Post-pandemic, what will be left of the Las Vegas Strip?

Las Vegas StripUndoubtedly, the phrase of the year in 2020 across our planet is “social distancing.” This is also Las Vegas’s absolute worst nightmare. There probably is no other city in the U.S. whose economy is more completely tied to a lack of social distancing. “What Happens Here, Stays Here,” the cheeky former official slogan of Las Vegas image-makers, was premised on an extreme lack of social distancing, with folks normally thisclose all the time.

With the nation’s highest statewide unemployment rate at 28.2%, Nevada in general, and Las Vegas in particular, face a loooooong road back to any semblance of recovery. (The unemployment rate in the Las Vegas area in February was just 3.9%) How long? For starters, somewhat longer than it takes for folks to feel comfortable getting on airplanes and traveling long distances for the privilege of losing a lot of money gambling in casinos.

I’m thinking maybe sometime in 2022–and that’s if an effective coronavirus vaccine can be developed, mass produced and administered in record time. Otherwise, who knows?

For it is a stone-cold fact that 75% of Las Vegas visitors come here by plane, including almost all of the convention business that keeps the 150,000 hotel rooms in the area occupied a remarkable amount of the time. The other 25% drive here, mainly from California. Last year, more than 4 million passengers a month passed through McCarran International Airport–nearly double the area’s entire population of 2.3 million. Watching and counting plane arrivals and departures from the stay-at-home New To Las Vegas world headquarters near the airport, I’d say traffic is off 90% or more.

But until development of a vaccine, airlines are likely to restore some amount of consumer confidence only by social distancing in the air–which probably means a dramatic drop in passenger capacity as seats are deliberately left empty. And that will force up ticket prices. One of Las Vegas’s strategic advantages all these years has been relatively cheap airline fares, the result of carriers forced to attract hoards of discretionary travelers who have (in many cases) multiple air options. Prior to the pandemic, one could fly nonstop to Vegas from just about anywhere, and for not a lot of money.

And even if the airlines somehow can work this out, there is the problem that just about every tourist venue in Las Vegas and especially along the Las Vegas Strip is being forced to cut capacity. Entertainment is a huge draw for the Strip. Every day (at least before the pandemic) there are scores of shows, some in venues larger than 4,000 seats. There is no way to social distance a 4,000-seat space without seriously cutting the seating capacity. And that means less revenue and fewer jobs for the worker bees–and the stars–who keep Las Vegas buzzing. Same goes for the hundreds and hundreds of restaurants in Las Vegas.

The state’s 440 casinos and other gambling establishments likely will reopen early next month under strict social distancing rules that pretty much ensure some of them will go under. Maximum casino area occupancy will be cut by 50%. Seating at table games will be limited to three for blackjack, four for poker and roulette, and six for craps. Chairs will be removed from every other slot machine, the most lucrative game for the house. Restaurants will have limited seating. All the equipment–even decks of cards–must be regularly disinfected.

In January, the Consumer Electronics Show, the granddaddy of all local conventions, brought 170,000 visitors to Las Vegas from around the world. This was right before the pandemic became known, and it now appears the virus was among the attendees. The CES is boldly planning another “in-person event” in Las Vegas next January, but with better hygiene. However, I’d be willing to wager (hey, this is Vegas!) the in-person attendance will be down by half, if not more.

There are, of course, those who think the Las Vegas economy long has been parasitic in nature, taking from others while offering nothing in return, all the while trafficking in the worst of human nature. After all, this place isn’t nicknamed “Sin City” for nothing. For that crowd, social distancing rules in Las Vegas are an appropriate, almost Biblical, punishment.

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