LAS VEGAS – On a final Friday night along Fremont Street, thousands of tourists hold onto drinks wrapped under the bright lights of the canopy.
Many made their way to card tables, slots, and restaurants while hundreds more waited shoulder to shoulder on a zebra crossing on Las Vegas Boulevard to join the party.
Some were there to play. Others were there to dance.
These are signs of change in a vacation capital devastated by COVID-19. As people break out of isolation with the gunshot in their arms and come here to write new chapters in their lives, Las Vegas tourism is recovering to pre-pandemic levels.
Sharon Grooms (64) is at a slot machine at the Bellagio Casino, waiting for her daughters to show up.
Originally from Bowling Green, Kentucky, Grooms made her Pfizer recordings in January. This Vegas trip seemed like a rite of passage after a long, frustrating quarantine.
“The first air trip in a year,” said Grooms. “Had to wear a mask for four hours.”
Sitting next to grooms was a friend who lost her husband to COVID-19 last year. Still navigating her grief, she got on the plane with her friends and hit the slot machine buttons to distract herself from things.
“We came out for a girls trip,” said Grooms. “He would have wanted that.”
The vaccine encouraged women to venture far from home and let go.
But others with no gunshots in their arms did exactly the same thing.
“I’m not paranoid”
Daniel Erskine stood near a roulette table with a can of Bud Light Seltzer and watched a few friends – his “homeboys” – play.
The 37-year-old Denver IT man came to Las Vegas months ago – “in my heart,” he said – and noticed how cautious casinos and visitors had become.
This time when he stayed at the Bellagio, he felt a change. People are more relaxed in their behavior. Fewer masks cover faces on the strip. Much more people visit us.
And he’s right. A stroll down Las Vegas Boulevard confirms his observations.
“It’s not like your face,” he said. “The paranoia feels like it’s going away.”
Although the world has 150 million coronavirus cases and the US reports 575,000 deaths, the pandemic is in the rearview mirror for many.
Erskine didn’t get the vaccine. He’s still undecided if he’ll get it.
“I’m not paranoid,” he said.
Economic reports show a recovery
New economic reports show a surge in airport passengers and tourism – and a big jump in a key index showing that casinos made $ 1 billion in profits nationwide for the first time since February 2020 last month.
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau recorded more than 2.2 million visitors in March – a 40% decrease from the same month last year.
However, that number rose from the 1.5 million tourists who came to Las Vegas in the first half of March 2020, before casinos and other businesses closed to prevent people from collecting and spreading COVID-19.
McCarran International Airport handled nearly 2.6 million passengers last month – an increase of 961,000 compared to around 1.6 million arriving and departing passengers in February. In the same month last year, the airport counted 4.4 million passengers on its way to a record 51.5 million travelers in 2019.
Steve Sisolak, governor of Nevada, eased the statewide occupancy limit from 35% to 50% on March 15 and plans to leave damage control measures to local jurisdictions on May 1st.
Meanwhile, more and more Americans are being shot in the arms.
One hundred million Americans received their second of two shots or a one-time vaccine, and 220 million Americans received at least one dose to protect against COVID-19, White House officials said Friday.
“That’s 100 million Americans with a sense of relief and peace of mind who know they are protected from the virus after a long and tough year,” said Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator.
At the Bellagio fountain, Derek Davis held up his cell phone to snap a picture of his nephew and mother watching the water show.
The 37-year-old drove two hours from Hurricane, Utah to Las Vegas to pick up his family at the airport. They decided to visit the strip before going home.
Davis looked around for the tourists who were growing by the hour and had a word lately to describe his feelings.
“Hopefully,” he said.
Contributors: USA TODAY, Associated Press.