To mandate or not to mandate? Small business owners grapple with employee vaccinations

All Cassie Rice wants to do is coach.

The Henderson gym owner wishes she didn’t have to require her staff and kids to wear hot, stuffy masks during practice. She doesn’t want to be thinking about her employees’ vaccination status. She’s a gymnastics coach, not a doctor, epidemiologist or virologist.

But she also doesn’t want to see any of her youngest gymnasts, not yet eligible for the shot, fall ill with COVID-19. She doesn’t want another employee out on quarantine. She doesn’t want to see her gymnastics team lose its third dad in a year and a half to the virus.

For the last several weeks, Rice has been gently nudging her employees to get vaccinated. She has sent emails sharing vaccine research and data. She has told her staff she prefers they get the shot. She isn’t hiring anyone new that is unvaccinated.

The nudging has only gone so far, though. Rice estimates there are about 15 unvaccinated holdouts among 90 employees between her family’s Henderson and Summerlin gyms. 

When one told Rice she believed there was still too much “mystery” around the vaccine, Rice tried to persuade her with an analogy.

“I just said, ‘I think when you’re thinking about being an expert, I’m an expert in the field of gymnastics, so people can ask me questions about that. But we are not experts in epidemiology or science in any way. We have to defer to people who study this for a living,’” Rice said. “‘A parent can’t come in and tell me the better way to teach this gymnastics move. They don’t know. That’s how it should be with this.’”

Rice has drafted a letter, one she’s leaning toward sending. In it, she has outlined a new company policy: that employees get the shot or be tested weekly for the virus.

Her coaches, some of whom have been with her for the last 15 to 20 years, are like family, Rice said. But she is also a firm believer in the vaccine.

“We’re trying really hard to do it slowly and really think through it and make a good decision that takes into consideration the staff we really love,” Rice said. “We’re not wanting to kick a member of our family out, but I believe in this being a safety issue. So, then do you follow that principle, or do you follow the principle of supporting your family?”

It is a question some small business owners supportive of the vaccine in Nevada and across the nation have been asking themselves in recent weeks as the Delta variant continues to spread and the vaccination campaign inches forward.

The considerations are complex: Some, like Rice, fear losing longtime employees. Some worry about whether a vaccine mandate will stymie their ability to hire new employees in an already-competitive labor market. Others are grappling with whether they feel comfortable requiring their employees to get the shot, even though they support vaccination.

They are thinking through the consequences of not requiring their employees to get vaccinated, too. Companies have reduced hours or scaled back operations as a result of employees testing positive or quarantining. They worry about the worst-case scenario — that the situation gets so bad again that they’re forced to close their doors like they did in March 2020.

For some, it’s more than all of that: They don’t want to see employees they care about as humans — not just workers — fall ill, or worse. It’s more than just business sense; it’s also about protecting them.

“We had one of our staff member’s husbands go in the hospital for a while, and they were really worried about him,” Rice said. “It just creates so much stress.”

While a wave of large corporations announced employee vaccine mandates over the summer, some had hoped full approval of the Pfizer vaccine last month would promptly set off an even larger wave of mandates, including among small businesses. 

There is no tally of how many Nevada businesses have implemented employee vaccine mandates to date, but interviews with business owners, human resources representatives and chamber leaders over the last two weeks suggest they’re currently more an exception than the rule.

That will soon be changing, though. 

President Joe Biden announced on Thursday that all businesses with 100 or more employees will be required to mandate vaccination or weekly testing for their workers, a policy expected to affect as many as 100 million Americans, though it has already faced political pushback and threats of litigation. The smallest businesses, including Rice’s, aren’t subject to the new mandate, though the new federal rule may encourage some to voluntarily follow suit.

The new mandate aside, businesses large and small will still be faced with the question of whether to go further and require all employees to get the shot, eliminating any testing option. Public health experts say vaccination-only policies are the gold standard for virus mitigation, as vaccines remain the most effective method of preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Several private and public sector entities have already adopted or are in the process of adopting such policies, including the federal government, which announced a vaccination-only policy for all federal workers and contractors on Thursday. In Nevada, MGM Resorts, the Clark County School District, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Nevada System of Higher Education all have implemented or are in the process of implementing similar policies for some or all of their workers.

If scientists, public health officials, family doctors, public information campaigns and the lure of cash prizes can’t convince people to get vaccinated, the thinking goes, maybe a mandate from their employer will.

