June 15, 2020
by Boris Lebeau, lecturer in Geography at the Sorbonne University Paris-nord and a member of the Pléiade team. His research deals with game cities (Las Vegas, Macao ...).
On March 17th, 2020, MGM casinos were the first to close down before all other venues did in the city.
The closing of casinos is obviously a first in this city where you could gamble anyday, anytime since 1946, the official starting year when casinos opened. Neither the 2019 financial crisis – yet hitting Las Vegas’ economy and society very harshly – nor the 2017/10/01 mass shooting within the Mandalay had struck such a deathblow to the city’s economy.
What makes Las Vegas particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemy is its « extraterritorial » situation, which makes it highly dependent on other territories. Specialized in tourism, the city of perpetual buzzing activty and gambling inebriation is now confronted to a world at a standstill. The pandemy brings back the gravity of territorial rootings and therefore underlines the high fragility of urban economies more and more dematerialized and based on hypermobilty of men and capital.
Located in the middle of the Nevada desert, more than 400 km from a seaport, Las Vegas is a real oasis whose thriving is due to its ability to attract men, capital and activity on an « offshore » model. Since it started developing, the city has been benefiting from a highly permissive legislation: many activities that are elsewhere under moral prohibitions have been authorized here: alcohol, prostitution (before 1942), gambling…Nowadays this specialization is perpetuated on fiscal issues, thus attracting movie productions from Hollywood and sport federations. Las Vegas has also just extended this dumping logics to narcotics. Las Vegas aims to become one of the main spots of production and selling of cannabis in the US, although it’s not the only one.
At the same time, Las Vegas has also been standing out as a major tourist destination worlwide, relying on several assets: gambling, a strategy of « party city » (concerts, shows, sport events, spectacular urbanism, staging of gambling venues…) and the proximity of great natural reserves (Grand Canyon, Zion…). The city counts more than 150 000 hotel rooms, which is the highest density in the world and has attracted nearly 42 million tourists in 2018, making it one of the first destinations worldwide. This territorial strategy and the democratization of air transport (4 hour drive from LA, 5.30 h from SLC, 8 h from SF) allow Las Vegas to diversify its customers: Californians only account for 25 % of the city visitors today. The shutdown of plane traffic makes the handicap of its original isolated localisation come back fully in its face.
The distance might become the main problem the city will have to face in the months to come. Health measures reduce trafic and suspend international flights and will therefore make the trip less affordable. The safety space within the casinos will force them to decrease the number of slot machines (which constitute 70 % of takings). The access to the table limited to 3 people for blackjack and 4 for poker, disinfection of dice after each throw or the renewal of cards after each game (measures taken by the Nevada health commission) put a strain on the profitability. These distancing measures also limit the capacity of restaurants and prohibit all the shows from taking place for now. If the pandemy makes the economic model of cities more fragile (the « on-site » economy is estimated to represent more than 50 % of a city’s revenues), it will impact Las Vegas more heavily, since the majority of revenues comes from external population. It shows that the specificity of the city can be an asset or a burden, depending on the circumstances.
If social distancing is catastrophic for the economy, the distancing of poor people seems to be another consequence of the crisis. A paragon of liberal capitalism and hyper flexible work market (minimal work legislation, plethoric but underpaid and insecure jobs), Las Vegas is also a poor city (poverty rate is at 14 %) that now staggers under the blow. The Culinary Workers Union estimates that 98% of its members were unemployed in April 2020. MGM has immediately laid off 63 000 employees and more than 350 000 people registered for unemployment benefits in South Nevada in April. Losing one’s job also means losing one’s health insurance. A health crisis and economic crises are interconnected, and aggravate each other. An illustration of that interconnection can be found in the many photographs that have been shared by the media, showing homeless people being laid on spaces delimited by white paint on a stadium parking lot, whereas the 150 000 hotel rooms of the city were empty at the same time. A 2019 law already prohibited homeless people from sleeping on the streets of the city center, and the new measures emphasize an official will to put outcasts at a distance.
At a time when some people imagine a different « afterworld », which would be more ecological and more egalitarian, no main change seems really possible in Las Vegas, due to its high dependence on people’s mobility, on their will to be entertained at low cost and on the profit logic of companies. It remains to be known whether Las Vegas will stand out as an exception or a vanguard.
Boris Lebeau is a lecturer in Geography at the Sorbonne University Paris-nord and a member of the Pléiade team (UR-7338). His research deals with game cities (Las Vegas, Macao ...) and he is preparing with Marie Redon a book on the "Geopolitics of money games" which will appear in 2020 in “Cavalier bleu” editions.