Las Vegas entertainers fear dire straits as weeks of unemployment turn to months

(CNN)In those long-ago days of early 2020, business was cranking for Adam Flowers, a former street magician with an enterprising mind.

The owner of a Las Vegas tour business that includes ghost and mob tours, Flowers had just teamed up with 81-year-old Frank Cullotta, an admitted former hitman for the mob. They parlayed Cullotta's violent crimes of the past -- which Cullotta says included murder -- into a schtick, creating a YouTube channel called "Coffee with Cullotta." It racked up thousands of views, which in turn drove visitors to the physical tour.
Things were going well at home, too. Flowers, 43, had moved his retired parents to Las Vegas from Chicago the prior year. His wife worked as a technical director at Caesars Entertainment.
Then came the coronavirus.
By summer, Flowers' tour business was on hold, his wife was furloughed, they were living on unemployment, and Flowers and Cullotta were both stricken with Covid-19 -- too ill to record more episodes.
But that's not the worst. On July 9, Flowers' father -- John Flowers, a former firefighter and amateur magician who inspired his son to pursue showbusiness -- died of Covid-19.
"It's a lot to have happen to you all at once," Flowers said.
A sign advises people to minimize the spread of germs along the Las Vegas Strip, devoid of the usual crowds during the coronavirus outbreak.
As the US struggles to contain a virus and shore up its battered economy, few states are facing a Catch-22 as stark as the one in Nevada: Reopen the bars and large entertainment venues and risk an upsurge of deadly infections. Keep everything closed and deal with Depression-era levels of unemployment and the death of businesses.
At 15%, the state's unemployment rate in June -- the latest available data -- is the fourth highest in the US, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (The July figures for states will be released August 21.) It does mark an improvement: Nevada's jobless rate was twice as high back in April, when it topped the nation.
Although bars remain shuttered, the casinos -- which were closed for more than two months -- reopened in early June, and the city witnessed a brief surge of car travelers from Western states.
But Covid-19 infections and deaths in Nevada rose steadily through July.
Jeremy Aguero, an economist with Las Vegas policy research firm Applied Analysis, believes Nevada's jobless rate will soon worsen, because demand tapered off in July.
A full recovery, Aguero said, is between 18 and 36 months out.
"The long arc of this challenge is going to be painful," he said.
No state's economy leans more heavily on tourism than Nevada's, and tourism in the state has been walloped by the pandemic. Even with the bump in June, visitor volume that month was 70% below June of 2019, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Crowds -- the life blood of Sin City -- have become danger zones, and Vegas like all cities has been forced to drain itself of them.
The toll on entertainers has been especially brutal.

Situation for entertainers getting 'dire'

