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A couple walks past the Venetian on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, the same day Gov. Steve Sisolak orders casinos to shut down temporarily because of the pandemic. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

You cannot smoke and effectively wear a mask at the same time. It’s nonsensical to give smokers—people who are constantly blowing or coughing particles that have cycled through their lungs into a haze of traveling mist bent on nastily invading every opening of every human within 20 feet—a loophole. Well, maybe loophole isn’t the right word. More like a farcical escape route.

Las Vegas should impose a ban on indoor smoking as long as the pandemic looms and a mask “mandate” is in place.

Unlike eating or drinking, which can be done mask on/mask off with the lightning quickness of a flasher in a movie theater, smoking is a health-concern degree of exposure. It doesn’t matter which of the variety of techniques are used. Quick puff or long burn. Sultry curl or staccato expel. Walk into any bar or casino in Las Vegas right now and you’ll invariably encounter a smoker doing their thing with mandatory face covering pulled aside, or loosely draped over an ear, or completely off but nearby to keep the charade of protection alive. If tobacco burns within their reach, noses and mouths are making us all unsafe in public spaces. 

And yet, we have no clear message from the Nevada governor (or any other state-level health official) as to how, in this most urgent time of public safety, we should discourage indoor smoking, let alone that we should contemplate a ban. Why is that?

It’s because Las Vegas is crazy. By design. By tradition. By default. By gum, we are certifiable — and if you haven’t guessed by now, this probably isn’t about smoking per se as much as asking you how far you’re willing to lean into our insanity to theoretically preserve the unstable paradox of inimitability that is our city.

But back to pretending this essay is about smoking—I get it. Smoking is sophisticated. Smoking is pretty. And the conventional (or possibly Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority) wisdom is that if you kill the ability to smoke inside, you kill the esprit de corps of our collective delusion of freedom: gambling and drinking and smoking go hand in hand (in hand) like a throuple on a dream date to adult Disneyland. Our Mr. Toad’s Wild Deride of ordinariness. Setting aside troubling studies of co-occurring mental health connections between problem gambling and addictive smoking, the notion that if you ban smoking inside you will drive a stake into the heart of our libertine draw remains strong. Indeed, most attempts to definitively curb the habit have collapsed like so many diseased lungs.

Las Vegas was VERY late to the game on ANY indoor smoking prohibitions. Anyone who lived in the city before 2007 has a first-hand account of a supermarket smoker ashing over the grapefruits or the oddness of non-smoking sections of restaurants which provided an imaginary demarcation ‘twixt the cloud and the clear. But then the citizens said ENOUGH IS ENOUGH (EXCEPT) and barely passed the “Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act” (NCIAA) with 52 percent of the vote, “prohibiting smoking tobacco in certain public places, in all bars with a food-handling license, but excluding gaming areas of casinos and certain other locations.” Immediately this new law was challenged as being “unconstitutional” (amongst others, the grocers sued! THE GROCERS!) and both the Legislature and the courts carved out further allowances for indoor smoking including the elimination of all criminal penalties for non-compliance. It was distinctly a wild ride at the time with passions running high, but ultimately it left us where we are today with Las Vegas being one of the last bastions of inside smoke positivity. And in the unflappable ethic of #VegasCray, even ardent anti-smoking advocates praised the let it roll stance as being an integral part of Las Vegas. Really, who doesn’t want to feel the exuberance of a dive-bar “smoke suit” or the dead giveaway that you just spent way too much time in (the) El Cortez Casino?

In the end, however, the NCIAA was generally upheld on constitutional grounds, though the breadth as written was slightly limited, all-the-while nothing prevented voluntary preclusion by any business. Having reviewed the law and the rulings, I’ve reached the conclusion that the governor absolutely can require casinos to not allow temporary mask deferral to smokers as long as the governor is allowed to manage our health crisis by edict.

