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What It's Like to Visit Vegas in the Coronavirus Era

Socially distanced gambling, shuttered shows and a quieter Strip this winter

Tourists are wearing masks as they walk on the Strip in Las Vegas

DANIEL SLIM/Getty Images

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COVID-19 Update

Nevada is in the midst of a “statewide pause” due to a surge in COVID-19 cases. Requirements through at least Jan. 15 include:

Wearing a mask at all times, both inside and outside, when around people who are not part of your immediate household.

• Restaurants and bars operating at 25 percent occupancy with strict social distancing. No more than four patrons per table; masks worn unless actively eating or drinking; and reservations required at establishments that serve food (no walk-ins).

• Casinos, gyms, museums and other attractions operating at 25 percent capacity.

• Public gatherings limited to 50 people or 25 percent of fire code capacity, whichever is less.

• Private social gatherings restricted to 10 people or fewer from no more than two households, whether it’s indoors or outdoors.

• Closure of brothels, adult entertainment establishments, day clubs and nightclubs.

When Las Vegas’ nonessential businesses closed their doors in mid-March to help curb the spread of coronavirus, it was the first time the world-famous, neon-lit Strip was shut down since President John F. Kennedy's funeral in 1963. The usual 24/7 tide of tourists and traffic jams was replaced by a smattering of pedestrians and local families on bicycles, and LED marquees offered well-wishes to the community rather than flashing ads for blockbuster shows and other Sin City excitement.

The new marketing strategy is less “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas,” and more “Stay Smart. Stay Healthy” — the current message from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA).

But tourists began returning in June, and the city has slowly been coming back to life. October saw 1,856,900 visitors, up from 1,704,300 in September, according to the LVCVA. That’s a 49.4 percent decrease from the same period last year.

“We’re very resilient,” said Lori Nelson Kraft, senior vice president of communications and government affairs at the LVCVA, “but it’s going to take a while to get back to the levels we were at.”

This month Las Vegas looks festive on the outside, at least: It’s fully decked out for the holidays, from the 20-foot-tall menorah at the Fremont Street Experience to the 42-foot Christmas tree at Bellagio’s Conservatory & Botanical Gardens. Some of the city’s holiday activities allow for social distancing, such as viewing brilliant decorations at two drive-through holiday wonderlands — “Glittering Lights” at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway (through Jan. 10) and “Journey at the North Pole” at the Industrial Event Space (through Jan. 3) — and skating at the Cosmopolitan, which has transformed its rooftop pool into a ice rink, offering seasonal cocktails and “roasting s’mores at socially distanced fire pits.”

Some upsides to visiting during these strange times: “There are no lines and much less traffic,” says Scott Roeben, founder of the Las Vegas travel tips website “There’s much less smoke in the casinos, and parking is free pretty much everywhere.”

Here’s a snapshot of other changes visitors are finding in Vegas this winter.

Hotels and Casinos

Las Vegas resort-casinos reopened in phases without some amenities and with low (yet rising) room rates and a range of health and safety protocols. Those include signs about proper hygiene and social distancing, capacity limited to 25 percent on casino floors and in hotels, strict sanitation measures and face coverings required in all public areas.

Some hotels reopened later than others, including the vintage Tropicana, which welcomed back guests Sept. 17 with iconic Las Vegas showgirls, all wearing masks. Other hotels, including Mandalay Bay, Park MGM, Encore and Palazzo, are closed midweek. The city’s hotel occupancy in October was about 47 percent, compared with 90 percent in October 2019, according to the LVCVA. Average room rates are also down: $104 in October 2020 compared with $135 the same time last year.

All of MGM Resorts’ properties have a comprehensive safety plan, including COVID-19 testing for employees, physical distancing rules, standalone handwashing stations on casino floors, digital restaurant menus, increased sanitization and electrostatic sprayers to disinfect large public spaces.

