Las Vegas Casinos Are Like Forest Fire for COVID-19

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, the famous saying goes, but the new challenges presented by the violent spread of the coronavirus seemed to have changed even that. An analysis from a nonprofit newsroom, ProPublica, based on cellphone data shows that casinos in Las Vegas may as well be the hotbeds for the disease, spreading it all over the country.

Casinos in Las Vegas re-opened July 4 and in the 5 weeks after they resumed operations, statistical data shows the number of daily cases rose tenfold, with the total number in Clark County where Las Vegas is located jumping above 50,000, high enough for health experts from the Harvard Global Health Institute to recommend stay-at-home orders.

On the other hand, worried from the rising death toll after the reopening of casinos, the Nevada Resort Association has urged lawmakers to pass legislation and protect casinos from frivolous lawsuits and shutdown of properties without sufficient evidence. Why would casinos seek state protection if they do not contribute to the spread of the virus? Are casino operators gambling with lives?

Tracking Movements In and Out of Las Vegas

The analysis from anonymous smartphone data collected during a Friday-Monday period in mid-July visualizes on a map travel to and from Las Vegas and shows the degree of interconnectivity of the gambling Mecca with the rest of the country.

For the period in focus, 26,000 mobile devices were detected on the Las Vegas Strip, and some of these smartphones showed up in the same 4 days in every state on the mainland except Maine, 3,700 in Southern California, 2,700 in Arizona, 1,000 in Texas, more than 800 in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois each, and more than 100 in the New York area.

A simple cross-check of the cellphone data analysis with official statistics for the new cases of COVID-19 in the highlighted geographical areas would probably show a correlation, but due to the 14-day incubation period, such a claim cannot be conclusive. Yet, findings show that the virus keeps spreading due to the high level of mobility of people.

According to public health experts the media surveyed, casinos are a high-risk for COVID-19 environment, as they are indoors, crowded and potentially a feeding ground for the virus, and even the measures introduced are not effective as around 40% of infected people do not show symptoms, yet spread the infection.

Despite state regulators setting minimum requirements for protection, they allowed casinos to choose many of their own safety measures, not a surprise having in mind the casinos’ sway over Nevada policymakers. Even Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman was on record during the shutdowns, advocating for re-opening of the casinos and offering the city as a “control group” in an experiment.

Some health experts say the reopening of casinos is like gambling with lives, others compare it to a forest fire where flames jump from one place to another, making it impossible to contain and spreading it nationwide. And states discrepancies in how the public is protected make it even harder to deal with, but faced with a choice between the risk of further virus spread and the economy, decision-makers sided with the economy, for a price, yet unknown.

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