• Coronavirus cases have been on the rise for weeks in Las Vegas, and the timing of the uptick lines up well with Nevada’s “phase two” reopening, which started on May 29. Casinos followed close behind, on June 4.
  • The governor of Nevada is now requiring everyone to wear masks in public, with few exceptions.
  • The state’s economy is heavily reliant on tourist dollars, and if cases continue to spread, businesses may be forced to shutter again.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

They don’t have to sparkle or shine, but since Friday face masks have been required attire at casinos, restaurants, and all other businesses across Nevada.

Nevada’s Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak is hoping that requiring masks in public – something public health officials have been stressing can help reduce some of the spread of the coronavirus from person to person – will help drive down a troubling uptick in coronavirus cases in a state that is heavily reliant on tourism.

“Every hour there are photographs, or videos, posted of large, unmasked clusters of people … clusters of potential COVID-19 spread,” Sisolek said last week, announcing the new mask rule, which applies to any public space.

So far, at least one Las Vegas casino employee has died of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Adolfo Fernandez, who worked at Caesar’s Palace for 18 years, died last Wednesday, as local ABC affiliate KNTV first reported on Friday.

Fernandez's daughter told ABC "I have proof" that her father tested negative for the virus before he went back to work, and began experiencing his first symptoms of the virus, days later. The Culinary Workers Union of Las Vegas and Reno is now also filing a lawsuit against three other major Las Vegas casino restaurants, alleging hazardous working conditions there.

Casinos are certainly not the only place where the virus is spreading in Las Vegas, or around the state of Nevada. Public health experts say there's been a triple threat at work: widespread business reopening, in concert with casinos, and a fairly lackadaisical public. Together, they've all helped propel the state's dramatic virus spread.

"We cannot just pinpoint this spread to any casino, or casinos at large," Southern Nevada Health District's acting chief health officer Fermin Leguen told Business Insider. "Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that."

Cases have been rising ever since phase 2 began - opening schools, gyms, museums, and tattoo parlors

Coronavirus cases in Las Vegas have been increasing in lock-step with the state's "phase 2" reopening, which started before casinos opened back up. Phase 2 allowed schools, gyms, museums, massage and tattoo parlors, and many other hands-on, face-to-face establishments across the state to begin reopening their doors, on May 29. Casinos followed six days after that, on June 4.

It can take anywhere from a few days to two weeks or more for the coronavirus to incubate in the body after an exposure before people start to feel sick, and maybe seek out a test.

"The timing of this matches up with our second phase of reopening," Brian Labus, a professor of public health and outbreak investigator at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, told Business Insider. "I think people just weren't following any of the rules."

As more people across Nevada ventured out to restaurants, shopping centers, salons, getting back into the groove of everyday life, they had newfound opportunities to hang out and swap some air with friends and family in indoor spaces, in casinos and elsewhere.

The air-conditioned temperatures indoors in Nevada are often more refreshing than outside, in the desert heat. The average midday temperature in Las Vegas in June rises to around 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 Celsius). Indoors, though, is also where the virus spreads better between people, unencumbered by fresh air and sun.

People were "refusing to wear masks" before Friday's mandate

vegas masks coronavirus

Foto: Ballroom dancers Alejandro Domingo and Sarah LeClear participate in a fashion show in front of the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign on the Las Vegas Strip to kick off the pro-mask wearing campaign "Mask Up for Nevada." Source: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Before last Friday's mandate, the proportion of both residents and visitors in town wearing masks was "very slim," Brittany Bronson, a writer and former cocktail server who spent seven years previously working in various Las Vegas casinos, told Business Insider.

"The majority of people were refusing to wear masks," Bronson said.

She had also noticed a "weird political divide" about mask wearing in her city.

"It seems like half of the people want to, half the people don't," she said. "Unless there is some type of mandate or rule, I just couldn't see people being willing to start wearing masks, just for the benefit of other people, and primarily for the benefit of the workers, who have to go back to work, and don't really have a choice in the matter."

