LAS VEGAS — That rumble you hear along the Strip might be the sound of returning tourists on the march.
Or maybe it’s the spring awakening of the entire Las Vegas economy, a vast and intricate contraption that includes not just hotels, casinos and restaurants but also stilt walkers, fire dancers, corpse exhibitors, street musicians, Carrot Top, freelance showgirls and restaurant servers who double as tax preparers.
They all seem to be busier now, thanks to a surge of visitors fed by easing state pandemic restrictions, falling COVID-19 infection rates, spring break, the NCAA basketball tournament and a handful of high-profile openings. After a 78-day state-mandated closure last spring and summer, then another tightening of restrictions after the virus surged again in fall, almost all of the area’s major hotels and casinos are open to some degree.
Deciding to visit was “kind of hard, kind of easy,” said Chris Thomas, who came from Tacoma, Washington, with his wife, Tonya. “Because you don’t know how people are going to be. I didn’t think a lot of people would be here. But they are.”
The other part of their decision, Tonya Thomas added, was that “last year we couldn’t come because of COVID. So we had to use our plane tickets. Had to come before they expired.”
Whatever their motivations and confidence levels, visitors these days will find Las Vegas behaving more and more like its old self — but masked.
In February, the area’s hotels reported 42% occupancy, up from 32% the month before. On March 15, restaurants, bars, retailers and gaming floors got the green light from state officials to increase capacity to 50% from 35%. The move came just in time for March Madness basketball, which ends Monday, and spring break, which began March 29 for thousands of students in California and neighboring states.
Out in front of the Virgin on its opening night March 25, fire dancer Michelle Bell paused with her flaming baton to note that after a year of about one gig per month, “I’ve actually got a handful of events in March.”
The COVID-19 infection rates for Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, have fallen steeply and steadily since January. As of late March, Clark County reported 8.7 new cases per day per 100,000 residents (with 4,097 deaths in the last year).
The recent scene has included crowds on downtown’s Fremont Street and plenty of foot traffic on the Strip as visitors traipse from casino to casino. Casual observations in both areas suggested that three-quarters or more of the pedestrians were following Nevada laws requiring face coverings in public places. Social distancing seemed more hit or miss, however.
If you end up in those sidewalk crowds, expect to see strolling showgirls in feathered headgear. They are a part of the pandemic recovery.
“There are more showgirls in general, because a lot of people were out of work,” said Shelley Dubrava, who stood near the Bellagio with a partner. To work as a freelance showgirl, she said, you make or rent a costume, then roam the Strip, posing with tourists for tips. They work in pairs; no casino affiliation is necessary.
Pool area at kid-friendly hotel, Margaritaville Resort Palm Springs, the first Jimmy Buffet-branded hotel on the West Coast The singer's business empire now includes 23 hotels in six countries.
At first, Dubrava said, many of her customers were “the stimulus crew — people that wouldn’t usually be here” but who came to make hay with their government checks. For a showgirl seeking tips from that crowd, a good day’s haul might be $200, Dubrava said. Now, with more prosperous visitors beginning to fill hotels, a good day might bring $500 or more.
Masks are everywhere inside the casinos, as are plexiglass barriers shielding players from employees and one another. If you’re uncomfortable in a half-full restaurant dining room, you’d be doubly nervous crossing a half-capacity gaming floor. The later the hour and the looser the mood, the more nervous you’d probably be.
Hospitality workers have adapted, re-adapted and often re-re-adapted. At Casa Calavera restaurant in the new Virgin hotel-casino, server Cara Morrone said she had made ends meet by working as a tax preparer. Then, as the restaurant was preparing to open, the IRS delayed this year’s filing deadline to May 17. So Morrone is now splitting her time between waiting tables and doing people’s taxes — and grateful for the opportunity.
