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story.lead_photo.caption People ride an escalator along the Las Vegas Strip, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Las Vegas. Las Vegas is bouncing back to pre-coronavirus pandemic levels, with increases in airport passengers and tourism. (AP Photo/John Locher)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — To Mike Anger in Midland, Michigan, a $100 round-trip airline flight and $260 for five nights at a Las Vegas hotel made it too easy to say yes.

"How could I turn that down?" the 39-year-old electrician asked, holding a tall vodka drink, basking in 90-degree temperatures, and soaking in the sights of street entertainers and tourists Friday in a downtown casino pedestrian mall.

"I'm having a blast," his friend, cosmetologist Jade Topor, said. "Pretty much what I expected."

Las Vegas has been almost elbow-to-elbow lately with pandemic-weary tourists looking for excitement and entertainment, after casinos rose from 35 percent to 50 percent occupancy March 15 under state health guidelines.

Capacity limits in Las Vegas casinos drop again Saturday — allowing 80 percent occupancy — while person-to-person distancing goes from 6 feet to 3 feet. Masks are still required.

"People were just yearning to go someplace and let loose," said Alan Feldman, a former casino executive who is now a fellow at the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Among the first arrivals were people 60 and older who were recently vaccinated with time and disposable income, he observed.

Analysts said pent-up demand, available hotel rooms and $1,400 pandemic recovery checks from the federal government have contributed to the rush.

"People are feeling more comfortable traveling as science appears to be getting ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic," said Jeremy Aguero, principal analyst at Applied Analysis in Las Vegas.

"Late spring and early summer tend to be strong months for traditional, domestic leisure travel," Aguero said.

Economic markers now are ringing up a revival on the resort corridor that was ghostly quiet a year ago.

Statewide casino winnings in March topped $1 billion, the best monthly mark in eight years. Half those winnings were reaped on the Las Vegas Strip, state regulators said.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which just launched a new ad campaign promoting freedom and a return to pre-pandemic normalcy, tallied more than 2.2 million visitors in March.

The figure was down 40 percent from March 2019, but a huge jump from a year earlier, when casinos closed from mid-March to early June. That drove the Nevada jobless rate in April 2020 above 30 percent — the highest ever in any state. The state now reports the rate at 8.1 percent.

Every Sunday, another weekly measure of demand arrives: A nearly 20-mile line of vehicles jamming southbound Interstate 15 near the Nevada-California state line. Lanes reduce from three in Nevada to two in California.

"You have visitors coming throughout the week, all leaving at the same time," Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Travis Smaka said. "It's very busy every Sunday."

Carlo Santarelli, gaming analyst at Deutsche Bank Securities, said the boom "really accelerated in March, driven by increased vaccinations, spring break and March Madness."

"It's pool season, better weather," said Lori Nelson-Kraft, senior spokeswoman for the Convention and Visitors Authority. "It's still cold in the Midwest and Northeast."

Restaurants now can go to 80 percent occupancy, accept walk-in diners and seat tables of 12. Buffets can allow self-service supervised by employees.

Casino day clubs and nightclubs can open, but designated dancing areas remain closed until a specified community vaccination rate is met.

Clark County plans to allow 100 percent casino and business occupancy once 60 percent of its 1.8 million eligible residents get a first COVID-19 vaccine dose.

As of Friday, 45 percent of people ages 16 and older in the county had received at least one shot, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services, and almost 33 percent were fully vaccinated.

But inoculation rates have slowed, prompting Gov. Steve Sisolak to visit an MGM Resorts International employee shot clinic Thursday at the Mandalay Bay resort and at a church in heavily Hispanic east Las Vegas on Friday.

"The comeback is here, now," he declared.

The Democratic governor has set a June 1 target for lifting almost all coronavirus mitigation restrictions statewide. Mask mandates will remain in place indefinitely.

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