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Casinos could increase occupancy soon. More workers will need shots first

Updated April 7, 2021 - 12:37 pm

Employers, state agencies and unions are racing against the clock to make sure front-line casino employees in Nevada get inoculated by July.

The industry now faces a time crunch to reach herd immunity as newer, more contagious variants spread across the country. The regulatory agency behind the state’s gaming industry is pushing for licensees to get their workers vaccinated quickly, and they are responding, with some offering incentives including gift cards and paid time off to workers to get the shots. Still there are challenges.

Federal data shows vaccines continue to face skepticism among more than one-in-five Nevadans — including some casino employees — despite health experts and studies saying they pose little risk of serious side effects and have proven to be highly effective.

“As (visitors) start to return … our workforce has to be vaccinated to be protected,” said Nevada Gaming Control Board Chair Brin Gibson. With visitation rates on the rise and major conventions set to return this summer, “I don’t believe that we have much past June, maybe the beginning of July at the latest, to really make a big dent in this industry.”

Skepticism among workers

The Gaming Control Board, the state’s top gaming regulatory body, conducted a survey among its more than 400 nonrestricted licensees in January to determine employees’ willingness to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. About 30 percent of the surveyed respondents said they were resistant to COVID-19 vaccinations, according to Gibson.

It’s unclear where that number stands today, but Nevada Gaming Commission Chairman John Moran said some hospitality workers still “push back” against the vaccine.

Food and beverage worker Tommy Carothers said he does not plan on taking the vaccine at this time. He said that he has yet to be called back to work at MGM Resorts International but that he is on the roster.

Carothers said he wants to avoid any potential side effects from the vaccine and believes he takes enough precautions such as hand washing to protect himself from the virus. He also considers himself to have a strong immune system, adding that he hasn’t been sick in the past five years.

“I think the vaccine would help, but not me in particular,” he said.

Carothers is far from the only one skeptical about the vaccine. According to a March survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, about 21 percent of Nevada adults said they probably or definitely would not get a vaccine, slightly higher than the skepticism found among 17 percent of total Americans.

The numbers have dropped since January, when the survey found 22 percent of Nevadan adults and 21 percent of American adults said they would not get a vaccine.

Gibson didn’t have data on vaccination rates among the state’s hospitality employees but said the industry is making “good progress.”

Data from the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services show that 8,797 food service and hospitality workers in the state have received at least one dose of a vaccine as of April 1, but the numbers are self-reported and don’t account for those who may have selected another reason for eligibility or did not select an occupation on the form.

Push for on-site clinics

Efforts to get the casino workforce vaccinated have been coming in many directions, but the biggest push to date by the Control Board was made public last week.

The board published a notice Friday afternoon that said it would consider increasing floor occupancy only for licensees that have taken “measurable and material steps to vaccinate, and thereby, protect their workforce, visitors, and the community.”

Nevada casinos are operating at 50 percent occupancy under state orders, but the Control Board is set to gain the authority to set occupancy limits for gaming floors starting May 1.

“If (casino operators) want their gaming floor, their closed rooms, their high roller rooms — if they want any part of their gaming revenue generating to increase beyond 50 percent, we need to see some measurable effort,” Gibson said.

It’s too soon to say how close casinos are to operating at 100 percent capacity, but heads of the board and commission said it’s possible that occupancy rates will begin to inch up as soon as May, depending on COVID-19 case numbers.

“Some of (the casino operators) have done so much that I think it’d be hard for us to justify not allowing increase in occupancy,” Gibson said.

There are various ways licensees can show that they’ve taken steps to vaccinate workers. Some are arranging transportation for workers to public vaccination sites. Others have started opening in-house clinics where workers can easily access vaccinations.

On-site clinics have been announced by Caesars Entertainment Inc., MGM Resorts, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Red Rock Resorts Inc. Gaming regulatory heads said more are on the way.

Gibson said these sites are especially important for workers who would have a hard time agreeing to take time off from work for a vaccine. If given the choice between forgoing COVID-19 vaccinations or losing money by taking time off for their shots, many will opt for the former, he said.

“Their resources are much thinner,” Gibson said. With on-site clinics, “they don’t have to lose time. And so they don’t have to sacrifice income for their family, which is a critical item for many of them.”