In the vaccination campaign, mandates may just be the final frontier.

An Amazon employee gets vaccinated at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in North Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

‘The right thing’

Tisha Overman, who runs a small engineering firm in Las Vegas with her husband, was surprised by the reaction she got last month when she told her employees they had to get vaccinated: None.

She knew there were a couple holdouts among TERPconsulting’s staff of 30, but she had also been open about the fact that a vaccine mandate might be coming, dependent on the COVID-19 vaccine receiving full approval from the Food and Drug Administration. As soon as that approval came, she sent a message to her team letting them know that vaccines were required and asked staff to forward her a copy of their vaccine cards within a week. She told them she was available if they had any questions.

There were no questions.

“I was fully expecting to have a dialogue. I was fully expecting to have to educate myself on exemptions and what’s appropriate for exemptions, but it didn’t come up at all,” Overman said. “The small number of people who had not been previously vaccinated got vaccinated immediately after the announcement.”

The vaccine mandate, Overman said, has been a “definite positive” for their business, both because they believe in the importance of vaccination to keep themselves and their employees safe and because a number of their clients are requiring staff to be fully vaccinated in order to visit job sites. (TERPconsulting’s clients span a number of different industries, including health care, education and hospitality.)

“Both things can be true at the same time,” Overman said. “You can try to do the right thing and believe the right thing is the financially viable thing.”

The pandemic hasn’t been an easy ride for business owners. Though Overman said they were “incredibly lucky” to be in a construction-adjacent business that was allowed to operate during the spring 2020 shutdown, she highlighted the interconnectedness of business in Southern Nevada, where the hospitality industry reigns. 

“As business owners, and just as members of the community, we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to not go through another shutdown, and that means following the rules and trying to keep the economy going,” Overman said. “We have an altruistic community feeling about it, but we also have a very realistic business feeling.”

As small businesses in recent weeks started to think through what implementing vaccine mandates might look like, some turned to their local chambers of commerce for help. Prior to the federal government's announcement, chambers hadn’t been pushing business owners either way. Instead, they were informing them that vaccine mandates are allowed under state and federal law and helping them navigate the mechanics of how to enforce them, sometimes using their own vaccine mandates as a model.

The term “vaccine mandate” is used broadly, though there are actually a number of ways to approach a mandate: Vaccination for all employees, vaccination plus weekly testing for unvaccinated individuals and vaccination for new hires only.

Under the new federal rule, all businesses with 100 or more employees will be required to have a vaccine plus weekly testing policy in place, at the minimum, though businesses could choose to go further by requiring vaccination either for all employees or for new hires, with no testing opt-out. Small businesses, which aren’t subject to the new rule, will continue to face the same dilemmas over whether to implement vaccine mandates.

While some have argued against vaccine mandates as overly burdensome, Ann Silver, CEO of the Reno + Sparks Chamber of Commerce, framed them as another requirement employers might enact as a condition of employment, similar to a background check or drug screening.

“Every individual business owner may have a political view, religious view, social view, moral view about vaccines, and I’m not inquiring about that. I’m just letting them know they can require it if they wish to,” Silver said. “The more I can spread that word, the more the chance that businesses pick up that opportunity.”

Silver, in an interview last month, said she didn’t know how many of the chamber’s 2,300 members had put in place or were considering employee vaccine mandates, though she said she was pleased that the chamber’s entire leadership class — which represents a couple dozen businesses in the region — said they had gotten the shot.

“That’s a good indicator. They’re all coming from different businesses and industries,” Silver said. “Whether it was required or they did it on their own, I was thrilled to see that 100 percent compliance.”

While some had hoped the recent full approval of the Pfizer vaccine would spark a wave of employee mandates, it didn’t play out that way in practice. Chamber leaders, in recent interviews, said they hadn’t seen an uptick in inquiries from member businesses about employee vaccine mandates as a result of the Pfizer approval.

Federal officials are now trading hope for a mandate.

“We’ve been patient,” Biden said on Thursday, speaking directly to the unvaccinated. “But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us.”

Prior to Biden’s announcement, Mary Beth Sewald, CEO of the Las Vegas Chamber, said what seemed to have an impact on small business interest in vaccine mandates were the decisions large employers, including those in the casino industry, made. While many of Las Vegas’s biggest resorts have long had vaccination and testing programs, MGM Resorts was the first major gaming company to establish a full vaccine mandate with no testing opt out. (That policy is, for now, limited to salaried employees and new hires.)

