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Investigation: City and state receive hundreds of complaints against Reno-area business for COVID-19 concerns


Fines and visits from police most severe enforcement actions to date

Most businesses come into compliance after complaints investigated

The City of Reno and the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) combined have received about 1,000 complaints against Reno-area businesses for COVID-19 concerns.

OSHA has responded to and closed 100 cases of complaints regarding COVID-19-related concerns from March 16 to May 5. 

That information was provided to This Is Reno after being requested earlier this week, and after an interview with Teri Williams of the Nevada Department of Business and Industry.

“In general, we have received complaints regarding employer compliance with face covering mandates, social distancing, sanitation practices, and establishments operating without phase 1 authorization,” she said. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Gov. Steve Sisolak have guidelines for the safety of workers on the frontlines and the public, including requiring businesses to provide sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE), like masks and gloves.

I’m afraid to go to my place of work. My boss is making me do things that I don’t feel is safe.”

Other directives and guidelines include providing adequate access to hand-washing, and telling employers to send workers home when they’re sick. According to Nevada OSHA, some businesses in Washoe County have not been following these directives. 

Many businesses appear to have flouted directives by encouraging sick employees to work, or failing to ensure social distancing among employees. Most businesses, both locally and across the state, have come into compliance after being investigated.

Complaints received by OSHA

The agency received 100 complaints in the greater Reno area. Complaints were made about local hospitals, industrial facilities, government agencies, construction firms, hardware stores, supermarkets, a gun parts manufacturer, Tesla/Panasonic and warehouse facilities. 

Many of these businesses were deemed essential under state and local directives.

Only the construction firms have been cited to date. The Nevada Independent reported OSHA in late March warned the construction industry about violating protocols designed to prevent the spread of COVD-19. An updated memo was sent in late April after the state issued dozens of citations.

“Nevada OSHA has issued 27 citations to employers in northern Nevada related to hazardous conditions addressed by emergency declarations,” Williams told This Is Reno. “All issued citations have been in the construction industry, based off of the employer’s failure to ensure adequate social distancing practices were implemented.

“Nevada OSHA is enforcing provisions of the various directives through the issuance of monetary penalties for noncompliance,” she added.

This Is Reno is requesting more information regarding who got fined and how much.

Complaints were also made about many other businesses and entities where people were gathered, or were close to one another. Other complaints focused on lack of hand sanitizer or personal protective equipment.

It’s been previously reported that both Renown Regional Medical Center and Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center faced safety concerns from employees. Both hospitals were hit with complaints by employees to OSHA.

OSHA reports an employee complained that a “patient with COVID-19 symptoms arrived at the hospital and called beforehand but employees were not informed of this. Employees only wore a ‘flu mask’ because they were not informed of the patient’s symptoms.”

Saint Mary’s last week said, “Saint Mary’s communicates frequently with all staff and providers on the COVID-19 outbreak and how it impacts Saint Mary’s practices and protocols, including any changing policies around PPE use.”

Saint Mary’s nurses on May 7 held a mostly quiet protest against what they are calling unsafe working conditions at the hospital. Image: Trevor Bexon

That statement was issued after nurses publicly protested working conditions and what they said was a failure to get answers from hospital management.

The Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission and bus contractor Kelios also received complaints.

“Lines of people are waiting outside for busses,” reads one complaint. “The employer has not provided drivers with any means to promote social distancing, nor does the employer enforce social distancing.”

“People entering the busses are not 6 feet away from the bus driver and no barriers have been installed in the busses to protect the drivers from COVID-19,” another complaint states.

Once OSHA receives a complaint of an unsafe work environment, OSHA staff evaluates the hazardous conditions of the complaint and the potential exposure. Investigators review the conditions in the workplace and interview employees.

These investigations are done through in-person visits, over email or over the phone. About half of COVID-19-related complaints have been investigated over the phone. 

Businesses are considered in compliance if they made changes or complaints could not be substantiated.

City receives 900 COVID-19-related complaints about businesses

The City of Reno has also seen a high volume of concerns over businesses not supplying enough PPE, not enforcing social distancing and reopening without authorization to do so. 

Complaints have arisen from 900 different businesses in Reno, according to Arlo Stockham, the city’s acting assistant city manager.

There are 16,000 licensed businesses in the city, but about half of them are sole proprietorships.

City’s complaint process

The city has installed a three-step process if businesses are not following safety guidelines. 

First, businesses are given a courtesy notice in person and over the phone, and are given a copy of the directive under which they must operate. The business is then visited 24 hours later to see if they have complied. If not, they are given a notice to comply with directives. 

After another 24 hours the business is visited again. If they still have not complied, they are given a cease and desist notice. 

Arlo Stockham, Acting Reno Assistant City Manager

On a third and last visit if they are still noncompliant the Reno Police Department (RPD) will step in. Stockham said RPD has visited less than a dozen businesses. 

If businesses don’t comply with state directives, they could lose their business license and face up to $1,000 in fines every day. No business has been fined yet. As of Thursday, city officials said they were working with one business that reopened against directives in the hopes escalated action could be avoided.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Stockham said a majority of the concerns came from warehouses and essential businesses. Some were slow to enforce social distancing and supply PPE. 

Throughout the pandemic, most of the concerns have been coming from restaurants and food establishments, like grocery stores. 

“We get a lot of concerns that the employees at the grocery store don’t have face coverings or the restaurants, you know, they gave me a pizza and they were breathing right on it. Those are a big category,” Stockham said. “I think people are extra sensitive to safety issues when it relates to food because they’re eating it. No one wants a sick person coughing on their slice of pizza.”

As restrictions are lifted, Stockham said he is also having to remind closed businesses to remain patient.

