Gambling With the Virus

Photo: Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS

When COVID-19 first hit in March, I was living in Brooklyn and watched the city shut down almost overnight. As spring turned to summer, I reckoned that those first months of lockdown would be the worst of this seemingly endless pandemic. So I thought I was being smart by packing up my life and moving across the country, for the dusty and mountainous pastures of Reno, Nevada. After all, a city of 8 million crammed into a handful of tiny islands seems obviously more perilous than a city of 250,000 stretched out over the desert. How adorably naïve!

Then the second wave hit, and it became clear that I was dead fucking wrong. A city of 8 million people who are mostly okay with big government, as it turns out, is a safer place than a less populous area full of folks who believe government should be small enough to fit in your pocket.

Now, Nevada is in big trouble. Its coronavirus test positivity rate is over 20 percent. And something I’ve found particularly perplexing is the governor’s decision to keep the casinos open — albeit at 25 percent capacity. After all, public libraries are closed. “I know it’s hard for Nevadans to reconcile why some areas of our economy and public life are restricted while the state’s casinos are open,” Governor Steve Sisolak said recently. “Our blackjack dealers, our cooks, our valet drivers, our housekeepers, and our performers … these are the folks we’re fighting to protect.” He also explained that the casinos pay approximately $52 million in gaming taxes each month. This money keeps the state, which has no income tax, alive. So Nevadans find themselves in a real pickle! Surely a more draconian shutdown order would stymie the spread of the coronavirus, but the state needs casinos as much as casinos need people who sincerely believe that they’ll hit the jackpot if they play the slots all day.

I’ve been sheltering in place since cases began to spike, but in the name of journalism, I journeyed to five casinos to see how dangerous they really felt and if the governor was making a deadly calculation by keeping them open.

I began at Circus Circus in downtown Reno. Even if we weren’t in the midst of a global pandemic, downtown Reno in the winter time is the closest you can get to experiencing what the American city will look like after the apocalypse. I felt like Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049.

When I finally found the entrance through the parking lot, things didn’t get any rosier. If there was a competition for “most depressing casino in Reno,” Circus Circus wins hands-down. The air faintly smelled of stale cigarettes. The slot machines were uncannily silent, on the account of the fact that the casino was virtually empty. In this massive underground maze of slot machines and shuttered table games, I counted a total of six patrons, all of them masked, most of them over 65. They all sat alone. The only glimmer of joy in this dark place was a smiling waitress who complimented me on my sneakers. Otherwise, the few humans inside the casino made no sounds. “Carry On” by Crosby, Nash & Stills played softly in the background, the words “rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but to carry on” betraying the extremely sad vibe of the place.

Thanks to its melancholy, funnily enough, Circus Circus felt like one of the safest indoor places I could be because no one was there. Buying household supplies at my local Target, which is usually quite popping, feels far more dangerous. Not having spoken to a stranger in maybe eight months, I built up the courage to try to interview a gambler, and introduced myself to a pudgy fellow wearing a blue N95 mask, who agreed to answer some questions.

“Are you a regular here?” I asked.

“No,” he replied, not looking at me, his eyes glued to the slot machine straight ahead as he pressed the “bet” button again and again.

“What brought you here today?”


That was my cue to leave! I walked down the block to Silver Legacy, which was still mostly empty but far livelier than Circus Circus. Here, table games were open, brightly lit by overhead chandeliers. Older patrons sat quietly around tables playing Pai Goi and Let It Ride, I could hear the slot machines enticing players to bet, bet, bet again. There were signs scattered about with instructions on how to properly wear your mask while “drinking and/or smoking”: You could take your mask off while taking a sip or a puff, but had to put it back on right afterward. Another sign warned, “Spread jackpots, not germs!”

I wandered around feeling lost, and realized I had to go gonzo and do some gambling. I saw two women who looked like a mother and daughter joyfully playing the slots. Each had a glass of red wine resting on their slot machine. I sat down nearby to spy on them while I smoked a cigarette and tried my luck. The mother pulled her daughter close, embracing her as the machine jingled, telling her that she had won 12,100 credits — $121. While mom went to cash out, daughter kept on going, booing the machine on a losing spin. Meanwhile, I was up 20 cents and decided to call it a day, not in the mood to lose money during a recession. Then I heard the daughter shout “five free games!” after she won five new reasons not to leave the machine. In a world totally changed by COVID, casinos feel almost exactly the same. They aren’t as crowded as they were in before times, but the clientele remains largely unchanged: sad elderly people hypnotized by the slots and enthusiastic tourists hoping to win big.

I popped into two more casinos downtown, and then headed to the tonier Peppermill Casino in South Reno. The Peppermill has always been my favorite casino in the city because it’s designed to look Italian in the same way Trump’s apartments are designed to look rich — the effect is less Rome and more Epcot: There are gaudy white marble columns everywhere, and terra-cotta floors. More crowded than the others, the Peppermill had erected transparent barriers between each of the slot machines. Two very friendly employees told me that the casino was far emptier than usual, not because of the governor’s 25 percent capacity mandate, but because most of their customers usually attend conventions, which are obviously not happening this year.

I observed two friends, young women, who were sitting at the bar, swap masks with each other. One friend ended up with a surgical blue mask, while the other one got a plain black one. A sign warned in all caps, “Spectators are not allowed to congregate behind the table game players,” though some people playing blackjack seemingly did not get the memo. I wandered around the casino, mostly quiet except for the jingle of the slots and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Boy Problems” playing at a low volume. I heard a couple coughs, something I understood was largely meaningless in a venue full of chain smokers, but nevertheless made me feel concerned that today was the day I would finally catch the coronavirus.

I sat down at a machine where I played video blackjack and roulette, pulled down my mask, and lit up another cigarette. A waitress politely informed me that I was breaking the rules by not putting on my mask between drags and I profusely apologized, vowing to not make the same mistake again. I cashed out when I was $4 ahead and continued to wander around the casino, my stomach in knots after having been to five very sad places in rapid succession.

I approached a man named Rick from Lake Tahoe, sitting alone, to ask him how he felt about being at a casino during the pandemic. Speaking quietly under his mask, he told me he was here to eat dinner at one of the restaurants, and then began scolding me for standing too close to him while asking my questions — a strange concern for a guy who is fine with doing indoor dining and being inside a casino during the most deadly moment in the pandemic. I stepped back, having found something in common in Rick: We both didn’t want me to be anywhere near him. It was an interaction that reminded me that only having hung out with my boyfriend and my family for the past eight months wasn’t a bad thing at all.

When I got home, I ripped off my mask and felt so happy to be there. I finished the day precisely $4.20 richer than when I started. I also totally lost my taste for casinos, which I normally love on account of the fact that they provide a vice activity I can engage in as a sober person and they make me feel like I’m living in The Running Man universe. As it turns out, when you go to five of them by yourself in the midst of a major public-health crisis, it isn’t very fun at all. But I learned something important: while I do not recommend you go to a casino until you get vaccinated, they don’t feel like the biggest public-health risk facing Nevada, where restaurants, bars, hair salons, tattoo shops, and massage parlors also remain open. On the way to Circus Circus, my Lyft driver told me that he “cheated” and went to Arizona for his nephew’s 40th birthday party last weekend. Engaging in that sort of behavior feels far more dangerous than being inside a massive and well-ventilated area. Don’t get me wrong, casinos still feel dangerous, but it has nothing to do with COVID. Rather, they are places where it is all too easy and ridiculously fun to spend all of your money, while appealing to that irrationality that lives inside all of us, the voice that tells you, “Today is gonna be different. Today is the day I’m gonna win big.”

Gambling With the Virus