Azucena Benito was working at a resort on the Las Vegas Strip on New Years Eve and said she felt safe from COVID-19.
The temperatures of the guests were checked at the entrances to the hotel-casino, while a 25 percent capacity rule was enforced on the gaming area. Benito said she and her colleagues were instructed not to wait for customers who weren’t wearing the required face mask.
A high risk celebration was taking place a short walk away on Las Vegas Boulevard. Amid a pandemic, thousands of people packed the street and sidewalks around Bellagio’s fountains as the clock crawled around midnight.
The raucous crowd violated Nevada’s nationwide ban on public gatherings of more than 50 people – and, in countless cases, the state’s mask mandate – and sang along to music accompanying the fountain show. Together they counted down the last seconds of the year and cheered so loudly that they could be heard in videos shot from hotel rooms high above them.
That morning, Nevada officials reported a record 59 deaths from the coronavirus.
“It basically looked like it was almost a regular New Year,” said Benito. “It definitely annoys me.”
Health experts say photos and videos documenting the impromptu gathering are the signs of a COVID-19 superspreader event that could lead to exponential growth in new cases. It occurred as Nevada and the nation tackled their worst coronavirus wave yet, and it will undoubtedly lead to the further spread of disease, both here and in neighboring states where hospitals are already overwhelmed with patients.
On Wednesday, Nevada COVID-19 Response Director Caleb Cage said the gathering, along with other holiday celebrations, will likely wipe out a recent stabilization the state has seen in new cases and hospitalizations. Government officials had urged people to celebrate at home with only members of their household.
“All of these efforts resulted in collective failure,” Cage said, referring to the specific gathering at the Bellagio Well to strike the right balance between keeping Nevada’s economy open and protecting public health.
The specialist in infectious diseases, Dr. Luis Medina-Garcia, described the crowd as “a dangerous, dangerous business across the board,” especially since a more contagious variant of the virus was recently found in Southern California.
“We’re a gambling city, but you can’t gamble with it,” said Medina-Garcia, who practices medicine at the University Medical Center Hospital in Las Vegas. “Spreading new variants of the virus is certainly not what we want to do as we simply cannot predict how it will play out.”
Anyone who attended should assume they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 and get tested, Cage said.
Governor Steve Sisolak echoed Cage’s advice in a written statement to the Review Journal by spokeswoman Meghin Delaney.
“As the governor has repeatedly said, security is a partnership,” the statement said. “We are relying on this partnership of the state, local authorities, business and the public to make good decisions and slow the spread.”
COVID-19 location and calendar testing
The warnings to stay home on New Year’s Eve contrasted with the officers’ other actions.
In the lead up to the long weekend vacation, the Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Authority visitors declared the area “open to business” for those comfortable traveling to party. The governor did not put restrictions on the number of hotel rooms the state’s resorts could book, and city police publicly announced they would not enforce social distancing or mask-wearing mandates.
Las Vegas Boulevard remained open to pedestrians on the Strip with no capacity restrictions. Conversely, the Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas severely restricted access to its entertainment district after outcry from state and Clark County officials.
Only a few blocks from the Bellagio Fountains, the night owls were much thinner, but the water show and music drew thousands. The crowd sang along to the “Star Spangled Banner” a few minutes before midnight, and many exchanged hugs and kisses to ring in the new year. One man showered hundreds of dollar bills on the floor and pulled people even closer to collect the money.
Subway police officers said Monday they had no crowds from the gathering on the sidewalk and street outside Bellagio, but they released estimates on Dec. 29 that up to 200,000 visitors could come to Las Vegas for New Year’s Eve.
The LVCVA attempted to discourage people from congregating on the Strip by canceling their annual midnight fireworks show on the Strip and not hosting outside events, agency spokeswoman Lori Nelson-Kraft wrote in an email.
“We found that the crowd was visibly lower than in previous years and we appreciate all of our resort partners and Metro for making sure things are fun and as safe as possible,” she wrote.
Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick, who heads the government agency responsible for the Strip and expressed concern about crowd formation in downtown Las Vegas, said Monday she had not seen any photos or videos of the gathering at the fountain because she had traveled outside the state over the holiday weekend.
“Hopefully a night of fun doesn’t bring us three weeks back,” she said. “We’ll see what the fallout is, but let’s keep our fingers crossed that it wasn’t bad.”
In the hotel-casinos on the Strip, operators made sure that their properties “fully comply with applicable regulations,” said Dawn Christensen, spokeswoman for the Nevada Resort Association.
Benito, who requested that her employer not be named, said she felt that her hotel casino was following the rules and safety precautions put in place to protect guests and workers from the spread of COVID-19. However, she asked why government officials had stopped bothering to enforce it on Las Vegas Boulevard.
“I don’t know if maybe they didn’t think we’d have such a large amount either, and it just turned around,” she said. “But I think at least a backup plan should have been considered. ”
According to experts, the public health impact of the Las Vegas New Year celebrations will be felt both inside and outside our state.
“Many of our visitors are from Southern California,” said Medina-Garcia. “Even if they return to their hometowns, it won’t help their hospital system either.”
Nearly 80,000 vehicles drove from California to southern Nevada from California on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, according to the Southern Nevada Regional Transportation Commission. Traffic to the state on New Years Day at the border was only exceeded by crossings on Labor Day weekend and July 4th weekend this year.
McCarran International Airport officials said they could not provide the number of passengers over the weekend. However, the Transportation Security Administration reported that more than 1.3 million travelers nationwide were screened on Sunday, the largest number since March.
Last month, officials from southern California reported that the area’s hospitals were running out of intensive care units. Ambulances with patients report waiting hours outside of hospitals before openings become available.
Las Vegas Valley hospitals have also reported in recent weeks that they are facing critical staff shortages and a declining supply of ICU beds.
“It’s not sustainable at all,” Henderson Intensive Care Unit Zachary Pritchett told the Review Journal in late December. “I would say we are fast approaching our breaking point.”
Tracking systems overwhelmed
The impact of tourism in Las Vegas on the spread of COVID-19 is currently unknown as contact tracking systems have been overwhelmed by the multitude of cases.
“There have certainly been events where we have been tracking and showing large gatherings like superspreader events,” said Dr. Amber D’Souza, Professor of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Unfortunately, more often than not, our tracking system is underutilized and has not really been able to measure the full impact of all these events.”
According to data released in late December, only 26 visitors knew of COVID-19 after returning home from a trip to Nevada.
However, the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services is unable to determine the “completeness” of the data as it is being reported by other states to officials here, agency spokeswoman Shannon Litz admitted.
“There’s no way to quantify how much data is not reported to Nevada for residents outside of the state,” Litz wrote in an email.
Now even less information is released to the public. State officials plan to stop compiling the data because the spread of COVID-19 in Nevada is too poor, Litz wrote.
“We appreciate your understanding as our limited workforce needs to focus their energies on responding to the surge in COVID cases across the state,” she wrote.
Contact Michael Scott Davidson at [email protected] or 702-477-3861. Follow @davidsonlvrj on Twitter.
The Review Journal’s staff, Mick Akers, Shea Johnson, and Bailey Schulz contributed to this report.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.