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not perfect, not bad, just different

We miss seeing things beyond our apartment walls, enjoy the challenge and thrill of casino gambling and have no pre-existing health issues, so returning to traveling felt appropriate.

That said, we’ve teetered between paranoia and practicality during the coronavirus pandemic, always wearing masks and sanitizing skin, but also wary of eating inside a restaurant and avoiding any type of crowd.

Twice a year, our Vegas excursions include two longtime friends from out of town. As with most people’s unstable 2020 travel plans, our trip crept from late March to April to May to mid-June and then punted again to August.

A view of the Las Vegas Strip and McCarran International Airport.

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Even until a few days before our collective flights, there remained apprehension about whether this was a stupid idea (my mother had some thoughts about that) or a much-needed break from our oft-depressing realities as well as a welcome opportunity to converse with friends without a computer screen barrier.

Appreciative of Nevada’s statewide mask mandate, the efforts of casinos to offer sanitizer stations, check temperatures, ensure adequate spacing at slot machines and tables – or erect Plexiglas partitions – and the continued operation of restaurants at 50% capacity, we forged ahead with Option B.

An MGM lion in the lobby of the MGM Grand shares a mask message with visitors.

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ExploreHarrah’s Cherokee has reopened, and the casino is dedicated to safety and sanitizer – here’s what to expect

But as we stocked our suitcases with hand sanitizer, boxes of latex gloves and Ziploc bags of masks, we also absorbed the reality that this wouldn’t be our usual Vegas.

Shows, including the Cirque du Soleil collection, remain dark. Major concerts are likely nonexistent the rest of 2020. And the brand new Allegiant Stadium, which will welcome the transferred Oakland Raiders – now the Las Vegas Raiders – for its NFL maiden season, gleams as a fan-devoid Death Star just behind the Las Vegas Strip. (Or as one waiter described the stadium: a giant Roomba.)

The new, gleaming black Allegiant Stadium, home of the Las Vegas Raiders, won’t see any fans for its inaugural season.

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Many, but not all, restaurants have reopened. Buffets – a treasured group outing – have resurfaced at only a handful of properties in a modified manner.

Most, but not all, casinos have reopened. The latest return, the Mirage, was expected last week , leaving Park MGM, Planet Hollywood, The Cromwell and Tropicana still shuttered on the Strip.

As well, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak mandated in July that bar areas in restaurants and casinos close. The restriction has been lifted in several counties, but as of press time, still remained in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas. That means in a casino, patrons can order a drink from a server on the gaming floor, but not directly at any casino bar (video poker machines that ring most casino bars have also been disabled).

The other major gambling destination – Atlantic City – is enduring its own set of guidelines at press time: no indoor dining; no food or drink of any kind (including a bottle of water) allowed on the casino floor; no poker rooms open; and no smoking (the latter two are open/permitted in Las Vegas).

The Borgata table games are equipped with Plexiglas barriers.

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

But, as we learned on a quick trip there earlier in the month, visiting a casino under pandemic policies is still better than no casino visit at all, even though it meant traipsing to the room with takeout food or eating in makeshift dining areas in parking garages and beer gardens.

In Las Vegas, we felt a little bit of what we could only term “weirdness.” There was a vague sense of guilt about vacationing, period, but also being in a place known as a party capital (though, admittedly, three of us are gambling geeks and the other a fan of relaxing by the pool with a book). The inability to sit at the bar, play video poker and kibitz with our bartender pals at M Resort – the primary reason my husband and I stay at that off-Strip property – was frustrating, but we managed a few conversations with them in the overnight hours.

So no, just like everything in life right now, Las Vegas isn’t the same. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a gratifying escape.

Some observations:The flight

My husband and I flew Delta nonstop from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and were greeted on the plane by a flight attendant handing each passenger a Purell wipe. While Delta is committed to keeping middle seats in coach open through January, we opted to cash in a companion ticket – an annual benefit of our American Express Delta Reserve card – to fly first class, which the airline is capping at 50% capacity.

Our outbound flight was particularly light in first class, with no one seated in the rows in front, behind or across from us (with the flight attendant’s blessing, my husband moved to a seat in front of me, allowing us both even more space).

While Delta has slowly reintegrated food and beverage service, the airline is still only serving a limited selection of beer and wine in first class and Comfort Plus. Mini bottles of water are plentiful, but there is no alcohol, soda or ice on the plane.

