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'By the seat of our pants'

In a hurried slog, staff revives Treasure Island

Treasure Island: Go behind the scenes at the resort’s reopening

Updated June 9, 2020 - 8:53 am

The view is exquisite, a picturesque panorama — of nothing happening.

It’s April 9, and Treasure Island has gone still.

We’re making the rounds in one of the hotel towers at Treasure Island, high above the Strip, all of the large, spot-free windows offering beatific glimpses of a city frozen in place, static as a statue.

This is the story of a casino stirring back to life after an unprecedented hibernation, a behind-the-scenes look at relaunching a 2,900-room resort and what it took to get there.

It’s a microcosm of the reopening of Las Vegas itself, of the city’s defining feature — the sprawling, larger-than-everything casino — getting back to work, so that the town can follow suit.

A single security guard watches over the gaming floor during the closure of TI due to the coron ...
A single security guard watches over the gaming floor during the closure of TI due to the coronavirus pandemic on Friday, April 10, 2020, in Las Vegas. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @benjaminhphoto

For now, though, the property is something that it’s never been before in its 26-year history, something that it never was meant to be: quiet.

The calm is ill-fitting and out of place — like cracking a beer in church — heightened by the lack of perpetual motion that normally defines the room: chirping slot machines, bustling cocktail servers, up-till-dawn gamblers, someone ordering a drink, somewhere, always.

The sportsbook is barren, its massive TV screens black. Signs outside Senor Frog’s Mexican cantina advertise bikini contests that will never be. Tape has been placed over the mouths of all the video poker machines, starving them of dollars.

While no one will be occupying TI’s rooms for another two months, they still have to be maintained. And so workers from the engineering department regularly visit each one to run the water taps and flush the toilets.

It takes two hours to complete each floor; six days to make it through every room.

Then it’s time to start all over again, a “Groundhog Day” of latrines.

This is the daily routine in a time when little in the world is routine.

There is a silver lining to it all, though: Room renovations originally scheduled for August or September were expected to be completed in May.

The following morning, workers at the Mystere Theatre test out the production’s massive stage and lighting rigging for the first time since March 12, the day of the show’s final performance before the COVID-19 shutdown.

“Mystere” normally goes dark for a few weeks in January, and that’s it for the year, making this the longest break it has ever had.

Time to make sure everything still works.

“This is really expensive stuff,” notes Chip Croop, executive director of entertainment for Treasure Island, standing inside the vacant venue on a Friday morning. “You don’t want to just shut it down and leave it and then try to start it back it up. It’s like a car battery, right?”

Right.

“Footbridge moving!” a worker shouts as the walkway descends from the rafters.

Soon, the stage comes to life with a stubborn creak, slowly moving downward to reveal a large pit the size of a whale’s gullet.

“It sounds like my bones when I get up in the morning,” Crook quips.

A big-shouldered security guard in a red blazer passes through the room, pausing to articulate the clock-slowing tedium of a property put on hold.

“The first week,” he says, “it felt like time took forever.”

For another month and a half, time would continue to trickle by within these walls, like beads of water plopping from a leaky faucet.

Drip, drip, drip.

A construction crew lays down new flooring at TI during the closure due to the coronavirus pand ...
A construction crew lays down new flooring at TI during the closure due to the coronavirus pandemic on Friday, April 10, 2020, in Las Vegas. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @benjaminhphoto

The ramp-up begins

Beware the bird in the hotel lobby.

It’s June 1, Blair Davies’ first day back on the job, an unlikely hiatus ending with an even more unlikely task: ushering a feathered intruder out of the check-in area.

“I did my Jack Hanna and shooed it outside,” Treasure Island’s digital marketing manager says from behind a black face mask that she hasn’t yet grown accustomed to wearing, as all hotel staff now must.

“We’ve had several birds in here,” observes Robert Owens, the casino’s executive director of front services, pool and transportation. “Senor Frog’s had a couple doors open, a broken window or something. They snuck in through that.”

These are the uninvited house guests of a shuttered hotel.

Time to bid them adieu: Treasure Island is but three days from opening.

For the past week, casino staff gradually has been coming back on the job.

“It’s overwhelming because there’s just so much to learn and there’s so much ramping up for the next three days,” Davies says. “It’s going to be a whole new ballgame.’“

The area in which she stands certainly has a different look and feel to it: There are Velcro signs on the floor every 6 feet to maintain social distancing, and plexiglass shields have been erected at the registration desk, where every other computer will sit idle for the time being.

