These Tourist Attractions Could Be COVID-19 Trouble

Denise Truscello/Getty
Denise Truscello/Getty

On Thursday afternoon, 53-year-old Lynn Rocha walked into a casino on the Las Vegas Strip and sat down at a slot machine.

People were raucously drinking and smoking around her, without face masks—seemingly unaware or unconcerned about the coronavirus pandemic—Rocha told The Daily Beast on Monday.

Rocha said her husband works the graveyard shift at a casino, and she wanted to go for a walk to see how different establishments on the Strip handled the city’s signature industry reopening after an historic 78-day COVID-19 shutdown.

“It was rather scary to see that people were not following the guidelines,” said Rocha, who said the woman at a slot machine next to her was “cursing at the machine, drinking, smoking, and sweating” without a face mask. “She was angry and kept wiping her face,” Rocha added. After the woman got up, “I looked around to see if any employee was going to come wipe down the machine and chairs,” she continued. “No one came. A couple walked in and went straight to that machine.”

Rocha said she tried to warn the couple of “the fluids” that might be lingering on the uncleaned chair, but was brushed off “like I was some kind of crazy person.”

If the reopened casinos caused a local uptick in cases, it would be difficult to identify, at least for the next several weeks. But there’s every reason to believe a handful of major tourist attractions that have reopened in recent days in states with already worrisome COVID-19 trend lines could mean longer-term epidemiological trouble. 

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Nevada, unlike other states, doesn’t include visitors or tourists in its COVID-19 case count, The New York Times noted on Sunday, pointing out that guests typically outnumber residents in Las Vegas by 20-to-1. Gov. Steve Sisolak has said he feels assured that local and state health authorities have taken “every precaution possible” to prevent Las Vegas’s resorts from spreading the virus. Dealers and players have been separated by Plexiglas, dice are being regularly rinsed in sanitizer, and guests are to be given temperature checks and encouraged to wear masks. 

Sisolak told reporters last week: “I don’t think you’ll find a safer place than Las Vegas,” adding that the state will “pull back if it causes any type of problem.”

To be sure, some casinos did appear to be following the state’s protocols. 

As the Los Angeles Times reported, guests waiting to enter the high-rise D Las Vegas Hotel & Casino on Thursday had their temperatures checked, then had drinks mixed by a bartender clad in lingerie and a surgical mask. And Jeff Hwang, a enthusiast and author who told the newspaper he tried to visit every single reopened casino in town that night, documented a mixed bag of establishments operating at least vaguely according to COVID-19 guidelines.

For her part, Rocha said she visited two large casinos where “there was no one checking temperatures at the door, no hand sanitizers at the doors, and people just carelessly walking in like there is no virus still around,” while “people were switching machines like a tag-team race.”

In at least one, “at the back portion of the casino, there were groups of people, within a foot of each other” who were “laughing, drinking, hugging,” she continued. Rocha said that while she enjoyed getting out of the house after a long lockdown, she doesn’t plan on revisiting any casinos on the Strip “for a while.”

But even if every casino visitor followed every precaution, there’s inherent danger in congregation right now, as public health experts emphasized to The Daily Beast on Monday.

“This disease spreads when you densely pack people together,” said Brian Labus, an assistant professor in the school of public health at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, who specializes in communicable disease surveillance. “They’re going to be at increased risk.” And it’s made worse by the sheer volume of objects that are thoughtlessly touched in a casino, Labus argued, from elevator buttons and railings to games, chips, dice, and drinks. 

An infectious disease expert advising the Vatican—and Wynn Resorts—told The New York Times that Vegas was more complicated from an epidemiological standpoint than the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. Meanwhile, as of Monday, Nevada’s two-week trend of new cases was still increasing, with 9,669 total infections and 438 total deaths.

To be clear, the state’s regulations do require casinos to flag any positive COVID-19 cases they learn about at a property. But the average Las Vegas visit is about three days, and no state guidelines exist to, for example, force hotels to follow up with guests after they return home from the city.

Ultimately, an uptick related to the reopened casinos won’t be visible for three to four weeks, Labus argued. And the travel that undergirds Vegas’ economy raises the stakes even higher.

“There are a lot of places you can be exposed on your voyage to and from Las Vegas,” said Labus. “I keep thinking about who would actually go to visit a casino in the middle of an outbreak. You’re selecting for people who don’t think it’s a big deal and are less likely to wear a mask. If people aren’t taking appropriate steps to protect themselves and the people around them, there’s more concern for disease spread.” 