And while designating a casino as “non-smoking” in the past has had laughable results (anyone remember Silver City?), the current environment is bringing back piecemeal experimentation (hi, Park MGM — and only Park MGM) with cynicism running high and advocates calling for more for all the apparent reasons: second-hand smoke risks, fairness to patrons and workers, general unhealthiness, etc. But will anyone in the government or private sector advocate even a temporary ban during this tenuous time?

Nope. If it hasn’t happened by now, it’s not gonna.

And so, let me shift to the far more intriguing question: How crazy are you, Las Vegas? Deeper: How crazy about Las Vegas are YOU? Deeper still: How committed are you to possibly sacrificing yourself on the altar of our insanity?

* * *

My family moved to Las Vegas when I was three-years old. Perhaps they thought it a more nurturing environment than Chicago. Maybe they just got tired of losing their tiny little baby in the snow…repeatedly. Dad (a hardcore gambler and smoker) quickly found a job as a Pan dealer at the Sahara. Mom immersed herself in various ladies groups where modest, charitable fundraising led her to strong-arming raffle tickets sales upon porn theater proprietors and seedy bar owners. I often tagged along with both, and so started my immersion in Vegas lore as a casino kid. Late nights of comped shrimp cocktail, saying “hi” to the dads of school friends in their lounge sets, sneaking a dime into a slot handle pull, working my first job in a retail store at the Dunes Hotel and Casino at age 15 (carpooling with my grandpa who was a chip runner), dressing up in a tux on the night of prom and using that get-up to play poker at the Landmark hotel and casino (it worked), and, more than anything else, longing for the day I could leave Las Vegas forever.

Hours upon hours, I absorbed hundreds of books at the Clark County Library (and later all that “independent study” at Valley High School) with my other nerdy friends, dreaming about non-Las Vegas worlds. Normal worlds. Magical worlds where kids had something to do and the mind was engaged instead of a pull toward the constantly numb. Places of growth (intellectual not just geographic), of innovation (to lift the human spirit, not distract it), and of care.  Maybe these places are mythical, but who doesn’t (shouldn’t?) want to leave their hometown at some point? And when I left for college at an ill-advised early age, I did discover places of more… normalcy. (Hi Tucson! Hi Sacramento!) Places where they used unfamiliar phrases like “last call,” “state income taxes,” and “social responsibility.” Were they perfect? Of course not. Were they far more boring than Las Vegas? Yup. (Sorry, Tucson! Sorry, Sacramento!) Did they keep me there? Not even close.

Las Vegas remains home. 

Home: Despite ardent, perhaps fevered dreams of finally packing up and getting out of the number-one-on-all-the-wrong-lists, number-fifty-on-all-the-good-lists once and for all. Notwithstanding our educationally deficient, health-care (especially mental health) underprovided, head-in-the-desert-sand on addictions and fearful of change power structures. Our racist history, never truly reckoned with. Our monetary exploitation of the desperate and woefully inadequate philanthropy. Our insistence that we are a citadel of freedom, even as we have inordinate incarceration rates, oppressed sex workers who can’t even get a debate on successful legalization like in neighboring Pahrump (of all places) and marijuana bans anywhere in or near casinos.

A place where scorching a Pall Mall in a public building during a pandemic is the hill so very many are willing to die on.

I returned to and stayed in Las Vegas for all the reasons, mundane and fanciful. Family needed me. Passed the bar exam. Chance for jobs (Vegas is nothing if not full of juiced opportunities). Vibrant coffeehouse and poetry scene. Benway Bop records. A regular shift on the college radio station. Started a punk rock polka band. In and out and (finally) in love. Job advancement. Bought a house. Friends from everywhere love visiting. Got to perform on the Strip. Parent got sick. Plenty of trips away (vital!). Became a judge. Became a writer. Wrote about Las Vegas. So much to write about Las Vegas. Other parent got sick. You get the picture. 30 years later and life.