Casinos had offered $20 to people to put on masks, but many didn't

las vegas customers no masks

Despite the fact that many casinos handed out free masks to customers, and, in some cases, even offered $20 to patrons just to put one on, most gamblers weren't interested.

"You're selecting for the people who are probably least likely to pay attention to those kinds of things," Labus said. "They are willing to travel in the middle of a pandemic. They're coming here on vacation, where they know they're going to be around a lot of other people. And so those are people who are less concerned about the outbreak, and probably less likely to take some of the social distancing seriously."

Labus said this put the casinos in an awkward position of confronting their own customers, if they insisted on masks. Caesar's Palace did start mandating masks for all its customers, on the same day that Fernandez died, but most venues decided not to, instead prioritizing more physical barriers, contactless check-ins, and coronavirus tests for staff.

Now, "[casinos] can say 'I don't want to do it, but the governor said I have to,'" Labus said about masks.

Masks are not a perfect protection - we need social distancing, too

vegas masks required

Foto: Drag performer Jim McCoy as Auntie Norma Llyaman and Chippendales cast members Ricky Rodgers and Ryan Worley participate in a fashion show in front of the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign on the Las Vegas Strip to kick off the pro-mask wearing campaign "Mask Up for Nevada" on June 25, 2020. Source: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Masks alone probably won't eradicate Nevada's outbreak completely, more distance will be important too.

"I understand that after reopening many people feel like the virus is gone, and now everything is going back to normal," Leguen said. "Unfortunately, that's not true. Still, the virus is here, and there's still a high risk of acquiring the disease if we don't protect ourselves properly."

Under the new mask mandate, people will still be allowed to sit down and dine in close proximity to others without their face coverings on, perhaps inadvertently swapping some spit (and virus particles) while they enjoy more time and meals together.

"I would say probably in two weeks we should start to see an effect, if it is there," Leguen said.

If widespread virus transmission is not soon contained, Las Vegas could shut down near completely again, which would cripple an economy that is heavily reliant on tourists' dollars. Nearly 40% of Nevada's state budget comes from tourism.

"Republicans, Democrats, left and right, business owners and workers, let's do what's necessary to not only keep our economy open, but hopefully allow us to go full throttle in the future, safely and successfully," Governor Sisolak said last Wednesday when announcing the new mask requirement, which includes some exceptions, such as for kids and people with breathing issues.

Nevada really needs to stay open to stay solvent

Major casinos hemorrhaged millions of dollars a day during the pandemic shutdown in the spring, and the state saw its very worst unemployment numbers in recorded history. It's perhaps not an entirely surprising outcome, given that more than 25% of the Nevada workforce is tied to the gaming industry.

"Obviously, the economy is crucial to our city and our state, and nobody here wants to see casinos closed down again," Bronson said.

She said, already, she's noticed more people donning masks in convenience stores and other public areas around town.

Though the mask mandate won't completely eliminate risks for Nevadans in the hospitality industry, Bronson is hopeful it will help a lot.

"Even though I think my friends seemed to be happy about the face mask mandate, it doesn't eliminate the concern," she said. "They have to be clearing plates, and clearing dirty dishes, and communicating and interacting with the guests."

caesar's palace with masks

Foto: CEO of Caesars Entertainment Tony Rodio (left) and Wayne Newton (in the tux) watch customer Ben Laparne roll the dice at the reopening of Caesars Palace on June 4, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Source: Denise Truscello/Getty Images for Caesars Entertainment

Though a mask is not a perfect virus-catching solution, recent studies have been lending more and more evidence to the idea that they can greatly reduce coronavirus transmission. One new disease model even suggested that if every American put on a mask in public over the next three months, 33,000 lives could be saved.

Bronson, for one, says she's "far more inclined" to go out and "gamble a little bit" now, knowing that she's just a little more protected from the virus' spread.

"I'm really proud of our governor for doing this," she said. "I think it was necessary, just based on the reality of our economy, and the transience of the people who come and leave Las Vegas."