It’s America’s gaudiest playground, where crowds mill around the world-famous neon ‘Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas’ sign, jostling for selfies as the notorious Strip bustles with tourists seeking the buzz of debauchery.
Sin City has a well-earned reputation for offering every kind of thrill 24 hours a day – from high-stakes poker tournaments, slots and roulette wheels in the casinos to the strip joints, showbiz glitz and all-night bars.
Fortunes can be so easily made – or lost – in an instant.
But today, in the shadow of Covid-19, Las Vegas is on its own losing streak.
For while few places have been left unaffected by the pandemic, perhaps nowhere has had its devil-may-care attitude rocked as much as this narrow pocket of Nevada.
Casinos, hotels and shows which last year generated $60 billion (£48 billion) in tourist revenue are either almost empty or shuttered.
The entertainment mecca of the Strip, which attracted 49.5 million people in 2019 from around the world – including half a million from the UK – is neglected and deserted.
A 150ft-tall replica of the Statue of Liberty is wearing a face mask, while no one is clamouring for a selfie by the flashing neon signs.
Sin City has a well-earned reputation for offering every kind of thrill 24 hours a day – from high-stakes poker tournaments, slots and roulette wheels in the casinos to the strip joints, showbiz glitz and all-night bars
The famous fountains outside the Bellagio Hotel, which typically attracted crowds packed two or three deep, lie dormant. The steady roar of planes bringing tourists into McCarran International Airport has stopped.
Meanwhile, the empty skies are ashen – a result of the Californian wildfires being fanned from the neighbouring state by gusting Santa Ana winds.
At the Venetian Resort, bored-looking gondoliers punt passenger-less boats along the fake canals.
Posters may advertise hit shows by Cirque du Soleil and A-list superstars including Robbie Williams, Lady Gaga and Diana Ross, but all performances are cancelled.
The daytime pool parties and nightclubs – which a single Prince Harry once so infamously enjoyed before playing ‘strip billiards’ inside his room at the Wynn Casino – are just a memory.
Even Vegas’s ubiquitous strip joints are no more. Little Darlings tried to stay open, offering ‘coronavirus-free’ dancers and nude, hand-sanitised wrestling.
It is now shuttered with a sign saying: ‘Sorry, we’re clothed.’
The Nevada Resort Association warns losses could be as high as $39 billion (£30.5 billion) by the end of the year – most likely a record loss for this normally immensely profitable honeypot.
Even inside casinos which have reopened, life is odd.
Tourist Ben Jacobs, 23, from Los Angeles, says: ‘It’s like being in a zombie apocalypse movie. Vegas is somewhere you come for laughs and fun, but now it’s so quiet and everyone is wearing a mask.
‘There’s none of the usual human interaction. That stuff which makes you say, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. I came with a buddy to have a break but we’re only staying one night. Even the strip clubs are closed.’
Large swathes of the cavernous gambling floors have been roped off, leaving only limited areas open.
ALMOST DESERTED: The entertainment mecca of the Strip, which attracted 49.5 million people in 2019 from around the world – including half a million from the UK – is neglected and deserted. Pictured: The Vegas strip lies empty on September 9
One blackjack dealer explained: ‘The idea was to concentrate people in small areas to give a sense that there are more folks here than there actually are. Everyone has been affected by the pandemic but Vegas has been destroyed.
‘This is a town based purely on entertainment. I feel lucky to have my job. Tons of friends have been laid off. Most are stacking shelves and doing what they have to do to survive. The worst thing is not knowing when things will pick up.’
The reality is that some casinos may never reopen.
The Palms, which spent $690 million (more than £500 million) last year on a makeover – which included a $100,000-a-night (£78,000) ‘Empathy Suite’ designed by artist Damien Hirst and packed with his original artwork – remains closed. Two bull sharks suspended in formaldehyde in the lobby remain hidden to all but the security guards patrolling the property.
Frank Fertitta, CEO of Red Rock Resorts which owns The Palms, admits solemnly: ‘We don’t know when – or if – we will reopen.’
The Las Vegas Business Bureau estimates 40 per cent of restaurants may permanently fail.
Bosses of the ‘monorail’ which ferries guests between casinos on the Strip last week announced it had gone bust.
Inside Caesars Palace, a hedonistic tribute to the golden days of Rome, Perspex screens shield dealers at poker and blackjack tables, with plastic ‘walls’ in between each player.
Dealers wear masks and plastic visors, while visitors must wear masks, too.
I watch as one man, walking in without a face covering, is immediately approached by a security guard and handed a paper mask.
Cocktail waitresses in tiny skirts, once a Vegas trademark, are no longer allowed to serve gamblers at gaming tables. They may have been a cliche, but the casino seems soulless without them.
Instead, cleaners with spray bottles of disinfectant swoop in the moment someone walks away from a slot machine.
NO CROWDS: Caroline Graham at The Welcome to Las Vegas Sign, normally a busy selfie spot
‘Opening the door to my room at the Bellagio feels like entering a crime scene.’ The famous fountains outside the Bellagio Hotel (pictured), which typically attracted crowds packed two or three deep, lie dormant
Room rates – hundreds of dollars a night during peak times such as big boxing nights and New Year’s Eve – have plummeted to $49 a night or less, even at five-star resorts such as The Wynn.
Meanwhile, at the upmarket Bellagio, ‘washing stations’ – booths with antibacterial soap and alcohol gel next to the hand basin – are dotted around the casino floor.
