The fear and panic surrounding the coronavirus pandemic is hitting Las Vegas especially hard. To slow the spread of COVID-19, Nevada’s governor ordered all “non-essential” businesses to close for 30 days as of noon on Wednesday, March 18. That includes not only gyms and hair salons, but casinos, nightclubs, bars and dine-in restaurants—our tourism-driven city’s economic engines.
The Strip is now a ghost town. The lights and marquees have dimmed, hotel windows are dark and the sidewalks where crowds gather in front of the Bellagio Fountains are barren. Downtown is deserted. The neon glow of Fremont Street has all but disappeared, leaving behind a colorless corridor where live music and slot machines once echoed and clattered. Literally overnight, Las Vegas froze, and the locals left behind are staring down the barrel of a new reality.
Today, we operate on a high level of caution and uncertainty, a sentiment that may linger even when the panic subsides. The layoffs have been fast, hard and unforgiving, with those affected left with few alternatives beyond unemployment benefits. After speaking with four business owners and community leaders, it’s clear that nobody planned for this, and nobody is quite sure what to do. Here, they share their thoughts on these dramatic changes, and what they’ve experienced over the past few days.
Nathan Grates | Co-owner, Sand Dollar Lounge
A historic whiskey bar in Chinatown with live music performed on a tight corner stage, the Sand Dollar Lounge originally planned to deliver pizzas from its tiny kitchen, but decided against it. Instead, Grates and his partners, Anthony Jamison and Benito Martinez, transformed their final night of operation, Sunday, March 15, into a fundraiser for their employees—two days ahead of the governor’s announcement. Initially, the bar planned to voluntarily close for a week. Now, they’re part of the 30-day shutdown.
We were anticipating possible closures. Being a tourist and transient town, it was expected to happen. We’re not a typical venue; we are a communal gathering of people. It’s not safe for the staff and it’s not fair to the community [to stay open]. All you can do is listen to the individuals who know what’s best. You can’t go around being a pessimist, but I really feel for the families out there who are working paycheck to paycheck. It’s difficult for those who work for tips. The employees are very much a part of my family. We said, “Let’s throw a party and donate all the revenue toward the staff.” In total, we generated about $5,700 they were able to take home. That’s the culture of the Sand Dollar. The employees mean everything to us. Let’s hope it’s a brief moment in time and we can get back on track.
Wyndee Forrest | Co-owner, Crafthaus Brewery
When Wyndee and Dave Forrest opened Crafthaus in the Vegas suburb of Henderson, the couple successfully campaigned for a new law allowing breweries to house a non-gaming taproom, believing community engagement was just as important as the beer. Six years later, they’ve abandoned plans to sell pick-up orders during the Nevada shutdown, and will instead practice social distancing as much as possible.
We’re trying to come up with online options that keep people connected. We have a great core group of regulars and for those people, they’re probably telecommuting, self-isolating at home, and missing that engagement. We’re trying to come up with virtual bottle shares we can host, because we host a bottle share once a week in our taproom. We’re trying to replace that. Whether they’re drinking our beer or not, they would still be connecting. Hopefully we can get back together and toast one another. In the long run, [the economic shutdown] is going to be a huge detriment to an independently owned business like ours. We’re not brewing any new beer right now. Our distributor stopped ordering. It’s going to take a long time to recuperate. We’ve applied for a federal Small Business Administration disaster relief loan, but we’re going to see the ramifications of this for at least a year to the next five years.
Maria Horta | General manager, Therapy
Therapy, a restaurant in Downtown’s Fremont East district, had been thriving with its own unique business model. When finished with daytime food service, it transformed into Relapse Nightclub, a party spot with bottle service that stayed open well into the morning hours. Wednesday’s shutdown interrupted plans for the nightlife component to be rebranded as Therapy After Dark, forcing general manager Maria Horta to close the entire operation and reevaluate its direction.
With the COVID-19 global pandemic, our sales, like all other restaurants and nightclubs valleywide, decreased by nearly 90 percent, which is not only worrisome for Vegas as a whole, but also our employees who are used to relying on their nightly tips. We are having to rethink and adjust our business model to promote and advertise delivery and curbside orders while entirely shutting down the nightlife entertainment aspect. We were bringing in international DJs, Fridays was Latin music, Saturday was EDM or open format. We were going to have a different name for the nightclub. It’s a huge concern about how we’re going to continue from this point onward. We need to address what the community needs at this moment. We gave away all the food to our staff. I’m working with [HR] to see how we can extend health benefits and reopen the doors as quickly as possible.
James Trees | Chef and co-owner, Esther’s Kitchen
A restaurant in the Arts District, Esther’s Kitchen is known just as much for its wine and cocktail program as it is for its handmade pasta and pizza. Despite having one of the most popular and acclaimed neighborhood restaurants in Vegas, chef James Trees decided to suspend delivery. For a couple of days before shuttering completely, Esther’s handed out free meals to industry workers who’d been laid off.
The shutting down of all restaurants and bars didn’t make any sense. It would be like if someone got hit crossing the street, and they took away everyone’s car. I wanted to keep my guys on staff and use them as delivery drivers. We did delivery for a couple days. The sales were good, but food doesn’t make a restaurant profitable. I was looking at the split between food and booze. We make a lot more money off the booze, and that’s what fuels our ability to keep prices down so we’re not charging $42 for a rigatoni alla vodka. I was like, wow, we did sales, but we lost $2,000. If we do this for 30 days, that’s $60,000. That will put us in a position where we’re crippled by the time we reopen. I’m taking massive financial hit after massive financial hit and the government is doing nothing to help us. We are ripping apart everything. We’re taking the booze off-site to a storage facility, because if people think there’s booze in a restaurant (that’s shuttered), they’re going to break in. I’m sitting on a ton of product. As of right now, every one of my hourly employees is laid off. I told them to take all the food in the kitchen. Take home everything you can.