Dealers in masks await customers before the reopening of the D Las Vegas hotel and casino.
Desiree Gordon was an exotic dancer at Sapphire Las Vegas -- a gentleman's club on the Vegas Strip.
She weathered the 2008 recession just fine. Traveling businessmen, she said, still streamed in, purchasing $2,000 bottles of champagne.
"We were still getting a bunch of daily tips," said Gordon, 37. "You know, we were still making more than the person working at Target."
When Sapphire closed in March because of the virus, she found herself filing for unemployment for the first time in her life. By July, she was living on the couch of a friend who'd just tested positive for Covid-19. This sent Gordon looking for another rental unit for her and her 11-year-old daughter.
"I don't know how renting's gonna happen," she said. "No one has jobs because of what's going on. So how do I get into a place?"
Showbusiness has come to a standstill in Vegas. From striptease acts to musical residencies to variety shows, entertainment in the city has gone dark.
Some entertainers are finding creative ways to stay physically fit. Silvia Silvia, a 60-something crossbow daredevil sharpshooter who performs at a variety show at the Rio Showroom called "Wow," keeps her chops up in her tiny backyard garden. Here, the grandmother of six practices one of her signature routines: shooting a balloon balanced on a stick held in the mouth of her husband, Victor -- a professional juggler.
"If I don't have space to practice I will be crazy," said Silvia, a native of Spain. But she's getting antsy: "We need to be on stage."
In late June, citing the pandemic, Cirque du Soleil, a Montreal-based circus company that has dominated Vegas for two decades, filed for bankruptcy protection. As part of the announcement, it laid off 3,500 employees.
Jimmy Slonina, a 47-year-old physical comedian, was working as a backup performer for both Cirque du Soleil and the Atomic Saloon Show, a raunchy wild west act at The Venetian resort. Both shut down.
A seasoned performer, Slonina -- who is married to Robin Slonina, an artist who was a judge on Skin Wars, a reality-contest show for body-painting -- said he is mulling other ways to make a living: copywriting, social-media marketing, voice-over work.
"But there are a lot of people in those businesses who have gone to school for it and have years of experience," Slonina said, "when I was wasting my time, dropping my pants in front of thousands of people every night."
Since the shutdown Slonina said he has participated in a quarantine cabaret online and made a chunk of change on tips. He even participated in an adult-only, paid-service version of the cabaret -- with more nudity. It was a one-off.
The Sloninas own a house, but he is nervously watching their savings dwindle. He said the last of his unemployment checks has been cashed.
"It's not going to be long before it gets pretty dire," he said.
Harry Shahoian was one of the busiest Elvis Presley impersonators in Vegas, but at the moment, he doesn't feel like The King.
The pandemic killed the music in mid-March and it hasn't turned back on. All his regular shows have vanished.
Before the pandemic took its toll, Harry Shahoian was one of the busiest Elvis Presley impersonators in Vegas.
Shahoian said he easily made six figures in normal times. Now, he's on unemployment.
Although the casinos are open, Shahoian says it just isn't the same, what with all the gamblers wearing masks.
"You don't usually come to Vegas to be careful," he said. "You go there to be reckless and have fun."
While Vegas is known for its tourism and entertainment, the pandemic has decimated another outsize local industry: conventions, which in 2018 brought 6.5 million people to town and employed nearly 43,000 people, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Most of the conventions in the Covid era have been canceled -- even some for next year.
Marty Bindschatel worked full time for 22 years in the once-booming convention and trade-show industry.
"I thought this was going to be the best year ever," said Bindschatel, 45, noting that 2020 was booked solid with big events. Now, "my life is on pause."
Bindschatel, who worked as a freight foreman, said he is "plowing through" his savings and scared. He says he's leaving Vegas for Reno, where it's cheaper.
"Not scared of the virus," he said. "I'm healthy; I work out every single day. ... I'm afraid of our economy. And I'm afraid of Las Vegas not coming back in a sensible manner."
Covid-19 has taken a toll on Sheri's Ranch, one of the largest legal brothels in Nevada.
The pandemic has also ravaged one of Nevada's best-known industries: that of legalized prostitution, which isn't legal in Las Vegas but is elsewhere throughout the state.
Madam Dena, who heads Sheri's Ranch -- one of the largest legal brothels in Nevada -- said the shutdown of her industry has created a dangerous situation for the 75 sex workers who do business at her facility in the town of Pahrump, about an hour outside of Vegas. As independent contractors, she said, they do not qualify for unemployment benefits or qualify for business aid. And the contractors -- who generally make between $70,000 and $100,000 annually -- have trouble landing what Dena calls "square jobs," such as office work.
"The independent contractors -- the sex workers -- are having to try illegal avenues to support their families," said Dena, who for privacy reasons asked that her last name not be used. "If a girl is having to go to a hotel room -- at least I pray it's a hotel room and not like a back of a car or something -- she's running the risk that the person can take advantage of her."
At Sheri's Ranch, she said, all customers -- and sex workers -- are screened for sexually transmitted diseases, and there are panic buttons inside the rooms and security on hand should things go sideways.
Dena believes the sex trade in Nevada has been unfairly overlooked, noting how other businesses that involve human contact -- such as massage parlors and nail salons -- have been allowed to reopen.
"Nothing's been said about any of the sex workers or the brothels in the state of Nevada -- from the governor, from anywhere -- just that we can't open," she said. "There's different ways we can change the services around to still accommodate people."

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The hotel lobby and check-in desk at Excalibur Hotel & Casino are nearly empty shortly before the Las Vegas Strip property opened to guests for the first time in June since being closed in mid-March.