“[The resorts] are definitely leading the way, and they’ve kind of pulled the Band-Aid off creating these policies to keep people safe,” Sewald said. “The big picture, really, is we want to reduce the number and trend of COVID cases, and the best way for us to do that is to create a safe environment through vaccinations, negative COVID tests, mask wearing and continuing the social distancing.”

But it’s been a slow process. In an interview before the White House’s announcement, Sewald said that while some businesses have already implemented vaccine mandates, others are still ramping them up and putting plans in place.

“It’s really about finding the right balance for their employees and for their customers as well,” Sewald said. “Having a policy that requires proof of vaccination or weekly COVID tests for their employees, it really does make a lot of sense in keeping the workplace safe.”

Server Erica Woster, inside Great Basin Brewing Company in Reno on Sept. 8, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

‘Incredible cost’

Vaccine mandates are easier said than done, even for business owners who strongly support vaccination, something that helps explain why employee vaccine mandates weren’t more common before the Biden administration moved in that direction this week.

Take Tom Young, brewmaster and owner at Great Basin Brewing, who is getting ready to host the brewery’s fourth on-site vaccination event, called “Shot and a Beer,” on Thursday. Young is hoping this one will be a particular draw, with vaccines administered inside the brewery itself, next to tanks of beer.

“We’re working hard to make this planet a better place one pint at a time,” Young said. “That sounds kind of silly and stupid and far-fetched, but it's something where you have to walk the walk.”

As dedicated as the brewery has been to supporting Northern Nevada’s vaccination effort, Young said there are still a handful of holdouts on his staff — about 10 people out of 120.

Young, in an interview last week, said the brewery had discussed establishing an employee vaccine mandate, though he would rather staff get the shot of their own volition. (All staff get rewarded with a free six pack of beer as soon as they’ve gotten their second shot.)

But from a strict business standpoint, the benefits of an employee vaccine mandate are clear, Young said. He has personally experienced the crunch of having several staff members out sick with COVID, and he also feels a responsibility generally to protect the members of the public who come into the brewery.

He also remembers what the shutdown last spring was like, when he had to lay off 55 of 115 employees. He says it’s one of the hardest things he’s had to do.

There’s also the real, human cost. Young said he recently learned a 65-year-old musician who had played at the brewery passed away from COVID being on a ventilator in the intensive care unit.

Last week, Young said he was mulling a modest vaccine mandate that would require all new staff to be vaccinated. But the Thursday announcement appears to have made the decision for him, though he is waiting to see the full details of the new rule and how it might take into consideration full- and part-time employees.

“The data is clear. Scientific endeavors overwhelmingly point to the value of getting more and more folks vaccinated. It is our best weapon so far to curb the spread,” Young said in an email following the White House’s announcement. “We will staff up for our Thursday Shot and a Beer event, inviting all procrastinators and those whose excuses have been exhausted and get started with the Pfizer first or second shot or the one and done Janssen vaccine. It is the right thing to do.”

For many businesses, the already-difficult labor market, which has caused staffing shortages, adds an extra layer of complexity to the decision, particularly when it comes to considering vaccine-only mandates. In an interview last week, Mary Beth Hartleb, CEO of human resources firm Prism Global Management Group, said that’s why she hasn’t been recommending employee vaccine mandates to her clients.

“I think you really need to take into consideration our extremely, extremely difficult labor market right now. I’ve never seen it like this in 30 years doing this type of work,” Hartleb said. “When you look at that, are you really going to hold somebody to a vaccine when there’s other things you can do to keep people safe, etc., and lose all that institutional knowledge, have to replace these positions, train people? I mean, that’s an incredible cost to a business.”

Fears about losing workers to vaccine mandates may be overstated, though, and changing with time. Though polling on vaccine mandates varies depending on how the question is asked, a recent Axios-Ipsos poll found that 43 percent of unvaccinated Americans would get the shot if their boss required it, up from 33 percent a month ago. Nationally, only about 14 percent of Americans say they definitely won’t get the COVID-19 vaccine, while another 10 percent are still in the “wait and see” phase and 3 percent say they’ll get it if required, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s vaccine monitor survey.

(On the other hand, a Gallup poll in August found that 38 percent of U.S. employees would either oppose or strongly oppose their employer requiring all employees to get the shot, and a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 72 percent of unvaccinated people whose employers don’t currently have mandates said they would quit if they couldn’t get a medical or religious exemption to the requirement.)

