With few guests donning masks, Las Vegas service workers fear for their safety

Culinary Union workers say only "10 to 20 percent" of guests on the Las Vegas Strip are wearing masks

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published June 23, 2020 6:58PM (EDT)

Bar and hospitality workers prepare to reopen on June 10 after a three-month closure due to Covid-19  (Getty Images)
Bar and hospitality workers prepare to reopen on June 10 after a three-month closure due to Covid-19 (Getty Images)

Tourism-heavy economies like Las Vegas' were devastated by pandemic-related closures; perhaps understandably, politicians and business leaders there were overly eager for such restrictions to end. Finally, earlier this month, parts of the Las Vegas Strip began to reopen for business after a historic lockdown that started in March. Yet the sudden reopening left vulnerable service workers wondering: How would Vegas' notoriously hedonistic tourist base react to public health recommendations designed to limit the virus' spread?

Not well, it turns out.

Despite reports of mild public health measures — like temperature checks for guests at the Bellagio and dealers wearing face shields behind blackjack tables — members of the influential Culinary Workers Union Local 226 and Bartenders Union Local 165 are leveraging their political power to demand anyone visiting a casino or resort to wear mandatory face coverings or masks. The requests come from a place of fear, as the ever-vulnerable service workers are at high risk of contracting coronavirus. 

In a press conference on Monday, the union's secretary-treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline said the union is asking Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, the Nevada Gaming Control Board, and Clark County Commissioners to require face coverings for all workers and Las Vegas visitors, in addition to a handful of other safety precautions. Their demands have been outlined in a website created by the union detailing which resorts are doing what, painting a bigger picture of inconsistent public health guidelines from authorities and businesses. While face masks are strongly encouraged in casinos and hotels, they were only recently required for guests gambling at tables that do not have physical barriers between the dealer and players.

"We really need everybody to wear masks, [and] the rooms need to be cleaned daily," Argüello-Kline said at a press conference on Monday, adding that there needs to be enough time for workers to do daily deep cleans. "Mandatory tests and checking the temperatures of everybody who's coming inside" were vital, Argüello-Kline added.

Argüello-Kline said there is a lot of stress and fear among workers who have returned to the Las Vegas Strip.

"The numbers, they aren't going down, they're going up," she added. That is true: last week, Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, recorded the county's highest daily increase since the pandemic started in March. The rolling seven-day average is way up compared to where it was several weeks ago. Moreover, there have been multiple reports of workers testing positive for coronavirus.

According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, two employees at the Flamingo tested positive 15 days after the hotel-casino opened its doors. Two employees at The Cosmopolitan tested positive. Employees at two Las Vegas locations of Dutch Bros. Coffee, a to-go coffee chain, also tested positive for COVID-19.

Diana Thomas, a guest room attendant at the Flamingo Hotel, said at the press conference that it is worrying that guests aren't wearing masks when they talk to her.

"I've noticed that the guests are not wearing masks," Thomas said. "And I'm kind of leery of giving them the towels because they're not wearing masks."

Mandated testing for her coworkers before coming back to work, and mandated masks for guests, would help ease her fears about bringing the coronavirus to her asthmatic son, Thomas said. 

Florence Lee, a union bartender at the MGM Grand, said she thinks MGM should have mandatory and regular testing for employees.

"Las Vegas is [the] entertainment capital of the world, and it's great that our tourists are coming back already but the workers have to be safe and deserve to be safe," Lee said at the press conference. "Please wear your mask and social distance for us."

Yolanda Scott, Culinary Union member and a food server at Treasure Island, said that she's observed guests not wearing masks.

"I don't feel safe,"Scott said. "I do not want to bring the COVID-19 back to my family, my children. . . . my partner has a bad kidney and a bad heart and we have to be extra cautious."

"All guests should wear a mask to protect everyone," Scott said.

Collectively, the workers who spoke on Monday estimated only about 10 to 20 percent of visitors wear a mask. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 17 union workers and/or their family members have passed away from COVID-19.

Three culinary union members said that hotels tell their patrons to wear masks inside. Yet there doesn't seem to be a protocol to enforce this safeguard.

Lee, who works at the MGM, said she knows everyone has their own opinions about masks, but people should be doing it "for the safety of employees."

Argüello-Kline suggested that Nevada should follow California's lead. California's Democratic Governor, Gavin Newsom, is now requiring everyone to wear masks or face coverings indoors and in outdoor situations where social distancing is difficult. Nevada's governor is reportedly considering "enhanced face covering policies."

Argüello-Kline added that the union is going to take worker safety very seriously, especially as the Strip gets busier.

"We're going to grievance this, and we're going to do whatever it takes [to] fight this," she said.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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