On July 27, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak held a COVID-19 update press conference during which he announced a step back from his phased reopening approach and suggested the start date for Nevada’s second special legislative session of 2020 would be in just a few days. The session could take up issues ranging from continuing eviction moratoriums to mail-in voting.
The governor said Nevada’s legislators had already made difficult decisions in regard to mitigating Nevada’s projected $1.15 billion budget shortfall for the next fiscal year during the 31st special session, which wrapped up earlier this month.
Later in the press conference, he declined to outline his main objectives for the second session—saying they’d be announced soon.
“Today is about COVID-19,” the Sisolak said. “It’s been five months we’ve been immersed in this fight.”
Before discussing a new approach to mitigating the spread of COVID-19, which Sisolak said will be unveiled by the Nevada Health Response Team on Monday, he said balancing the spread of the disease caused by the virus with the economic fallout caused by business closures is “a gut-wrenching balancing act,” like dancing on the head of a pin.
“Every decision that we’ve made—that I’ve made—came with risks,” Sisolak said. “Let me assure you that there are no win-win decisions in the battle against COVID-19…closing to prevent uncontrollable spread and crashing of our health care system devastated our economy and put hundreds of thousands of Nevadans out of work.”
A new approach
In re-closing Nevada’s bars on July 10, the governor’s office noted that it had considered the criteria of “Elevated Risk Transmission” for each of the state’s 17 counties. This includes average tests conducted per day, case rate in the county and test positivity rate as controlled and adjusted for population size.
Sisolak noted that seven counties were at risk at the time the initial analysis was made. Bars, pubs, taverns and wineries were closed again to slow the spread COVID-19. Based on a two-week review, however, the counties that still meet the criteria are Clark, Elko, Nye and Washoe.
Bars, pubs, taverns and wineries may reopen in Humboldt, Lander and Lyon immediately, following statewide standards for social distancing, mask wearing and other safety protocols.
Sisolak said he believes the new approach will help the state achieve two goals. The first, he said, is that no local government, business or individual should be surprised by possible regulations aimed at trends for each county—and possibly even each zip code—and the resulting enforcement actions.
Second, he said, people who want businesses like gyms, restaurants and bars to remain open should feel invested together to do their parts by obeying protocols.
Sisolak said one of the main goals was to create a “long-term system of mitigation levels that will allow our businesses and residents advanced notice and understanding on what direction” their counties could be heading based on more frequently updated criteria.
“Like I’ve mentioned, we’ve learned a lot about this virus in the last five months—and while phases made sense at the time, we’ve got to be flexible and responsive to what we’re seeing now,” Sisolak said. “This new approach will set Nevada up for the long term. This is our new normal.”
Education phase is over, enforcement to begin
In lieu of industry-wide closures—like those of bars, which Sisolak said in hindsight he was not sure was “the fairest way to do” things—Sisolak said the new approach and long-term strategy would include stricter enforcement for businesses that serve unmasked people as a pattern.
He also said resorts could be closed for a while, in whole or in part, if social distancing and other protocols are not observed—and that gyms, water parks, sporting events, businesses and other venues will be closely scrutinized.
Sisolak said he is proud of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Nevada and county partners who have increased enforcement already.
“And as for those municipal governments—the ones that aren’t doing their part—please know the state will be reaching out to you this week with the expectation that you will be helping us as well,” he said. “To put it bluntly, the time for education is over. Businesses, Nevadans and visitors should all be familiar with the expectations of reduced indoor capacity, required face coverings and social distancing.
“We are close to five months in. No more excuses. If people aren’t following the rules to keep us safe, there needs to be consequences—which leads me to targeting.”
Just as the state has done with “vulnerable populations,” Sisolak said, it wants to make sure a similar approach is taken with counties, businesses and industries that have shown a need for “additional assistance or intervention” to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Sisolak said an advisory group led by Caleb Cage, State of Nevada COVID-19 Response Director, and comprising different officials in enforcement and public health as well as hospital and local government representatives will review Nevada’s COVID-19 response progress and data each week.
The governor said that he will join Cage and Julia Peek—Deputy Administrator for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services’ Community Health Services department—at least once a week for their regular media conferences.
Churches, casinos, schools and bars
After providing his update, Sisolak took questions from reporters present in the Capital on a number of topics ranging from the reopening statuses of schools to bars to churches to the potential closing of casinos.
