‘The worst of all the catastrophes’ recedes in Vegas

Please Join PajamaSurf!
Join Now

Las Vegas (CNN) — On a recent Wednesday night, the famous Las Vegas strip was teeming with tourists. Families crowded around the Fountains of Bellagio, enthralled by the light show as geysers of water soared hundreds of feet into the air while Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be a Lady” blasted over the loudspeakers.

Showgirls roamed the strip in pairs, posing for photos with visitors — for a fee. Street vendors hawked waters and balloons. The only noticeable reminder of the pandemic were the masks obscuring most of the faces.

More than a year after the coronavirus pandemic turned the city into a ghost town, Las Vegas is slowly coming back to life, aided by the vaccine rollout and tentative reopenings.

Spiegelworld’s cornerstone show “Absinthe” became one of the first Strip entertainment events to reopen on March 17 and is now boasting sold-out evening performances every Wednesday through Sunday.

The performances — a fantastical blend of carnival and spectacle — take place inside a tent located outside of Caesars Palace. Attendees are ushered to socially distanced tables inside as masked performers dazzle the crowd.

"Absinthe" is performed in a tent with guests seated at socially distanced tables.

“Absinthe” is performed in a tent with guests seated at socially distanced tables.

Courtesy Spiegelworld

Genevieve Landry has worked as an aerialist with “Absinthe” for the past decade. She says she’s grateful to be working again but knows that many other entertainers aren’t as lucky.

“It’s been rough emotionally seeing the industry and community so impacted by the pandemic,” Landry said. “Entertaining people is our passion so now we feel even more of a responsibility to help people get out of their homes safely and to put on an amazing show to help them forget the outside world even if for just a bit.”

Big meetings are missing

Inside the Venetian Casino Resort, masked visitors roamed past hand sanitizer stations and blackjack tables outfitted with plexiglass for safety. Gondoliers still ferry visitors along canals that snake their way through the property, but as an added precaution the serenading is now done by socially distanced musicians stationed along various points of the ride.

Venetian President and CEO George Markantonis says the city is recovering and the Venetian’s daily bookings are exceeding pre-Covid levels. As one of the largest private meeting spaces in North America, the Venetian took a hit from the canceled events and conferences over the past year.

“The missing piece are the business travelers for the conventions and the expo center,” said Markantonis. “The good news is that none of the events are canceling for the second half of the year. It looks like we will finish 2021 strong and have an outstanding 2022.”

West Hall is a huge expansion to the Las Vegas Convention Center. City officials are eagerly awaiting the return of big conventions.

West Hall is a huge expansion to the Las Vegas Convention Center. City officials are eagerly awaiting the return of big conventions.

Courtesy LVCVA

As nonessential businesses, Las Vegas casinos were ordered to close last March, costing thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in lost revenue. The city had one of the highest unemployment rates in America last April.

“It has been more difficult on Las Vegas than probably any city in the United States,” said Steve Hill, President and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

The organization recently completed a 1.4 million square foot expansion to the Las Vegas Convention Center, making it the second biggest in the country. In June, the space will host World of Concrete — the first major in-person convention to return to Las Vegas. Hill says dozens more shows are on the books.

Las Vegas is recovering, said Hill, but he worries about the pandemic taking a turn for the worse.

“The problem we have right now is really a health crisis,” said Hill. “We’d like to just get back to the point that we have an economic problem that was caused by a health crisis and in order to get over that hump, we need as many people vaccinated as possible as quickly as possible.”

After a year out of work, bartender Cash Caterine became one of 1,300 former Hard Rock Hotel & Casino employees rehired after the property reopened as Virgin Hotels Las Vegas.

After a year out of work, bartender Cash Caterine became one of 1,300 former Hard Rock Hotel & Casino employees rehired after the property reopened as Virgin Hotels Las Vegas.

Jack Hannah

Some workers are feeling lucky

The newest player in town, Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, took a gamble in opening up a new property last month in the space formerly occupied by the Hard Rock Casino Hotel. Richard “Boz” Bosworth, president and CEO of parent group JC Hospitality, noted that 1,300 of the Hard Rock’s former 1,600-person staff were rehired by Virgin.

One of the hotel’s bartenders, Cash Caterine, says he feels fortunate to get his job back.

“I’ve seen this town go up and down and go through many different transitions but the pandemic was the worst of all the catastrophes,” Caterine said. “It’s definitely been a jarring experience for a lot of people.”

While Sin City is slowly coming back to life, thousands of workers who kept the casinos and resorts operating remain without a job.

Matthew Seevers spent 15 years bartending at Station Casino but was let go last March. He’s been trying to support his wife and two children with part-time work, but says the bills have been stacking up.

“I thought at most I’d be out of work for three months or whatever it took to get this crisis under control,” Seevers said. “Never would I have thought a year from now, we would be still here waiting to get our jobs back.”

Seevers is hoping for the passage of a bill, SB386, which aims to give workers who lost their hospitality and travel jobs due to the pandemic the right to return to jobs when business reopens or resumes operations.

The so-called “Right to Return” legislation would force large-scale casino, hotel, stadium and travel-related industries to offer laid-off employees their jobs back before offering the jobs to other people — allowing them to retain their seniority and benefits.

Students practice at the CEG Dealer School, where enrollment has skyrocketed after the pandemic forced many laid off workers to explore new job options in the lucrative casino business.

Students practice at the CEG Dealer School, where enrollment has skyrocketed after the pandemic forced many laid off workers to explore new job options in the lucrative casino business.

Lucy Kafanov

Other hospitality workers are training for new jobs

Others, tired of waiting, took up a new trade. Trevor McDonald was tired of struggling in the food industry and decided to train as a casino dealer in hopes of getting a more secure job.

“There were so many restrictions on the food and beverage industry to where it was a lot more work for much less money,” McDonald said. “You’re just staring across the pond and you see casino gambling is amplified over this time and the tables are packed — so I just realized that was the way to go.”

Trevor was one of hundreds of students training for a casino gig at the CEG Dealer School — where enrollment has been so high that managing director David Noll said he’s had to turn away applicants to comply with Nevada’s 50% occupancy restrictions.

On a recent afternoon, the school was packed with students practicing flipping cards onto empty blackjack tables while others rolled dice at craps.

Gesturing to the crowd, Alex Kim, executive director of the CEG Dealer School, said the mood here was symbolic of Sin City’s comeback.

“The energy here at the school you can tell right now — a lot of optimism, a lot of positivity,” said Kim.