LAS VEGAS, Nevada — The back doors of the union hall are propped open, letting the desert sunshine in to reflect off metal shelves lining the cinder block walls. On them are jars of peanut butter and piles of canned goods, unfolded cardboard boxes and other remnants of the food bank the local entertainment union set up here to help its 1,700 members after the coronavirus shutdowns last year threw them out of work almost overnight.
Standing on the back steps, facing out toward the Las Vegas Strip on a 100-plus-degree August Friday, Phil Jaynes reflected on the progress his union had made in the months since. As coronavirus case counts fell and high-rise hotels, theaters and convention spaces began hiring again this past spring, the food bank grew quieter. In early July, Jaynes, as president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 720, reopened the union’s doors for the first time in 16 months.
Then everything started to move in the wrong direction again.
Within days of Las Vegas’ official reopening in early June, Covid case numbers had begun trending up, and within weeks some events around the city were getting canceled. Once Las Vegas reached the highest infection rate in the country among major metropolitan areas, and once 13 cast and crew members at a local hotel tested positive for the virus, Jaynes shut the union hall doors again — 11 days after reopening them.
He sat down to send a message to his members, though what came out turned into more of a desperate plea. “This did not have to happen,” Jaynes wrote. “We are on the brink of a massive flood of work that might be cut to a trickle because people are not getting vaccinated.” Jaynes gets emotional reading the letter even now, weeks after sending it, pulling off his thick-rimmed glasses before a tear slips down the union logo emblazoned on his black face mask. “It’s just this post-traumatic … ” he trails off. “It feels like March of 2020.”
After its halting reopening and a summer of Delta, Las Vegas has become a case study in just how difficult it will be to fully reopen America’s services sector — and especially its entertainment, tourism and hospitality industries, the ones fueled by in-person activity — as long as the pandemic remains an active threat. Services account for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, and growth in that sector will be crucial to a robust recovery across the country. But without broader uptake of the vaccine, cities everywhere risk entering into the brutal boom-and-bust cycle Las Vegas is currently enduring: a celebratory reopening followed by near-immediate illness and death. Pull back, mask up, reset, reopen, repeat.
It’s exactly the scenario President Joe Biden is seeking to put a stop to by mandating vaccines for federal workers and requiring, via a rule set to be written in the coming weeks, that private businesses with more than 100 employees either mandate vaccinations or submit workers to weekly testing.
“A lot of people thought once we got the vaccine, everything was going to be fine. The pandemic was going to be over, and we’d be back to normal,” says Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), who has represented Vegas for nine years. “Well, we’re not back to normal.”
It wasn’t supposed to have to come to this. One in 3 Las Vegas workers was out of a job at the peak of the pandemic shutdowns last year, and unemployment in Nevada overall stood at nearly 30 percent — the highest level on record for any state since the government began tracking the data in the 1970s. The 2021 reopening was going to be the start of something new. The vaccine was here, and, with any luck, the four-mile Strip that supports half the state’s economy would soon be flooded with visitors. Surely Las Vegas, a city in the business of bringing people together, would recognize the economic need to knock out the coronavirus and get back to normal as soon as possible.
But with just over one-third of Vegas’ Clark County fully vaccinated by the June 1 reopening, when the people started to flood back, so did the virus — and at a rapid pace. Case counts skyrocketed, with the county’s seven-day average of new daily cases jumping 86 percent in a week. By early July, the case rate had risen nearly 200 percent, and the White House designated Las Vegas a “sustained hot spot” as the hospitals filled. Honolulu, Chicago, Los Angeles and other places warned their citizens not to travel to Las Vegas, a city more economically dependent on its visitors than perhaps anywhere else in the United States.
When Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, following CDC recommendations, brought back mask mandates to the Strip, it began losing business from both sides of the spectrum: those who stayed away for fear of catching the virus, and those who canceled plans because they didn’t want to have to abide by public health rules while they were here. Even despite a surge in visitors — the city welcomed more than 3.3 million tourists in July, and gaming revenue hit a record high — it all happened fast enough that the labor market hardly had a chance to recover. Unemployment here remained close to 10 percent in July — nearly double the national average and the highest of any major metropolitan area in the country. As of Sept. 10, the entire state of Nevada was back under an indoor mask mandate.
Biden’s new vaccine intervention for private businesses marks a dramatic step, one legal experts say is within his authority but that still sparked near-immediate pushback, including multiple threats of lawsuits from GOP governors and the Republican National Committee. Even under a best-case scenario for Biden, it will likely be weeks before the rule is written and several weeks more before companies will be required to comply, and it remains unclear how easily the measure will be enforced.
Just how effective a federal vaccine mandate will be in a place like Clark County is particularly uncertain. It’s a blue enclave in a deep purple state and an area where just over half the eligible population is fully vaccinated, compared with 62 percent nationally. There is a strong libertarian streak in Nevada, which one paramedic working to distribute vaccines described to me as a “don’t tell me what to do” state. Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, an Independent who oversees the city but not the Strip, has consistently downplayed the severity of the pandemic and pushed back against coronavirus restrictions since early last year.
And even while there had been increasing recognition among business owners and many elected officials here that some sort of mandate — whether for workers or for anyone wanting to eat or gamble indoors — is likely the best and perhaps the only path forward, there’s concern even among supporters that a presidential decree forcing private companies to act could spark a backlash from Nevada’s right wing and politicize the vaccine even further. The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, for example, had already been encouraging vaccines and adopted the shot-or-test policy for its own employees, but opposes the mandate itself. Jaynes, too, worries the new measures could provide ammunition for those who are already anti-vaccine and who will “preach about this as the slippery slope” toward total government control.
Biden’s move in some ways provides cover to local officials and employers in Nevada who had supported a stricter vaccine mandate but felt helpless to impose one. But a certain degree of local control remains over when and how to implement the new rules, and whether to push back. And for smaller businesses that are not covered under the mandate, and that have spent 18 months struggling to stay open, there are still the risks of voluntarily cutting off customers or discouraging an already scarce labor pool if they choose to implement their own vaccine requirements.
Looming over the debate is the race for governor — a fight between Sisolak, the first Democrat to lead the state since 1999, and a growing cast of Republicans vying to unseat him next year. While Sisolak has begged his constituents to get their shots, because “no one wants to mandate,” GOP candidates have slammed him for his “iron-fisted government overreach,” and warned, falsely, that vaccines are “garbage” that will “kill millions.” Goodman, the Las Vegas mayor, has criticized the governor for ruling like “a dictator.” Sisolak says he will work to “ensure a successful rollout” of Biden’s new measures, while the Nevada GOP has suggested implementing them would run against Democrats’ “pro-choice” ideals.
In Nevada’s other statewide race next year, for the Senate, Adam Laxalt, who previously served as attorney general of the state and later was Donald Trump’s Nevada campaign co-chair, is running to unseat Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto after spending much of the past year working to overturn the 2020 election results in Nevada and declaring that “draconian shutdowns based on political science have not worked.”
Nevada presents a microcosm, in other words, of the vaccine debate playing out nationwide — albeit with higher stakes, given just how dependent the state’s economy is on Las Vegas’ tourism business. And because of that, because of the way so much of the city lives and dies on the Strip’s ability to welcome visitors from around the country and the world, the case for the vaccine here has become as much about money as it is about public health. If the latter argument hasn’t worked so far, the thinking goes, maybe the former will — a hypothesis that is being tested here in real-time.
Jaynes is trying it with his members, many of whom, he says, “have felt emboldened by the last president to just believe what they want to believe” about vaccines. “I tell them, ‘Remember that time when we were all sitting around doing absolutely nothing, and we were just waiting for that vaccine to come out? It came out! And now we’re going back to work,’” Jaynes says. “I’m just telling them, ‘I don’t care what you feel about it. I’m just letting you know that if you don’t get vaccinated, you’re not going to work.’”
