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Casinos drop mask mandates. Experts wonder: Is it too soon?

There are about to be a lot fewer masks on the Strip.

Nearly one year after Nevada first issued a mandatory face covering policy, casinos across the valley are allowing fully vaccinated guests — and, for some, vaccinated employees — to opt out of wearing masks.

The new policies follow a Thursday guidance update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask in most indoor and outdoor settings.

“The new CDC guidance is a milestone moment in returning to a sense of normalcy,” said Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association, which represents the state’s gaming and resort industry. “Nevada’s resorts will continue to promote and encourage vaccination as they remain critical to saving lives.”

On Thursday, the Nevada Gaming Control Board said Silver State casinos could instill mask policies that are more restrictive than CDC guidance. The board will not require or prohibit Nevada casinos from confirming guests’ vaccination status, but encouraged gaming licensees to post signage with the latest CDC mask guidance.

At least six Las Vegas casino operators have updated their masking policies to no longer require masks for fully vaccinated visitors: Caesars Entertainment Inc., Wynn Resorts Ltd., MGM Resorts, Treasure Island, Las Vegas Sands Corp. and The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

Other businesses are reviewing the new CDC guidelines and reevaluating their policies. Some, like Walmart and Sam’s Club, have already dropped the face mask requirements for certain individuals.

Others, like Target, Home Depot, Walgreens and Macy’s, are not ditching the mask requirement just yet.

Encouraging vaccinations

The timing of the new CDC guidance left some academics in epidemiology and aerosol transmission concerned about whether the changes arrived too soon and could further disease transmission.

“I think it makes perfect scientific sense. And unfortunately, it’s going to be absolutely impossible to implement,” UNLV epidemiologist Brian Labus said. “The problem is it basically treats vaccinated people and unvaccinated people differently, which is fine. But there is no easy way in a public setting to figure out who belongs in which of those groups.”

About 47 percent of the American population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine so far. The new measures are meant to encourage more people to get vaccinated.

In theory? That could work, Labus said. In practice? He’s skeptical.

“The problem is, you can get the benefits without actually having to get vaccinated by just claiming that you were vaccinated,” said Labus, who also sits on the governor’s coronavirus advisory task force. “So even though it could encourage some people to get vaccinated, it could just encourage people to lie and say they are vaccinated as well.”

The majority of casino operators’ updated mask policies allow only guests who are fully vaccinated to forgo masks, but don’t require patrons to show any proof of vaccination. The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas did say it reserves the right to request proof of vaccination on a case-by-case basis, but will largely rely on guests to follow the appropriate safety measures based on their vaccination status.

The Cosmopolitan, Treasure Island, Wynn Resorts Ltd. and Caesars Entertainment Inc. have said vaccinated employees can go mask-free as well. Other operators, including MGM Resorts International and Las Vegas Sands Corp., are still requiring face masks for all workers for the time being.

Many casino operators have encouraged their employees to get vaccinated so the companies could receive regulator approval to raise casino capacity to 100 percent. These efforts reduce the chance a casino employee contracts or carries the coronavirus, and as a result, set casinos somewhat apart from the rest of the community, Labus said.

Culinary Workers Union Local 226 said the union will “remain vigilant” to ensure that workers are protected while on the job, and urges employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“If workers are vaccinated, they do not have to wear a mask as the employer has directed, but if anyone wants to continue wearing their mask, that is their right and they should be treated with kindness and respect,” a Friday statement reads.

Retailers and restaurants

The Nevada Restaurant Association said Friday that many restaurant operators are evaluating their own policies following the new CDC guidance.

“Many operators have made their decision after much consideration and thought, so we ask that customers proceed with patience and understanding as restaurants attempt to respond to this new guidance while working towards recovery,” said Alexandria Dazlich, director of government and public relations for the trade group, in a statement Friday.

Fully vaccinated shoppers do not need to wear a mask at Walmart and Sam’s Club, Walmart said Friday in a memo to its employees. Target, Home Depot and some other large retailers said they will continue to require shoppers to wear masks in stores, though some have said that they are reviewing the CDC’s guidance and reevaluating store policies.

“As a destination for COVID vaccine and testing we have decided to keep our current face covering policy in place for the time being,” Walgreens spokesperson Erin Loverher said in a statement. “The safety of our team members and customers is our top priority and will continue to guide our decision process.”

Some grocers and warehouse clubs, like Trader Joe’s and Costco, said they will also ditch the mask requirements for fully vaccinated shoppers in U.S. locations where there are no mask mandates.

Costco said it won’t require proof of vaccination, but “we ask for members’ responsible and respectful cooperation with this revised policy.” Face coverings will be required at Costco’s pharmacy, optical and hearing aid departments.

