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As Casinos Reopen In Las Vegas, Stakes Are High And Union Calls For Transparency


Hotels and casinos in Las Vegas plan to reopen tomorrow. Closures in mid-March at the start of the pandemic left hundreds of thousands in the area unemployed. From member station KUER, David Fuchs reports that workers there are conflicted. They want to start collecting paychecks, but not at the expense of their health.

DAVID FUCHS, BYLINE: For the last 2 1/2 months, Bellagio housekeeper Gladis Blanco has been out of a job.

GLADIS BLANCO: I'm still struggling with unemployment. And I'm - been using my saving for now, but that is going to end.

FUCHS: In the meantime, she's helping fellow members of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 get tested for COVID-19. Blanco is the sole caretaker for her two children, so they're eager for her to get her job back. But they all know it could come with risks.

BLANCO: My daughter - she's kind of more, like, worried about it because they know that I do housekeeping. And they know, you know, we have contact with a lot of guests.

FUCHS: Guests that could come from all over the country and beyond. They could bring more cases of COVID-19 from outside Nevada and, as the union is arguing, put workers' lives at risk. With 60,000 members, it's a powerful political force in this state. And its leaders are calling for casinos and hotels to release their full COVID-19 mitigation plans to the public and implement additional safety measures before opening their doors.

JOHN FLYNN: So we just walked in through the rotating doors here at Bellagio in Las Vegas.

FUCHS: MGM Resorts vice president John Flynn points out everything they're doing to make sure guests can still enjoy the Vegas experience and workers feel safe. New stickers dot the lobby's marble floors to help guests keep six feet apart, and Bellagio-branded plexiglass panels line the front desk.

FLYNN: So you're noticing every other table here has these plexiglass barriers up - right? - sort of look like these private booths. And tables that would've normally had six chairs - you only have three chairs.

FUCHS: Flynn says the casino is limited to 50% capacity, so every other table and slot machine is closed down. He says that all employees and guests will have their temperatures checked upon arrival and that any worker with a fever or a symptom of COVID-19 will be sent home and receive what he described as appropriate compensation. When it comes to demands for more transparency, he says employees and guests will see the new measures in effect as soon as they arrive. And he points out that MGM has recently entered into a partnership to make testing widely available.

FLYNN: The health and safety of our community and the health and safety of our business are completely interconnected.

FUCHS: Enforcement will come from the gaming control board, the company's internal compliance team and local government officials, like Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick.

MARILYN KIRKPATRICK: This is much deeper than the Great Recession because we've had no revenue coming in.

FUCHS: Clark County itself has seen a $1.1 billion loss in revenue, and the Las Vegas metro area now boasts one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

KIRKPATRICK: However, public health comes first, and I feel like we're in a good spot with public health today.

FUCHS: Kirkpatrick says case numbers and hospitalizations have been in decline for the past month, and testing capacity has increased to 10,000 per day. But union leaders like Geoconda Arguello-Kline still say officials like Kirkpatrick have to do more to ensure that returning to work is a hundred percent safe for employees.

GEOCONDA ARGUELLO-KLINE: She represent the strip, and she had to protect the workers. She no had to see only profits right now. She have to see peoples' life.

FUCHS: Arguello-Kline says the life of a single employee is worth more than a roll of the dice. Even with a complete shutdown, 15 culinary union workers and their family members have died from COVID-19.

For NPR News, I'm David Fuchs in Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Fuchs