Casinos become food banks as Las Vegas workers wait out lockdown

Las Vegas (AFP) –


Michelle Manning pulled up at the Las Vegas casino around 2:30 am feeling confident.

She and her sister were not planning to roll dice or play poker at the Palace Station, which like every gambling establishment in the desert city is shut due to coronavirus.

Instead they arrived early enough to beat the six-mile (10-kilometer) line of cars that, each week, snakes around and out the sprawling parking lot, as people wait for the makeshift food bank to open.

"We're able to have fruit, vegetables, meat, milk... and with the cash that I have available, I can pay my power bills," said Manning, who has an infant granddaughter and 92-year-old father waiting at home.

"And this is safer than going to the grocery store."

A transport dispatcher whose children were laid off from jobs at the city's world-famous casinos, Manning was third in line of an anticipated 1,000 vehicles at the drive-through operation on Thursday.

Each waited for crates of Wisconsin cheese, Washington state apples, chicken strips, potatoes and iced tea to be loaded into their open trunks.

The site is one of 20 Las Vegas hubs run by Three Square, which sources food from federal government programs, as well as local donors and vendors.

The non-profit received a glut of discarded banquet food from Las Vegas casinos in March when they were suddenly ordered to shut their doors due to coronavirus.

"They had sitting on their shelves, in their coolers and freezers, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pounds of perishable food that we rescued over a matter of three or four days," said COO Larry Scott.

But now that brief bonanza of meats and other premium foodstuffs has "completely stopped."

- 'Strange' -

And many of those now waiting in line are the casinos' own former employees, laid off during the shutdown.

Around one-third of southern Nevada's workforce is employed in hospitality, a sector especially ravaged by stay-at-home orders and travel bans. MGM Resorts, for instance, furloughed 63,000 staff.

Tom Schiffhauer, a 62-year-old poker dealer at the Orleans casino, was laid off when the pandemic arrived -- as was his wife at the Rio hotel.

"I've been here 40 years and I've never seen anything like this... It's strange. Strange," he said, four hours into his wait.

Some of the city's largest hotels are making plans to reopen later this month, but do not yet have permission from the state's governor.

"I don't even worry about it anymore because you can't do anything about it," said Schiffhauer, pausing from puffing a cigar in the driver seat.

- 'Shocked' -

A few cars further back, Sandra Flores, a former cleaner at a hotel in nearby Primm, south of Las Vegas, insisted that "we need to get back to work, we need to pay the bills."

Like many, she has been waiting almost two months for her unemployment to be approved, and is "shocked" that the lockdown has lasted so long.

The impact of the casino closures had been felt among the hundred or so volunteers as well.

Luis Rosales used to work as a server at The Venetian hotel, and is fortunate to still be receiving pay.

"I'm volunteering five to six days a week so it makes me feel like I have a job -- I can only do my laundry and clean my windows at home so many times," he said.

Although the Palace Station casino is located in a mainly working-class neighborhood around a mile west of the main Strip, the waiting cars range from beaten-down old sedans to Hummers and Mercedes.

"The most unique thing about this, that is so different than our prior experience, with the virus is it's every single economic class," said Scott, the chief operating officer.

The number of food-insecure people in southern Nevada has shot up by 50,000, to around 14 percent of the region, he said.

"It's not just for today -- it's going to go on and on. The demand is going to be high for a very long time."