Bars to open in Washoe County, Pahrump while remaining dark in Clark, Elko counties

Bars and taverns across Washoe County as well as in the town of Pahrump in Nye County will soon be allowed to open following a surprise decision from the state’s COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force on Thursday.

Though the task force had decided at its meeting last week to delay the conversation on reopening bars for two more weeks, members ultimately reversed course for Washoe and Nye counties, citing improving trends and detailed enforcement plans. Bars and other alcohol-serving establishments will continue to remain closed in Clark and Elko counties.

Kyra Morgan, state biostatistician, said that although Washoe County has failed to meet the state’s testing threshold, its relatively low test positivity rate — that is, the number of new positive tests divided by total new tests — shows that there may not be the need for additional tests. She also noted that the situation in Washoe has continued to improve to such an extent that they might not even be flagged as a county at elevated risk of disease transmission next week.

As of this week, Washoe was testing 140.2 people on average per 100,000 residents, slightly lower than the state’s 150 per 100,000 requirement, and had a test positivity rate of 7.3 percent, slightly above the 7 percent level set by the state.

“They’re so close to being right at that threshold,” Morgan said.

Under the task force’s decision, bars, taverns, wineries, distilleries and breweries in Washoe County will be allowed to open no later than 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday and potentially sooner, depending on when the county submits additional details on its mitigation and enforcement plan to the task force. Once they open, establishments will be subject to strict guidelines and operating standards.

Washoe County has advocated reopening bars for several weeks now, arguing that doing so would provide a safe space for members of the public to socialize while adhering to social distancing and mask mandates. County health officials have attributed a significant share of cases in the county to private gatherings where they have little ability to enforce public health protocols.

Task force members also voted Thursday to allow bars and other alcohol-serving establishments to reopen in Pahrump, the major population center in Nye County, home to about 36,000 people, at 11:59 p.m. on Thursday. Bars have been open elsewhere in rural Nye County for a few weeks but remained closed in Pahrump as cases remained clustered in and around the town just west of Las Vegas.

Nye County was also removed from the state’s watch list this week after more than a month of being on the list of counties at elevated risk of disease transmission. Lander and Lyon counties were also removed from the list this week, while Eureka County was added to it.

Counties are deemed to be at elevated risk if they exceed two of the three following criteria:

  • The average number of tests per day per 100,000, calculated over a 14-day period. If this number is less than 150, a county could be considered at risk.
  • The case rate per 100,000, calculated by taking the number of cases diagnosed and reported over a 30-day period. If this number is greater than 200, a county could be considered at risk.
  • The case rate per 100,000 and the test positivity rate, calculated over a 14-day period with a seven-day lag. If the case rate is greater than 50 and the test positivity rate is greater than 7.0 percent, a county could be considered at risk.

Bars in Clark County, however, remain closed after the task force overwhelmingly voted down a proposal to open them, citing concerns about the county’s high case rate, about 490 cases on average per 100,000 residents, and high test positivity rate, 11.2 percent. 

Clark County has been on the state’s watch list for more than a month and has met the elevated risk criteria for the past 12 weeks.

“I think we would all agree that’s a vastly different scenario than Washoe County, which is 7.3 percent, and Nye County, which is below the threshold,” said Caleb Cage, Nevada’s COVID-19 response director. “My personal opinion is that Clark is moving in the right direction, but not close to achieving success.”

Dagny Stapleton, executive director of the Nevada Association of Counties, however, said she believed that Clark County was, like Washoe County, prepared to properly enforce mitigation measures at bars to ensure compliance.

“I think that they are set up for success if the task force is willing to go in that direction,” said Stapleton, who made the motion to reopen bars in Clark County.

Terry Reynolds, director of the Department of Business and Industry, disagreed, saying he would like to see a more robust enforcement plan from Clark County before allowing bars to reopen.

“I can’t vote for this motion at all. I think it’s too premature,” Reynolds said. “I think maybe by next week we may be looking at how the numbers are going, but for right now I think it’s too early to do that.”

Some members of the commission voiced openness to allowing smaller jurisdictions in Clark County, such as Laughlin, Mesquite and Boulder City, to open their bars first before the major population center follows suit. But they said they would first like to see that proposal as part of a written plan at a future meeting.

The task force took no action this week to consider reopening bars in Elko County, which has consistently exceeded all three of the state’s criteria for determining whether counties are at elevated risk for the spread of COVID-19 for the last six weeks. The task force additionally made no changes to the action plan for Churchill County, which has been at elevated risk for the last four weeks.

Both Clark and Washoe counties also voiced concerns at the meeting about the state’s testing threshold, saying that demand for COVID-19 testing has significantly decreased among members of the community, making it more difficult to meet the 150 tests per 100,000 residents per day requirement. Rural counties had long voiced concerns with the state about the testing requirement.

Billy Samuels, deputy fire chief for the Clark County Fire Department, noted that the county was collecting 4,200 tests a day between two collection sites two months ago. On Wednesday, the county only collected 2,300 tests across five sites in the middle of a mass testing campaign that aims to test 60,000 people in two weeks.

“Unfortunately we just are not seeing the results in the community, and we have done a media push, social media push, other alerts that we've thrown out there, and it's just not like it was two months ago,” Samuels said.

The task force may consider changes to the testing requirement or other modifications to its three risk criteria at a future meeting.