Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020 | 4:41 p.m.
If it wasn’t for the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of visitors would again be in Las Vegas for one of the world’s most notable New Year’s Eve celebrations.
They would pack the Strip and downtown to celebrate in clubs, listen to live music and embrace as the clock strikes midnight to usher in a new year. And, of course, when the clock strikes midnight, there’s a nearly 10-minute fireworks display that lights up the Strip.
While clubs, musical performances and pyrotechnics will be sidelined Thursday, officials still anticipate large crowds in the tourist corridor — albeit with far fewer people than the 330,000 visitors in 2019.
Officials are preparing to welcome the crowd just like they would in non-COVID times, including closing Las Vegas Boulevard to vehicle traffic and having heavy police presence in the corridor.
More than 1,200 Metro officers will patrol the Strip, and another couple hundred the Fremont Street Experience, Deputy Chief Kelly McMahill said Tuesday.
Local and federal law enforcement agencies will also dispatch personnel to assist, she added. The command center for the response is being set up at Switch Las Vegas data center, where officials spoke Tuesday to detail plans.
Glass containers will be confiscated and people will be asked to leave if they bring strollers, backpacks, coolers or large bags, which will be taken if there’s no compliance, McMahill said.
Las Vegas Boulevard, from Spring Mountain Road to Mandalay Bay, will go on a soft lockdown at 7:30 p.m. and be completely shut down to traffic by 8 p.m., McMahill said. The area was moved this year because of the construction underway on the north Strip. The Nevada Highway Patrol will shut down the Interstate 15 ramps.
Public safety is being taken “as seriously as we have every year,” said McMahill, who noted the Christmas day suicide bombing in Nashville that injured three people and damaged dozens of buildings.
Security sweeps in the tourist corridor were implemented in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, she added.
“While it seems to be one man who acted by himself,” she said about the Tennessee bombing, “we never chance anything.”
Patrols for the rest of the valley will be properly staffed, she said. And there is an operation that aims to disrupt illegal house parties at short-term rental properties, some which this year have turned violent, even deadly, said McMahill, adding that officers have conducted “intelligence work” in the past week.
Asked about what worries her most, McMahill echoed other officials in mentioning the spread of COVID-19 and the hospitals nearing “critical capacity.”
“If you’re coming to visit here, if you live here, and are coming to the Strip or downtown, please be mindful,” McMahill said. “We welcome you to have a good time, but we also don’t want to set ourselves back months in this pandemic, where we have more and more people going to the hospital and we’re closing down our city.”
“This year will look and will feel very different,” Clark County Commissioner Michael Naft said.
The county will install 4,000 safety barricades and have 26 street sweepers and other maintenance personnel on hand, he said.
“I want to personally and very directly ask the members of our community to keep our medical personnel in mind as you celebrate this year,” he said. “We’re going to throw the biggest party the world has ever seen, next year.”
For this year, Naft said: “We want to support the economy, we want to make sure that everybody is able to celebrate in their own way but with your close friends and family. Keep that group small, wear your mask, wash your hands.”
Unlike previous years, Fremont Street Experience will have “no special program,” including live bands or street performers, according to Las Vegas officials, who responded to critics they said misconstrued a fee as the Fremont Street Experience promoting an event.
“The FSE is a public mall, similar to any other mall,” the city said on Twitter. “The public will be allowed access, like on any other night, and will continue to have access to the adjacent properties.” The $25 for access will be “a security fee” that “will help provide an added layer of security and provide a heightened level of crowd control,” the tweeted statement said.
The Fremont Street block party, a local New Year’s Eve staple, was a target of scrutiny with the state COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force. Member Terry Reynolds from the Department of Business and Industry said the robust security presence was prudent, but the access wristbands that he characterized as “advance ticket sales” were irresponsible and encouraging people to come.
State COVID-19 Response Director Caleb Cage wrestled with how the city planned to meet the expected turnout even without the city’s endorsement.
“I have a hard time with the mental gymnastics that say… that this is a ‘protest,’ this is not an ‘event.’ That there is an access fee, (but) that it is not a ticketed event,” he said.
“I have a lot of trouble with this. It seems an awful lot like the city has worked very hard in order to skirt the spirit and the letter of the directives as they are written in order to protect us.”
Wesley Harper from the Nevada League of Cities defended the city, saying it was clear that it was not trying to encourage the Fremont celebration.
“What they told me very clearly was different than the idea that they were trying to attract a crowd in order to celebrate in the midst of a pandemic and not own the fact that they were trying to attract a crowd to celebrate in the midst of a pandemic,” he said.
Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick, meanwhile, was nervous and frustrated over the potential stress on hospitals. She said mass New Year’s celebrations could put area hospitals past capacity, which they’re uncomfortably approaching as it is.
As of Monday, Southern Nevada hospitals were at 87% capacity overall and 78% capacity in intensive care, with 1,529 COVID-19 patients, according to the Nevada Hospital Association.
“I understand New Year’s Eve is one great night, but that could set us back three weeks,” Kirkpatrick said. “Twenty-five dollar fee, I’d like a $2,021 fee for my hospitals that I’m having to staff nurses at $300 an hour.”
“We want everyone to have an amazing night, but we also want to make sure that safety remains our top priority,” Las Vegas Councilwoman Michele Fiore said at the press conference.
“I know that’s hard, and everyone wants to get the year over with” said Clark County Fire Department Deputy Chief Warren Whitney about COVID-19 mitigation efforts. “But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Let’s try to stay safe and follow government mandates, and we’ll get through this.”
Hillary Davis contributed to this story.