“I think some of the smaller businesses, where the owners are just philosophically opposed to these directives, have kind of pushed it,” he said. “Some of the personal services are getting pretty fed up. Like right now, the gyms and various training facilities, they’re kind of just below the bubble. They’re probably going to be one of the next to open up, but they’re not open yet.

“Before we entered this phase 1, some of the barbers and personal service businesses, a lot of them are just small independent businesses,” Stockham added. “There was a lot of pressure from them and from liquor stores, especially the smaller ones.”

Stockham said some businesses are taking safety guidelines seriously while some are seriously slacking. He said businesses that are not following safety guidelines are usually disregarding all precautions like mask wearing, social distancing and allowing crowds to gather. 

Who is expressing concerns?

A sign that businesses can download and post to signal to customers they’re following CDC guidelines.

The most serious complaints to the city are coming from employees who feel unsafe merely going into work.

“Some of them, especially early on, where employees call and say, ‘I’m afraid to go to my place of work. My boss is making me do things that I don’t feel is safe,’ that’s a little troubling because, if it’s a retail store not following the guidelines, people can walk, they don’t have to buy stuff from that store, but when it’s your job, it’s a harder situation,” Stockham said.

A majority of the complaints are coming from patrons or employees, followed by members of the general public who are concerned about businesses not following safety protocols. 

A small number of complaints are coming from a business’s competitor. 

“We get calls from businesses that have been following the guidelines, saying, ‘I’m following the rules. My competitor is not. I’m incurring big financial harm, and they’re blowing you off. Can you help me?'” Stockham said. 

Impacts of being exposed to COVID-19 at work

A significant amount of positive COVID-19 cases are linked to workers being exposed at work and then spreading the virus to members of their households, according to the Washoe County Health District.

The Health District is also having a difficult time enforcing self-isolation for individuals who have been exposed to COVID-19.

The county is ramping up its contact tracing workforce, but Health District staff admitted this week they aren’t asking questions about attending events where groups of people gathered, such as the “Reopen Nevada” protests. The Health District also does not monitor self-quarantine efforts.

A protester at the April 18 Reopen Nevada protest in Carson City. Image: Eric Marks

Health District staff interview individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 and then contact people who have been exposed to COVID-19. After being notified by a contact tracer that one has been exposed, individuals are asked to self-isolate to stop further spread.

However, ensuring that individuals do so is no easy task, according to Heather Kerwin, the epidemiology program manager for the Washoe County Health District.

“They tell us they are, but we don’t have eyes on them, so we would hope that they are,” Kerwin said. “We have the ability to do a court-ordered quarantine for people who are not following our recommendation and our guidelines, but it would really be dependent on a confirmation that they are breaking that isolation and quarantine.”

Kerwin said the Health District has not issued any court orders to quarantine as of May 15.

There is some monetary relief for individuals who are unable to work due to self-isolation needs. People who have tested positive for COVID-19, are experiencing symptoms and seeking medical diagnosis, have a member in the household who has tested positive or are taking care of a family member or someone in their household who has tested positive for COVID-19 can apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

However, if individuals refuse suitable work due to fears of being exposed to COVID-19 they will not qualify for unemployment benefits.

Difficulties tracking exposure 

The Washoe County Health District can’t accurately track where people are being exposed if they don’t list all the places they’ve been. 

This Is Reno has been asking Health District officials if any positive COVID-19 cases have been pinpointed to the reopen protests in Carson City and Reno. Health District staff couldn’t say.

Gatherings of more than 10 people are still prohibited to limit the spread of COVID-19. Other states have seen upticks in positive cases that are suspected to be tied to reopen protests. However, this also can’t be confirmed because when asked by contact tracers, people didn’t say which large gatherings they had attended.

“Some of them are unknown transmission,” Kerwin said. “People have been going out into public spaces, even grocery stores, just running errands. But, a lot of these people have had contacts with known cases, so they’re through those infection chains.” 

The only spike in COVID-19 cases attributed to an event, according to local health officials, was family gatherings on Easter weekend.

“Then again, [there are] households where the entire household becomes symptomatic after a new infection. But again, we’re seeing it, it’s kind of a smattering. It’s not really one way or the other. We’re not asking if they attended the protest. I don’t think they’d be honest with us if we did anyway,” Kerwin added.

“In an ideal world, every customer, every person should wear a mask,” Governor Steve Sisolak said at a press conference May 7 as he announced a partial reopening for Nevada. Image: Trevor Bexon

Health officials urge that mask wearing and social distancing are concrete steps the public can take to protect workers during the pandemic. 

Gov. Steve Sisolak said it’s selfish to refuse to wear a mask. 

“Whether they’re a cancer survivor, whether they’ve got asthma, whether they’ve got diabetes or blood pressure: You don’t wear the mask for you. You wear it for the other people,” Sisolak said, “It’s just selfish to not wear it for the people that you come in contact with. That’s why it’s so important to protect everybody else. I wear a mask to protect you. You wear a mask to protect me. If you don’t want to protect yourself, that’s your business. But you should take it serious enough and care about people, that you wear a mask to protect the other people.”

Sisolak said following safety procedures, like wearing masks and practicing social distancing is imperative to continue reopening and operating businesses.

Lucia Starbuck
Lucia Starbuck
Lucia Starbuck is a graduate of University of Nevada, Reynolds School of Journalism. She has reported on issues impacting Northern Nevada, including the affordable housing crisis, a lack of oral healthcare and challenges voters with disabilities face while trying to participate in the election process. She has directed and filmed two documentaries about homelessness.Through reporting, Lucia strives to shine a light on the challenges vulnerable populations face in our community.