‘Wuhan of the Strip’: These Casino Staffers Are Working in Fear
Maskless gamblers. Verbal abuse. Infected colleagues. Workers at the Cosmopolitan casino say they’re scared to do their jobs—and their bosses aren’t doing enough to protect them.
Lindsey,* a pit boss at the Cosmopolitan hotel on the infamous Las Vegas Strip, gets nauseous every night she hits the casino floor to begin her shift.
Some maskless patrons wander around the casino nightly—as if the threat of coronavirus doesn’t exist—while others freely smoke or handle cards with their bare hands, she told The Daily Beast. She’s been called everything from a “stupid fucking bitch” to a “little white cunt” when she’s pleaded with players to put on their face coverings.
Having been a pit boss for over a decade, Lindsey told The Daily Beast she’s accustomed to dealing with misbehaving players. But over the last two months, since the casino reopened amid the coronavirus pandemic, she’s had to deal with a different kind of abuse: players carelessly ignoring the guidelines in place to curtail the spread of the deadly virus. Meanwhile, upper management has taken a laissez-faire attitude to protecting workers, Lindsey said.
“I’m scared shitless,” she said. “I’ve heard players saying that they like Cosmo better since we opened, because we have the fewest rules.”
She isn’t alone. The Daily Beast spoke to over half a dozen Cosmopolitan employees who said they’ve endured insults and abuse since the casino reopened in June—for simply asking patrons to follow guidelines meant to stop the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus. And while the casino publicly touts its strict safety measures, employees state that, in reality, the guidelines are at times only loosely enforced. Managers flout the 50 percent capacity requirement, turn a blind eye to some maskless gamblers sitting at bars and slot machines, and allow patrons to smoke indoors (which, of course, they can’t do with a mask on).
Employees told The Daily Beast that while other casinos on the strip have strictly enforced their COVID-19 policies, the Cosmopolitan has taken a more lax approach to keep customers coming.
Andrew*, who has worked as a dealer since December 2010, said that the Cosmopolitan is becoming “known as the ‘Wuhan’ of the strip.”
Multiple employees The Daily Beast spoke to said at least 70 workers have tested positive for COVID-19 since June. They complained that workers who have tested positive have been allowed to return to work after as little as three days, as long as they aren’t showing symptoms. The staffers also said they had to make numerous complaints to management before they were given new face coverings each night. While the Cosmopolitan has seemingly thorough on-paper requirements to address the coronavirus and protect staffers, multiple workers said those policies aren’t carefully followed, and are at times disregarded entirely.
All 10 employees who spoke to The Daily Beast asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of professional and legal retaliation from the Cosmopolitan.
“I’m literally sick to my stomach every day I go into work. So much anxiety about everything, and it’s so much worse on the weekends, when we’re packed well beyond the 50 percent capacity to which we’re supposed to be adhering,” Lindsey said. “I’m terrified. I’m terrified of getting it and bringing it home and seeing my family.”
Since Nevada began to loosen its coronavirus restrictions in May, the state has continued to shatter its own COVID-19 records. When casinos reopened in June, Nevada was averaging between 100 to 200 new cases per day. By July, the Silver State saw a surge of cases and is now reporting more than 1,000 new cases daily.
Nevada—where 1,200 people have died from the coronavirus and 66,010 have been infected with it—is among the top 10 states for cases per capita, alongside Arizona, Texas, and Florida. Worse still, the rate of daily positive COVID-19 test results has hovered around 12 percent—down from a high of 24.3 percent last month, according to the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services.
Sin City—where local officials protested against the state’s stay-at-home order—has been the epicenter of the state’s outbreak, with 56,796 cases in Clark County as of Monday afternoon, according to the Southern Nevada Health District.
To curtail the surge, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak has rolled back premature reopening plans, introduced a mask mandate, and closed down bars in seven counties, including Vegas. But he left it up to local leaders to enact more restrictive measures—and Las Vegas has been slow to take more aggressive steps despite hundreds of visitors testing positive and at least one casino employee dying from COVID-19. Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman has been notably silent after calling the state shutdown in March “total insanity” and suggesting Las Vegas could be a “control group” to test the impact COVID-19 would have on a community that didn’t close its doors.