It’s still too early to measure the full impact of the Delta variant on the economic recovery nationwide, but there has been a tangible dampening effect. Major forecasters, from Goldman Sachs to Wells Fargo, slashed their outlooks for growth as the spike in cases hit the services sector and stoked concerns over a drop in spending and further job losses. The economy added less than one-quarter as many jobs in August as it did in June and July, driven by the net zero jobs created in the hard-hit leisure and hospitality sectors.
Perhaps most dramatically, consumer confidence also plunged in August, University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index found, showing the “least favorable economic prospects” in more than a decade. That was partly due to “an emotional response from dashed hopes that the pandemic would soon end and lives could return to normal,” as the survey’s chief economist, Richard Curtin, put it.
Las Vegas shows what that economic impact looks like. Coronavirus case counts here have been trending about four weeks ahead of the rest of the country, and as they have risen — and the mask mandate was reinstated — some business owners said they saw a direct hit to their bottom lines. While leisure travel has bounced back to some degree, Las Vegas’ dominant convention industry has yet to recover — and will not until international travel returns — which has left weekdays, in particular, far quieter than usual.
“Vegas is sort of the center of letting everything else go, and just focusing on the fun,” says David Noll, who runs two businesses in the city — the CEG Dealer School, which trains casino dealers, and Casino Quest, which teaches gambling techniques and tricks for $20 an hour. “As long as people have money to spend and, you know, proclivities towards drinking and gambling and everything else that goes with it, they’re going to come.”
Even so, Noll has seen the effects of the Delta variant take hold, especially at Casino Quest, which often hosts groups of tourists learning games such as blackjack and poker for the first time, as well as regulars who want to improve. Through the summer, when the masks were off, revenues at the store were soaring roughly 25 percent month over month. Then there was the bachelor party that canceled its trip because the guys didn’t want to wear masks. And the group of medical professionals who canceled because they were concerned about the optics of holding an indoor event at a gaming store. In August, Casino Quest revenues dropped 11 percent below normal — the first month of losses since the store first reopened in the peak of the pandemic last summer, Noll says.
Part of the concern is what’s going to happen to the economy once the unprecedented level of stimulus money the government doled out last year runs out, after the federal jobless benefits expire and the excess savings dry up. Before the unemployment aid ended on Labor Day, federal dollars pouring into the state accounted for roughly 6 percent of all wages, according to Bob Potts, deputy director of the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
The end of that program is a double whammy for workers who lose those benefits but are still unable to find work. Despite months of improvement in the state’s labor market before the Delta variant took hold, more than 40 percent of the 60,000 members of Culinary Workers Union Local 226, the powerful union representing casino workers on and off the Strip, have yet to return to work, says Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the group’s secretary-treasurer. Potts estimates that as many as 50,000 jobs in the leisure and hospitality sector, particularly in the accommodations realm, might never return.
Policymakers and businesses in Nevada have to strike a near-impossible balance between boosting the economy without inflating it, and between welcoming people from around the world to have fun, while implementing restrictions to keep them safe.
“Customers don’t want to come if they feel like they’re going in a hospital to gamble,” Titus, the congresswoman, says. “So, it can’t be too strict. But if they don’t feel safe, then they’re not going to come, either.”
A few blocks up the Strip at Resorts World, a new $4.3 billion mega-property that opened in June, it was quiet throughout the casino on a recent Tuesday during happy hour. An employee at the formerly 24-hour convenience store across the street said she had been hopeful the new resort would bring a flood of business and allow the store to restore its hours, but that has yet to happen. And Josh Marrujo, a bartender at the Dawg House Saloon & Sports Book inside the resort, said it had been noticeably less busy since the return of the mask mandate — a step more damaging, he suggested, because of its inconvenience than for the increase in health risks that it symbolizes.
