In Nevada: It took an arm twist, but gaming industry gets the message By John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports March 18, 2020 at 8:00 pm Call it a coincidence if you’d like, but the timing of articles from major news outlets pointing out the fact Las Vegas Sands’ sparkling Strip casinos The Venetian and Palazzo were still open after other gaming giants had already shut their doors turned out to be as prescient as they were politically prickly. The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News joined CDC Gaming Reports in reporting the vastly different approaches between gaming companies to the COVID-19 pandemic. MGM Resorts International and Wynn Resorts chose to close Strip properties, but others – and most notably Las Vegas Sands – continued to plow forward against increasingly troubling facts. Last week’s coronavirus pandemic-influenced decision by MGM Resorts and Wynn sent a jolt of reality through the gaming industry at a critical moment. Some felt it sharply. Others appeared to be in a state of denial. For some, the earlier closures were written off as business decisions. Certainly, steep declines in hotel occupancy and air travel along would be enough for any gaggle of bean counters to conclude that it made good sense to drastically curtail and even close the casino resorts. But with each passing day, those decisions appeared more and more thoughtful. And the companies that dragged their feet by adding sanitizer stations and increased janitorial staff while advertising food and drink discounts looked worse and worse. By Sunday, even as he ramped up his rhetoric and increased restrictions Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak was still reluctant to turn out the lights on the state’s largest economic engine. “But to protect the public health and safety of Nevadans and visitors, I strongly support any of our properties that make the difficult decision to close to the public,” he added. That shifted again Tuesday evening when the Governor announced that all gaming would cease in the state at midnight. Sands had already made its announcement, but by then even those with poor eyesight could see the writing on the wall. “Today it is clear additional steps must be taken immediately to slow the spread of this deadly virus in our state,” Sisolak said in a press conference at the Grant Sawyer Building, during which he expressed anger that the life-and-death message might not be getting through to some people. “… People are looking for a loophole here, this is affecting the lives of our citizens.” Pandemics don’t give loopholes. To its credit, Sands said it was committed to paying its employees during the closure with no layoffs or furloughs planned. Nor would employees’ health insurance take a hit. at a time when employees in other industries are feeling a much colder shoulder, the emphasis on workers’ wellbeing is laudable. The Venetian Las Vegas And perhaps that will help ease the public relations damage done by not acting more quickly. As late as Sunday, a Sands spokesman informed The Wall Street Journal that the company had no plans to shutter its Strip properties. The message Sands President Rob Goldstein sent this week surely helped repair the potential hit the company was receiving in the court of public opinion and on social media. After the decision to close was made, he reminded skeptics, “our most important commitment is the one we have made to the health and safety of our team members and guests.” For good measure, he added, “Right now, the best way to fulfill that commitment is by asking people not to come to work. While we hope this closure is a short-term necessity, we are realistic. It may be a prolonged event.” Sands is majority-owned by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a major donor to the Republican Party and supporter of President Donald Trump, who has seen his vast fortune as one of the world’s richest men take a hit along with the stock market. To some, his failure to close earlier appeared to echo the president’s own initial downplaying of the virus’s potential devastation. So maybe we can call it a learning moment for Sands and some others. But was the lesson already taught in Macau? In January, the coronavirus outbreak sliced into casinos when the celebrations during the immensely lucrative Chinese New Year were silenced. In February, the Macau government ordered a two-week closure in February as travel restrictions increased. What was bad for business in the short term has apparently helped Macau turn an important corner in battling the virus. Citing a government information bureau, Bloomberg News notes that just 11 cases have been reported with 10 persons already discharged from a local hospital. It’s also important to remember that the complex story is evolving rapidly, and today’s good news might easily be buried under more troubling trends. The faster response by MGM and Wynn gave the companies a chance to remind others that they were taking their roles in the community seriously. At a time when all credible indicators point to COVID-19 remaining with us for months to come, and with disease experts agreeing that practicing social distancing and avoiding big crowds entirely are the only realistic ways to slow the spread of a virus that already overwhelms our health care system, it was clearly the right thing to do. The economic impact reverberates far beyond the corporate boardroom and stock market. The lives of thousands of working people, the real drivers of the industry’s tourism engine, are taking a substantial hit. Whether out of an abundance of concern for visitors and employees, or something more political, the bottom line is that Nevada’s powerful gaming industry has received the message thanks in part to Sisolak. Las Vegas casinos have gone dark for now, but these are dark times. John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas columnist and author. Contact him at email@example.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.