'It’s just strange. It’s so different': A desolate Las Vegas faces coronavirus pandemic in disbelief

·Combat columnist

LAS VEGAS — A runner, a young male who appeared to be in his mid-to-late 20s, moved at a swift pace down Las Vegas Boulevard early on a crisp, spring afternoon. He slowed ever so briefly as he approached an intersection at Flamingo Road, then regained his pace and continued his run.

This wouldn't be so unusual, except that the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo is usually one of the busiest in town, and the runner was on the road in the traffic lanes, not on the sidewalk.

He loped briskly, largely by himself, at a time when usually there would be hundreds of cars zooming through that intersection and thousands of people crowding the sidewalks.

More perhaps than at any point in its history since it became the de facto entertainment capital of the world, the coronavirus pandemic turned this 24-hour city into a ghost town in the casino district.

Because of the nature of the city, people are used to losing and still having a good time. But Brett Herz wound up feeling like a loser in every respect.

An estate planner from Michigan, Herz was supposed to get married in Las Vegas on April 18. That was canceled when all nonessential businesses closed, but he made the trip to Las Vegas anyway to check on his parents.

He was headed to a local Starbucks for a coffee where a long line awaited him in the drive-thru, as no one was allowed inside. Moments earlier, he’d waited about 45 minutes to get into a Sam’s Club to buy toilet paper and other essentials for his parents.

“No luck,” he said. “Sometimes you come to Las Vegas and you don’t win, but you have a lot of memories and you spend time with friends and family. This time, wow, it’s just strange. It’s so different. No gambling. No slot machines. No [Golden Knights] hockey games. And no toilet paper.”

(Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
(Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

Life is dramatically different in the entertainment mecca of the world. On March 17, in a bid to contain the spread of the virus, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak took the bold and unprecedented step of closing all nonessential businesses, including the state’s casinos.

The city and surrounding Clark County were enjoying unprecedented economic success before COVID-19 became a part of the daily conversation in Southern Nevada. The last time Las Vegas casinos shutdown was from 7 a.m. to midnight on Nov. 25, 1963, the day of the late President John F. Kennedy’s funeral.

Only three times since then — after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the 2008 economic crash and the mass shooting that killed 58 people at a concert on Oct. 1, 2017 — has the city’s economy come to its knees the way it has now.

“It pains me to see the lights of Las Vegas go dark during this extraordinarily challenging time, but I know just how resilient Nevadans are,” first-term U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen said. “We’ll emerge from this just like we did after 2008 and after 1, October: as one, strong community.”

In his 1964 hit, “Viva Las Vegas,” Elvis Presley sang, “How I wish that there were more than the 24 hours in the day, ’cause even if there were 40 more, I wouldn’t sleep a minute away.”

Prior to this pandemic, the activity on the Strip and the casinos all over the valley continued throughout the night. But even in the middle of the day now, it’s desolate.

Las Vegas largely stayed the course after its prior issues. After the 9/11 attacks, there was a boxing match at Mandalay Bay between Fernando Vargas and Jose “Shibata” Flores on Sept. 22, 2001, and then there was the first UFC event held in Las Vegas, on Sept. 28, 2001.

UFC 33 was the fourth event of Dana White’s ownership tenure of the UFC and the first in his hometown. The event drew 9,500.

“Our fans are incredible,” White said. “Even after 9/11 when there was hardly anything going on, they came out and supported us.”

The UFC regularly held events in Las Vegas during the downturn caused by the 2008 crash, and had a major pay-per-view at T-Mobile Arena on Oct. 7, 2017, only six days after the tragic shooting at a country music festival that took 58 lives.

This time it is different. The UFC — and just about everything else — has been KO’d by COVID-19.

Clark County commissioner Larry Brown, a long-time resident whose district is in the northwest portion of the valley, is awed by the eerie silence on the Strip.

“It’s just unbelievable,” Brown said. “And to be honest with you, I don’t think we even appreciate what we’re going through currently. Down the road, months down the road, we’re going to look back on this 60-to-90-day window we’re in right now and be even more amazed at what this town has gone through.”

The gambling industry is the largest employer in the state, and so Nevadans have been hard hit by the casino shutdown. The Las Vegas unemployment rate was 3.9 percent on Feb. 29, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But scores of Nevadans have been furloughed or laid off and there have been nearly 400,000 unemployment claims in the state as of mid-April, affecting more than a fifth of all of the state’s workers.

Rosen said it may have been worse had the state and the Las Vegas area not diversified its economy in recent years.

“There is no question that Nevada has been hit particularly hard by this pandemic and its economic fallout, which is why I am working hard on bipartisan solutions to help our key industries weather this storm, keep our workers paid, and ease the path to recovery when this public health crisis is behind us,” she said. “But there is also so much more to Nevada than the fabulous Las Vegas Strip and our dynamic travel and tourism industry. Our state is one of the most economically, demographically and geographically diverse in the country.”

Tourism, though, is the engine of this city and this state, and whether it’s to gamble, to shop, to eat in five-star restaurants, to watch NFL and NHL games or, yes, get married like Herz planned to do, it’s what makes this city tick.

Despite the economic devastation wrought on the state’s economy, Sisolak has repeatedly resisted the urge to reopen the state. He has been so strict that White, who normally can get just about anything done, hasn’t been able to persuade the governor to allow the UFC to operate shows without fans in its Apex facility on its Las Vegas campus.

“Closing these casinos is just unheard of,” White said.

Brown, a Harvard graduate who pitched for the then-Las Vegas Stars Triple-A baseball team in 1983, is just as astounded, but he’s convinced Las Vegas will recover. He said in a year, the city will be well on the way toward recovery.

While the shutdown has caused much short-term pain, he thinks the city will return to its booming ways before long.

“No question, we’ll get back,” Brown said. “We were experiencing success in every part of Nevada, from the gaming to the entertainment to the sports to the small businesses to workers and [low] unemployment. We had reached all-time levels. The airport was setting records [for visitor volume]. But we will get back.

“We’ve done it before and we’ve rebounded. We’re resilient here, but we have to understand that it’s going to be a journey. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

The key, Brown said, is establishing high standards for safety and getting that message out to customers quickly and effectively.

“People have to feel comfortable,” Brown said. “They have to feel safe, not only being in Las Vegas but getting to Las Vegas. For us to fully [rebound], we need people to feel safe getting on an airplane, getting in a car with three to four other people and driving here. That comfort level has to be there before we really see the recovery taking place. 

“Locally, the gaming industry will set the bar as far as reopening and safety and protocols. There are very, very smart people right now following that. They continue to elevate their safety precautions. They’ll handle that, but until we can convince not only our national but our international markets that Vegas is setting the standard for safety, that’s when you’ll start to see those numbers actually start to move.”