'I've never seen Las Vegas like this': As coronavirus brings change, Sin City feels the effect

A woman uses a hand sanitizer station in McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas on Tuesday. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

When Michael Schenk and his father flew in from Philadelphia last week, Las Vegas was bright with neon and swagger: They gambled at the Excalibur, ate at an Irish restaurant, strolled through a construction trade show and mingled with high and low rollers from Europe and Asia.

But then, as if sensing an ill wind blowing in from the desert, the pair noticed fewer chips stacked on blackjack tables. The roulette wheel was not in constant spin.

The news kept saying it was coming. The president declared a national emergency. Faces half-hidden by surgical masks began appearing at every turn.

Hoarders headed for supermarkets as Vegas, where risk and delusion are the twins of fortune and ruin, braced for the coronavirus to upset its multibillion-dollar playland.

By the end of their five-day trip, the 37-year-old Schenk and his 67-year-old father, Gary, were leaving a town late Saturday that bore no resemblance to the one in which they had arrived.

Shows and concerts canceled. Day clubs and nightclubs closed until further notice. Restaurants were shut down and workers laid off.

“When we arrived, we were concerned and expected the crowds to be less, but we didn’t notice a difference,” said Michael Schenk, who is a managing partner at his father’s contract and property management firm.

“Now we are leaving just as a new reality sets in.”

For weeks, as the coronavirus spread across the world, the daily tempo of Las Vegas had remained relatively normal.

But the pandemic is now crushing the city’s ability to meet the desires and temptations of the more than 42 million people it draws annually.

The virus is the most serious crisis to face Sin City since the Sept. 11 attacks, which led to a drop in gambling revenue. The second major challenge came in the 2008 recession, which saw gambling revenue fall again, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

In recent days, the first harbinger of change in a community with a $6.6-billion annual gambling industry was the closure of its all-you-can-eat buffets.

Then, like dominoes, nightclubs, restaurants and concerts were canceled. Even well-known Cirque du Soleil shows — such as Michael Jackson ONE at Mandalay Bay, KA at MGM Grand and Mystere at Treasure Island — have all been suspended.

Caesars Entertainment has closed spas, fitness centers and restaurants through at least the end of March. And on Sunday, Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts International went a step further, closing down fully.

MGM Resorts International said it would suspend operations starting Tuesday until further notice.

Wynn Resorts said that it intends to pay all full-time Wynn and Encore employees during the closure, to begin Tuesday and last two weeks.

Conventions have also been canceled or postponed, including the National Assn. of Broadcasters’ NAB Show, Atlassian Summit 2020 and NXT Global Summit.

The closures came after the Southern Nevada Health District announced Friday that nine more people had tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the total number of people who have contracted the deadly virus in Clark County to 14.

The who have tested positive in southern Nevada include a man in his 20s who is being monitored while self-quarantining at home and two women older than 40 who are hospitalized.

Statewide, the total number of positive tests reported by authorities is 20.

Las Vegas native Rachel Tapp knows all too well about those worries.

Late Saturday night, as the 31-year-old was waiting to serve customers at Breeze Daiquiri Bar, she had come to accept the fact that it was going to be a slow night.

It was 11:30 p.m., when the lines usually stretch out the door.

On this night, with the looming NCAA basketball tournament and so many other events and betting opportunities canceled or postponed, only a few customers straggled in.

“It’s usually packed on Saturdays. Especially this time last year considering how it’s March Madness and around the time of St. Patrick’s Day,” she said. “I’m worried I’ll be laid off. My dad, who works at the Aria buffet, has already gotten laid off. I’ve never seen Las Vegas like this.”

Cyprian Uba, a 62-year-old taxi driver who moved from Nigeria to Las Vegas 10 years ago, said that he waited more than three hours at the airport Saturday before finally picking up a passenger.

“It’s never been like this before,” he said. “Traffic is super light. It wasn’t even like this during the recession.”

Raul Cortes, a 45-year-old plastic surgeon from Miami who planned to attend the 2020 Physician Wellness and Financial Literacy Conference, said he tried to minimize physical contact with others by keeping a distance and spending more time in his hotel room.

“I never saw a group of doctors wash their hands as many times as I did at this conference,” he said.

While Cortes didn’t notice a palpable change in the city’s energy during his four-day trip, he said he was able to snag cheap hotel rates at the last minute.

“I managed to book a last minute-hotel at the Paris for $500, which would have typically been $1,000,” he said.

When Schenk and his father learned that organizers of the ConExpo-Con/Agg construction trade show had decided to end what was supposed to be a five-day convention 24 hours early, the pair tried unsuccessfully to find reasonably priced flights back home.

As they waited for their flight late Saturday night at the nearly empty Las Vegas airport, they thought back to the hygienic precautions they took during their vacation. They felt fine, they said, but were nonetheless on edge.

“We were vigilant. We tried not to shake hands,” Schenk said to his father.

Earlier in the week, he spoke to his wife on the phone. She told him to brace for a new reality once he arrived home in Philadelphia.

“The restaurants are still open in Las Vegas?” Schenk remembers his wife asking.

“It seems like it’s chaos back home,” Schenk told his father at the airport, recalling that conversation.