“Right now if you’re really worried about coronavirus, you’re not getting on a plane to Las Vegas,” he added. 

But some states, like Florida, may be better prepared for that kind of tourism-related disease spread—and keep a public log of cases involving out-of-state visitors who test positive for COVID-19. That will come in handy over the next several weeks, as Florida tracks the potential result of theme parks like Universal Studios Orlando reopening this past weekend.

The park reopened to annual pass-holders on Wednesday and to the general public on Friday, and reportedly filled quickly with eager, masked fans of Harry Potter and rollercoasters alike.  The resort’s capacity was ratcheted down for social distancing, and blue circles had been painted on the ground to encourage six feet between groups.

“We were excited to welcome guests back during the next step of our phased reopening,” said Alyson Lundell, the senior director of public relations for Universal Orlando Resort, in a statement to The Daily Beast on Monday. “It was great to see our guests enjoying our attractions, entertainment and dining again. And we were able to put in practice the measures we have been planning: screening our guests and team members, social distancing, requiring facial coverings, limiting capacity at our parks and attractions, and increasing our cleaning and disinfection procedures.”

A nurse who visited the park seemingly confirmed that effort in an interview with USA Today, telling the newspaper that her family felt “all the precautions were up to snuff.”

As Julie Tremaine wrote for Travel + Leisure, Universal was “living in the new normal just as much as the rest of us.” Masks are required everywhere except for dedicated “U-Rest” areas for a breather, and audio messages throughout the park remind revelers to remain at a safe distance from one another.

What’s more, Tremaine added, “Every staff member I spoke to throughout the day thanked me for being there, not just because they knew it took a lot to walk back into a theme park in the midst of a global pandemic, but because, it seemed, they were as happy to be back at work as I was to be able to spend a day of leisure doing something I love to do.”

But—as in Vegas—even the kind of diligence reported at Universal Studios Orlando may still not be enough to inhibit transmission, according to Arnold Monto, a professor of epidemiology and global health at the University of Michigan who has advised both the World Health Organization and the Defense Department on communicable diseases

“You can wash your hands like crazy, but if you get somebody [infected] coughing or even speaking directly to you, you can get transmission,” said Monto. “The larger number of people you have coming in contact, the greater the probability that somebody in the group is going to be infected.”

And Universal Studios Orlando isn’t alone—or operating in a vacuum. As of Monday, Florida’s two-week trend of new cases was still increasing, with 63,938 total infections and 2,700 total deaths. And the resort will be followed by SeaWorld Orlando next week and Walt Disney World next month, though some classic Disney activities—like “meet-and-greets” with actors dressed as famous characters—won’t be back any time soon, according to USA Today.

Then there’s Texas.

At least one rodeo—the mother of all public attractions in the state—reopened on Saturday.

The privately owned Mesquite Championship Rodeo has anointed itself as “the first ticketed professional live sporting event” in the country since the pandemic shutdown. The rodeo director, Travis Wheat, said the 13-week Saturday night summer series will follow Dallas County guidelines and open at only 25 percent capacity, while encouraging social distancing and sanitizing surfaces that are often touched. 

As of Monday, Texas had a significant two-week increase in daily case counts, with a total of 75,408 confirmed cases and 1,841 deaths. Over the weekend, The Houston Chronicle reported a “significant increase in cases and hospitalizations” for Harris County—the third-largest county in the country—one month after Gov. Greg Abbott allowed businesses in the state to begin to reopen.

Many Americans have seemed to take comfort in recent days that those warned by public health experts to avoid mass gatherings were at least initially unscathed. While it’s still too early to know if nationwide mass protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd will be followed by COVID surges, Americans captured in viral photos of, say, a massive party at the Lake of the Ozarks appeared to have escaped the potentially deadly consequences. 

But even though partiers at the 54,000-acre reservoir in Missouri told reporters the lack of widespread transmission from the Memorial Day weekend bash was evidence “we can open up,” Monto said that’s a dangerous takeaway. 

“It’s a weird virus that transmits in some situations and not in others, and we still don’t understand that,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s very difficult to predict. It’s your personal experience, by chance, and what you’re dealing with locally.”

Ultimately, said Monto: “It’s all an experiment.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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