One last trip to the Las Vegas Strip

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A scene on the Las Vegas Strip, after the Covid-19 shutdown, March 19.
A scene on the Las Vegas Strip, after the Covid-19 shutdown, March 19. Photo Credit: UNLV Special Collections and Archives/Aaron Mayes
Paul Szydelko
Paul Szydelko

It was a brunch our family won't soon forget. For weeks we had discussed going to Caesars Palace's acclaimed Bacchanal Buffet to celebrate my older daughter's 24th birthday.

As Covid-19 concerns loomed and then accelerated on that Saturday, March 14, I completed an informal cost/benefit analysis every traveler does when considering leaving home, to go near or far, even when not facing a global health crisis. Is the cost of traveling worth the benefit?

Costs: That the threat had closed other prominent buffets around town was fair warning these large venues draw big gatherings; we would be sharing with strangers many serving utensils, a risk regardless of how clean they are and how frequently they are replaced. It's $60 a person for a weekend brunch. There's a $15 parking fee. It's a roughly 20-minute drive from our home in suburban Henderson.

Benefits: The $100 million Bacchanal Buffet has been on our bucket list since it opened in 2012. Among the hundreds of available items for every taste are individually plated servings, rare in buffet setups. In contrast to the bland sameness of many buffets, Bacchanal Buffet promises about 15 daily chef's specials that depend on available products and the season. Its lavish dining area has air-, water- and wood-themed sections. There would likely be no wait to get in.

Knowing full well this could be our last opportunity for normalcy for a while, we set out to the Las Vegas Strip.

We pulled into the Caesars Palace property the locals' way, from Frank Sinatra Drive just west of the Las Vegas Strip, and we saw the difference in traffic. We drove up to the garage's roof. Although many cars were parked, we encountered no one until our elevator opened into the casino. The sound on the normally bustling floor was muted. Even for a Saturday morning, the crowd was noticeably light.

An almost-somber mood prevailed. It wasn't exactly caution exhibited by those in the casino, but it wasn't the seemingly carefree attitude of those on spring break that weekend on Florida beaches. It exuded diminished expectations: "Well, there's not the usual excitement, but hey, we're here, let's make the best of it."

After paying, we walked right into the buffet, occupied at about one-fifth of capacity at best. Its immense food selection, inspired by cuisine throughout the world, was on full display. We enjoyed lobster bisque and clam chowder, crab and carved-to-order wagyu beef, s'mores and tiramisu over the next 90 minutes. The service to clear our plates and refill our beverages was not exceptional, maybe for obvious reasons, but we took extra care to leave a generous tip for what was certain to be one of the last shifts.

We strolled past the doors of the elegant Colosseum, sharing memories of seeing Celine Dion, Cher, Elton John and Jerry Seinfeld perform on its massive stage through the years. We walked through the Forum Shops, a 160-shop retail destination, and paused to see the Fall of Atlantic animatronic show and the 50,000-gallon aquarium.

I was reminded of the Thomas Andrews character in "Titanic." Conveying the gravity of the situation after hitting the iceberg, he said to captain, "The pumps buy you time, but minutes only. From this moment, no matter what we do, Titanic will founder."

Indeed, just days later, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered all nonessential businesses, including casinos and retail stores, closed for 30 days. All gaming machines, devices, tables, games and any equipment related to gaming activity throughout the state are suspended.

Just before the closures went into effect, my daughter and I drove a few blocks on the Strip. Foot traffic and motor traffic were sparse, and parking lots were empty as the shutdown began. Photographer Aaron Mayes captures the stark emptiness in this series of photos, "Lost Vegas," taken on March 19.

Like the rest of the world, Las Vegas has come to an abrupt halt in most respects. Construction, however, continues on at least two of the most anticipated buildings scheduled to open in 2020, Allegiant Stadium and an expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

When I drive in from my home in nearby Henderson, the Las Vegas Strip never ceases to amaze me. It welcomed 42.5 million last year. Many must travel thousands of miles from around the world to see what I see from a distance almost everyday, so I never take it for granted.

All those who work hard every day to show guests a good time -- resort owners, managers, performers, chefs, dealers, waitresses, valet attendants, baggage handlers, housekeepers, ushers, event planners, reservation specialists -- pause with concern and wait with anticipation. Las Vegans take great pride in what they have achieved and what they continue to achieve as a global destination.

As a city and as a state and as a country, we've rebounded from terrible setbacks and horrific events and steep economic downturns. Las Vegas is relatively young, but it has proven resilient. It will continue to innovate, it will continue to surprise, it will continue to delight guests from all over the U.S. and the world with its unique brand of exhilaration. The lights are dim now, but Vegas will be bright and open again soon.

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