Las Vegas’ resorts seemed louder Friday night.
As of Thursday, guests no longer need to wear a face mask while inside most Nevada businesses – including casinos. That means no more cloth muffling a cheer at a lucky blackjack hand or stifling conversation among the crowds strolling the halls of the resorts.
And with the city packed for Super Bowl weekend, one of the biggest days of the year for sportsbooks, there were plenty of people to fill the air with chatter.
That’s not to say that casinos had been dead before this weekend. Far from it; more than 3 million people visited Las Vegas in December, just 13% below December 2019 levels, according to the latest data available from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Plus, the state’s now-defunct masking mandate had allowed people to shed their face coverings indoors when eating, drinking or smoking, which means visitors saw plenty of bare faces before Thursday.
Nevertheless, the new mask policy has been seen as Las Vegas getting one step closer to a return to normal after a two-month shutdown in 2020.
“I keep thinking, wait, something’s missing – but I’m glad we can go back to normal. I’m hoping we can go back to normal,” said Jennifer Rios of Palm Springs, California, who was sipping on a Corona beer inside Paris Las Vegas’ casino Friday night. “It makes me feel really hopeful that that’s the way we’re headed.”
Mixed reactions among Las Vegas visitors
Sidewalks on Fremont Street, the heart of downtown Las Vegas, were packed Friday night, and crowds danced and twirled on spilled beer as music blasted through speakers. Taxis lined outside the casinos advertised shows that are back up and running.
On Las Vegas Boulevard, the Bellagio’s fountains danced to Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be a Lady.” Crowds surrounded the spectacle, most without masks, cameras raised for videos.
A number of visitors admitted that the state’s new masking rules took them by surprise. It was welcome news for some, like Doug and Carolyn Pearson of St. Louis, who were in Las Vegas to celebrate Doug’s 63rd birthday.
“It’s kind of nice,” Doug said inside Resorts World Las Vegas. “It’s a hassle to have a mask.”
“It takes away some of the confusion,” Carolyn added.
Danny Boyd of Miami, who was in town for a Luke Bryan concert and Super Bowl Sunday, was also pleasantly surprised to learn that masks would no longer be required during his vacation.
“It’s what we’re used to (in Florida). … We’re going back to normal again,” he said. “I just hate the way (a mask) feels.”
Despite the new rules, 10% or so of the indoor crowds opted to keep their masks on – which can help prevent infection, especially if the masks are N95s or KN95s and worn correctly, according to studies.
Amanda Henry-Sander, who wore a matching black surgical mask with her wife, Nicole Sander, said the two were keeping the masks on during their trip but didn’t feel uncomfortable with the bare faces surrounding them. Both are fully vaccinated, and Amanda caught a mild case of COVID after a December trip to Las Vegas.
“The thing is is that we’re still in a pandemic and it’s not over,” Amanda said. “We don’t know when it’s going to be over. And I know a lot of people have mixed emotions on it. If you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t wear a mask, but don’t give grief to the folks that are still wearing a mask.”
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Nicole added that she’s had multiple people remind her that the mask mandate has been lifted since they got into town Thursday.
“I’m like, we know,” she said. “We’re going to see my 90-year-old aunt in two weeks and then we’re going to see her grandmother in Arkansas. … You got to do what you got to do to protect yourself.”
Michelle Wenzel and her husband, Brian Wenzel, of Los Angeles noted that they were surprised to learn about the new masking rules during their trip.
“If I hadn’t been boosted and just had COVID, I would’ve probably freaked out,” Michelle said outside of Paris Las Vegas. (Unlike the casino, the city of Paris still requires masks indoors.)
Others, like Julie Neff, couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable seeing the COVID-19 mitigation measure drop.
“This morning, we were like – why is nobody wearing their mask?” she said. “I think it’s a little too early. We kind of just came down off the spike.”
The Hollister, California native was diagnosed with thyroid cancer a couple of weeks before her trip. She plans to schedule a surgery early next week, but her doctor warned her that a positive COVID-19 test would mean the surgery would need to be postponed.
Neff, who traveled to Las Vegas with her husband to watch Luke Brian and George Strait concerts, said she almost sold her tickets. Instead, the two “went for it” and plan to wear KN95 masks throughout the vacation.
“I’m a little nervous about it, but I’m at the point where I want to live my life, too,” she said.
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Follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter: @bailey_schulz.