After historic casino closure, gambling returns to Las Vegas

National News

FILE – In this May 21, 2020, file photo, a worker looks over an electronic slot machine as chairs have been removed from some machines to maintain social distancing between players at a closed Caesars Palace hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Cards will be cut, dice will roll and jackpots jingle when casinos in Las Vegas and Nevada begin reopening at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, June 4. There will be big splashes, even amid ongoing unrest, and big hopes for recovery from an unprecedented and expensive closure prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — 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 March. “We are excited to get our employees back to work and to welcome guests to the entertainment capital of the world.”

Hotel-casinos in downtown and 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 several resorts on the Las Vegas Strip.

The D Hotel and Casino, one of Stevens’ two downtown properties, had several dozen people waiting in line for the doors to open shortly after midnight. After guests had their temperatures checked at the door, the casino was quickly crowded with revelers and gamblers, while the dealers wore face masks or shields. Even a bartender dancing on top of a bar in lingerie was donning a face mask.

Mike Gebhardt a utility worker from Cincinnati, flew to Las Vegas Thursday morning with his sister and her fiance for a birthday trip on a surprisingly full flight. He walked the largely empty Las Vegas Strip before many of the casinos were scheduled to open.

“It’s going to be a little different but that’s the way thing are now,” said Gebhardt, who described himself as a blackjack player.

Wynn Resorts pushed back its planned opening to daylight hours in a nod to ongoing nighttime protests over George Floyd’s death in Minnesota.

There are big hopes for recovery from an unprecedented and expensive shutdown.

“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 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 before giving the go-ahead to reopen.

“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.

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.

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.”

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Associated Press photographer John Locher contributed to this report.

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