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Federal mask mandates unlikely to affect Las Vegas tourism much

Updated January 25, 2021 - 4:28 pm

It’s going to be harder for tourists to avoid masks on their way to Las Vegas.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that adds safeguards to international travel and requires masks on planes, ships and other transports.

While new mandates could be key to opening international travel, local tourism and health experts don’t expect the order to have much of an impact on Las Vegas’ tourism rates or COVID-19 case count.

“For Las Vegas, we’ve been dealing with masks for months,” said Brian Labus, an assistant professor of epidemiology at UNLV and a member of the medical team advising Gov. Steve Sisolak. “It’s really not a change for us.”

Mask requirements

Biden’s new mask mandate applies to airports, planes, ships, intercity buses, trains and public transportation.

The executive order also requires international travelers to show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test before entering the country and follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines to quarantine once they arrive. International travelers are asked to stay home at least seven days if they get tested again, or 10 days if they do not get tested.

Different travel industries, including airlines, already have strict mask requirements in place, but the executive order is expected to bring more consistency to policies and assist companies with passengers who refuse to follow the rules.

Airlines have already prohibited thousands of people from flying for refusing to wear masks. Delta Air Lines Inc. alone has banned more than 800, according to a Jan. 14 earnings call.

McCarran International Airport spokesman Chris Jones said most Las Vegas travelers have taken airlines’ pandemic-era rules in stride.

“I’m in the terminals every day and, in my observations, nearly everyone I’ve come across has a mask, and is wearing it while inside the building unless they happen to be eating or drinking,” he said. “If a traveler observes someone who is not covering their face, we ask that they contact the nearest airport or airline employee to respond. If necessary, Metro can be dispatched to address these matters, but that’s been the exception, not the norm.”

Universal mask usage is “one of the most effective options for controlling the spread of the virus” on aircraft, reducing the infection risk from respiratory particles to less than 1 percent, according to an October report from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Labus said he’s in favor of the new mask mandate but doesn’t believe it will have much of an impact on the number of cases in Nevada, which has enforced public mask usage since June. The state reported 1,869 new coronavirus cases Friday, with a two-week positivity rate of 19.9 percent.

“We’re basically doing all the things that are in this new mandate,” Labus said. “Somebody coming to Las Vegas is going to be wearing a mask from the second they get on the plane all through their trip to Vegas … so that’s really not going to change much in terms of behaviors around Las Vegas travel.”

Even so, the new mandates could be enough to convince some that traveling is safe again, according to Josh Swissman, founding partner of Las Vegas gaming and hospitality consulting firm The Strategy Organization.

“Anybody who was just thinking about traveling but not doing it yet, particularly by air — this adds that added sense of security,” he said. “(This) may push a few of those into the category of willing to and warning to travel. But I don’t see that being a gigantic number.”

Labus believes the order’s biggest impact is bringing consistency to the country’s COVID-19 response.

“The previous administration left it up to the states,” he said. “It’s still up to individual states to decide their policies, but now we’re going to have some consistent policies that the federal government can enforce to say, this is what we expect of everybody.”

An ‘important layer of safety’

U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow said federal testing mandate will be key to reopening international travel and should help ease travel restrictions on regions like the United Kingdom, European Union and Brazil.

“It adds another important layer of safety,” Dow said in a Friday statement. “If the testing requirement is going to work on a global scale, it has to be flexible and reflect where testing resources are available and where they’re not. The executive order would allow for flexibility if it’s needed.”

He also said the repeal of the travel ban from certain Muslim-majority countries was “the right move.”

While the CDC had already announced plans to enforce international testing, the quarantine requirement laid out in the executive order is new. Dow said the stay-home orders could be “extremely difficult” to enforce and unnecessary given the other protections already in place.

“In the domestic environment, where there aren’t defined ports of entry for travelers, mandatory testing and other requirements are also impractical and could divert scarce public health resources away from other priorities,” he said.

Swissman added that the quarantine order could curb some of Las Vegas’ international travel but said numbers are already so small that the loss would be negligible.

McCarran had 9,230 one-way international passengers in November, compared with 151,289 in January 2020.

“It’s going to be a negative impact on such a small volume of travelers, I don’t know that you’ll be able to feel it in Las Vegas,” Swissman said.

Jones said that the quarantine mandate could cause the “small but fairly steady” stream of passengers traveling between Las Vegas and Mexico in recent months to drop.

“This week’s direction from the White House could cause some to reconsider flying internationally for a bit, at least until after the country has a better handle on the virus,” he said.

Travel rules are expected to continue to change, according to Brendan Bussmann of Global Market Advisors. He believes international travelers will likely need to offer proof of inoculation to fly once the vaccine becomes widely available.

He added that the return of airlift — especially international flights — is essential for Las Vegas’ economic recovery.

“Until airlift returns, Vegas’ recovery will be that much more drawn out,” he said.

A previous version of this story included incorrectly stated the number of international travelers who arrived at McCarran International Airport in January and November of last year.

Contact Bailey Schulz at bschulz @reviewjournal.com. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter.

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