Picture: Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS
When COVID-19 first hit in March, I used to be residing in Brooklyn and watched the city shut down almost overnight. As spring turned to summer time, I reckoned that these first months of lockdown can be the worst of this seemingly infinite pandemic. So I believed I used to be being good by packing up my life and transferring throughout the nation, for the dusty and mountainous pastures of Reno, Nevada. In spite of everything, a metropolis of 8 million crammed right into a handful of tiny islands appears clearly extra perilous than a metropolis of 250,000 stretched out over the desert. How adorably naïve!
Then the second wave hit, and it grew to become clear that I used to be lifeless fucking improper. A metropolis of 8 million people who find themselves largely okay with large authorities, because it seems, is a safer place than a much less populous space full of oldsters who consider authorities needs to be sufficiently small to slot in your pocket.
Now, Nevada is in large hassle. Its coronavirus test positivity rate is over 20 p.c. And one thing I’ve discovered notably perplexing is the governor’s determination to maintain the casinos open — albeit at 25 p.c capability. In spite of everything, public libraries are closed. “I do know it’s onerous for Nevadans to reconcile why some areas of our economic system and public life are restricted whereas the state’s casinos are open,” Governor Steve Sisolak said lately. “Our blackjack sellers, our cooks, our valet drivers, our housekeepers, and our performers … these are the parents we’re preventing to guard.” He additionally defined that the casinos pay roughly $52 million in gaming taxes every month. This cash retains the state, which has no earnings tax, alive. So Nevadans discover themselves in an actual pickle! Certainly a extra draconian shutdown order would stymie the unfold of the coronavirus, however the state wants casinos as a lot as casinos want individuals who sincerely consider that they’ll hit the jackpot in the event that they play the slots all day.
I’ve been sheltering in place since instances started to spike, however within the identify of journalism, I journeyed to 5 casinos to see how harmful they actually felt and if the governor was making a lethal calculation by preserving them open.
I started at Circus Circus in downtown Reno. Even when we weren’t within the midst of a world pandemic, downtown Reno within the winter time is the closest you may get to experiencing what the American metropolis will seem like after the apocalypse. I felt like Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049.
Once I lastly discovered the doorway by way of the parking zone, issues didn’t get any rosier. If there was a contest for “most miserable on line casino in Reno,” Circus Circus wins hands-down. The air faintly smelled of stale cigarettes. The slot machines have been uncannily silent, on the account of the truth that the on line casino was nearly empty. On this large underground maze of slot machines and shuttered desk video games, I counted a complete of six patrons, all of them masked, most of them over 65. All of them sat alone. The one glimmer of pleasure on this darkish place was a smiling waitress who complimented me on my sneakers. In any other case, the few people contained in the on line casino made no sounds. “Carry On” by Crosby, Nash & Stills performed softly within the background, the phrases “rejoice, rejoice, we’ve got no selection however to hold on” betraying the extraordinarily unhappy vibe of the place.
Due to its melancholy, funnily sufficient, Circus Circus felt like one of many most secure indoor locations I may very well be as a result of nobody was there. Shopping for family provides at my native Goal, which is often fairly popping, feels much more harmful. Not having spoken to a stranger in possibly eight months, I constructed up the braveness to attempt to interview a gambler, and launched myself to a pudgy fellow sporting a blue N95 masks, who agreed to reply some questions.
“Are you a daily right here?” I requested.
“No,” he replied, not taking a look at me, his eyes glued to the slot machine straight forward as he pressed the “guess” button time and again.
“What introduced you right here at the moment?”
That was my cue to depart! I walked down the block to Silver Legacy, which was nonetheless largely empty however far livelier than Circus Circus. Right here, desk video games have been open, brightly lit by overhead chandeliers. Older patrons sat quietly round tables taking part in Pai Goi and Let It Trip, I might hear the slot machines engaging gamers to guess, guess, guess once more. There have been indicators scattered about with directions on the way to correctly put on your masks whereas “consuming and/or smoking”: You may take your masks off whereas taking a sip or a puff, however needed to put it again on proper afterward. One other signal warned, “Unfold jackpots, not germs!”