For some casino workers, the risk of contracting the coronavirus while on the job is too high. Justin*, who was a table-games dealer for eight years at the Cosmopolitan, felt the casino was doing the “absolute minimum to protect the dealers” and refused to work when it reopened in June. In addition to mask issues, he was worried about the lack of plexiglass on every table and dealers having to take nightly shuttle rides together.
“Frankly, my health is more important than somebody getting their fix,” he said.
Justin, who was placed on furlough in March, said management tried to persuade him to come back in mid-June, but “instead of elaborating on the bare minimum they had done to protect us,” his boss “went right into this script about how wonderfully busy it was.” He ultimately quit his job for good on July 15.
Staffers who returned to the casino complain about the hundreds of alcohol-soaked revelers that walk in nightly pretending “like the virus doesn’t exist.” Some guests flagrantly flout the casino’s mask mandate, while others refuse to practice social distancing, especially at the bar and slot machines, they told The Daily Beast.
In a video posted to Facebook on July 2 by two Las Vegas bloggers, dozens of patrons can be seen walking around the Cosmopolitan casino without social distancing, and hovering together around casino tables and slot machines. Some players in the video aren’t wearing masks, while others have pushed their face coverings around their chins.
“The problem with Cosmo is it drew crowds and [made] no attempt at enforcing social distancing,” Hwang, who is also the author of Pot-Limit Omaha Poker: The Big Play Strategy, said. “I wouldn’t describe Cosmo as being particularly unique as far as those types of safety measures.”
Hwang said he’s been to “virtually every open casino in the state” since June to see how the industry responded to COVID-19 restrictions.
“There is no attempt being made at crowd control enforcement at casinos,” he told The Daily Beast. “There is no defense against a mass influx of untested population of visitors from COVID hotspots concentrated on a four-mile strip.”
Cosmopolitan workers complained that while several tables on the casino floor now have plexiglass, patrons are still allowed to smoke indoors. Dr. Karen Landers with the Alabama Department of Public Health told WBRC last month that if someone is blowing smoke out of their nose or mouth, “it is possible that the smoke could have the virus in it.”
“As a result of that, it would not be a good habit to be around it,” she said.
In addition to smoking, Lindsey said that Cosmopolitan patrons are still allowed to touch the cards in specialty games—including three-card poker, pai gow, and Ultimate Texas Hold’em—and they are not cleaned afterward.
“In other casinos, only the dealers touch the cards so there’s less contact between players and dealers,” Lindsey said, adding that chips are cleaned “maybe once a week.”
Last week, however, Andrew said management had added barriers around the craps and roulette tables to prevent people from crowding together. But while the barriers have helped, there are still too many people to socially distance properly, he said.
Lindsey added that while the Cosmopolitan only required employees to complete two 30-minute online training sessions about COVID-19 to return to work, the Venetian Resort, where her relative works, requires all employees get tested. (The lack of testing also goes against the casino’s health and safety standards, which state that all employees “undergo mandatory, company-paid testing before returning to work.”)
Further, the Venetian prohibits smoking and is strict about the mask mandate, she said. And while the Venetian and other casinos established a rule requiring masks upon reopening in June, the Cosmopolitan did not require face coverings until they were mandated by the state in June. She said the hotel-casino has made more of an effort in the last week to kick out maskless patrons, but a troubling number still slip through.
Lindsey also noted that the Cosmopolitan is not temperature-checking guests that come off the strip into the casino. And until recently, after a slew of employees started getting sick, workers didn’t have a break room where they could properly practice social distancing, she said.
“Even the [University Medical Center of Southern Nevada] nurses giving us tests have said Cosmo is the worst,” Lindsey said.
Another employee who works slot machines told The Daily Beast that guests are easily able to get around social distancing measures while playing games. “Every other slot machine has a chair. But all of the slot machines are still turned on. All someone does is slide a chair over. How is that social distancing?” Andrew added. Several sources said that at other casinos on the strip, not all slot machines are turned on—and supervisors are more diligent about enforcing the social distancing seating.
Scott Harding, who recently visited the Cosmopolitan to gamble, told the Beast that while he thinks the hotel is actually doing better than some of the other casinos others on the strip, it’s “impossible” to social distance inside the casino.