“Hey, it’s Sin City. You come here to have a good time,” Marrujo said. “You don’t come here to worry about — well, anything, really.”
The orange bulbs of the road sign blinked urgently, flashing a message to the cars speeding by: “COVID VACCINES. AT CITY HALL. LEFT ON MAIN STREET.”
Inside, at the second-floor vaccine clinic, the setup was sanitized and sparse. Two rows of chairs were spaced 6 feet apart. A handful of volunteers from the fire department and medical students from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas chattered in hushed voices. Bags of Lays and Doritos lay scattered on a table covered with a “Get Vaxxed Vegas” blanket. The City Hall clinic had the vague feel of being all dressed up with nowhere to go: In the first three and a half hours it had been open that morning, just 10 people showed up looking for a vaccine.
The clinic is part of a major push across southern Nevada to make the shots as accessible as possible. Mi Familia Vota, an organization that has previously focused on increasing voter registration and participation in Latino and immigrant communities, began shifting its Nevada operations in June to focus on getting out the vaccine; by late August it had doled out 2,300 shots in partnership with the city of Las Vegas and other organizations. And elected officials are focused on accessibility issues as well. In a single day in late summer, Michael Naft — a commissioner on the seven-seat Board of County Commissioners, which has jurisdiction over the Strip — oversaw vaccine clinics in his district at a mosque, a fire station and a strip club. “So, there’s something for everybody,” Naft says.
Still, even after months of effort, Clark County’s vaccination rate has lagged the national average, and only about 53 percent of residents ages 12 and older were fully vaccinated by the end of August, according to the CDC tracker. That puts the county behind most others that house major cities, where vaccination rates tend to be higher than in more rural areas, and on par with places in the Deep South, including Alabama’s Jefferson County, home to Birmingham.
The holdouts are wearing on officials in a community that has been devastated by the coronavirus — 1 in 7 people has been infected at this point — but that has encountered enduring resistance from people who say they don’t trust the science. “We’ve been at this for seven months now,” says Dustin Signor, a community paramedic with the city of Las Vegas. “And it’s just — it’s really frustrating.”
As the Biden administration works to push its vaccine mandate through the system and into effect, the latest approach to try to increase vaccine uptake here has centered on the economic implications — the idea that getting a shot is the surest way for city residents to keep their jobs and avoid another shutdown. It has worked to some degree, among people who had not been persuaded that a vaccine would protect them from the coronavirus, as well as those who have resisted the $5 million in cash prizes and college tuition credits that Sisolak began rolling out in June. And it’s been particularly impactful among the Latino community, where the main concerns have been whether the casinos were going to reduce capacity again or construction workers were going to lose their hours, says Cecia Alvarado, the Nevada state director for Mi Familia Vota.
“That’s honestly what terrifies them even more than Covid: having to go through it again, losing their jobs and income. That’s more concerning to them than, you know, telling them that you have to wear masks, you have to get vaccinated,” she says.
This argument also preys on people’s fears of a return to the bleak days of March 2020, when casinos had to build makeshift locks to find a way to close doors that had never been shut before. (“An emotional moment,” Naft, a Las Vegas native, calls it.) The vaccine, then, is offered as a way out. “That’s been the message,” Titus says. “You want the jobs back, you want the conventions back, you want the fun times back, then we have to make recovering the priority and getting those shots in arms.”
The rising concern is that Clark County might be close to hitting its vaccine ceiling, even as it remains some 330,000 shots away from getting 70 percent of the eligible population vaccinated, a level the Biden administration had set as a nationwide goal. The murmuring among many of those tasked with doling out vaccines has been that requiring the shot, either at the public- or private-sector level, might be the only way to get closer to that number. And that’s where Biden’s mandate could play a crucial role.
“We can’t wait for people to come to us,” Titus said after touring the City Hall clinic.