I wandered round feeling misplaced, and realized I needed to go gonzo and do some playing. I noticed two girls who appeared like a mom and daughter joyfully taking part in the slots. Every had a glass of pink wine resting on their slot machine. I sat down close by to spy on them whereas I smoked a cigarette and tried my luck. The mom pulled her daughter shut, embracing her because the machine jingled, telling her that she had gained 12,100 credit — $121. Whereas mother went to money out, daughter stored on going, booing the machine on a shedding spin. In the meantime, I used to be up 20 cents and determined to name it a day, not within the temper to lose cash throughout a recession. Then I heard the daughter shout “5 free video games!” after she gained 5 new causes to not go away the machine. In a world completely modified by COVID, casinos really feel virtually precisely the identical. They aren’t as crowded as they have been in earlier than occasions, however the clientele stays largely unchanged: unhappy aged individuals hypnotized by the slots and enthusiastic vacationers hoping to win large.
I popped into two extra casinos downtown, after which headed to the tonier Peppermill On line casino in South Reno. The Peppermill has at all times been my favourite on line casino within the metropolis as a result of it’s designed to look Italian in the identical approach Trump’s residences are designed to look wealthy — the impact is much less Rome and extra Epcot: There are gaudy white marble columns in all places, and terra-cotta flooring. Extra crowded than the others, the Peppermill had erected clear boundaries between every of the slot machines. Two very pleasant workers instructed me that the on line casino was far emptier than typical, not due to the governor’s 25 p.c capability mandate, however as a result of most of their clients often attend conventions, that are clearly not taking place this 12 months.
I noticed two pals, younger girls, who have been sitting on the bar, swap masks with one another. One pal ended up with a surgical blue masks, whereas the opposite one obtained a plain black one. An indication warned in all caps, “Spectators are usually not allowed to congregate behind the desk sport gamers,” although some individuals taking part in blackjack seemingly didn’t get the memo. I wandered across the on line casino, largely quiet aside from the jingle of the slots and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Boy Issues” taking part in at a low quantity. I heard a pair coughs, one thing I understood was largely meaningless in a venue filled with chain people who smoke, however nonetheless made me really feel involved that at the moment was the day I might lastly catch the coronavirus.
I sat down at a machine the place I performed video blackjack and roulette, pulled down my masks, and lit up one other cigarette. A waitress politely knowledgeable me that I used to be breaking the principles by not placing on my masks between drags and I profusely apologized, vowing to not make the identical mistake once more. I cashed out once I was $4 forward and continued to wander across the on line casino, my abdomen in knots after having been to 5 very unhappy locations in fast succession.
I approached a person named Rick from Lake Tahoe, sitting alone, to ask him how he felt about being at a on line casino throughout the pandemic. Talking quietly underneath his masks, he instructed me he was right here to eat dinner at one of many eating places, after which started scolding me for standing too near him whereas asking my questions — an odd concern for a man who is ok with doing indoor eating and being inside a on line casino throughout essentially the most lethal second within the pandemic. I stepped again, having discovered one thing in widespread in Rick: We each didn’t need me to be anyplace close to him. It was an interplay that jogged my memory that solely having frolicked with my boyfriend and my household for the previous eight months wasn’t a nasty factor in any respect.
Once I obtained dwelling, I ripped off my masks and felt so pleased to be there. I completed the day exactly $4.20 richer than once I began. I additionally completely misplaced my style for casinos, which I usually love on account of the truth that they supply a vice exercise I can interact in as a sober individual and so they make me really feel like I’m residing in The Working Man universe. Because it seems, while you go to 5 of them by your self within the midst of a significant public-health disaster, it isn’t very enjoyable in any respect. However I discovered one thing essential: whereas I don’t advocate you go to a on line casino till you get vaccinated, they don’t really feel like the most important public-health danger dealing with Nevada, the place eating places, bars, hair salons, tattoo outlets, and therapeutic massage parlors additionally stay open. On the way in which to Circus Circus, my Lyft driver instructed me that he “cheated” and went to Arizona for his nephew’s fortieth celebration final weekend. Participating in that form of habits feels much more harmful than being inside a large and well-ventilated space. Don’t get me improper, casinos nonetheless really feel harmful, however it has nothing to do with COVID. Moderately, they’re locations the place it’s all too straightforward and ridiculously enjoyable to spend your whole cash, whereas interesting to that irrationality that lives inside all of us, the voice that tells you, “At this time is gonna be totally different. At this time is the day I’m gonna win large.”