“I don’t feel unsafe at the Cosmo but we plan to avoid the weekend crowds,” he said, adding that the floor “looked like a pre-COVID Thursday... over a thousand coming in there for sure.”
The account manager added that his temperature has never been checked and he’s seen “smokers at the slots.” He said he has previously seen many people without masks, especially in “the high-limit room,” and did not “see a lot of [hand] sanitizer on the casino floor.”
“They’re not turning any slots off, something [the] Venetian does well,” Harding explained, noting that he goes to casinos at least once a week.
Joseph*, who has worked at the casino since “Day One,” said that he wasn’t even an hour into his first shift back in June when he realized the hotel-casino’s special measures “weren’t going to last”—after a player began to blow cigar smoke directly into a dealer’s face.
He said that while that kind of behavior was supposed to have a “zero-tolerance” policy,” nothing was said about the smoker. “I knew right then Cosmo was full of shit about protecting employees,” he fumed.
“That’s just one very small example of the tone that was set on the reopening night,” he said. “And it just kept getting worse, with the players not properly wearing masks, zero social distancing, and more players on the game than is allowed.”
Andrew, who has been working at the casino for over a decade in table games, said he believes the Cosmopolitan’s lax attitude has attracted a new kind of clientele—one that “is a little rough.”
“We went from being a place of class and prestige to a place of wild, drunken, rowdy partygoers,” he said. “In their minds, COVID doesn’t exist once they arrive in Vegas.”
Staffers also told The Daily Beast that upper management has threatened to withhold their paychecks if they don’t follow social-distancing and other coronavirus measures—but the same rules don’t apply for customers.
In a memo to staff obtained by The Daily Beast, management stated that all employees must wear a mask, work outside the pit as much as possible, and must not “congregate or be within six feet of another [employee] when your area is dead.” In the pit, supervisors are not allowed to “stand side by side with another” staffer, and “must not walk to/from break” with a colleague.
“It’s virtually impossible to follow some of the rules in the pits,” Lindsey said. “The frustrating thing to all of us is that the memo is making it sound like the dealers and floor are passing the virus around between us. They are trying to make it sound like we are getting sick because we’re not following rules. We all believe we’re getting sick because the Cosmo has done the absolute least they could do to protect us since we opened.”
The coronavirus has plagued casinos all along the strip—but Cosmo employees insist others have remained more vigilant about managing its spread.
Bethany Khan, the communications director for Las Vegas’ Culinary Union, told The Daily Beast that 39 union members and their family members have died from COVID-19 in the last three months—and hospitalizations rates are at an all-time high.
“Since June 4, when casinos were allowed to reopen, the number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations among Culinary and Bartenders Union members and/or their immediate family members has increased 1,380 percent, from five patients (hospitalized because of COVID-19 on June 4) to 69 (hospitalized COVID-19 patients on July 29),” Khan said.
In June, Adolfo Fernandez, a 51-year-old employee at Caesars Entertainment on the strip, died after testing positive for COVID-19. The utility porter perished just two days after being diagnosed—and before the casino implemented a company-wide mask policy.
Following Fenandez’s death, all employees at Caesars Entertainment were required to get tested for the coronavirus—or face termination, the Reno Gazette Journal reported in July.
This month, Wynn Resorts disclosed that about 300 of its 17,000 employees have tested positive for COVID-19. As the first resort on the strip to publicly disclose its virus rates, the resort has also implemented mandatory testing procedures for its employees, including 500 to 600 random tests weekly in an effort to trace and curtail any possible infection spreads.
The Wynn has also been “amazing at keeping employees safe,” according to Lindsey, by “really enforcing social distancing,” only opening every other slot machine, enforcing the mask mandate, and forcing every guest to get temperature-checked upon entrance. “I would say the Venetian and Wynn have been the best,” she added.
As the state continues to grapple with its coronavirus spike, Sisolak signed a COVID-19 liability bill last week aimed to protect hospitality workers and businesses.
“We all understand the need to protect these jobs and these workers” the governor said in a virtual bill-signing ceremony on Aug. 11. “This does that by making sure our industry employees feel safe and protected at work, while our businesses creating these vital jobs are safe from unwarranted harm.”