Some major employers and venues in Las Vegas had already moved to impose vaccine requirements even ahead of Biden’s mandate. Sisolak declared in late August that any large venues seating 4,000 or more people could opt out of his mask mandate if they required proof of vaccination. Later that same day, the Las Vegas Raiders announced they would ask for vaccination status at the city’s brand-new Allegiant Stadium — and anyone who hadn’t received a vaccine could only be let in if they got a shot on site, and then wore a mask. MGM Resorts International, one of the state’s largest employers, also has started requiring vaccinations for all new hires and will soon require them for salaried workers, as well.
Nationally, the percentage of employers currently mandating vaccines or planning to more than doubled between January and August, from less than 10 percent to more than 20 percent, according to a recent survey from employment law firm Littler. And while the number of job postings requiring vaccination soared in August — rising 242 percent over the month — the overall fraction of hiring ads listing a mandate remained tiny: less than 1 percent of all job ads on the hiring website Indeed, according to an analysis by the company.
Small businesses here, who would be left untouched under Biden’s new plan, say requiring vaccinations is an impossible decision for them to make, amid what has already been an impossible year. They’re feeling the squeeze on cash flow, particularly in restaurants where profit margins are already notoriously thin; choosing to impose restrictions that could limit their customer base feels unpalatable. Small businesses in Las Vegas and across the country already are having trouble competing with bigger firms and meeting demands for higher wages or more flexibility for staff.
That’s the main concern for Kristen Corral, who runs a fast-casual vegan taco restaurant in downtown Las Vegas called Tacotarian. Corral and her husband have worked with elected officials throughout the pandemic to keep their doors open, including pushing Sisolak to allow restaurant workers to gain priority access to the vaccine once it became available. But Corral says a mandate has never felt like her fight to take on.
“Those decisions have to come from government,” she says. “It’s difficult as a business owner to individually say, ‘OK, all of our staff has to be vaccinated’ — but then we also have a staffing shortage. So, what if all of our staff is like, ‘Well, we don’t want to get a vaccine. We’re going to leave’? And then we’re like, ‘Oh, crap.’”
Corral says she was approached over the summer by local officials who were trying to get business owners to come out in favor of a vaccine mandate, a move she says appeared aimed at giving politicians cover if they do take that step — “like, ‘Oh, well, all the businesses told us that we should do it.’” But she didn’t bite. Now she says while Biden’s mandate doesn’t change any of her own plans, she saw it coming because “as a country, we’re running out of options.”
“I don’t envy them having to make these hard decisions,” she says. “But that’s their job, you know? They gotta do it.”
Some local business owners I spoke with criticized elected officials in the state for not doing more sooner, blaming them for appearing to be so worried about the near-certain backlash and threats to their re-election prospects that they were hesitating on a step that would help both public health and the economy. Politicians dispute that characterization — no one orders an unprecedented shutdown of the Las Vegas Strip, they say, in an attempt to build popularity — and argue that too many directives from them would only drive people further away from masks and shots.
“There are better salespeople than me for this vaccine,” says Naft, the county commissioner. “It’s got to be peers. It’s got to be medical professionals. And it’s got to be people who people relate to in a more direct way.”
There’s the added difficulty that not all local officials agree on how critical the vaccine is to the city’s recovery. In her spacious office with a panoramic view of the city, Goodman, the Vegas mayor, has a small sign sitting on her desk: “Without facts and data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” But, despite study after study finding that the vaccines are effective, she says she’s waiting for more facts and data on the necessity of mask and vaccine mandates — more evidence that would, as she puts it, “prove without equivocation this is what we should be doing.”
“I don’t think, at this point, we are 100 percent assured in this, that we have answers,” she told me. Asked whether she would support any sort of vaccine mandate, Goodman replied that she “really can’t answer that. I just, we don’t have enough information.”
