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LAS VEGAS – Like much of the country, Nevada has all but shut down, with the bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip replaced with the flashing lights of police cars stationed in front of casinos amid efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“This is this is unbelievable. I mean, we do the Haunted Vegas tour, I did not think that the next ghost town was going to be Las Vegas,” Adam Flowers, co-owner of Vegas Specialty Tours, told Fox News.
In a typical year, Las Vegas would be swarming with people, welcoming roughly 42 million tourists to Sin City, the streets filled with unabashed eyes soaking in the sea of neon.
“So that's 3.5 million guests in an average month, and [now] that's obviously, for the current period time, virtually zero,” Steve Hill, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) CEO, told Fox News. “It is shocking how different the outlook is from six weeks ago and three weeks ago. You know, we've all been shocked, frankly, by the speed and the depth of how this has hit us.”
The oasis in the middle of the desert has suddenly dried up.
Last week, Caesars furloughed 90 percent of its domestic workforce. Penn National Gaming Inc. announced it's selling the iconic Tropicana casino for $307.5 million, which Bloomberg reported was more than $50 million less than it paid for the property five years ago.
“If this lasts nine months [to] a year, then we're dead. And the comeback is going to be long and hard and painful,” Bill Robinson, a University of Nevada Las Vegas economics professor, said. “There's not going to be any jobs here, and anybody who's got prospects elsewhere is going to want to go.”
No other state in the nation relies more heavily on tourism to drive its economy than Nevada.
The industry made up one-fifth of Southern Nevada’s gross domestic product (GDP), or roughly 18.4 percent, in 2017. Tourism generates roughly $58 billion annually for Southern Nevada and supplies nearly 370,000 jobs, representing about 40 percent of employment in Clark County, according to the LVCVA.
To compare, tourism represented about 16 percent of Nevada’s total economic output in 2018, while Hawaii came in second at 10 percent -- no other state in the country had a tourism GDP of more than 6 percent, according to PEW data.
Additionally, the leisure and hospitality sector accounted for roughly 40 percent of the state’s general fund, Hill said.
“Nevada is more dependent on tourism and hospitality than Alaska is on oil or Montana is on coal or Michigan is on the auto industry. It is a bigger part of our economy than any other state has with a single economy,” Hill said. “So you're right, it is a very difficult time for the Nevadans. But as I said, once we get this behind us, we are still Las Vegas. We are the place that people want to come back to as soon as they possibly can.”
This past March, the Trump administration issued a level 4 travel advisory, the most severe warning on the State Department’s scale, urging U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to the coronavirus outbreak. The President imposed a travel ban on most European countries and China and suspended nonessential travel between both the southern border in Mexico and the northern border in Canada.
Roughly 17 percent of tourism in Las Vegas is international, with the bulk coming from Canada, Mexico and the U.K., Hill said.
States across the country ordered nonessential businesses to shut down and people to stay at home, with Trump extending the federal social distancing guidelines until April 30.
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak made the unprecedented decision in March to shut down the Las Vegas Strip, a tough but necessary move, Hill said.
“Our governor has taken the right steps. Closing the strip was painful, but it was clearly the right thing to do,” Hill told Fox News, adding that the early decision to shut things down, coupled with assistance from the federal government to help bridge the gap with programs like the Paycheck Protection Program, will help the industry come out “healthy on the other end.”
Social distancing measures have proven to be effective to slow the spread of COVID-19, flattening the curve and undoubtedly saving countless lives -- unfortunately, the economic fallout has been an unavoidable side effect.
Nevada set a new record with more than 92,000 unemployment claims the week after the state shut down, with the Economic Policy Institute predicting unemployment reaching nearly 20 percent by summer, according to The New York Times.
For small business owners such as Flowers, who runs Vegas Specialty Tours, which explores the spookier side of Vegas and its old mobster roots, it’s all about trying to survive the uncertainty.
“We're trying to cut as many expenses as we can. you know, if this thing goes to July, will we still be able to hang on? I don't know. I hope so. I really do. But I don't know," he said. "I mean, like I said, our tour guides are doing other jobs, other gigs ... I might have to jump in there and start doing tours again. I have no clue what's going to happen.”
Robinson said that the assistance from the federal government with the additional funding in the Cares Act will help keep money in the pockets of workers who lost their jobs, however, the real concern lies with the companies and whether they will be able to financially recover.
“All the big companies are still billions of dollars in debt and they've got to keep their debt payments somehow or refinance their debt, but there are huge financial problems and the casinos might actually be in bigger financial trouble by the end of this than the workers are,” Robinson said.
The turmoil and financial instability could cause companies to sell off certain properties to recoup some money, which was the case in 2008 when MGM sold Treasure Island to billionaire Phil Ruffin.
“We could see better competition and a lot of new players in town and maybe some good coming out of it that,” Robinson said. “I don't think they're going to go bankrupt, but they might be in that position where they're forced to sell off some properties to cover their debt burdens.”
It’s been more than 50 years since casinos on the Strip closed down for John F. Kennedy’s funeral on Nov. 25, 1963, but this is the first time that all Nevada casinos statewide have been ordered to close, Michael Green, a history professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, told The Associated Press.
The unprecedented situation has officials preparing for any number of scenarios in trying to factor the severity of the economic impact when the stay-at-home order and travel restrictions are finally lifted.
“It is a broad range of potential outcomes, that's for sure. And right now, and we’ll tell our board this in a couple of weeks, that we're modeling between 50 and 70 percent of what we anticipated in a normal year next year in terms of room tax revenue,” Hill said, adding: “We're not going to just flip a switch and things are going to return to normal.”
But, when things do ultimately return to normal, you can bet on one thing.
“We're going to throw the biggest party the world has ever seen. When we can welcome our visitors back, everybody is going to need it. And there's no better place to have it than here in Las Vegas,” Hill said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.