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Local Leaders Push For Faster Reopen As Nevada Begins Process

A neon open sign above a door.
Sean McMenemy
Flickr Creative Commons
Nev. Gov. Steve Sisolak issued a new directive on Thursday, May 7, to move the state into phase one of reopening. Nevada has been under a stay-at-home order since mid-March to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

This weekend some businesses and restaurants in Nevada will open for the first time since mid-March. It's welcome news for many owners that have struggled to get by in recent months, but for some Nevadans, the phased-in approach to reopening isn't moving fast enough. Some city and county leaders are making their displeasure known.

Starting Saturday, Nevada will begin phase one of reopening. That means for the first time in nearly two months, many Nevadans will regain some normalcy in their lives. And according to Governor Steve Sisolak, that’s due in part to the sacrifice Nevadans have made over the past two months.

“I know many Nevadans have worked hard to get us to the good place we are today, and I thank you so much for doing that. And for understanding the magnitude of the crisis that we are facing and for taking the necessary precautions, even though they were difficult changes in everyday routine, to protect not just yourselves but to protect your loved ones,” said Sisolak during a press conference Thursday.

Sisolak sits at a desk as a sign language interpreter translates what he's saying behind his shoulder.
Credit Legislative Counsel Bureau
Legislative Counsel Bureau
Governor Steve Sisolak announced during a press conference Thursday, Nevada will start the first stage of reopening on Saturday.

The governor’s new order doesn’t open everything right now. Bars and taverns that don't sell food, nightclubs, gyms, movie theaters and any industry requiring a lot of physical contact will remain closed. Casinos and resorts will also remain closed until the Gaming Control Board says otherwise. Businesses that do reopen will have to adhere to social distancing and cleaning procedures. According to Sisolak, it’s unclear how long it will take until the state will resemble its past self, but Nevadans must remain vigilant in the meantime.

“You can't let your guard down if you're in Esmerelda or Eureka or Clark or Humboldt or Washoe,” Sisolak said. "You can't let your guard down because as soon as you let your guard down, the virus hits you right in the face, and that's what we can’t allow. So there has to be some minimum, and I'm confident we'll be able to move along quickly and efficiently if everybody follows through.”

And yet, it seems that it may not be fast enough for some.

Over the past several weeks, protestors have called for the immediate reopening of the state, holding demonstrations in Las Vegas, Reno and Carson City. They’ve argued the state’s economy can’t withstand the shutdown.

It’s a cause that may have no stronger champion at this point than Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman. The three-term mayor of the state’s largest city has been a vocal critic of the governor’s handling of the pandemic. She even made national headlines in April for an appearance on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360° in which she volunteered her city as a “control group” to determine whether social distancing procedures were effective.

Goodman was widely disparaged for the appearance, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping her. During the public comment portion of the Las Vegas City Council meeting on Monday, she told those in attendance she’ll continue fighting for reopening until all residents are back to work.

“My goal has been and will continue to be standing up and being a voice for the working people and small businesses of this great community who are suffering,” Goodman said.

A majority of the council expressed support for Goodman as well. Former Republican-Assemblywoman turned City Councilor Michelle Fiore went so far as to admonish anyone choosing to stay home if they don’t have an underlying health condition.

“We are grown, responsible adults that can navigate our business and family and the safety of our family members that are elderly and have underlying conditions,” Fiore said. “They’re the ones that need to stay home for Nevada, not the healthy.”

Of course, not every member of the Las Vegas City Council supported Goodman’s efforts. Two of the five members, Olivia Diaz and Cedric Crear, urged patience with the reopening process citing concerns over the ongoing pandemic. But what came afterward, was a public comment period filled with pent-up frustration over the economic fallout caused by the state’s closures.

“We've had much more damage from staying home from this fear, from this climate of fear and the governor's not giving us any hope,” said Harold Reese.

Heidi Marino told the council “the amount of regulations that they have to abide by to be able [open] is ridiculous.”

Mac Miller had a different take. “If we can’t open the strip, if we can’t open the casinos downtown, at least open the other 90 percent of Las Vegas which has all the small businesses that employ a majority of the city and its residents,” he argued.

Sisolak has repeatedly pushed back against critics who have called for reopening immediately, citing adherence to the state’s reopening plan. But, while there was set criteria for moving to phase one, it’s not exactly clear what’s needed to move to phase two. In the meantime, bars, nightclubs, gyms, movie theaters and others all have to remain closed.

Some elected officials in rural areas, though, that’s just not going to cut it anymore. At the Elko County Commission meeting on Monday, the board voted unanimously to approve a motion officially supporting “in any way possible” businesses wanting to reopen now.

For Commissioner Rex Steninger, the motion offers protection for businesses that can’t afford to stay closed but don’t want to violate the law. Before he made the motion, he said the decision to reopen is no longer solely about public health but is now inherently political as well.

“The act of defying something like the governor's orders, that's called civil disobedience and our country was founded on that,” said Steninger. “We have a long history of acts of civil disobedience that has led us in a better direction.”

Commissioners were quick to point out that businesses can remain closed if they like, and increased sanitation and adherence to social distancing rules were still needed, but it doesn’t seem the county is interested in enforcing the restrictions on which establishments can reopen.

George Goddard owns Cee Gee’s Saloon in Carlin. He told the commission he was trying to stay closed and support his employees, but he ran out of money. He decided to reopen earlier this month because he and his employees couldn’t afford to stay closed any longer.

“I was hoping that we would get to a point where we could open back up,” said Goddard. “But this governor of ours keeps moving the goalpost on us. So I sat down with my wife, and we discussed it, and we opened up. I don't like to be a renegade, but in this case, I felt it was the best thing that we should do.”

Elko has had fewer cases than say Humboldt County, which has the highest per capita rate of the disease in the state. Since testing began, Elko County has confirmed only 15 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and one related death. And yet, not everyone in the county is convinced Elko should be trying to outpace the state in reopening.

“We don't want to become another Winnemucca,” said Mayor Daniel Corona of West Wendover, a town on the Nevada-Utah state line that relies heavily on gaming and tourism from Salt Lake City. “We really want to be cautious, and we think following the state's approach is the best approach for West Wendover, especially as it relates to our casinos.”

Right now, 68 percent of Nevadans said they support the steps taken by Governor Sisolak since the start of the pandemic. That’s according to a poll conducted by WPA Intelligence earlier this month and released by the Las Vegas Review-Journal this week. At the same time, the same poll found that nearly half of all respondents said they would like to see a “measured and thoughtful” end to the shutdown end of May.

Paul Boger is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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