The governor was asked about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold his ban on religious gatherings of more than 50 people and whether or not he thinks seeking a resolution with faith groups is necessary in light of it.
Sisolak mentioned his own faith. A Catholic, he said he watches mass on his telephone a few days a week and referenced two priests who recently tested positive in Southern Nevada. He said he knows a parishioner who attends one of their churches in Las Vegas.
“It’s my job to keep folks safe,” Sisolak said. “And it’s just not safe when we get large gatherings put together like that. And I know people object to it. I want to have faith institutions have more flexibility, but until we get control on this virus, there’s nothing we can do.”
Sisolak said, “It’s up to the general public to determine how long we stay in each phase and what the restrictions are going to be,” referencing the reopening phases he plans to abandon.
On the topic of casinos, and if there might be specific circumstances that would spark their reclosure, Sisolak first noted that casinos are the largest employer in the state with the “most number of employees we possibly have” before seeming to defer to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, which regulates them, to continue monitoring their compliance.
“When we send GCB in there, the Gaming Control Board, we’re looking for those that are violating on a certain area—whether they’re not wearing masks, whether they’re not social distancing, if there’s too many people at the pool—that sort of thing,” Sisolak said. “And we’ll continue to do that, and they’ll take appropriate enforcement actions.”
In regard to schools reopening, Sisolak had a similar message—telling reporters that the state had given Nevada’s 17 school districts the flexibility to make their own reopening plans but is working with those planning in-person returns to meet needs for things like personal protective equipment. (Experts on opposing sides in Washoe County have conflicting views on the reopening of schools here.)
However, enforcement of other reopening protocols for other industries was a point repeated by Sisolak.
“I’m tired of educating,” he said. “I’m tired of ambassadors that deal with this stuff. I’m tired of information officers. I need enforcement officers that are going to go out and punish the bad guys and not punish the good guys.”
Sisolak gave credit to Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Washoe County Commissioner Bob Lucey for their efforts to promote protocols and enforcement.
Asked whether or not he thought bars in those two large counties as Nye and Elko would be able to open within a week under his new plan, Sisolak said he’d be very happy could he make said forecast.
“What’s going to make that determination is how many people follow the rules, how they follow the mitigation,” he said. “I mean, I’m still getting resistance—you know that—to masks. Suddenly everybody’s a virologist or an epidemiologist or an infectious disease expert, and they can tell you how many molecules come through a mask. They read one article on Google, and suddenly they’re an expert on this. I rely on professional medical opinion, and that is what I am going to continue to rely upon.”
Mask protests are “ridiculous”
A few questions were also asked of Peek and Cage, who appeared with the governor at his press conference.
Peek was asked if the state has the capacity for contact tracing under the state’s new plan that will back away from phased reopening.
She responded that, yes, it does, saying that a new case investigation protocol was being implemented with questions pertaining to occupation and 25 other indicators to identify where a person may have been when they contracted COVID-19, from a pool to a bar or restaurant.
She also said Nevada is adding some 100 additional case investigators and contact tracers—and that all contact tracers are being trained as case investigators to deal with a bottleneck in the process.
Near the end of the press conference, Cage was asked whether he thought masks were effective. He responded that while correlation does not equal causation, science does back up the legitimacy of masks as a mitigation measure against the coronavirus.
Sisolak chimed in, noting that health experts like Dr. Scott Gottlieb (former head of the Food and Drug Administration), Dr. Deborah Birx (Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House) and Dr. Anthony Fauci (director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) all agree that wearing masks is an effective mitigation tool.
Sisolak said the only people who don’t seem to agree are the president—whom he said doesn’t wear one often enough—and people who think they’ve become experts by reading a few articles online.
“To have a protest about wearing masks is ridiculous,” Sisolak said. “I wear a mask for all of you. And you wear a mask for me. That’s what this is about. That’s why we wear masks. It works.”
“Now I can attest—Doctor Fauci will admit to it—he’s a phenomenal doctor, not the best pitcher in the world—if you saw his pitch,” Sisolak said, referring to Fauci throwing the first pitch of the Major League Baseball season. “His job is to make sure you don’t catch anything, so I think that’s what he was amplifying with that pitch.”
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.