Staying Safe in Vegas

woman plays a slot machine next to a social distancing sign at the Tropicana Las Vegas

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Tropicana Las Vegas

• Note the CDC's guidance that travel raises your risk of infection and “staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”

• Be aware that some states have Nevada on their list of high-risk states, requiring that visitors or residents who return from there quarantine for two weeks. Check state restrictions for travelers.

• Consult Vegas Smart, the LVCVA's compilation of safety protocols around the city.

• Before you arrive, download the free contract-tracing app COVID Trace, from Nevada's Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS); you will be notified through the app if you're exposed to the virus during your visit.

• Always double-check opening hours of restaurants, bars and attractions, which may have changed during the outbreak.

• Carry your own hand sanitizer and hand-sanitizing wipes. While sanitizer is widely available inside hotel-casinos, you might not find any public dispensers when you're out on the town.

 • Don't drink from the cups and glasses in your hotel room. While sanitizing has been amped up at many hotels, there's no guarantee the glasses have been cleaned or replaced (this is true in any city's hotel room).

Most of the city's major casinos are also open and following similar protocols. In the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas casino, for instance, gaming floors have been rearranged to accommodate reduced capacities and social distancing. In some cases, there's plexiglass between players. Tables are limited to three players at a time and onlookers cannot linger behind them. The entire pit, including tables, is sanitized regularly.

Restaurants and Bars

Many of Las Vegas’ hot spots have reopened for dining, including The Mayfair Supper Club at Bellagio and CATCH at ARIA Resort & Casino. They’re all operating at 25 percent capacity, and reservations are required (no walk-ins). Only four people are allowed per table, and tables are spaced out to allow for social distancing. Many offer touchless to-go service and/or digital menus for ordering. Guests are asked to wear masks while walking to and from tables.

While some restaurants that closed in March are likely to never reopen, new ones are popping up despite the pandemic: Elio began serving Mexican cuisine at Wynn this summer, and Din Tai Fung, the Los Angeles-based dumpling and noodle hot spot, has just opened its first Las Vegas location at Aria.

Buffets, that staple of Las Vegas dining, remain closed. The Wynn Buffet had reopened as a redesigned all-you-can eat experience with servers, but closed in September due to lack of demand. Caesars Palace recently delayed the reopening of its usually popular Bacchanal Buffet.

Visitors are able to go to Vegas bars, taverns, wineries and breweries, but capacity is capped at 25 percent. (And if bars serve food, reservations are required.)

While nightclubs and pool parties remain off-limits, some are reopened in new guises — tweaked from high-energy parties into low-key pool hangouts or lounges with socially distanced seating, for instance. Most are without DJs, but they all serve booze.

Entertainment and Activities

The curtain was finally lifted for Las Vegas entertainment in October, but the new 25 percent capacity limit means many showrooms remain dark.

Modern circus company Cirque du Soleil, a longtime Vegas fixture, filed for bankruptcy protection in late June, though it reportedly plans an eventual return. Other long-running productions, including Le Rêve at Wynn Las Vegas and the Australian vocal quartet Human Nature at the Venetian Las Vegas, have announced they will not be back.

Even so, construction has begun on an all-new theater at Sahara Las Vegas ahead of the premiere of Channing Tatum’s Magic Mike Live Las Vegas, planned for spring; Usher has announced a residency at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace that would start in July; and the iconic Donny Osmond will begin a solo residency at Harrah’s in August — assuming Nevada lifts its coronavirus-related restrictions.

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Visitors to the Mob Museum (officially the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement) downtown are asked to purchase tickets online and arrive 15 minutes early for a contactless temperature check.

You can still ride the High Roller observation wheel 550 feet above the Strip at the LINQ Las Vegas — but with masks required, even in cabins.

Even the classic Vegas shotgun wedding has been transformed: The Graceland Wedding Chapel’s Elvis-themed ceremonies now require face coverings and temperature checks for all in attendance. More cautious lovebirds can marry (though not legally) with the chapel’s help online for $279, while accompanied by an Elvis impersonator singing “Love Me Tender."

Editor's note: This story was originally published on September 25. It's been updated to reflect new openings and safety procedures in Las Vegas. 

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