'Best day ever': Gamblers flock to downtown Las Vegas on first night of casino reopenings

Sergio Portesan's middle name is Elvis and he has a tattoo of the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign on his left bicep.

The 26-year-old Colorado man visits this gambling and entertainment mecca every chance he gets, the last time for his birthday in January, just weeks before casinos went dark as the coronavirus crisis deepened.

So no one was going to keep him from the reopening party that kicked off Wednesday — except his mother.

She's a nurse in Minnesota, and Portesan wanted her blessing given continuing coronavirus concerns.

"I was like, if you tell me no, I'll cancel,'' Portesan said. "She's like, do it. It's important to you. It's historic. You'll never see it again. You're young and healthy.''

That's all he needed to hear. Portesan and his partner, Alex Loarca, hopped a Southwest Airlines flight from Denver to Las Vegas Wednesday and headed to downtown Las Vegas, becoming among the first to celebrate the reopening of the crippled tourism mecca because hotel-casinos there opened a day before Strip hotels.

The pair strolled an open-but-empty Fremont Street with masks on, before hitting happy hour at the Downtown Cocktail Room and, finally, the D Las Vegas casino right after it opened at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. Loarca slid $1 into a "Quick Hit'' penny slot machine and quickly got the bonus, the holy grail for slot players of all budgets. It paid $2.17.

'I was there! 6-4-20'

The D, whose owner Derek Stevens offered free one-way flights to kick start the tourism recovery, treated the occasion like a cross between a grand opening and a New Year's Eve celebration. Hotel guests were treated to free champagne at check-in, and there was a ribbon cutting on the casino floor. On the ribbon: "I was there! 6-4-20 Re-opening Las Vegas!''

Bobbi Carlisle, a Phoenix truck driver, waited next to the ribbon 15 minutes before the casino opened in hopes of snagging a souvenir piece. An employee who recognized her as the first guest to check in that morning pulled a piece out of his suit jacket pocket and gave it to her as a belated birthday present.

She turned 60 in February and had to postpone the celebration in Las Vegas with her sister and daughter five times as the coronavirus crisis dragged on and hotels were forced to cancel reservations.

"It's just been months of us trying to get here,'' she said.

Carlisle almost missed this one, too. Her truck broke down in Oregon last week, so she had to rent a car to drive to Las Vegas to meet her family. They're staying for a week.

"Now we're here and we're so excited,'' she said. "We're hoping to get a keno machine and we'll play there for days.''

The D hotel, which offered room rates as low as $30 before resort fee on Wednesday night, wasn't sold out, but Stevens said bookings are building and there's a chance the hotel might sell out Saturday night.

The visitors coming this week tend to be Vegas fans and fanatics, he said, and are skewing younger because younger people may be more comfortable traveling right now given people who are older are in a higher-risk group for severe illness related to COVID-19.

"This will be a very fun, gregarious group,'' he said of this week's guests. "These are people that want to get out of their hometown and come visit Vegas.''

Vegas consumers, particularly gamblers, have been eager to resume traveling, in some cases quickly as casinos reopen, according to Jason Guggenheim, who leads Boston Consulting Group's global travel and tourism group.

Travel search company Kayak saw a more than 100% surge in Las Vegas flight searches in late May the day after Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak announced the casino reopening plans, though searches were still down more than 60% from a year ago.

Stevens is betting that the first visitors to return to Las Vegas will likely also bring more money than usual to spend on blackjack, craps, roulette and slot machines because stay-at-home orders across the country have limited spending opportunities, he said.

"If you've been able to keep your job, you're still making your income but you've had no where to spend it,'' he said. "You can only do so much damage on DoorDash.''

Johnny Lujan, 29, flew in from Los Angeles on Wednesday afternoon so he could gamble on the first night casinos reopened. He was last in Vegas the week casinos shut down in mid-March.

What brought him back?

"I love gambling,'' he said.

He beelined for a $15 roulette table the second the D Casino reopened and was scattering chips all over the place as the Black Eyed Peas "I Gotta Feeling'' blared in the background.

'Best day ever': Gamblers flock to downtown Las Vegas on first night of casino reopenings

Lujan did not wear a mask, nor did what appeared to be more than half of casino visitors, at least at the D. Visitors aren't required to wear masks, but employees must.

He said the temperature checks required of hotel guests and casino visitors at the D "felt kind of weird.'' Hotel policies vary, but the D on Wednesday was requiring temperature checks each time a guest or visitor entered the place. The Golden Nugget down the street was only taking hotel guests' temperatures at check-in.

Overall, though, Lujan said he was thrilled to be back in town.

"Probably the best day ever, I think.''

Downtown Las Vegas got off to a slow start: Call off the Chippendales

With the casinos closed until midnight and most hotels now allowing check in until 3 p.m., downtown Las Vegas got off to a slow start on Wednesday.

The Fremont Street Experience, a pedestrian mall with a giant overhead video canopy, tourist shops, outdoor bars and a zip line, opened in the morning but was deserted through sunset.

'Best day ever': Gamblers flock to downtown Las Vegas on first night of casino reopenings

Kevin Kopec, vice president of attraction photography for Cashman Photo Enterprises, planned to open the company's large kiosk on Fremont Street Wednesday afternoon but decided to wait a day when visitors failed to show up.

"It's a ghost town,'' he said.

The kiosk offers photos with Chippendales models, and Kopec said he had to cancel them so the kiosk didn't lose money after being shuttered since mid-March.

"It's a high hourly cost to have a couple Chippendale models here,'' he said. "We're not in a position to lose any more money.''

George Floyd protests don't deter visitors from downtown Vegas

Another night of Black Lives Matter protests in support of George Floyd, the unarmed Minnesota man who died in police custody, didn't scare Cary Reed and Debbie Fontenot from celebrating Las Vegas' reopening downtown.

The Louisiana couple, who stopped in Las Vegas on the way back from a funeral, arrived in Las Vegas Monday night. That's the night a protester died and a Las Vegas police officer was critically injured in separate shooting incidents.

They were surprised to see the casinos still closed, so they decided to stay longer so they could gamble.

Fontenot said she was comforted by the lineup of law enforcement vehicles and officers outside their hotel, the Golden Nugget, on Wednesday evening during a downtown protest.

"I know I'm safe,'' she said."They're not going to come get us. We've got too much protection.''

Next up: The Strip reopens

With downtown casino hotels back online, travelers' attention will turn to the famed Las Vegas Strip, home to glittering casino resorts known around the world. Major casino companies including MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment will start reopening Thursday morning. The famed Bellagio fountains will be turned back on, and the High Roller observation wheel will resume scenic rides.

If the experience downtown is any indication, they are likely to be packed given pent-up demand.

One downtown casino official said Wednesday night was like a normal Saturday night, as if the coronavirus shutdown had never occured.

"Makes me wonder what Saturday night will be like.''