The iconic New Year’s Eve ball dropped at midnight in an eerily empty Times Square and was livestreamed into homes across the nation. The usually packed New York City block was mostly barren because tourists and locals were encouraged to celebrate safely at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The scene in Las Vegas looked much different late Thursday. Crowds of people, some not wearing masks, packed the Strip by 11 p.m., particularly around the Fountains of Bellagio, to ring in the new year surrounded by others. Las Vegas Boulevard was closed to traffic from the Mandalay Bay to Spring Mountain Road and open to revelers.
Photos of the scenes on the Strip drew criticism on Twitter, with many on social media accusing people in Las Vegas of being irresponsible with their handling of the holiday during a pandemic and calling the celebration a “superspreader” event.
Reckless on behalf of these tourists on the Las Vegas Strip. No masks. No social distancing. Literally in the middle of a damn pandemic. No thought for the thousands of Nevadans who have died because of #COVID19. https://t.co/Nb4JqG4bp0
— Karl Catarata (@KarlCatarata) January 1, 2021
Officials estimated in the days leading up to the Thursday night celebration that the crowds would be much smaller, but not gone. The Metropolitan Police Department did not respond to requests for crowd size estimations on Friday.
Despite the crowds, at least three local officials seem to agree that Las Vegas’ New Year’s Eve celebrations went about as well as could be expected, given the constant tug-of-war between public health and the city’s vital tourism industry.
UNLV epidemiologist Brian Labus said it’s hard to figure out how to handle such situations in a city so heavily dependent on bringing people together.
“It’s always a big challenge here in Vegas of balancing tourism and public health,” Labus said. “We on the public health side of things would obviously prefer not to see people gathering, but there’s not much more anyone could have done other than close down Las Vegas completely, and that’s just not realistic.”
Clark County Commissioner Michael Naft agreed, saying he was satisfied with the way Thursday night played out. He said the main focus in Las Vegas is to keep everyone safe while also staying realistic, comparing the COVID response in a city like Las Vegas to walking on a sharp knife blade, calling it “a delicate balance.”
“It’s just not realistic to tell people they can come to Vegas, but then force them to stay in their hotel rooms the whole time they’re here,” he said. “So we did everything we possibly could to get the message out, requesting that people follow the governor’s guidelines, and I think the properties and law enforcement did a great job of enforcing things as best they could.”
More cases expected
Labus said he expects to see an increase in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks but noted he doesn’t think it can be linked to New Year’s Eve alone.
“Tourists who came to Vegas wouldn’t even get sick here, they would get sick when they got home, so it ultimately wouldn’t affect our numbers here,” Labus said. “Plus, I think we’ll see an increase that can be attributed to the holiday season as a whole. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s are such big times for people to gather together in large groups, I think we’ll definitely see more cases soon.”
Here’s another video from the Las Vegas Strip last night, taken near the Bellagio fountains between 11:30 and midnight.
Helps give more of an idea of how packed it was.
Further south there were far fewer people. But it got very crowded by the fountains. pic.twitter.com/euKdjZuei5
— Michael Scott Davidson (@DavidsonLVRJ) January 1, 2021
Dr. Fermin Leguen, acting chief health officer with the Southern Nevada Health District, cautioned that Las Vegans need to remain diligent in taking the proper COVID precautions into the new year.
“We appreciate that many people chose to celebrate the holiday at home with their family,” Leguen said in a statement. “While the agencies worked well to plan for the inevitable crowds that showed up, our rising case counts and deaths are a reminder that everyone needs to continue to be vigilant and follow the recommended precautions to slow the spread of the virus.”
Requests for comment from Clark County Commissioners Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Tick Segerblom, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, Nevada Resort Association President Virginia Valentine, MGM Resorts spokesman Brian Ahern, Clark County spokesman Erik Pappa and Gov. Steve Sisolak were not returned.
Contact Alexis Ford at aford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0335. Follow @alexisdford on Twitter.