Minutes after the CDC cleared vaccinated Americans to resume travel with little risk to themselves, I booked my flights.
Never mind that I hadn’t stepped inside a grocery store in more than a year, let alone boarded a plane.
For about $6 in taxes to get to Las Vegas on frequent-flier miles, less than $40 to get home and a free room on the Strip, I figured I’d roll the dice.
Vegas has been one of my happy places for years, so it seemed like a good choice. I could venture out at odd times to avoid crowds, and I wouldn’t feel obligated to see and do everything. Casinos operating at 50 percent capacity in April was another plus. I was also emboldened by my daughters’ trip there a few weeks earlier. They assured me it could be done safely.
The mental boost from the act of simply booking was immediate. (Yay dopamine!) The anticipation of travel, after being grounded so long, was exhilarating. It almost felt, dare I say it, “normal.”
When I delivered news of my Vegas trip to family and friends they were aptly shocked, given that I’d lived the previous year-plus as a borderline shut-in, taking pandemic precautions perhaps too seriously. They weren’t convinced I would go through with it. Neither was I.
As the trip neared, I fielded the same question repeatedly: “Do you really think you’re going to Vegas?” My standard response: “I don’t know. I’ll probably decide a day or two before.” Three days before, I committed. I was going to Vegas!
Packing has never been my idea of a good time, but packing in a pandemic? I’d have to make room for PPE, Clorox wipes, Purell. Given that I wasn’t bringing more for my three-night stay than I could carry on, it was a challenge.
After arriving at Tampa International Airport and getting through security (the 10-ounce bottle of Purell did cost me a few minutes, due to an extra security check), I boarded the plane and got settled. I put in my headphones, closed my eyes and lost myself in my music while awaiting takeoff. Then I remembered that I forgot to wipe things down with the products I had dutifully carried on. Then I remembered that I forgot there was a seat belt. Had it been so long that I had forgotten how to travel?
The nearly five-hour plane ride was uneventful, save for more announcements than usual from the flight attendant, who at times sounded exasperated. I’m not sure which message he delivered more: Keep your seat belts fastened because we’ll be experiencing turbulence, or keep your masks on because it’s federal law.
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As the pilot announced our descent, I finally opened my eyes. As the ground came clearly into view, and I spied the pyramid that is Luxor, I did the same silly thing I always do when landing here: I cued up Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas and sang along in my head.
The long walk
Once off the plane I was ready to execute my plan to get to the Strip, and it didn’t involve a ride-sharing service or a cab. I’d walk. I read about it on the internet. I wasn’t doing it so much to avoid people as I was to have a new “experience.” I didn’t think to print out the directions, but how hard could it be? You can’t exactly miss the Strip. After about 30 minutes of wandering, I regrouped and headed in the opposite direction. Eventually I saw Luxor and MGM Grand in the distance and found a sidewalk. It wasn’t the most scenic walk. As I headed west on Tropicana toward the Strip, I was reminded that things in Vegas often look much closer than they are.
I don’t know how long it took to reach Las Vegas Boulevard, but I do know I was grateful it was in the upper 60s and there was a breeze, and that I didn’t have a suitcase. Suffice it to say I can cross that “experience” off my list. But I wasn’t done just yet. I still had to get to my hotel.
Finally, I arrived at Aria. I had downloaded the MGM Resorts app on my phone and chosen the digital key option to ensure contactless check-in. I showed the digital key on my cellphone to the security attendant near the elevators, got in an empty elevator and used the digital key to reach the 39th floor. I entered my room and was treated to a show: The sheers and curtains opened automatically to reveal a wall of glass and an awesome view. I could hardly wait for nightfall to see the Strip aglow.
Soon, I was ready for the casino. It wasn’t too busy, and to allow for social distancing, some machines were out of service. The table games had plexiglass dividers between the players. Masks were required “for all guests inside public spaces,” signs reminded people. (The rules were the same at all MGM Resorts properties, which include Bellagio and Mandalay Bay.)
As I fed money into the slot machines, it felt no different from any other trip to Vegas. Until something unusual happened: I won a jackpot that required a hand pay. I now had 2,100 reasons to get a little closer to hotel employees than I had planned.
When I retired to my room for the evening, more than the Strip was lit up that night. The “super pink moon” shone beautifully.
I awoke early the next morning and set off for the must-see Bellagio Conservatory. I arrived shortly before 9, which was perfect. There were only a handful of people. An employee stood at the entrance to limit capacity. Highlights included a large display with live butterflies, as well as lovely tulips in and around gigantic Dutch clogs sitting near a windmill on a koi-filled pond. After leaving the conservatory I stopped to take photos of the Chihuly glass flowers that hang in the Bellagio lobby, which I feel compelled to do each time I visit.
I returned to Aria for most of the day, grabbing Starbucks and eventually ordering lunch to-go from Burger Lounge using the touch-screen pad in my hotel room. I was easing my way into this whole vacation/being-around-people thing, after all, and didn’t want to go too wild. I also had a Zoom meeting at 3:30 p.m. Vegas time. It wasn’t for work, but it wasn’t exactly for pleasure. It was an HOA meeting. And it lasted four or five hours. And it was heated.
