Barely a year after the Las Vegas Strip was shut down by COVID-19, its world-famous casinos have roared back to a record-breaking summer thanks to a remarkable winning streak.
Nevada pocketed an all-time record $1.36 billion last month from gamblers, who are flooding back to the city nicknamed Lost Wages after months confined at home with little to spend their money on.
"We weren't anticipating these type of numbers," said Michael Lawton, senior analyst for Nevada Gaming Control Board.
"In Nevada, a billion dollars in gaming win is kind of a bellwether number. And we've recorded a billion dollars in gaming win in five consecutive months."
July was something of a "perfect storm," thanks to the presence of major events including a Conor McGregor fight, a Garth Brooks concert at the gleaming new Allegiant Stadium, and the return of musical residencies such as Usher and Bruno Mars at swanky casino theaters.
The month also contained five weekends, including the bonanza Fourth of July holiday.
But the hot streak -- and bustling crowds on the Strip -- point to a renewed confidence in the safety of piling onto slot machines and roulette tables, even as the delta variant spreads and Nevada has had to reimpose indoor mask mandates.
"The people that come to Vegas don't really seem too concerned," said one barman working on the Strip, who asked not to be named. "They don't seem super worried about getting sick or anything. I think if you're paranoid about getting sick, I don't think those people travel -- they probably stay at home."
Workers at casinos told AFP that many of their customers hail from the U.S. Midwest, Texas and Florida.
"It's definitely back to pre-pandemic levels," said Shawn Jones, a promoter at the brand-new Resorts World casino, who said the previous weekend's pool parties had fully sold out. "Maybe it's the pent-up energy... if you ain't able to do something for a while, then there's a big rush when they are able to get out."
Las Vegas became a ghost town in early 2020, with casinos ordered to close for 78 days, dealing a heavy unemployment blow to the tourism-reliant economy.
Capacity limits remained in place until this June, but even by May the city had broken its long-standing monthly gambling revenue record set before the global financial crisis that began in October 2007, according to Lawton.
Americans' reluctance to travel abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have benefited Las Vegas, with domestic tourism surging.
"We had been planning a girls' trip -- we were originally going to Greece in 2020, but it was postponed, so this is like a revamp," said Karen Utsey, 50, a defense contractor from Michigan. "Right now, I don't know if I'm comfortable going overseas."
Total visitor numbers for July hit 3.3 million, just 10% below the same month in pre-pandemic 2019 despite the relative absence of international travel.
Numbers arriving by car from California have surpassed pre-pandemic levels all summer.
While Lawton expects August gambling figures to track slightly lower than July, the gradual return of trade conventions that make up a huge slice of mid-week business offers hope for further growth.
In June, the World of Concrete drew headlines as the first major industry convention to return to Las Vegas, and this week saw events including movie theater summit CinemaCon, the JCK jewelry show and Cannabis Conference 2021.
Attendee numbers were expected to be lower than previous years, but both events were scrapped entirely in 2020 at the start of the pandemic, meaning their return to Las Vegas represents progress.
Dean and Amanda Moodie, 37 and 35, respectively, just arriving from Minnesota for the jewelry event, said they have taken outdoor-based vacations around the U.S. during the pandemic, but the Las Vegas trip "is probably our first dabble into things that are mainly indoors."
"I mean there's masks and stuff," said Dean Moodie. "I'm not too worried about myself personally anyways. And then we're both vaccinated as well."