Approximately 17,000 COVID-19 doses have been set aside for the on-site vaccination events across Clark County. It’s unclear how many have been administered to hospitality workers.

Offering a ‘shield’

Caesars Palace dealer Tony Pontecorvo was one local casino worker who said he got his vaccination as soon as he could.

His arm was sore and swollen after his first shot of the Moderna vaccine, but Pontecorvo said it was well worth it. The coworkers he’s spoken with have been excited about the vaccine as well.

“With cases going up now and people letting their guard down a little too much, I certainly won’t feel scot-free, but I will feel confident when I’m around other vaccinated people,” he said. “I will feel like I’ve got a shield. A shield won’t protect you against everything, but a shield is a shield.”

Pontecorvo is one of about 196,000 leisure and hospitality workers in the Las Vegas area. Altogether, these workers make up about 22 percent of the area’s total workforce, according to February data from the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation.

“If we can get the workforce vaccinated, not only will it protect the workforce and the (gaming) licensees’ business, but it will also protect the community,” Moran said. “The message and the trust that we have to convey to those people … (is that) people aren’t dying from receiving the vaccine, people are dying from not receiving the vaccine. … That’s about as simple as you can make it.”

UNLV epidemiologist Brain Labus said front-line hospitality workers are often in constant contact with visitors for extended periods of time, and the nature of casinos — which allow drinking and smoking — means the guests won’t always be wearing masks.

“That poses a lot of challenges in casinos,” he said. “The vaccine could mitigate that” risk.

Michael Morton, the Control Board’s senior policy research analyst, added that getting workers vaccinated is “key” for the state’s vaccine equity plan.

The hospitality workforce in Clark County makes up a large portion of the area’s communities of color, which have been disproportionately affected by the virus.

Members of Culinary Local 226, which, with Bartenders Local 165, represents 60,000 workers in Las Vegas and Reno, is 54 percent Latino, 18 percent white, 15 percent Asian and 12 percent Black, according to a March statement.

Getting hospitality workers vaccinated means “ensuring these communities continue to be a driving force of southern Nevada’s economy,” Morton said.

Efforts from operators

Operators have taken a number of steps to help make vaccines available for employees.

The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas company launched an informational campaign in February to highlight the vaccines’ benefits and efficacy and has invited staff to webinars with medical professionals who could answer questions on the vaccine.

Boyd Gaming Corp. is assuring workers who get their vaccines within 60 days of becoming eligible that they will be reimbursed for personal time off taken to get their shots.

MGM has launched an internal campaign to encourage inoculation and answer workers’ questions about the vaccines.

Sands has provided educational information on vaccines through staff communication channels, and is offering incentives to workers who get vaccinated.

Workers who take part in the company’s vaccine clinic this week receive a 10 percent discount voucher to Albertsons, the pharmacy that is administering its on-site vaccine program, and workers who got vaccinated elsewhere can get an electronic gift voucher that works at select restaurants and shops at The Venetian.

Caesars Entertainment also said it offers internal rewards to fully vaccinated workers.

Pontecorvo, the Caesars Palace dealer, added that the Caesars Entertainment-operated property has plenty of signage up in the back-of-house areas encouraging workers to get vaccinated, and has been lenient with giving workers time off when they have any side effects from their shots.

“It makes me happy that they’re taking that stand,” he said. “I’m impressed with how these Strip casinos and casino companies in general have handled the vaccination process.”

Spokespeople for Wynn Resorts Ltd. and Red Rock Resorts did not return requests for comment.

The Culinary union has also been advocating for its members to get vaccinated and take advantage of on-site vaccine clinics when they’re available, and has held several bilingual virtual town halls to help get workers’ questions answered by doctors, health care professionals and others.

These efforts seem to be paying off.

“Workers are getting the vaccine,” Culinary union spokeswoman Bethany Khan said. “They are also able to get a vaccine at work now, so we are seeing more and more get through the queue and get their first dose.”

The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Sheldon Adelson, the late chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp., which operates The Venetian.

Contact Bailey Schulz at bschulz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Michael Scott Davidson contributed to this report.

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