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.
Visitors began returning in June, and the city has slowly been coming back to life. August saw 1,537,400 visitors, up from 1,065,100 in June, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor's Authority (LVCVA).
But with conventions on hold and many people unwilling to fly, that's still a 55 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 awhile to get back to the levels we were at." In the meantime, the trade organization Downtown Vegas Alliance has launched a “Playcation” promotion encouraging locals to hit the town, and the city is working on possible health-screening systems that would allow lucrative conventions to safely return when restrictions are lifted (current gatherings are limited to 50 people).
For now, tourists have plenty of elbow room. On a recent sunny Wednesday afternoon, social distancing was easy for those walking along the world-famous Las Vegas Strip. Crowds were thin, as handfuls of visitors traversed the sidewalks, escalators and overpasses along Las Vegas Boulevard.
Down the street, tourists wore masks at the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, but showed no concern about handing their phones to strangers for photos. A billboard off the nearby interstate touted new touchless check-in options at a local resort-casino.
"There are no lines and much less traffic,” says Scott Roeben, founder of the Las Vegas travel tips website VitalVegas.com, pointing out the upsides of visiting during these strange times: “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 fall.
Hotels and Casinos
Las Vegas's 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 50 percent on casino floors and in hotels, strict sanitation measures and face coverings required in all public areas.
Of the city's 150,000 hotel rooms, 130,000 of them would now be available, but for the half-capacity mandate. Some hotels have only recently reopened, including the vintage Tropicana, which welcomed back guests on Sept. 17 with iconic Las Vegas showgirls, all wearing masks.
When Park MGM/Nomad Las Vegas opened its doors on Sept. 30, it marked the reopening of every MGM Resorts property worldwide. (It also became the first fully smoke-free casino on the Strip — a response to customer demand, not the outbreak, the company says.)
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
• 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.
There's reason for caution: Since reopening in June, Wynn Las Vegas has reported 548 positive COVID-19 cases among its employees, according to data gathered as part of the property's rigorous testing and contact tracing program.
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 half capacity and many offer touchless to-go service and/or digital menus for ordering. Tables are spaced out to allow for social distancing, and guests are asked to wear masks while walking to and from tables.
While some restaurants that closed in March will 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.
That staple of Las Vegas dining, buffets remain closed. The Wynn Buffet had reopened as a redesigned all-you-can eat experience with servers, but closed Sept. 7 due to lack of demand. Caesars Palace recently delayed the reopening of its usually popular Bacchanal Buffet.
Now that coronavirus cases are declining in Nevada, visitors are again able to go to Vegas’ bars, taverns, wineries and breweries. Closed by the state after coronavirus fears in July, they reopened for a second time on Sept. 20. (Some of those serving food were already open, but now visitors can sit at bar tops and play video poker.)
While night clubs 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
There's no way to know when the show will go on in Las Vegas. Though marquees along the Strip hotels’ facades advertise shows like David Copperfield at MGM Grand and Blue Man Group at Luxor, there has been no live entertainment since March. Modern circus company Cirque du Soleil, a longtime Vegas fixture, filed for bankruptcy protection in late June, though reportedly plans an eventual return. Other long-running productions, including “Le Reve” 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 2021. December dates are listed on the Colosseum at Caesars Palace website for the headlining residency “Reba, Brooks and Dunn: Together in Vegas,” featuring Reba McIntire, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, and Usher has announced a residency at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace that would start July 2021. But all future shows are contingent on Nevada's lifting its coronavirus-related restrictions; the state currently bans gatherings of more than 50 people.
Similarly, any activity involving groups of tourists has been modified or canceled: Lip Smacking Foodie Tours, for instance, now offers socially distant, self-guided dining experience in downtown and Chinatown Las Vegas instead of its usual guided tours of the Vegas food scene.
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.
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.