But in retrospect, I think the main reason for the permanent return is that somewhere along the line, the childhood I regretted as lame and absurd was now settled into my bones as deeply as DNA and as intriguing as an unwritten book of delights. That this “book” is yet to be “written” about this important place. That if one were to be drawn to analyze the human condition, to explore the heart of American dream, to explain “what is/was Las Vegas”—it wouldn’t be done through the fearful and loathing eyes of a visitor in a rental car loaded with pharmaceuticals, but through experience, perseverance, critique and narrative (in a long-term leased car possibly loaded with pharmaceuticals). 

Hi, Las Vegas. Right now you are outrageous, and your crazy is showing more than ever. This pandemic has thrown all sorts of light on everything broken in our bio dome and we are freaking out. And even as projections have more and more people being drawn to our batshit signal flying high in the night sky (and trying to settle here), I think people are bailing as well. Kids still wanting a chance to thrive in the real “normal” world; people being drawn to “real cities” (obviously, we are real, yet so insecure about it that the distinction persists); long-timers simply exhausted from so much…Vegas.

And then there’s you (if you’re still here) and me.

Stalwarts. Devotees. Loyalists. Believers.

People who think Las Vegas is the epitome (or at least worth saving). People who Twitter-fight and pontificate to unhealthy degrees over what exactly this peculiar city of excess, success and digression is all about.

My father (who died at age 90 after contracting MRSA in a local hospital following a self-check-in after a full day of poker at Circus Circus) used to lament that Las Vegas can’t last forever because it will kill everyone who fully embraces it with abandon—and that also, as gambling spreads throughout the nation, everyone will see how un-special we will have become. He said it will all return to sand someday if someone doesn’t fix it. I’m not sure he thought it was broken beyond repair, but I also wonder if he felt trapped in his own sand castle.

And while I enjoy writing about my city, I find it challenging, too. People used to ask me, who are the true Las Vegas hometown heroes and my glib answer was always the same—“Siegfried and Roy, two unassuming dreamers just looking to make an honest buck.” I think that was still right even as it’s not a serious response. People new to town (thank you for coming to town) quickly discover that no one has the audacity to call anyone’s dream here outrageous. The devil, of course, is both in the details and the dystopian pitfalls of a civilization reliant, always and narrowly, on the flow of new blood.

Yet who has the fortitude to keep up the façade? To revel in a Las Vegas that can be equally destructive and illogical and wondrous and liberating? In this moment, we are disturbed and on edge, and I fear (and loathe) that we will never land on good decisions because the defenders of the faith may be right—people making "good decisions" may actually kill Las Vegas. Isn’t this the line on which we are always teetering? Some version of this dilemma always with us, even in the good times? Don’t we pride ourselves on tolerating just enough lucrative craziness to avoid the consequences of taking responsibility? Don’t we sometimes take huge pratfalls and pretend we knew what we were doing all along? Doesn’t it all make “sense” since Las Vegas is so damned resilient even as we are so damned insecure?

So good luck with that pandemic. 

Maybe this essay is about a temporary, thoughtful smoking ban after all. A call to force people who want to smoke to step outside into our temperate (or at least shaded) areas. To create outdoor gambling spaces if it's that grave a concern. To be #VegasStrong and power through with creative problem solving.

Or maybe this is a pledge of commitment to stick with it. Rollercoaster of emotions be damned. Bumpy journey through life has brought a lot of us here, and kept a lot of us here, and if you can tolerate the perpetual heat upon us, perhaps there is something good and important to expose at the core. If you are committed, perhaps we can find it together. Or possibly, the commitment turns out to be involuntary and we all can celebrate in a padded room—smoking optional.

Dayvid Figler is a criminal defense attorney based in Las Vegas. He previously served as an associate attorney representing indigent defendants charged with murder for the Clark County Special Public Defender’s office. During his legal tenure, he served a brief appointment as a Las Vegas Municipal Court judge. Figler has been cited as a noted legal expert in many places including the New York Times, National Public Radio, Newsweek, USA Today, Court TV and the Los Angeles Times. His award-winning radio essays have appeared on KNPR as well as on NPR’s All Things Considered program.

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