At least in some instances, job seekers may see employee vaccine mandates as a benefit. Such was the case for Amber Seifert, who left her job with an HVAC company to work for the Boys and Girls Club of Truckee Meadows in August.

Seifert estimates she was one of just about a quarter of employees at her old job who had gotten the shot, as vaccinated employees were allowed to go without a mask if they submitted a copy of their vaccine card to the company. It created an uncomfortable situation, she said, where everyone knew who was vaccinated and who wasn’t.

“Previously, it was kind of like, ‘Oh, you’re vaccinated. So that’s what you think about this and that’s how you believe about this,’ making it political,” Seifer said. “It’s definitely relieving to be working somewhere where the vaccine is required because it’s not polarizing. There’s not going to be a stigma on you because you’re vaccinated. Everybody just is.”

Seifert takes the issue particularly seriously because she contracted COVID-19 last fall. While her primary symptoms were body aches, fever, fatigue and loss of the sense of taste and smell, the virus caused optic nerve damage that required her to get an MRI, a spinal tap and drop 20 pounds in three months or face having a shunt inserted into her brain.

“Everything is okay now, but it’s just been a lot to deal with,” Seifert said.

Scott Muelrath, CEO of the Henderson Chamber of Commerce, believes some people who have been putting off getting the shot while unemployed may voluntarily decide to get vaccinated upon returning to the labor force.

“You could see people coming back into the job market and that could be a reason why they choose to get vaccinated and they haven’t thus far,” Muelrath said. “That maybe could result in an uptick in vaccinations.”

After Thursday’s announcement, many business owners will no longer have a choice in establishing some level of a vaccine mandate. Muelrath, in an email, described the decision as “not unexpected.”

“This adds the further directive and clarity that will spur people to action as to being vaccinated, whether they like it or not,” Muelrath said. “And one step closer to making it required for all, no doubt – no matter what the business size.”

The Vegas Chamber, in a statement on Friday, said that while many Las Vegas companies, including the chamber, have implemented vaccination-testing policies, it was concerned about the new vaccine mandate happening by presidential executive order without debate outside of the legislative or regulatory process.

“While many companies are voluntarily taking proactive measures to fight the spread of COVID, mandating them to do so through Executive Order sets a worrisome precedent and creates a slippery slope for future potential mandates on employers and employees,” the chamber said.

Meanwhile, owners of the smallest businesses, unaffected either way by the federal mandate, will have to base their decisions on the complex calculation of whether it would be better to weather the toll that a COVID outbreak would have on their workforce or mandate the vaccine and risk losing a portion of their employees. Which scenario would have the greater impact on their ability to keep their doors open?

“What’s the point of all this money given out to help businesses get back on their feet if a customer is walking in and possibly in a contagious state … you’re then saying, ‘Okay, now I have no choice but to quarantine them and basically shut down,’” Silver, head of the Reno + Sparks Chamber, said. “I think the mask and vaccine capability should be strengthened by a communal decision that we want to continue commerce in our daily lives.”

Bartender Mytchel Wilmore, inside Great Basin Brewing Company in Reno on Sept. 8, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

‘Shifting the assumption’

For those involved with the state’s COVID-19 vaccination effort, there’s a glimmer of hope that employee vaccine mandates will move the needle on the overall vaccination effort.

“The business community, they are a critical part of this effort,” Heidi Parker, executive director of Immunize Nevada, Nevada’s only statewide immunization-focused nonprofit, said.

Dr. Andy Pasternak, a family medicine doctor in Reno, said employee vaccine mandates — or even just talk about potential vaccine mandates — are one more thing that will encourage people to think about getting the vaccine. And for those who are, he encourages them to talk with their doctor before doing so.

“I have had a few people that are like, ‘Okay, my employer is mandating this now, which vaccine do you think would be right for me?’” Pasternak said. “There are some differences, so I like to talk to them about which one might be the best for you.”

Amid all the hand-wringing over vaccine mandates, Ellie Graeden, founder and CEO of Talus Analytics and an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security who has been consulting with the state on its COVID-19 response, noted they actually aren’t as foreign as people might imagine.

Vaccination, Graeden noted, is the default for kids, who are required to get certain shots to attend school. There isn’t a mechanism in place to broadly require adults to get vaccines, she said, because they have already gotten them as kids.