Outside at the pool, the number of chairs has been reduced, and those that remain have been spaced apart.

“We’re flying by the seat of our pants,” Davies says. “Things are changing so fast, every day.

“It’s going to be …” she pauses for a beat, “it’s going to be different.”

Chips are sanitized before they are recirculated onto the gaming floor at TI on Thursday, June ...
Chips are sanitized before they are recirculated onto the gaming floor at TI on Thursday, June 4, 2020, in Las Vegas. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @benjaminhphoto

The bustle resumes

“Don’t cut a wire — or a finger,” instructs Bill Stoops, a facility technician, as he helps a co-worker resurface a gaming table while ideally keeping all digits intact.

He surveys his surroundings.

“This place, this is how it was left,” Stoops notes, observing how much needs to be done in the days before reopening. “It’s like a ghost town.”

In the coffee shop, workers add fresh coats of paint to the room, walls rendered blue as the ocean.

“It’s trying to catch up,” says painter Leo Jauregai, while touching up a baseboard in a Golden Knights face mask. “We’ve got to fix everything that was previously damaged and then get everything freshened up for the reopening.”

Each department faces its own challenges.

Housekeeping staff mop the floor next to a sign reinforcing social distancing at TI on Thursday ...
Housekeeping staff mop the floor next to a sign reinforcing social distancing at TI on Thursday, June 4, 2020, in Las Vegas. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @benjaminhphoto

For housekeeping, it’s keeping abreast of new sanitation methods and protocols.

“We’ve been busy doing research on all the new chemicals, which is better to use, which has less dwell time,” explains Kenny Cho, executive director of housekeeping, EVS and uniform control.

He has to distill what he has learned and convey it to his staff, who are coming back to work en masse tomorrow, greeted by a massive phalanx of green bins stuffed with towels and sheets that line the halls in the back of the house.

“They spend their first hour being trained on new chemicals,” Cho says, “trained about the COVID virus, how to wash hands, how to wear a mask correctly.”

Executive chef Craig Taylor, Treasure Island’s director of culinary operations, says it’s almost like starting from scratch.

“It’s kind of like launching a new property, but with a couple more wrinkles in it,” he laughs. “There’s a lot of little details to think of. Every time you take a step, there’s another one that comes up.

Taylor has had to design flow charts for the back of the kitchens so the staff doesn’t cross paths as much and find ways to ensure social distancing is maintained.

And then there’s the whole food thing: The hotel donated what they had to eat when the quarantine took hold, and he has had to scramble to resupply everything at a time when every other property in town is doing the same.

“It’s been challenging,” Taylor says, “but it’s coming back together.”

Guest service representatives wear protective masks and gloves while checking people in at TI o ...
Guest service representatives wear protective masks and gloves while checking people in at TI on Thursday, June 4, 2020, in Las Vegas. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @benjaminhphoto

The big day

It feels like the first day of school, Bud Light and Buddha-themed slots in place of textbooks.

It’s a bit past 9 a.m. on Thursday, and Treasure Island is back in action, a sleeping giant awakened just in time for breakfast.

Cocktail servers and housekeepers, security staff and maintenance workers huddle among themselves, greeting one another like kids catching up with their friends after summer break.

Though the doors have just opened, already there are about two dozen people lined up at the registration desk, where they have their temperature taken before receiving room keys.

Early check-in fees have been waived for the day.

Security officers Rowell Briones, middle, and Chandler Moon, take guests temperatures before al ...
Security officers Rowell Briones, middle, and Chandler Moon, take guests temperatures before allowing them to check in at TI on Thursday, June 4, 2020, in Las Vegas. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @benjaminhphoto

The first three guests were upgraded to suites for free.

On the casino floor, Florence and the Machine soundtrack the action over the hotel PA system

“We all have a hunger!” she sings, said hunger currently being satiated by myriad games of chance, dice the size of bowling balls tumbling beneath a plastic bubble during a video craps game; slot machines digitally approximating the rattle of clinking coins when reels align into a winner.

A pair of poker tables are full, three players seated at each.

The scent of cigarettes and coffee is starting to fill the air, a familiar, early morning fragrance.

It’s not exactly business as usual, but business nonetheless.

Jennifer Renzelman, Treasure Island’s vice president of communications, takes it all in.

She acknowledges getting a little teary eyed when operations officially resumed an hour and a half ago.

“It’s emotional,” she says. “It really is.”

“We’re open.”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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