Goodman gained notoriety early last year for calling the shutdowns “total insanity” and for telling CNN anchor Anderson Cooper that she wanted to offer Las Vegas as a “control group” by allowing it to reopen. She doesn’t answer directly now when asked whether it became clear over the past 18 months that some restrictions were necessary to get the economy back — “As soon as we knew there was a virus, you had to do wise things,” she replied — and her office offered no comment on Biden’s move to mandate the shots. While she has been encouraging vaccines because that’s what the CDC tells her to do, she equates telling someone to get a shot to telling them to get a haircut.
“I have no right,” she says.
Deep within the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino at the south end of the Strip, past rows and rows of neon slot machines and around the corner from the massive sportsbook, four floor-to-ceiling posters of Michael Jackson coat the wall outside the theater where the Cirque du Soleil show celebrating Jackson’s life and career is about to reopen its doors in late August for the first time in 18 months.
The energy is electric. A trio of women in town for a girls’ trip waits in line wearing matching cheetah-print masks. A young couple from Colorado have pushed their flight home back a day so they could be here. A bride and groom from California show up fresh from their wedding, the woman still wearing her white dress and carrying her bouquet. One salesperson manning the Jackson memorabilia store claps her hands as she walks up to another, who has been selling programs. “This is so excitiiiing!” she squeals.
After months of shutdowns, record-breaking unemployment and an unfathomable amount of illness and death, here are signs of Las Vegas returning to its old self: A theater packed tight. Photographers snapping pictures of attendees on their way in. A man inexplicably dressed in a Jackson outfit livestreaming opening night, keeping an eye out for celebrities and broadcasting the event for all who can’t be there.
“It feels good to be back to normal — somewhat,” says Aaron Wegener, a tourist in town from California, holding onto his son’s hand as they wait to get their tickets scanned.
The show is not sold out, and neither are those coming up over the next few days. Attendees are still wearing masks and being encouraged to sanitize their hands as they enter. Even still, the reopening marks an attempt at a return to normalcy — and a return to work for hundreds of cast and crew members, not just the dancers at center-stage but also the small army of trainers, makeup artists, costume designers and lighting technicians who power the production. From the airport to the Strip, the city is coated in Cirque billboards broadcasting that “INTERMISSION IS OVER.”
Cirque du Soleil has worked to keep its cast and crew members safe while bringing back big crowds. Employees re-masked in early July, shortly after the first show reopened and weeks before Sisolak re-imposed the mask restrictions. Plus, back in May, before most employers were considering anything of the sort, the production required all its staff to get the vaccine.
There are signs of improvement on the horizon for Las Vegas. The Clark County School Board voted to approve a vaccine mandate for employees on Sept. 1. Some large conventions are starting to require proof of vaccination for entry. The county’s case count has been slightly but steadily decreasing in recent weeks, though the state overall is staying level. All of which signals the end of this surge might not be too far off.
But the question is what comes after that. The drop in cases could lead to a loosening of restrictions, which may well invite yet another surge. The next variant could require another round of masking and distancing, with all the resistance that comes with it. The decision to move forward with a booster shot could require another uphill battle to get the vaccine to those who can’t access it and to persuade those who won’t take it.
How to reopen safely, keep businesses running and revive the services sector without sparking another virus surge is a challenge the entire world is facing at once. But for Las Vegas the difficulty feels particularly acute — because the economy depends not just on in-person activities but also on international visitors; because of the persistently high unemployment rate; because of how nearly half the eligible population is turning away from what for now appears to be the clearest path back toward normalcy.
“When we have 40 million people coming here in a year, we’re dependent on people all over the country — and hopefully soon all over the world — doing the right thing,” Naft, the commissioner, says. “So, it’s bigger than getting our own folks taken care of. But obviously, that’s where we’ve got to start.”
In the meantime, the city is still trying to break out of its boom-and-bust cycle, to find a way to lift coronavirus restrictions without having to brace for their reimposition several weeks later.
“I just want this to be over,” says Corral, the Tacotarian co-founder. “And aside from everybody getting vaccinated, I don’t know …” she pauses. “Now I don’t even know if that is the end of it.”