With gaming and tourism in Las Vegas ventilated for a month and pressure mounting for the Strip to inch back toward life, the logistics seem imposing.
The risks of a botched Grand Reopening are easily imagined. Las Vegas’s economy is fundamentally tied to the population densities of its gambling rooms, hotels, nightclubs, and arenas, each of which is in turn bolstered by the city’s status as an international travel hub.
With no precautions, an infected-but-asymptomatic blackjack dealer at the Bellagio could conceivably spur a health crisis in Australia. A sick tourist could just as easily bring hell to Vegas.
This has not stopped an increasingly loud chorus of local officials from calling on Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak to lift the state’s shutdown orders.
Sisolak, to his credit, has remained firm, but the casino industry’s return to business in Nevada is inevitable. It is difficult to imagine, though, how politicians and gaming execs might hope to achieve that goal in the near future without a widespread embrace of masks, gloves, and other prophylactics — particularly in Las Vegas, given the city’s outsize set of risks.
And so it seems increasingly likely that when the doors swing back open, the result will be a city teeming, as always, with high-value targets for grift — except this time, with an unavoidable emphasis on protective gear, Vegas would find itself host to an anonymized horde of obscured faces and fingerprint-proof hands.
The benefits of a Las Vegas mask mandate would be twofold: It would first establish at least a minimum level of protection against outbreaks, while, crucially, enabling officials to cheaply deflect accusations of naked avarice.
Protective gear would, however, present a huge problem for law enforcement and casino security in the already notorious town. Crooks elsewhere have wasted no time in adapting to this new state of the world, using it to more effectively ply their trade.
Before the outbreak, casinos generally adhered to a longstanding and understandable policy of denying admittance to face-masked patrons. The logic is easy enough to unfurl: Groups of masked people can be intimidating, particularly to gamblers and tourists carrying large amounts of cash. Masks make identification more difficult, thereby making crime easier. Casinos would prefer to minimize the amount of crime taking place on their floors, and so banning face coverings has always seemed a slam-dunk choice. Until now.
Cracks in the rationale underpinning “no mask” policies began to reveal themselves in March, as coronavirus panic was just getting underway, when staffers ordered an elderly couple to remove their surgical masks at a Washington casino. While this may only seem to be a one-off PR flub, security teams have a practical reason for the unyielding nature of this approach: Facial recognition software.
Casinos are arguably more reliant on facial recognition than any other private industry in the United States. The Strip has been using the technology since at least 1984. As much as 80% of security camera footage from a casino now goes unwatched by human eyes.
With an explosion of machine learning advances over the past decade, casino security is now more content than ever to entrust commercial AI with the otherwise tough task of identifying and tracking undesirables across the floor.
And it’s not just criminal activity. Card counters? Be assured that once they get the boot from a pit boss, their faces are plucked from the footage and saved, forever, lest they try to return.
Crucially, commercial facial recognition algorithms are not quite good enough — yet — to identify a person through a face mask. Widespread mask use in Vegas could effectively neutralize that pillar of security.
This technological shortcoming is temporary, of course. R&D cash is flowing fast into the burgeoning field of masked facial recognition.
And at the cutting edge of academic research?
Wuhan University, where data scientists say they have already achieved 95% accuracy in identifying masked faces. A Chinese company, Hanwang, is also claiming a 95% success rate on an algorithm of its own. Hanwang shares spiked between February and mid-March as the surveillance-heavy Chinese government scrambled to keep tabs on its suddenly-masked populace. American facial recognition firms, such as Peter Thiel’s ghoulish Clearview AI, are no doubt bankrolling similar advances.
Vegas, and its casinos, might choose to handle the problems of masked facial recognition in any number of ways — but if the city hopes to reopen quickly, it won’t be able to avoid the issue.