“The only reason that we haven’t had the conversation about mandates for adults is because we already dealt with our mandates when we were kids,” Graeden said. “This is the first new disease where we’re actually needing to talk about how you get that first wave of vaccines into the adult population.”

Making vaccinations mandatory, Graeden said, may actually reduce some of the stigma around getting the shot and what vaccination might mean about someone’s personal political leanings or beliefs.

“I think that’s a real value with these mandates. You’re shifting the assumption from being, ‘Oh, this is your choice, you’re doing it because you believe in it,’ to ‘I have to,’” Graeden. “That actually does shift the discussion as well and I think actually depoliticizes it in a lot of ways.”

Employee vaccine mandates may also just be the start. While vaccination mandates for the general public are still uncommon in Nevada — unlike in San Francisco and New York, where vaccination is required for indoor bars, restaurants and gyms — they do exist.

The Las Vegas Raiders are requiring proof of vaccination to attend all home games at Allegiant Stadium, while organizers of the Life is Beautiful festival have required guests to have proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for entry. 

Conventions, meanwhile, are adopting their own policies: Attendees of the HIMSS21 Global Health Conference & Exhibition last month were required to be fully vaccinated in order to attend, while two future conventions – the National Association of Broadcasters and the Consumer Electronics Show – announced in August their own attendee vaccination policies.

At the same time, a Gallup survey released this week found that 61 percent of Americans favor vaccination requirements for air travel, 53 percent for dining out and 56 percent in office or work settings.

“I do believe commerce is the answer here …  It often takes some brave person that says, ‘This is what I’m going to do, and the rest of you be darned,’ and others will follow,” Silver, the head of the Reno + Sparks Chamber, said. “It takes a real leader to be brave and have strong shoulders to say, ‘This is what’s necessary, and I’m going to do it.’”

This, public health experts say, is why the private sector’s involvement is key to the vaccination effort. It means that mandates aren’t really mandates at all.

Don’t want to work for this company? No problem. Don’t want to attend this concert? No problem. Don’t want to attend a Raiders game? No problem.

The choice is yours.

For more information, check out The Nevada Independent’s vaccine mandate tracker here. You can also more pandemic coverage here and find the latest COVID-19 data on our data page.

'Right to Return' bill would guarantee laid-off hospitality employees the opportunity to return to their old jobs

After the pandemic brought thousands of layoffs to Nevada’s hospitality industry and devastated the state’s economy, lawmakers are considering a “Right to Return” bill that would give casino, hospitality, stadium and travel-related workers in Nevada the right to return to their former jobs.

The bill, SB386, garnered emotional support testimony Wednesday from laid-off workers looking to return to work and the backing of labor unions, while businesses, including some Las Vegas casinos, opposed the measure, arguing that it would result in inappropriate costs and litigation.

“I should not be replaced or abandoned. I have spent my life working for this company. I should not have to start my career over,” Mario Sandoval, a food worker and Culinary Union member of 39 years who lost his job amid the pandemic, said during a hearing for the bill. “I could have hope if I was guaranteed my job back, something that company has taken away from us.”

With events canceled, travel restrictions in effect and casinos shut down for several weeks during the pandemic, the hospitality industry was forced to scale back immensely over the past year. Data from the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation shows that from March to May last year, the state’s hospitality industry lost nearly 200,000 jobs.

Sandoval’s sentiment was echoed by other hospitality workers, including Cristina Lopez, who was laid off in May at her job at Station Casinos’ Texas Station after 10 years with the company.

“This crisis is not our fault. It took us all by surprise,” Lopez said. “I have applied at 15 different jobs, but I am told that I am overqualified to work at fast-food restaurants or that I don’t have enough experience for another job. The only hope I have is for my job to come back to the way it was.”

The bill applies to workers in the casino, hospitality, stadium and travel-related economic sectors who were laid off after March 12, 2020 and who were employed for at least six months in the year prior to the governor’s first COVID-19 emergency declaration.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) presented the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee bill, invoking her own parents, who were members of the Culinary Union.

“Growing up, I was the very proud daughter of a waitress and a bartender, both of whom are members of Culinary Union 226,” she said during the hearing. “Because I grew up in a family who relied on exactly the type of jobs that have been so hard hit by this pandemic, I can only imagine what these workers and their families have been through the past year.”

