'Masks bring a new twist to the art of bluffing in Las Vegas'

·5 min read
las vegas what trip holiday like covid 19 omicron restrictions - Getty
las vegas what trip holiday like covid 19 omicron restrictions - Getty

How many places in America let you smoke inside? A quick Google search suggests (surprisingly) that a dozen or so hold-outs still exist. That said, I'd be willing to venture that there is only one place where smokers are required to use a face mask while indulging their habit. And that place is a Las Vegas casino.

At first, I'd assumed it must be a joke. But sure enough the sign was official: informing patrons of Caesar's Palace that they can only remove their mask when actively smoking, drinking or eating. What’s more, it said, the mask should be pulled back up ‘after bite, sip or puff’. Once again, America’s obsession with face masks has presented the kind of situation that will one day baffle future generations.

Of all the US destinations least suited to long-term pandemic restrictions, Las Vegas was always going to be near the top of the list. For more than a century now, this has been the place where hard-working Americans (and latterly the internationals) come to escape the grind and irritation of daily life. On the mighty Strip, the biggest casinos proudly defied nature itself by exerting control over temperature and masking the time of day. Now they find themselves back at its mercy.

face mask las vegas restrictions holiday - getty
face mask las vegas restrictions holiday - getty

How has Covid affected Las Vegas? Back in the early days of the pandemic, it came seriously unstuck. Leaving the newly rechristened Harry Reid International Airport, my driver tells me that, when Nevada first ordered business closures, the veteran casino operators found they had no idea how to actually close them. Most had been proudly running a 24/7 365 operation since the day they were built and hadn't read the lock-up procedures for years.

As you might expect, the biggest impact of the pandemic has been the ubiquitous face mask. Despite state guidelines leaving a slither of discretion for businesses, masks are compulsory virtually everywhere. Presumably keen to appear socially responsible, the casinos have seemingly doubled down on official guidance – even if their guests almost exclusively opt for the cheap surgical variety now actively discouraged by Omicron hardlines. Masks are even required in the smaller poker rooms, where the chance to cover one's face presumably brings a new twist to the great art of bluffing.

Apart from that, it's business as usual in Sin City as bars and venues trip over themselves to make up for lost trade. Irritating perspex screens or capacity limits are – thankfully – absent. Instead the bigger casinos compete on their cleaning policies, seeking to reassure guests by advertising how often they sanitise their chips. While the Strip has returned to action, the biggest crowds can be found at its downtown rival, Fremont Street. Even in early January, it's bustling with domestic visitors seeking refuge from the biting cold of the northern and eastern states.

las vegas sign covid restrictions - Getty
las vegas sign covid restrictions - Getty

As is often the case in Vegas, the real challenge is finding the right places to go. In a city where tourist traps and mediocre restaurants are everywhere, 'chancing it' has never been an option. From listening to the Mobbed Up history podcast (a joint production of the Las Vegas Mob Museum and a Nevada newspaper), I find out about The Peppermill – a decades-old restaurant at the far north of the Strip, accurately described as one of the last vestiges of 'old Vegas'. It's definitely worth a visit. By far the best tip, though, comes from Nate Silver, the nerdy American pollster who regularly competes in poker tournaments here. On his own podcast, he plugs Tacos el Gordo – a fantastic budget eatery where you can arrive with $20 and leave with an excellent meal and a decent wad of change.

For those keen to avoid venues where mask-wearing is over zealous, I'm able to find two. One is a rather pricey speakeasy bar (The Laundry Room) which has prioritised authentic period ambience over modern pandemic concerns. The other is the infamous Heart Attack Grill, a provocative novelty restaurant which gleefully promotes gluttony and obesity. Given its long-standing crusade against health and safety, it was practically inevitable it would choose to defy CDC guidance.

As for casinos, my own favourite remains El Cortez: a charmingly ramshackle place whose ambience resembles something between a heist movie and that Arctic Monkeys video set in a casino on the moon. This place hasn't changed for years and isn't going to start now. Being off the Strip, it’s also refreshingly hassle-free to deal with. No long check-in queues or extortionate mini-bar prices to worry about. The perfect respite from an increasingly officious world.

On the casino floor, I put the mask policy to the test. Having obtained a smoke from a kindly by-stander, I park myself at a blackjack table holding the (unlit) cigarette between my fingers. The dealer intervenes almost immediately. ‘Sir, if you’re not going to light that, you’ll need to put on your mask,’ he says. As a habitual non-smoker, I’d never normally contemplate reaching for a match, but here we are. Let’s just hope what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

How to do it

Rooms at the El Cortez casino start from £54 per night (including 'amenity fee'). BA flies direct to Las Vegas daily, with fares from £453 return (economy).

Dinner for two at the Peppermill from £100 (with drinks). Drinks for two at the Laundry Room (pre-booking required) from £70. Dinner for two at the Heart Attack Grill from £70 (with drinks).

Reader Service: Planning a trip across the pond? Learn how to get travel insurance for the USA with the Telegraph Media Group Travel Insurance Service.

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