All passengers receive a pre-packaged baggie with a bottle of water, Biscoff cookie, almonds (or possibly a Kind bar or Cheez-Its) and a small packet of hand sanitizer. First class passengers are also given a choice of a Flight Fuel snack box with offerings consisting of salami, cheese and crackers (on the return flight, my box was missing the salami, which mystified the flight attendant), hummus with crackers and dried apricots or chips and salsa.

Reminders about wearing masks throughout the flight – unless eating or drinking – were frequent and professional; no issues arose with passengers refusing to follow the rules.

Our friends flew nonstop on Southwest from Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and reported quick boarding in groups of 10, little traffic in the jet way or plane aisles and ample overhead bin space. Southwest has also pledged to keep inventory at two-thirds capacity through October, effectively leaving middle seats open (given its open seating policy, those traveling together could opt to sit together, but space is still abundant).

We all agreed that mask mandates and limited onboard service on both of our airlines equated to much quieter flights – a jackpot in itself.

The hotels

The Statue of Liberty in front of New York-New York Hotel Casino in Las Vegas shows off a mask that tells visitors of doing “Vegas Safely.”

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

My husband and I split our time between New York-New York – where I have a longstanding host relationship – and M Resort, about 10 miles from the Strip in Henderson, Nevada, where our friends stayed the entirety.

At both, guests are given a quick temperature check at the front desk (though our check-in clerk at VIP Services at NY-NY neglected to take ours, an apparent oversight).

MGM properties in Las Vegas as well as its Atlantic City locale, the Borgata, place a housekeeping seal in the doorframe that breaks upon opening to assure visitors that no one has been in the room since cleaning.

At NY-NY, an amenity kit awaited us on the desk, with two branded, reusable masks, a sizeable tube of hand sanitizer and a pair of finger-sized metal tools that can be used to open doors or push elevator buttons.

An amenity kit at New York-New York Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A sleeve promising “cleaned for your safety” was sheathed over the remote control, and anything extraneous that could collect germs or dust – pens, paper, magazines and, most bizarrely, a clock – have been removed from the NY-NY rooms (note to management: if there is no way to see the time in the room, perhaps an outlet on the bedside lamp would be helpful to connect a smartphone, rather than making guests plug in across the room).

At M Resort, a pen wrapped in plastic was available, but no amenity kits or other acknowledgment of cleaning was apparent (however, based on the housekeeping carts in the hallway, significant work, including replacement bedding, is done upon guest departure).

Housekeeping at many hotels in Las Vegas and Atlantic City is available on request (though daily housekeeping service continues at M Resort with the option to opt-out). Guests can call any time for a replenishment of amenities or extra towels and can also ask that items be left outside the room.

The casinos

While weekday traffic among the casinos continues to slump given the combination of canceled conventions and fewer visitors from non-driving markets – the weekend presented a steady stream of gamblers, shoppers and diners.

The front of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas reminds guests about face masks.

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The majority adhered to the mask mandate without incident, but we also witnessed plenty of people – mostly while walking through the casino – keeping their lower mouths well-protected with a chin bonnet. Reminders ranged from non-existent at Caesars Palace to absurd at the MGM Grand (“Sir, you cannot be on the casino floor without a mask…or a shirt” – yes, someone really needed to be told to put on clothes in public).

At the Borgata in Atlantic City, as well as New York-New York and the Bellagio in Las Vegas, hand washing stations have been installed on the casino floor.

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Many of the MGM properties – including NY-NY, Bellagio and Atlantic City’s Borgata – have installed full hand washing stations around the casino floor, as well as dispensers with disposable masks and gloves.

Every casino has added sanitizer trees in numerous locations and M Resort also provides sanitizer wipes for the machines (their cleaning staff was also the most visible at all hours, wiping down machines, emptying ashtrays and sweeping).

As for social distancing on the gaming floor, casinos are either disabling a few slot machines in crowded areas or removing chairs (e.g., a bank of four machines only had two chairs available). The moveable chairs, however, can be problematic because people often relocate them to other machines, thus defeating the purpose of spacing.

Signs remind gamblers that some machines have been disables to promote social distancing.

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Table games at NY-NY included Plexiglas barriers between players, while other casinos, including M Resort, have limited seating (e.g., three players at a blackjack table). Poker rooms – some with reduced seating – have reopened in several casinos, including Aria, Caesars Palace, The Venetian, Flamingo, South Point, Golden Nugget, MGM Grand, Bellagio and Sahara Las Vegas.

