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No Dice: Union Representing Casino Workers Says Masks Must be Mandatory As COVID-19 Cases Soar Out West

LAS VEGAS, Nev.—Nevada’s casinos began reopening early this month, with the state Gaming Control Board requiring that customers wear masks during card and table games where they’re sitting with a dealer. That’s not anywhere near enough, say the unions representing casino workers.

“I want everybody to wear their masks. I have an asthmatic son. I do not want to bring anything back to him.” — Diana Thomas, guest-room attendant, UNITE HERE Local 226.

“That’s great for the dealer, but what about the bartender or the cocktail waitress?” UNITE HERE Local 226 Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline asked during an online press conference June 22. “We need everybody wearing masks.” 

Local 226, known as the Culinary Union, and the Bartenders Union, UNITE HERE Local 165, represent about 60,000 casino workers in the Las Vegas and Reno areas. Members said only a small minority of customers are wearing masks in areas where they’re not explicitly required. 

“I have observed that guests are not wearing masks in public spaces,” said Yolanda Scott, a coffeeshop food server at the Treasure Island Hotel and casino on the Las Vegas Strip. She estimated that only about 10% of customers wore masks. 

“I do not want to bring the COVID-19 back to my family, my children,” she said. “My partner has a bad kidney and a bad heart, and he needs to be extra cautious.”

“When they come up to my cart and ask for towels, I’m kind of leery of giving them towels, because they’re not wearing masks,” said Diana Thomas, a guest-room attendant at the Flamingo two blocks south. “I want everybody to wear their masks. I have an asthmatic son. I do not want to bring anything back to him.”

Her 21-year-old son, who had to come home from college because of the epidemic, has almost died from asthma complications three times, she added. 

COVID-19 cases in Nevada have increased dramatically since the casinos began reopening June 4. The 1,877 new cases reported by the state Department of Health in the week ending June 22 represented a 16% increase in just seven days, to 13,535 total cases, with 489 deaths. More than three-fourths of the cases were in Clark County—the Las Vegas area—and all but a few hundred of the rest were in the Reno area.

Argüello-Kline said the Culinary Union did not know how many members had been infected since the casinos reopened, but since the epidemic began, 17 members of the union or their families have died from the virus.

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman began advocating in April that hotels and casinos, which employ more than 160,000 people in the metropolitan area of 2.2 million, should reopen. She told CNN that people who believed that would spread the coronavirus were “alarmist.” 

Goodman told MSNBC that the market would ensure safety. “Let the businesses open, and competition will destroy that business if, in fact, they become evident that they have disease, they’re closed down,” she said. “It’s that simple.”

However, the mayor has no jurisdiction over the Las Vegas Strip, as it’s just outside the city limits.

The Culinary Union asked the Gaming Control Board and the Clark County Commission in early May to require that all customers wear masks in public areas when the casinos reopened. It is now demanding that casinos and hotels “implement the same face-covering mandate for visitors interacting with bartenders, cocktail servers, food servers, bell persons, porters, guest room attendants, cashiers, and other customer-facing positions.”

“They should do it for the safety of the employees and for our city,” said Local 165 member Flo Lee, a poolside bartender at the MGM Grand, another hotel-casino on the Strip.

The Culinary’s other demands include “deep cleaning” of rooms after guests check out; mandatory testing of all employees for COVID-19 before they return to work, and regular testing afterwards; adequate personal protective equipment for workers; and enforcing social distancing.

Workers should be given enough time to do deep-cleaning, Argüello-Kline added, and management should “check the temperature of everybody who comes inside.”

Business has been slow since the reopening, she added, “but we have to be safe, that’s the most important part. In California everybody wears masks. Why can’t we do that here in Nevada?”

“The employer needs to enforce everyone to wear the masks. I don’t feel protected,” said Scott.

Argüello-Kline declined to specify what the union would do if employers didn’t follow its safety demands, beyond saying “whatever it takes” in grievances and legal actions.

“It’s great that our tourists are coming back already, but the workers have to be safe,” said Lee. “Please wear your mask, and social-distance for us.”

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