Updated January 1, 2021 - 7:44 am
Tourists and locals braved a raging pandemic Thursday night to end a year of unimaginable crisis with a hopeful eye toward a fresh start and descended on Las Vegas in much smaller numbers than normal to celebrate the beginning of 2021.
The usual New Year’s Eve revelry that has long been a hallmark of Las Vegas, an annual punctuation of its robust but dependent tourism economy, was more muted in scale. Several fireworks shows, including the exuberant display on the Strip, were canceled ahead of time, and so was the annual party downtown, although the Plaza shot off fireworks from its rooftop.
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Sparse crowds roamed downtown and on the Strip and most appeared to be wearing face masks, as mandated by the state. Small groups and the partial closure of Las Vegas Boulevard, leading to people walking in the street, seemed to help social distancing.
“We’re nervous and excited for 2021. But still anxious because COVID isn’t going away,” Jessica Snyder said from behind her mask on the south side of the Strip. “But 2020, it’s been real.”
Snyder was with her boyfriend, Kyle Bentley. They planned the trip earlier in the month and were worried about not having enough to do, but they said they also were excited about their plans for the long weekend.
Signs of life
Leading into the night, most officials did not try to estimate how many people would be celebrating in Las Vegas, but it was expected to be fewer than the 300,000-plus visitors on the Strip and downtown last year.
The revelers who did come out were greeted by a mostly clear sky and temperatures in the mid-40s, according to the National Weather Service. And despite the dramatically scaled-back New Year’s Eve, there were obvious signs of what one would expect from the yearly celebration in Las Vegas.
In the area where Snyder and Bentley were enjoying the night, Las Vegas police blocked the middle of the road to curb the crowds crossing the street. Outside the Bellagio fountain, women in sequined dresses and flashy heels walked hand in hand with men bearing 2021 glasses.
The largest of crowds were around the Bellagio water fountain show, where a family from Washington state looked on.
“Woo!” said their young daughter in a flashing hat as a pair of friends danced excitedly around her.
Nearby, a couple from Cincinnati danced along to “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
A getaway trip
Couples took selfies in the middle of the street near The Mirage and Harrah’s. Jessica Gault was among them.
The South Carolina resident and her significant other arrived in Las Vegas on Wednesday night and planned to stay until Monday. Then it was home and back to work.
It was the first time Gault had come to Las Vegas for New Year’s Eve. But with the pandemic, it was not quite what she thought it would be like.
“It’s really different,” she said.
Gault said they decided to make the trip to “kind of get away” for a change of scenery.
The stretch of bars and restaurants between New York-New York and the T-Mobile Arena were shuttered.
Park MGM allowed guests of all kinds to come through the casino, to listen to a live band in the cigarette-smoke-filled floor. The singer reminded listeners to social distance.
Effect of the pandemic
As a stark reminder of the gravity of the pandemic in Nevada, the state reported earlier in the day its most deaths in a single day — 59.
Nightclubs have been closed for months and public events were capped at 50 people or 25 percent capacity, whichever was less, while at least some hotel-casinos limited parties and casino entry to just guests. The newly opened Circa pivoted to only broadcasting a live Zowie Bowie performance that was initially planned to be open to hotel guests.
Bars and restaurants continued to operate under strict 25-percent capacity rules under an extended “statewide pause.”
Gov. Steve Sisolak and other officials urged people this week to reconsider going out to celebrate, while state officials also expressed concern that some 14,000 people expected to visit the Fremont Street Experience in downtown might lead to a surge in new cases. But on Thursday, the Fremont Street Experience announced it would be restricting access to the pedestrian mall to hotel guests only.
Small groups gathered in huddles along the unusually barren Fremont Street Experience around 9 p.m. The road was closed to the general public, and visitors could only gain access with a wristband given to them when they checked into a downtown casino.
Most visitors wore their masks and kept their distance from those not in their party.
“We’re not using the room. We just wanted the wristbands to celebrate here,” Christine Loffert said. “We didn’t even get room keys.”
She and Rebecca Loffert were in town from Littleton, Colorado, for their first New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas. The sisters were staying on the Strip but said they booked a last-minute room at the Four Queens so they could ring in 2021 at the Fremont Street Experience.
Rebecca Loffert said she liked Las Vegas better with restrictions in place, citing smaller crowds and more personal space.