Opening the door to my room at the Bellagio feels like entering a crime scene.
A sticker is pasted across the door seal. ‘Cleaned for You. Vegas, Safely,’ it says.
The room itself is spotless. Anything which might harbour the virus has been removed – from minibar food to magazines and even toiletries such as cotton buds and shower caps. The TV remote control is inside a paper shield with a note saying it’s been sterilised.
Every organisation is doing whatever it can – and getting creative – to survive.
Michael Caprio has run his eponymous public relations business in Vegas for 16 years. He represents the singer Olivia Newton-John as well as Vegas institutions such as the Chippendales, an all-male strip troupe that has performed here since the 1980s.
Mr Caprio says: ‘The Chippendales are offering Zoom parties for ladies who would usually come to the live shows to celebrate bachelorette parties, divorces or birthdays.
‘They’re doing games like “What’s in my pants” where they hide fruit and vegetables inside their trousers. It’s great fun and a way to keep a revenue stream flowing.’
Another client, magician Xavier Mortimer, saw his live show at Bally’s casino closed and so started performing online.
One trick he performed on Facebook became June’s most-watched video, attracting 50 million hits. Pre-virus, Mortimer had 40,000 social media followers – now it’s six million.
‘Xavier is a success story but I’ve never seen Vegas like this,’ Mr Caprio says.
‘Vegas is 99 per cent a hospitality industry town. You come to have fun, watch a show, eat out, go shopping, gamble.
‘When Covid shut us down in mid-March, it was devastating. Everywhere has been hit hard but there is a particularly heavy cloud hanging over Vegas.
Last week, singer Lily Allen married actor boyfriend David Harbour in Vegas alongside a singing Elvis impersonator. The couple’s wedding photos show them, with Allen’s two children from her first marriage, enjoying In-N-Out burgers post-ceremony
‘The unsettling part is we don’t know when the tourists will return and when Vegas will be allowed to get back to normal.
‘The dates keep getting pushed back. First it was, “Oh, we’ll be back in July”, then September, then Christmas. Now we’re talking March or May.
‘For every major talent such as Lady Gaga, there are thousands of support staff, lighting technicians, dancers, theatre ushers, cocktail waitresses who bring you your drinks. They’re all hurting.’
One glimmer of hope is that the famously tacky ‘instant wedding’ scene has started to pick up. Last week, singer Lily Allen married actor boyfriend David Harbour in Vegas alongside a singing Elvis impersonator.
The couple’s wedding photos show them, with Allen’s two children from her first marriage, enjoying In-N-Out burgers post-ceremony.
Her new husband, referring to the wildfire smoke, said: ‘In a wedding officiated by the king himself, the people’s princess wed her devoted, low-born, but kind credit card holder in a beautiful ceremony lit by the ashen skies courtesy of a burning state miles away in the midst of a global pandemic.’
At Vegas’s most famous wedding venue, A Little White Wedding Chapel, which pioneered the idea of a ‘quicky’ drive-through ceremony (Joan Collins, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Demi Moore and Bruce Willis and Britney Spears all wed there), owner Charolette Richards said a ‘normal’ day pre-Covid would have seen between 40 and 50 ceremonies.
‘We’re down to 15 to 20 now but people are starting to come back,’ she says.
‘People still want to get married and we’re taking every precaution. The bride and groom have their temperature taken, masks are worn up until the ceremony and the pastor wears a plastic visor.
‘It’s heartening to know that even coronavirus can’t kill off love. Couples are coming to Vegas for a fun, memorable wedding. The difference now is there are no guests.’
For example, Lainey Reed, 29, a photographer, and her fiance Ross Gibson, 30, an oil worker, were married with the help of another Elvis impersonator called Michael Conti. He appeared alongside Johnny Depp in the movie Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and he serenaded the bride and groom with Can’t Help Falling In Love.
Inside Caesars Palace, a hedonistic tribute to the golden days of Rome, Perspex screens shield dealers at poker and blackjack tables, with plastic ‘walls’ in between each player. Dealers wear masks and plastic visors, while visitors must wear masks, too. Pictured: A 150ft-tall replica of the Statue of Liberty is wearing a face mask
The Louisiana couple had originally planned a lavish ceremony in Hawaii but were forced to cancel. ‘We wanted to be married so decided, on the spur of the moment, to come to Vegas and just do it,’ Lainey explains. ‘It’s way less stress than the wedding we’d planned. Once Covid is over, we’ll have a big party for our friends.’
Their can-do spirit is shared by many.
Sotheby’s estate agent Gene Northup says house sales are up 24 per cent as families flee big cities for suburban areas where they can get large family homes for far less than in California.
He adds: ‘Real estate is booming. Coronavirus has made people want single-family homes with Zoom rooms to work out of.
‘Apartments on the Strip aren’t doing well, though, because people don’t want to share communal gyms and lifts. Wealthy families are flocking here from places such as LA, Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco. Tax rates are low, as is the cost of living.
‘Covid has been devastating to our economy but there is always a silver cloud to every situation and real estate is it. Vegas will come back.’
Michael Caprio adds: ‘Vegas may be down, but never count us out. What I want to say to people everywhere, especially our friends in Britain, is that we look forward to welcoming you back sometime very soon.’
All bets may have been off. But for Vegas, there will always be another roll of the dice.