Albertsons, which owns Vons, will still require masks, said company spokeswoman Nancy Keane. Smith’s also said Friday it will still require customers to wear a mask.

Kroger, which owns Smith’s, said it is reviewing safety practices and the CDC’s latest guidance as well as soliciting feedback from store employees “to guide the next phase of our policy.”

Brent Gardner, senior marketing manager of Fashion Show Las Vegas, said in a statement that the shopping mall will continue to follow state and local guidelines related to face coverings. “The health and well-being of our guests, tenants and employees remains our highest priority. As local guidelines change, we will update our policies to reflect those changes.”

Prudent to wait?

The mask guidance came “a little earlier” then expected for Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech professor of environmental and water resources engineering who studies infectious disease transmission through aerosols. In a statement, she said she thought it would’ve been prudent to wait until everyone willing to get the vaccine, ages 12 and up, would have the chance, about July 1.

She encouraged unvaccinated people to continue wearing masks and said “good ventilation and filtration remain key” for controlling virus levels in the air, “particularly when large numbers of people mix indoors for long periods of time.”

Alex Huffman, a bioaerosol research professor at the University of Denver, said improved indoor air quality takes on added importance without masks. The timing of the CDC’s mask rules “blindsided” Huffman, he said. “I don’t know anybody that it didn’t catch off guard.”

Masks provide “a visual cue that something is different, and I need to pay attention,” said Huffman, who has studied the science and messaging of preventive steps. “Once you take that off, I’m a little worried that the other things are also going to go away.”

Masks remain effective at preventing aerosol spread of the coronavirus, he said. With fewer people wearing masks, vaccination becomes all the more important, he said.

“It just casts this image, in my opinion, that, ‘You know, things are back to normal. Let’s do what we want to do. Let’s party up,’ ” Huffman said. “And there’s even obviously, this attitude of go to Vegas and leave in Vegas, whatever happens in Vegas.”

Breaking down company policies

MGM’s policy went into effect at noon on Friday. Its Las Vegas properties include Bellagio, Aria, Vdara, Excalibur, Luxor, Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand, The Mirage, New York-New York and Park MGM.

Company spokesman Brian Ahern said the properties will not ask guests for proof of their vaccination status.

“This newest update represents another major step in restoring our economy and industry,” MGM Resorts CEO Bill Hornbuckle said in a Friday letter to employees.

MGM employees still are required to wear a mask at this time, even if they are fully vaccinated. Hornbuckle said he hopes to update the mask policy for employees “soon.”

“If you have not yet received a vaccine, I strongly encourage you to get one for free at our vaccination clinic at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center,” Hornbuckle said in the letter. “Vaccination is a critically important tool in protecting each other and our communities, and this newest update represents another major step in restoring our economy and industry.”

Caesars announced Friday it won’t require fully vaccinated guests or employees to wear masks while visiting its Nevada properties. Guests or employees who haven’t been vaccinated must still wear a mask.

Caesars operates multiple Las Vegas properties including Flamingo, Bally’s, Caesars Palace, Rio, Paris Las Vegas, Planet Hollywood, The Linq Hotel, Harrah’s Las Vegas and The Cromwell.

Las Vegas Sands Corp. said Friday that as of that afternoon, fully vaccinated guests will not be required to wear a face mask “in most areas” of The Venetian. Employees are still required to wear a company-issued face mask while on property “at this time,” according to a company statement.

The Cosmopolitan’s new masking policy says fully vaccinated guests and employees will no longer need to wear face coverings, according to a Friday statement from the company.

Employees who remain unvaccinated will be required to wear a company-issued mask while on property and undergo weekly COVID-19 tests.

As of Friday, employees and guests at Phil Ruffin-owned Treasure Island will not be required to wear masks. Those not fully vaccinated at the property will be required to wear a mask at all times while at the property, unless actively eating or drinking in an authorized area, according to a company statement.

Wynn Resorts — which owns Wynn Las Vegas and Encore — revealed Thursday evening that fully vaccinated guests and employees will not be required to wear masks.

“We trust our guests to take the appropriate precautions based on their personal vaccination status,” a company statement reads.

Company spokesman Michael Weaver said 91 percent of employees have been vaccinated so far. Both Wynn and MGM verify employee vaccinations by having workers upload an image of their vaccination card to an online portal. The Cosmopolitan verifies workers’ vaccination status through its certified employee vaccination record database.

Spokespeople for Sands, Caesars and Treasure Island did not respond to a request for comment how the property verifies vaccinations among workers and guests.

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. Contact Mike Shoro at mshoro@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5290. Follow @mike_shoro on Twitter. Review-Journal reporter Jonathan Ng contributed to this report.

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