The food

We’ll just focus on the hallmark of Las Vegas – the buffet. When casinos returned in early June, none was willing to tackle how to present an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord filled with wandering bodies and questionable sneeze guards in a COVID-19 world.

At The Buffet at Wynn in Las Vegas, servers bring all-you-can-eat offerings to diners.

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

But within weeks, The Buffet at Wynn bravely ventured forth with a modified concept, followed by a fellow high-end offering from the Wicked Spoon at The Cosmopolitan and, last month, the more modest South Point buffet.

The opulent Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace – which underwent a $2.4 million makeover during its closure – is slated to reopen Sept. 10.

The four of us sampled Wynn and Wicked Spoon – reservations are highly suggested and a two-hour limit is placed on diners – while our friends visited the South Point buffet three times.

Of them, South Point (prices start at $9.95 for breakfast with a slot-club card) is closest to a “traditional” buffet, where diners take empty plates from stations. But instead of serving yourself, staff members behind the food stations place selections on your plate, cafeteria-style.

At all three buffets, diners are required to wear masks when not seated at their table. While South Point’s dining room included placards on tables to indicate they weren’t in service, Wynn and Wicked Spoon seemingly opted to remove some tables to allow for greater spacing in between.

The Buffet at Wynn provides diners a placemat for their face masks.

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Buffet at Wynn – closed Tuesday and Wednesday and open for various forms of brunch and dinner Thursday-Monday with prices ranging from $36.99-$65.99 – is still well-worth its pricey tag, despite a transformed experience.

Diners remain seated throughout and a primary server takes food orders, while a bevy of food runners deliver the selections to each table. The offerings are all-you-can-eat, though many servings were generous enough that one of each sufficed. With a menu (available via QR code or paper) hovering around 80 items – including miso-marinated ribeye, Alaskan Opilio crab legs, beef short rib with lobster polenta, seafood paella, street corn skillet, handmade dessert crepes and Key lime pie – variety was not an issue.

A single serving of shrimp cocktail at The Buffet at Wynn.

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The delivery process was efficient, but one friend likened it to “controlled chaos” and we all joked that at times, we felt like Lucy and Ethel watching pieces of chocolate race down a conveyer belt. Our server recommended that we each order about five items to start, which was sufficient, but we found ourselves constantly consulting our phone menus and mentally tracking what we had ordered and what yet hadn’t arrived, which diminished our usual lively conversation. And because the food runners’ trays had dishes for multiple tables, we were communicating with them frequently about who among us ordered a particular dish.

Because of an increased array of smaller plates – as opposed to the one larger plate diners traditionally use in a buffet line – table space on a four-top was scrunched. As much as we appreciated the cardboard placemat to set our face masks, we found it more useful as a resting spot for silverware and tucked our face masks in a pocket.

The experience wasn’t bad and it wasn’t stellar – it was just…different.

As for the Wicked Spoon – open 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday-Sunday with a cost of $39 (children 4-10 are $20 and 4 and under free with a paying adult) – its approach is a combination of Wynn and South Point.

At the Wicked Spoon buffet at The Cosmopolitan, diners can approach the buffet, but staff plates the food from behind stanchions.

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Diners can roam the buffet area and peruse selections. However, the food stations are cordoned off and only staff standing on the other side of the stanchion can place food on a dinner-sized plate.

We found elements confusing – floor markings weren’t particularly clear and it seemed food stations could be accessed from any direction, leading to many “excuse me’s” among diners. As well, food labels are difficult to read from 5 feet away, so make sure to ask about selections (we were not provided with a QR code or menu, but according to the Wicked Spoon website, both apparently exist).

Brunch offerings at The Wicked Spoon buffet at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas.

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Brunch fans will relish the Nutella toast, scrambled eggs with crème fraiche chives (already snugly scooped into a jelly jar) and assortment of pancakes, hash browns with cheddar cheese and cinnamon walnut French toast. Those with a savory-leaning palette have an array that includes carved meats (prime rib, herb-crusted pork shoulder), “wicked” fried chicken, grilled crab legs, duck wings and carnitas tacos, while the dessert offerings feature bourbon white chocolate bread pudding, Oreo cheesecake (also in a jar), gelatos and sorbets.

As with the Wynn buffet – and really, everything in life these days – it was just…different.

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