Las Vegas, (slightly) before and (not quite) after Covid

Annette and I went to Las Vegas a couple weeks ago, the sixth time in the last 20 years. The last time we went was in late February 2020; it was the last normal thing we did before sheltering in place. So it made a certain amount of poetic sense that the first big trip we took after being fully vaccinated was back to Vegas.

That, and we got a really good deal on the flight and hotel.

Most of the people we know are lefty humanities intellectual academic types who think Las Vegas is “gross,” but we like it– at least in three or so night doses every couple of years. We do like to gamble (Annette more than me), but neither of us plays any table games or poker– just the slots– and most of the time, gambling is something we do before or after we do something else. I can’t imagine how anyone goes to Las Vegas and does not gamble at least a little bit, but the main attraction of Las Vegas for me is the spectacle of it all. I like fancy celebrity (okay, overhyped for the tourists) restaurants, and we’ve had good luck in the past seeking out/stumbling into more local kinds of places. I like the goofy faux glamor of the big resorts and even kind of like (in smaller doses) the grit and grime of the “real” Las Vegas downtown. We like the shows– we’ve seen Blue Man Group, Penn and Teller, a few of the Cirque Du Soleil shows, and also lounge acts (when we stumble upon them) and smaller burlesque/cabaret variety shows. And of course the people watching in Las Vegas is the best because there are complete weirdos everywhere: rich people with dubious plastic surgery, homeless people hustling change, fat midwesterners (me!) stopping right in the middle of a busy sidewalk to just gawk, 20-somethings with tattoos they will regret, bros and the female equivalent wandering around in packs and probably imagining themselves in a Las Vegas-set movie.

Las Vegas is everything that is wrong and right with the advanced capitalist state. It is a waste of resources, a city that is totally unnecessary and made what it is now by a history of organized crime and greed. There’s a lot of walking sad stories. I haven’t seen Leaving Las Vegas in a long time, but as I remember it, it’s clearly not that far-fetched of a story. But there is also something for almost everyone and at almost every price point, from villas with butlers for thousands and thousands of dollars a night, to sketchy rooms at an off the strip motel for $25. Super rich and successful people from Los Angeles on an impromptu visit walk up and down the strip at 1 am and play slots right right next to the next to janitors from Montana that saved for years for the trip, and it’s oftentimes hard to tell them apart. So maybe Las Vegas is a level of hell, but at least we’re all in it together.

Anyway, right after we scheduled our second dose, we wanted to make May travel plans. Las Vegas was an easy choice because of the (sort of) bookend experience of before and after Covid, and also because of the prices. I should point out there is no fucking way we would have done ANY of this without being fully vaccinated. I mean, we didn’t go to any restaurant during covid, indoors or out. Also, the idea that Las Vegas has been open since last summer (albeit with restrictions) kind of freaks me out. I’ll come back to this point.

Last February, we stayed at the Wynn because of a game Annette played on her phone for literally months where she got enough points (or whatever) to pay for the room for a night or two. This time, we got a fountain-view room at the Bellagio because we’ve always wanted to stay there and the price was right. And then– long story short– we ended up being upgraded to an enormous penthouse suite which was, well, sweet. Last year, we rented a car so we could get off of the strip a couple of times, including a trip out to Red Rock Canyon, downtown, and to The Mob Museum. And as a bit of unsolicited advice to those who might think of going to Las Vegas: if you think you’re liable to need more than one Uber or cab per day, or if you are planning on doing any tourism off of the strip, renting a car is the way to go. Also, Red Rock Canyon and The Mob Museum are both completely awesome.

This time, we kept it simple because we thought it wise during pandemic-y times to not plan too much, and also because this was our sixth trip– and the third one since 2018. We kind of had already done stuff we wanted to do off the strip, at least for a while. So we took a cab to and from the airport, and otherwise stuck close to the hotel. During the day, we spent a lot of time enjoying our ridiculous suite and also hanging around the fantastic pool area. We didn’t have any particularly fancy food experiences because a lot of those restaurants were closed on the days we were there– Monday night through Thursday morning– and it was too late to get a reservation at one of the few fancy places that were open. We didn’t see any of the big shows because none of them had restarted yet, though we did go see Absinthe, which was a modern take on burlesque: a couple of SUPER dirty insult comics, a number of acrobatic and strength acts of the sort you might recognize form America’s Got Talent, and several dancers, both men and women, and featuring a stripper who started out in a gorilla suit. If you are okay with extreme potty mouth and breasts with pasties, I’d recommend it.

And of course, there was the before and after Covid. Back in February 2020, the pandemic was something that was almost done in Asia and raging in Italy; the idea that it would come to the U.S. was still a bit abstract, at least for me. Back then, I saw some people wearing masks, though they were mostly Asian and I just saw it as being overly cautious and a cultural thing (it’s not so odd to see people wearing face masks in more “normal times” in places like China and Japan). And keep in mind that this was when the official advice was masks weren’t necessary and to just wash your hands.

This time, there were masks and distancing and other Covid protocols pretty much everywhere, and I was surprised by the extent to which people played along. Oh, I’m not saying compliance was perfect. There were lots of chin diapers and noses hanging out, and not a lot of distancing while waiting in lines for things or walking around crowded casinos or sidewalks. But given that there are a lot of parts of the country where you rarely see people making any effort at all, I thought the compliance was pretty good, and that was especially true in casinos. If the choice is follow the rules or get kicked out, people follow the rules.

On the day we left, the CDC changed the guidelines about masks so that anyone fully vaccinated didn’t need to wear one anymore, inside or out. I noticed that the Bellagio’s web site now says “fully vaccinated guests do not need to wear masks,” though I don’t think there’s any system in place to verify that. I suppose we will all see if the rule changes result in an uptick in covid among the unvaccinated going maskless, though there hasn’t been any sign of that yet anywhere. And really, even though Las Vegas and all of its casinos have been open (albeit with severe limits) for quite a while now, Covid has been less serious there than in Michigan and metro Detroit. I’m not sure if anyone quite understands why, though it’s a lot easier to be outside in southern Nevada in the winter months and the ventilation in casinos has always been good (which is why you don’t smell as much cigarette smoke in those places as you might think). So maybe going to Vegas was at least as safe as staying home?

The success of the vaccine and the beginning of a return to what life was like before the pandemic is great, but I do have to wonder what would have happened if there was no vaccine and we were going to have to live with face masks and distancing and the risk of dying from this stupid disease indefinitely. How long would I have stayed out of restaurants, movie theaters, casinos? At what point would even the cautious like me said “I don’t care anymore, I’m just going to go to Vegas and take my chances?” At what point would those of us following the rules and the science have thrown that all out and joined the reckless and the deniers and just did what we wanted? Tens of thousands of people die needlessly every year in this country from guns because we have almost no restrictions on them and we’ve gotten pretty used to that being just the way things are. At what point with the pandemic would we have all kind of just accepted it and went back to doing what we did before?

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