

Convention halls, nightclubs, swimming pool parties and arena spectacles will remain mostly dark.

“It may be a little different,” MGM Resorts International chief executive Bill Hornbuckle said during a recent walk-through of the Bellagio casino floor. “But I think it will be memorable, personable and special.”

Ken Ritter, The Associated Press