Updated June 3, 2020 - 8:56 pm
After 78 days of silence, Las Vegas’ casinos came back to life Thursday, welcoming back the gaming and tourism that serves as Nevada’s lifeblood.
On March 18, the state’s 219 commercial casinos were ordered to shut their doors, bringing the gaming industry to a screeching halt. Since then, thousands of tourism industry jobs have been lost, leading Las Vegas to report the highest unemployment rate of any U.S. metropolitan area.
That all changed a minute after midnight when the first casino doors reopened. Many more will open later Thursday morning, initiating Las Vegas’ hoped-for recovery. While experts predict the industry will take anywhere from 12 to 18 months to recover, the time could be shortened if the strong tourism demand seen so far continues.
Well before Thursday’s reopenings, casino companies had to adjust reopening plans to keep up with visitor demand.
On May 29, Caesars Entertainment Corp. announced it would reopen Harrah’s Las Vegas on Friday, following Flamingo and Caesars Palace’s reopening on Thursday.
“Initial customer demand to visit the Las Vegas Strip has been much stronger than anticipated,” Caesars CEO Tony Rodio said in a statement.
MGM Resorts International — which plans to reopen Bellagio, MGM Grand and New York-New York on Thursday — already is planning a fourth reopening next week, with Excalibur set to welcome back guests on June 11.
Boyd Gaming Corp. spokesman David Strow wasn’t able to provide details on just how many customers he expects to see at the company’s Las Vegas properties this week, but said the 12 properties it has reopened in other states are doing “very well.”
“We’re very encouraged so far with what we’ve been seeing,” he said. “I think that people have been very eager to return. We have a lot of regular customers that have gotten to know our team members very well, and so they’re very happy to be able to come back and see folks again.”
A spokesperson for Station Casinos said the company, which is opening select properties Thursday, said it has seen an “incredibly positive” response from both locals and California residents.
“Some of our restaurants have been open for just over a week, and we’ve seen so many familiar faces already dining out and eager to return once fully reopen,” the spokesperson said.
Wynn Resorts Ltd. spokesman Michael Weaver declined to comment on occupancy rates for Wynn Las Vegas and Encore, but said “demand is consistent with our current expectations.”
Representatives from Las Vegas Sands Corp. and MGM Resorts International did not provide comment.
Nevada Resorts Association President Virginia Valentine said resort partners are optimistic about first-week bookings, and are relieved to see Las Vegas resorts coming back online after the monthslong stoppage.
“Some of the news indicates more rooms may be booked than originally thought,” Valentine said. “It is looking like we’ll have a very positive response to the reopening. Obviously, we want people to be safe when they come back, and we’ve been making preparations now for months to bring them back to a safe and exciting environment.”
Travel bookings on the rise
Travel bookings to Las Vegas also have shown an increase since Gov. Steve Sisolak last week gave the green light for resort properties to reopen Thursday.
Flight and hotel searches for Las Vegas increased for the week of June 4-11 compared with the previous week, travel fare aggregator website Orbitz said.
Orbitz wouldn’t divulge the exact search data, but Mel Dohmen, Orbitz spokeswoman, said hotel searches were greater than flight searches, and the most popular month to book travel to Las Vegas is June, followed closely by July.
“That tells us Vegas is a top destination travelers are considering as travel starts to open back up this summer,” she said.
The surge in hotel searches compared with flight inquiries suggests many visitors may be traveling to Sin City via the roads. Nevada Department of Transportation spokesman Tony Illia said vehicular traffic to Las Vegas is expected to increase as properties along the Las Vegas Strip open their doors, but the rate at which that will occur is unknown.
Southwest Airlines, McCarran International Airport’s busiest carrier, said it has seen an increase in bookings to Las Vegas since the resort opening announcement.
Spirit Airlines, McCarran’s second-busiest carrier, said it also has seen increased demand in flights to Las Vegas.
“We’ll be adding routes back starting on June 5,” Spirit spokesman Erik Hofmeyer said. “By July, we’ll be connecting LAS [McCarran] with 29 destinations.”
On average, Spirit was operating five flights per day to Las Vegas in May and is slated to make 11 flights per day this month, jumping up to 39 flights per day in July, Hofmeyer said.
Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air, which saw just 199 passengers in April, down 99.9 percent year over year, also has seen an uptick in bookings to Las Vegas since Sisolak’s resort reopening announcement.
“We’d expect to see upward movement for Las Vegas and Orlando — traditionally strong markets which have been the slowest to rebound — with the successful reopening of the Strip and Walt Disney World,” Allegiant spokeswoman Sonya Padgett said in an email.
33.4 percent unemployment rate
Las Vegas’ shuttered casinos didn’t just hit businesses; it hurt hundreds of thousands of employees, and the valley’s economy as a whole.
The city’s unemployment rate in April was 33.5 percent, the highest among 51 metro areas with at least 1 million people, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Wednesday.
Detroit was a distant second at 24.4 percent.
The Las Vegas area lost more than 200,000 jobs from March to April, state officials recently reported. In February, before the valley plunged into chaos, the local unemployment rate was just 3.9 percent.
Many of these workers had jobs in the local tourism industry, which employed 276,300 direct jobs and 450,000 supporting jobs, according to the Nevada Resort Association.
While casino operators haven’t said exactly how many workers are being brought back at this point, Thursday is a major step in bringing down the unemployment rate and getting Nevada’s economy back on track.
Applied Analysis economist Jeremy Aguero said the recovery process hinges on many factors — including the spread of COVID-19.
“Travel and the like will continue to be affected (by the virus) for some time to come,” he said. “Demand for what Las Vegas offers appears to be strong. .. We just have a long way to go.”
Stephen Miller, director of UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research, agreed that there’s a chance increased demand could help speed up the state’s economic recovery, as long as it continues at a strong pace.
“We have people that had reservations in June and July,” he said. “The question that needs to be asked is, ‘How sustained is this?’”
If all goes well for the first round of return visitors, Miller said it might convince others that it’s safe to return to Las Vegas, which could be “a blessing for the local economy.”
But recovering from a 33.5 percent unemployment rate takes time, and Miller doesn’t expect casino operators will rehire all those who have lost their jobs in the pandemic.
He said there will be more insight into the local economy’s future in the early fall, well after the initial casino reopening. Until then, he said, “keep your fingers crossed.”
The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson.
Contact Bailey Schulz at email@example.com or 702-383-0233. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter. Contact Mick Akers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2920. Follow @mickakers on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Eli Segall contributed to this report.