Reinvigorated after dinner (takeout from Din Tai Fung, ordered through that touch-screen pad), I headed to Bellagio to catch a nighttime fountain show. Social distancing wasn’t happening here as people jockeyed for good spots around the lake — at least it’s outside — but quite a few of them wore masks. And the gang was all here, as they have been every trip. The showgirls, Spider-Man, Goofy and all the other characters hustled to make money by posing for photos with passers-by.
After the fountain show, the crowd quickly dispersed. On the way back to Aria, there was a bit of a commotion on a walkway over the Strip near the Cosmopolitan, so naturally I had to check it out. It looked like a dance party, with a dozen or so people gyrating to live rap music as two showgirls with bright green feathers that lit up walked by. Ah, Vegas.
Up early the next morning, I grabbed some coffee and took my spot on a spot in the line to enter the pool area, which opened at 9. (Circles throughout the resort reminded guests where to stand to ensure they put 6 feet between them.) I wasn’t the only early riser. There were 15 or 20 people ahead of me.
As with everything else in Vegas, the pool areas are big, so it was easy — especially at that time of day — to find a place away from other guests. “Masks are required in this area,” a sign read. I was a bit surprised, given that pool areas are, you know, outside, but it was fine by me. Another surprise: Most of the lifeguards, perched on chairs probably 6 feet in the air, were wearing masks. An announcement playing on a loop instructed guests to wear their masks except when walking to or from the pool, in the pool or actively eating, drinking or smoking. The majority of people had drinks and/or food. Friendly security officers ensured compliance.
By this point, Vegas was definitely working its magic. I spent about four hours under some trees by the pool, getting a mix of sun and shade as I relaxed, people-watched, enjoyed the music and basically — and blissfully — did nothing. I even bought an adult drink and dipped my toes in the pool. The remainder of the day was spent, in the famous words of Prince, “doing something close to nothing,” which is sort of the point of vacation. For dinner I again ordered takeout from Din Tai Fung.
Being in Vegas, unable to get away from people, unable to get away from unmasked people, was in many ways turning out to be oddly therapeutic. I hadn’t Googled “coronavirus” once, watched the news or checked any work messages or emails. And when I saw a woman in the casino wearing her face shield as a sun visor, it amused me instead of irritating me. I even took drinks from strangers — cocktail servers — a few times, once bringing a Stella Artois to my room, where I drank it after washing my hands vigorously, and a second time brazenly and briefly unmasking on the casino floor to take sips of my amaretto sour. In general this “new normal” felt pretty great and even liberating. This was definitely the reset that I needed.
Having spent most of my stay at Aria, I planned to devote the last day of my trip to the rest of the Strip. I weaved in and out of casino-resorts from Aria to Fashion Show mall, strolling leisurely through the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. Most stores had signs that listed capacity restrictions, and signs and circles throughout the mall reminded people about social distancing and masks.
My daughters had urged me to try a drink at Urth Caffe at the Wynn, which is across the street from Fashion Show mall, and after walking for what seemed like forever, in a mask, in the upper 80s or low 90s, I needed it.
I found a bench outside the Venetian and sat down to enjoy my drink and rest my feet. In a scene that seemed to capture perfectly where we are at — and Las Vegas in general — masked gondoliers took masked passengers on gondola rides. Inside the resort, a masked musician in a gondolier getup played the guitar. I imagined him smiling underneath as I took his photo.
A few hours later, it was time to head home.
I took a cab to the airport, and it was pretty quiet when I arrived. I had forgotten until I went through the TSA line that I had that 10-ounce Purell bottle that required extra security clearance, but it didn’t matter. I was still in the throes of vacation euphoria.
Landing or taking off in Vegas at night is always memorable. As the neon lights grew dimmer and dimmer I turned on my music, tuned out and tried to get some sleep.
As we arrived in Tampa it felt good to be back, but it also felt good to have gone. I paid my $96 to the parking attendant (short-term parking, ouch!) and made the drive home. That trip to Vegas was everything I had hoped it would be — and more.
Update: All in
There have been changes since my trip in late April, and more are on the way. Casinos are operating at 100 percent capacity, and beginning June 1, Las Vegas will return to pre-pandemic guidelines. Casino-resorts are following CDC guidance on masks: Fully vaccinated guests are not required to wear masks. At most casino-resorts, those rules apply to employees as well. And the entertainment calendar is filling up again. Among the upcoming events: Cirque du Soleil’s Mystere resumes on June 28, and O returns July 1; singer Bruno Mars kicks off six shows beginning July 3; and comedian Dave Chappelle will perform several shows starting July 2.
What will the “new” old Las Vegas feel like nearly 15 months after the start of the pandemic? Will all the tourists return? Will anyone wear a mask, other than the Mickey Mouse, Iron Man and Goofy characters along the Strip? Will people be able to get tickets to the hottest shows? Will the pool areas be packed? I may get some of these answers very soon. I’ll be in Vegas again in a few days. We’re spending the night and driving to California the next day.