The bill would require employers to offer a laid-off employee each job that the employee is qualified for (e.g. someone who conducted cleaning work for a business could be eligible for other jobs associated with maintaining COVID-19 health and safety protocols). Employers also would be required to give employees who are not hired back an explanation of why they were not offered a job within 30 days of the decision.

During the bill presentation, Cannizzaro was joined by D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, a hospitality labor union with more than 300,000 members and the parent to the Las Vegas culinary union. Taylor argued that bringing back already-trained workers would benefit the recovering economy.

“This is good for the economy and businesses. This legislation provides for already-trained and experienced staff — a staff that was praised a year ago by the same companies,” Taylor said. “To get back to work immediately, there's no retraining necessary. They're ready day one.”

However, some senators expressed a concern that businesses would not be able to hire back all of their laid-off employees given the ongoing economic struggles related to the pandemic.

“The reopening is certainly uneven, and it's slow. And so my concern is, if an employer were to say, you know, they laid off 1,000 people… The employer is likely not to hire every employee that they laid off on the same day,” said Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson). “Now they're going to have to face a court to justify why they laid off a certain person.”

Opponents of the bill — including the Las Vegas Chamber, Henderson Chamber of Commerce, Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce, Southwest Airlines, Boyd Gaming Corporation and Caesars Entertainment — argued that one provision of the bill would invite unnecessary litigation, as the legislation would allow employees to bring a civil action against employers that fail to comply with the bill requirements.

“Why diminish the entrepreneurial spirit and fail to recognize what it has taken to weather through this pandemic?” Ann Silver, CEO for the Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce, said during the hearing. “There are federal and state laws to protect against discrimination and unfair labor practices. And there was enough work for lawyers. Let's not create new legislation that begs for litigation and class action lawsuits.”

Paul More, a Las Vegas-based labor lawyer, explained that employers would be able to defend themselves from civil lawsuits, if there was a legitimate business reason for not being able to bring an employee back to work.

Opponents of the bill also pointed to benefits that already were offered to employees through the pandemic and noted ongoing efforts to bring workers back.

“During the height of the pandemic, we initially continued full pay for all team members including tip income for the greater portion of the time our properties were closed,” said Erin Midby, vice president of government affairs for Boyd Gaming. “Since the shutdown, Boyd Gaming has brought more than 6,000 team members back to work and are continually bringing more back.”

Many of the labor unions supporting the “Right to Return” measure, including the Culinary Union, AFL-CIO and United Food and Commercial Workers Union, called it a “common sense” solution and said it was time to bring people back to work.

“Let's pass this bill and let's give people back work,” Rusty McAllister, secretary-treasurer for the AFL-CIO, said during the hearing. “This is not a complex issue. Just hire the people back that were laid off through no fault of their own.”

Wednesday’s meeting marked the first hearing for the bill. The committee did not vote on the measure.

Nevada climate strategy outlines framework to phase out natural gas, electrify transportation

An array of solar panels at the Copper Mountain Solar 3 facility

The goal is clear: To reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. 

The challenge is how to get there. 

A plan released this week by state agencies and delivered to Gov. Steve Sisolak on Tuesday outlined Nevada’s first “climate strategy” for zeroing out carbon emissions within the next three decades, what scientists say is an imperative for governments across the country to prevent the worst effects of a warming world — skyrocketing heat, extreme wildfires, limited water supplies. 

The strategy, a lengthy and comprehensive document, represents a significant turning point for a state government that has, for years, touted its record on encouraging renewable energy but has shied away from tackling climate change in a coordinated way. 

“It is about process,” said Kristen Averyt, who led the report’s drafting and is a former president of the Desert Research Institute. “It is about stitching climate action into the state.”

At its core, the report lays out a pathway for Nevada to achieve a cost-effective transition from natural gas and electrify the transportation sector, which is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Although the strategy does not dictate policy to the Legislature, local governments and state regulators, it analyzes and recommends several policies to pursue.

The strategy, Averyt stressed, is a “living document,” meant to set a foundation for future reports and analysis. And it was also meant to set expectations. Averyt acknowledged that the report is different from efforts that other states have taken. It intentionally leans into the challenges and the nuances, many specific to Nevada, that come with reducing emissions to net-zero by 2050.

“We have to get to zero emissions,” Averyt said. “Nothing is off the table.”

“We just have to be smart about how we do it,” she added.

For the 17 core policies analyzed in the report, the state established a framework that looked at each recommendation using four metrics: a policy’s potential for decreasing emissions, climate justice considerations, economic implications and the legal feasibility of implementing a policy.