Khan said that Senate Bill 4, named “Adolfo Fernandez Bill” on behalf of the Caesar’s employee, is “first-in-the-nation legislation that will protect all workers in the hospitality industry in Las Vegas and Reno… from the Bellagio to Motel 6.” That legislation also led to the resolution of two lawsuits brought by the Culinary Union, Las Vegas’ largest union, against MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment over worker protections amid the pandemic. (IAC, The Daily Beast’s parent company, recently purchased a stake in MGM.)
“We have resolved the lawsuit and the underlying grievances, and we have worked together to get first-in-the-nation legislation to protect workers in the hospitality industry,” a joint statement from the union and MGM Resorts International stated. “While this legislation is an important first step, the Culinary Union and MGM Resorts look forward to addressing health and safety issues for the protection and benefit of workers, guests, and the gaming industry.”
While hotels and casinos in Nevada are not required to publicly disclose the number of employees who have tested positive for COVID-19, they are obligated to contact the Southern Nevada Health District to document every new case. The SNHD did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s questions about positive cases in the area.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, the Cosmopolitan stressed it’s in compliance with the new Senate Bill 4, and has offered “free testing, temperature checks and paid time off for employees” since June. The hotel, however, did not respond to The Daily Beast questions regarding the number of employees who have tested positive for COVID-19.
“Our top priority is the safety of our employees and guests. Over the past several months, we have implemented an extensive set of health and safety policies and procedures, all of which meet or exceed the directives and guidance taken from local health and government authorities, including those called for within Senate Bill 4,” the Cosmopolitan said.
“As we have continued to operate, we have added even more protections for the health and wellbeing of our team, including extended benefits, an onsite team of certified medical professionals, real-time communication channels, a 24/7 accessible COVID-19 response team, dedicated Resort Ambassadors, enforcing our health and safety guidelines throughout the resort, the conversion of convention meeting space into expansive employee break and dining areas, and more. We continue to solicit feedback from employees and adjust and strengthen our protocols and extensive safety and security measures in real-time,” the casino added.
According to the company’s detailed safety protocols on its website, any employees who may have been exposed to the virus or those experiencing “flu-like symptoms,” are immediately tested and required to self-quarantine. Additionally, the hotel-casino said it is temperature-checking all employees before every shift, providing hand sanitizer for guests, enforcing social distancing, and requiring all guests and employees to wear face masks.
The Cosmopolitan, however, notes several groups are exempt from the mask rule—including “children under the age of 9, guests who cannot wear a face mask due to a medical condition, disability, or those who are unable to remove a mask without assistance.” The CDC recommends all people over the age of 2 should wear a face mask in public.
“For guests with a confirmed medical condition that does not permit them to wear a face mask, complimentary face shields are available,” the guidelines state. Several employees, however, said these guidelines are not the reality at the Cosmopolitan. “They barely have enough [sanitizer] for the employees,” Andrew said.
While the guidelines state that the company provides paid leave for potentially exposed employees in quarantine, the dealer said that the company only gives five days of leave—despite the minimum 14-day self-quarantine recommended by the CDC.
The company’s health and safety standards also dictate that employees should get up to 10 days paid time away from work as they quarantine, additional COVID-19 contract tracing time off paid benefits, and any additional unpaid personal leave of absence. Andrew, however, said that if all these on-paper rules were actually implemented, employees would not be “miserable” or feel pressured to return to work.
The Cosmopolitan noted to The Daily Beast the organization does not determine when it is safe for individuals to be released from quarantine or to resume daily activities—like returning to work—but follows guidelines from the CDC and the Southern Nevada Health District.
“After that, if you are exposed to another employee you don’t receive a dime,” Andrew said, adding that “there is no medical staff available 24 hours. We can’t even get in contact with upper management to address any questions or concerns.”
While many are hoping for stricter COVID-19 guidelines for patrons inside the casino, some are hoping the Las Vegas strip shuts down again altogether.
“Believe me, I wish I could walk out of here,” Joseph said. “If I didn’t have a family to take care of, I would’ve walked by now.”
*The names of Cosmopolitan employees have been altered to protect their identities.