Whether for the Elvis Presley years or the heyday of 80s glam rock, Las Vegas has always unashamedly trafficked in nostalgia.
Right now the city yearns most for the days of 2019 — a time before the coronavirus pandemic plunged it into the most acute crisis in its 116-year history.
On Fremont Street, the historical centre of Las Vega’s golden era, you would think Covid-19 had never happened. A couple of hundred people huddle around a live music stage as a passable Bon Jovi cover blares out.
At the front, Felicity Shoars, 21, cools herself with a fan bearing the words “F*ck it” — her attitude, she says, to the pandemic.
“The fun is worth the risk. We’re here for a good time.”
Around a bar inside the iconic Golden Nugget, there is a similar determination to get back to normal. But there is also evidence of America’s lopsided response to tackling Covid-19 and the divisions that have allowed the Delta variant to take hold.
Christina and Kevin Engel, both 51 and from Baltimore, are here to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary though technically now it is their 26th after having to postpone last year’s trip. “We feel comfortable,” says Christina, saying that she, her husband and her son all got vaccinated as soon as possible.
Two seats down, Sandy Nelson, 58 and from Kentucky, declares the pandemic to be “all bullshit”. “I don’t plan on getting vaccinated,” she says.
In the middle of it all, a 28-year-old barman who says he is hesitant to get the vaccine, hinting at some of the disinformation that has spread online. He wishes more of his customers would wear masks. “We have people from Florida, we have people from Texas,” he says. It had been exhausting, he says, not to mention dangerous, “telling a drunk person four or five times a day” to mask up.
From June 1, it was no longer necessary, as Nevada’s governor, Steve Sisolak, brought an end to the state’s mask mandate for people gathering indoors. Now it is back on.
“I know you’re frustrated,” Sisolak, a Democrat, told a press conference last week, following a spike in cases. “I am too. The last thing I wanted to do was make Nevadans put their masks back on.”
It was a step back, he argued, though not quite back to square one. There would be no reintroduction of capacity restrictions or any other constraints that caused visitors to plummet during the worst days of the pandemic. In April 2020, visitor numbers dropped to just 106,900 compared to some 3.5m in the same month in 2019.
This past April, visitors numbers had recovered to just over 2.5m, according to data from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
But the Delta variant looms, threatening to ruin what some have predicted will be a “Roaring 20s” for Las Vegas once Covid is defeated.
From April to June, according to figures from the Nevada Gaming Control Board, casinos on the Las Vegas strip recorded their highest gambling takings since 2006, despite the fact that international tourists, who stay longer and spend more, are yet to return.
The money going into slot machines — the socially distanced gambling option — has never been higher.
Counting casinos across the entire state, the house took in a monthly record of $1.23bn in May.
“I didn’t see it coming,” said Michael Lawton, senior economic analyst for the gaming board. “It was a really drastic fall, but it’s looking to be a really drastic climb back up to where we were.”
Still lagging is the return of business guests, who typically stay in the down days of Sunday to Thursday.
Casinos across the whole of Nevada took in a monthly record of $1.23bn in May © David Becker/Getty Images
In early June, the return of World of Concrete marked the first major trade show since the beginning of the pandemic — not just in Vegas, but in the country as a whole. It attracted “tens of thousands” of guests, organisers said, seen here as a turning point.
“Exhibitors are very excited,” said Lori Nelson-Kraft, the LVCVA’s head of communications. “They’re getting good quality attendees, and deals are getting done. But attendance is just going to look smaller until a full recovery happens in the economy.”
That recovery will require a returning workforce. Like many places across the US, employee shortages have put strain on Vegas, where presentational prowess often masks the Herculean logistical efforts going on behind the scenes.
In many hotels, it means restaurants are running shorter hours and fewer tables. In a mostly unwalkable city — where temperatures regularly exceed 40 degrees centigrade — taxi ranks often sit empty and rideshare apps can require wait times of 20 minutes and beyond — if a car can even be located.
The Culinary Union, which represents 60,000 workers in Las Vegas and Reno, blames the resorts for the shortages and not, as others have suggested, the effects of stimulus cheques or safety concerns.
“It’s not because of a lack of workers who want to work,” says Bethany Khan, the union’s head of communications for the Local 266 chapter. “But rather companies haven’t recalled workers back to work.”
Enforcing basic health measures is difficult in Las Vegas, an economy built around bringing people close together at craps tables, at shows or packed into nightclubs.
Trying to introduce strict distancing and additional sanitisation risks removing some of the Vegas spirit, though you can see some valiant efforts. At the Westgate Resort, where Barry Manilow has upcoming shows, guests are told to wash their hands for as long as it takes to sing one chorus of “Copacabana”.
If the city can manage to stave off another shutdown, locals are bullish about its future. During the pandemic, several new projects moved forward unhindered, including the opening of a 60,000-seat stadium now housing the Las Vegas Raiders football team, recently relocated from Oakland.
And on Fremont Street, the glitzy, adults-only Circa hotel became the first new purpose-built casino in “historic” Vegas for some 40 years when it opened in October. It is already a huge hit, at least among those who can visit. This FT reporter’s British ID was the first the doorman had seen. Until the world’s partiers return, the Roaring 20s in Vegas will be on hold.