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.
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'
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?"
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.
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."
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."
The risk of eviction: 'I'm scared to death'
It's a lot to process in a place that remains traumatized by the foreclosure crisis of 2008, which hit Nevada harder than any other state. And yet, the number of layoffs during the pandemic -- 280,000 in just two months -- already eclipses the 196,000 jobs lost in 2 1/2 years during the prior crisis, according to a report by Applied Analysis, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Many Las Vegans are suddenly worried about keeping a roof over their heads.
About 47% of renter households in Nevada are at risk of eviction, according to a tracking tool developed by global advisory firm Stout Risius Ross, LLC. (The national average is 42.6%.)
"That's a sixth of the (state's) population," said Emily Benfer, who co-created a Covid-19 housing policy scorecard with Princeton University's Eviction Lab, a national research center on evictions.
The state's eviction moratorium is set to expire September 1 and housing advocates are worried about an eviction tsunami.
"I'm scared to death," said Stacey Lockhart of HopeLink of Southern Nevada, a nonprofit that helps people living in poverty. "I'm predicting that by September we're going to see evictions go through the roof."
Among the renters that HopeLink has helped keep afloat is Reynaldo Arroyo, a hip-hop dancer who has appeared on "America's Got Talent" and danced for Cirque du Soleil. He was most recently a freelancer who performed street shows and conventions.
Arroyo, 30, said he'd had $10,000 worth of gigs booked for the next couple months when everything shut down.
"Poof," he said of the work, "completely gone."
To pay rent, he and his wife took out loans. To pay for groceries, they opened a credit card. When they lost the ability to pay rent, HopeLink came to their aid.
"Everything is just falling apart slowly," he said. "I'm just trying to keep it together."
After months of unemployment, Arroyo finally landed a job as a "bud tender" at a cannabis dispensary. On his first day of work in early August, Arroyo says he clocked in and the manager promptly notified him that a coworker had tested positive for Covid-19.
"I was like, 'Oh my God,'" he said.
Not everyone thinks a tidal wave of evictions in Nevada is imminent.
Susy Vasquez, executive director of the Nevada State Apartment Association, said only about 10% of renters statewide have been delinquent. Nearly half of them, she added, have "ghosted" their landlords -- that is, they have not been at all communicative. Those are the ones who are most likely to be evicted first, she said.
"We have people buying cars and RVs but not paying their rent," she said, adding that landlords have spotted tenants who have new cars in their driveways or are illegally renting out their units on Airbnb "but haven't paid a cent in rent."
Vasquez acknowledged that the situation could soon take a turn, now that a $600 weekly jobless benefit for out-of-work Americans has expired -- especially if it isn't soon renewed.
"People are going to be a little more strapped," she said.
How Covid-19 hit every part of this entertainer's life
For Adam Flowers -- owner of the Vegas ghost and mobster tour business -- the anguish of the virus is all-encompassing, wreaking havoc on his livelihood and his family.
He and his wife, Alicia Morse, are crossing their fingers that Caesars Entertainment will keep them on her health insurance after August. They cut off insurance payments to a car, which they now can't drive. The YouTube views for "Coffee with Cullotta" -- Morse's idea -- have dropped off.
"We went from having just a steady cash flow, everything was running fine, to slam the brakes on and throw it in reverse and everybody wants their money back," he said. "Everybody was canceling their trips out here."
And then there was the virus itself. Flowers said he and his parents had tried to be so careful: they wore masks, they stopped hugging (to his mother's chagrin).
"I want to look back and go, 'wow, we were overly cautious,'" he said.
Flowers remembers the day in mid-June when he was helping his 74-year-old mother, Donna, bring the groceries into their house.
She had been coughing; her doctor told her it was likely a sinus infection. It turned out to be Covid-19, which would give her double pneumonia, leaving both of her lungs infected. While helping her put away groceries, Flowers noticed his 78-year-old father emerge from his bedroom and sit on the hallway floor. His breathing seemed labored. Flowers asked John if he was OK.
"He's hard of hearing -- and with the mask on, he couldn't hear me," Flowers said. "So I pulled my mask down, 'Dad!'"
Flowers picked up his father, draping the elderly man's arm over his shoulder, and helped him into a chair.
"That's gotta be when I got infected," he said.
Two days later, as a pre-symptomatic carrier, Flowers went to lunch at the Peppermill with Frank Cullotta, the 81-year-old former mobster, after they finished a recording session for their YouTube channel.
"We took our masks off, and we sat there and ate," he said. "That must be when I gave it to him."
Cullotta, he said, is still sick.
Eventually, the symptoms kicked in for Flowers, and he -- like his parents and Cullotta -- tested positive.
"It felt like I had crushed glass and needles in my chest -- in my lungs," he said. "And when I coughed, all these little sharp pains in there. I never felt that before; it was terrible."
The 6-foot-5 Flowers said he lost 20 pounds in two weeks.
And yet, as somebody who has experienced both the economic and biological havoc of Covid-19, Flowers finds himself torn on which side to prioritize.
"I lost my father, so I know this disease -- it's a real thing," he said.
At the same time, Flowers said, "How long can everybody just sit? ... How long can the government keep printing money?"
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