But not everyone shared that sentiment.
Erum Shahzad and Natalie Melton were in town from Dallas. They said they had been to Las Vegas for New Year’s Eve a handful of times, but this trip paled in comparison.
“This is just terrible,” Shahzad said. “I get it, but it’s such a sad experience.”
The friends said they did not regret coming to Las Vegas this time because the weather is better than it is back home, but they were disappointed that most things were closed.
“I feel so bad, and I feel like I need to open up my wallet and spend more money to support the industry here,” said Melton, who was wearing light-up 2020 glasses with a pipe cleaner spelling out an expletive before the year. “And I feel awful for the street performers who can’t be out making money tonight, I wish I’d given them more yesterday.”
‘Wanted to do it big’
In an effort to firmly put the year in the rear-view mirror, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority blew up a 2020 sign for viewers to watch online just before the clock struck midnight. The press announcement for the demolition was titled “Las Vegas Tells 2020 to Kiss Off.”
At the experiential entertainment and art complex, Area15, the focus was on illuminating 2021, with a champagne toast at midnight.
Bidding adieu to a dark year with a luminous burst was the plan at the “Illuminate” festivities at Area15, where revelers donned 3D glasses to take in the lysergic artwork at the Wink World gallery of eye-popping delights.
“We like crazy. I heard this was crazy,” said Reiley McGarry, wearing fuzzy white boots and multicolored pigtails. “Dress crazy and be ourselves.”
McGarry traveled from her native Virginia with her friend Schuyler Thornton to partake in the fun.
“We wanted to live it up at the end of the year,” explained Thornton, donning a black devil’s headdress. “We wanted to do it big.”
The socially distanced crowd kept their masks on — as well as the complimentary hot pink illuminated shades.
“We’re going to play it safe, but we’re still having fun,” said Brent Loth from Dallas, sporting a toga. “We all know 2021 is going to be a better year.”
A DJ in a sparkly silver jacket played INXS remixes beneath a towering tree with brightly hued foliage, while partiers posed for pictures with a performer who popped and locked in a shiny silver get-up, looking like a cross between the Tin Man and a disco ball.
Capacity may have been lowered, but not the crowd’s spirits, which were as bubbly as the champagne lubricating the evening.
Less cops, many fireworks
Roughly 1,200 police officers were set to patrol the Strip overnight, about 100 fewer than last year, according to the Metropolitan Police Department. Las Vegas Boulevard was closed between Spring Mountain Road and Reno Avenue, which was 1.5 miles less of the main thoroughfare blocked off than in prior years.
Police said they had made 26 arrests on the Strip and Fremont Street as of midnight. Nine were for felonies and 17 for misdemeanors, although police did not elaborate on the natures of the suspected crimes.
Clark County said 11 people on the Strip were taken to the hospital as of midnight for “relatively minor” medical issues such as alcohol intoxication.
Although there were fewer official fireworks shows this New Year’s Eve, the county said there were many reports of illegal fireworks, which could be heard throughout much of the valley, leading to Christmas decorations burning at one house.
Welcoming the new year
The sidewalks and street near Caesars Palace were completely packed with hundreds of people just before midnight. After the countdown, the crowd cheered and some blew noisemakers. Some pulled down their face mask to kiss their significant other. The crowd began dispersing almost immediately thereafter.
By the Bellagio fountains, a groom and his bride, holding a red rose, strutted down Las Vegas Boulevard.
Even though the surrounding casinos were shut down to non-guests, the crowds were significantly heavier than on the other side of the street, where revelers could enter the casinos regardless of whether they were customers.
At the stroke of midnight, Kit Maan and his friends who were visiting from India threw $500 in single-dollar bills into the cheering crowd. The group said they wanted to spread positivity in the new year.
“2020 was the worst year,” Maan said. “If we can survive 2020, nothing is worse. 2021 will be way easier.”
Back at Area15, as confetti rained from the rafters, the crowd erupted in unison, as if an emotional finish line had been crossed.
“It’s finally over!” gushed a Los Angeles woman in bright orange leggings of 2020, identifying herself as Foxy Jessica. “It’s finally done.”
Contact Shea Johnson at email@example.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writers Jason Bracelin, Briana Erickson, Alexis Ford and Julie Wootton-Greener contributed to this report.