One of the biggest optimists in town might be Chris Ihle, a former Iowa banker who ditched that career to make art with Lego bricks. He sells celebrity portraits and other works from his gallery in the Circa hotel, including a plastic-brick reproduction of the late Eddie Van Halen’s red guitar (about $2,500) and busts of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Biggie Smalls (a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G.), Tupac Shakur and others.
“Two months ago, 85% of the people coming through that door were from Las Vegas,” Ihle said.
And on weekends now? “It would be 50-50.”
The Circa, which opened in late October, is one of three new and increasingly busy major venues in town. The other two are the Virgin resort off the Strip and the Area 15 entertainment center.
The 1,504-room Virgin Hotel Las Vegas opened in the former site of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on Paradise Road. The resort includes about a dozen places to eat and drink — though a few were still closed on opening day. As was the resort pool, which is expected to open in May.
Still, Virgin’s high style and desert-themed art and design will attract many, as will the brand’s disdain for nickel-and-diming guests. The resort doesn’t charge parking and resort fees — a refreshing change in a city where most hotels tack on a daily resort fee of $20 to $45, which they often fail to mention when they quote rates to value-seeking visitors. A late March search showed room rates from about $240 for a weekend night in April to about $130 for weekday.
The exterior of Area 15, which features a vintage "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign and a silver sculpture of a man and woman.
Area 15, an immersive entertainment-and-retail complex that partly opened in the fall, added the arts group Meow Wolf’s “Omega Mart” multimedia installation on Feb. 18. It takes about 90 minutes to wander through the show, which unspools a spooky narrative while assailing visitors with projections, sounds, parody products, secret doorways, role-playing employees, interactive technology and a couple of slides. Adult tickets are typically $45.
The Vegas Strip may often seem an irony-free zone, but “Omega Mart” couldn’t exist without satire. And the city seems ready for that.
“We’ve sold out every time slot since opening,” said Kristin Weddingfeld, public relations and events manager for Meow Wolf. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand.”
Area 15 has more coming: The Museum Fiasco’s show “Stellar” was to open March 31 and a Van Gogh “immersive experience” is due April 6.
The 35-story Circa Resort & Casino, which opened in October with 777 rooms on Fremont Street, is the first new-build hotel downtown in 40 years. Unlike most Vegas properties, it’s adults only. Its designers made sports betting a focus, giving it a three-story sports-book area with room for 1,000 people (when full capacity is possible) and an elevated outdoor zone known as Stadium Swim, which features six pools beneath a 143-foot television screen. A late March check of Circa’s rates showed they began at about $240 for an April weekend (plus $29.95 per room resort fee), about $150 for a weekday.
The next big opening in town will almost surely be the $4.3 billion wager known as Resorts World Las Vegas. The 3,500-room hotel and casino, to open this summer on the Strip with a pair of red-tinted towers, will include a rooftop infinity-edge pool with views of the Strip and a food hall with 16 stalls highlighting Southeast Asian street food.
Live entertainment is gaining momentum too. Under the same March 15 change that loosened restaurant limits, Nevada now permits performance venues to operate at up to 50% capacity, or 250 people, whichever is fewer.
Up and running again are the elaborate production “Absinthe” at Caesars Palace; comedian Carrot Top at Luxor; the Australian Bee Gees Show (a tribute) at Excalibur; ventriloquist Terry Fator at the New York-New York hotel and casino; and magician David Copperfield at the MGM Grand.
Among the outdoor attractions that may get more attention: the Neon Museum, the Linq Hotel’s Linq Promenade (which includes zip-lines and the 550-foot High Roller Ferris wheel) and the Las Vegas Ballpark, where the Aviators, an AAA minor league affiliate of the Oakland Athletics, will open their home season on May 6.
“Friday and Saturday are gangbusters,” said Dawn Merritt, vice president and chief marketing officer of the Neon Museum. “Right now, we’re trying to hire additional staff so that we can extend our open hours.”
In the meantime, the museum has added a pandemic casualty to its collection: a sign from Ricardo’s, a 41-year-old family restaurant and Las Vegas mainstay that shut in May.