Climate activists said the report is a significant step in the state’s efforts on climate action. It is important that there is a strategy, they said. But although the strategy considers climate justice — that marginalized communities are often disproportionately affected by climate impacts and the cost of climate action — activists said more work is needed to adequately center those issues. 

“Everything [the state does] around climate change — or even when we talk about affordable housing and transportation in general — should be looked at from an environmental justice lens,” said Cinthia Moore, a Las Vegas-based organizer with EcoMadres, which represents Latino parents and advocates for clean air. “And that should be the driver of these policies."

The report marks a nearly two-year effort to redirect the state’s focus toward addressing climate change, an effort that began in the 2019 Legislature. During the legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that set the state’s first economy-wide emission reduction goals to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

State officials estimate that, on its current path, Nevada would fall 4 percent short of the goal to decrease total greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2025, 19 percent short of cutting emissions 45 percent by 2030 and significantly short of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. 

The 2050 goal is in line with pledges made by other governments and corporations. Although the effort to reduce emissions will require investment, the strategy notes that meeting the emission goals could prevent between $172 and $786 million in economic damages associated with carbon pollution by 2030. Meeting the 2050 goal, the report finds, could prevent billions in damages.

In a statement prepared with the report’s release, Sisolak said climate action must play a role in building back a more “climate-friendly and equitable” economy after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Sisolak, who ordered the report as part of his Nevada Climate Initiative, said it “serves as the critical framework necessary to elevate climate action and foster a healthy, vibrant, climate-resilient future for all Nevadans – especially our most disadvantaged community members who live in the areas experiencing the greatest climate-related health and economic impacts.”

Decarbonization of the electric sector

In reducing economy-wide emissions, decarbonizing the electric sector is the first step.

Emissions from generating electricity — burning coal and natural gas for power — accounted for roughly 32 percent of total economy-wide emissions in 2016, according to an analysis released by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection earlier this year.

That 32 percent share means the electric generation is now the second largest greenhouse gas contributor in Nevada — behind the transportation sector with a 35 percent share of emissions. 

But even though power plants contribute a smaller share of emissions than the transportation sector, transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy remains a prerequisite. As with most carbon reduction plans across the globe, Nevada’s strategy rests on electrification. The strategy aims to electrify transportation and make buildings more reliant on electric appliances, rather than gas ones.

That framework puts NV Energy front-and-center. It will require the utility to potentially hasten its transition from a majority fossil-fuel supply to a majority-renewable supply. At the same time, the utility has predicted that its demand will likely increase as other sectors require more electricity.  

In recent years, the state has made progress toward reducing power plant emissions, requiring the closure of coal plants in Southern Nevada and adding massive utility-scale solar projects to the grid. And in November, voters passed a ballot measure, amending the Nevada Constitution, to require utilities to have a supply portfolio of 50 percent renewables by 2030. The constitutional amendment adds more weight to a similar requirement that was unanimously passed by the Legislature last year. 

Still, the strategy recognizes that the electric sector needs to move faster. But how that reduction in emissions is achieved is left open-ended. David Bobzien, who directs the Governor’s Office of Energy and helped write the utility-related section of the report, said that was on purpose. 

“Even with our aggressive [renewable portfolio standard], there is water yet uncharted beyond that 50 percent standard,” Bobzien said. “How do we get to 100 percent? It's great that we have the goal there, but we do know that the last 50 percent is going to be complicated.”

On Thursday, NV Energy spokesperson Jennifer Schuricht said in an email that the strategy “provides a framework to examine all sources of carbon emissions and to create solutions that bring meaningful long-term environmental and economic benefits to all Nevadans at affordable prices. We look forward to working with our policymakers as we pursue these opportunities.”

A recent report, commissioned by the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), suggested that the state might need a renewable requirement closer to 80 percent by 2030 to remain on track with its emission goals. But the state’s report did not describe a specific policy, instead leaving open the possibility that policies other than a renewable standard could be used. 

NV Energy, which serves about 90 percent of Nevada’s electricity needs, recently filed a report with the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada (PUCN) outlining its net-zero carbon goals. That report stresses the need to diversify its portfolio, build more transmission and manage demand.

The utility’s report suggests that the state might need to move away from a renewable standard in the future and toward other policies aimed more specifically at the grid’s carbon emissions.

In the PUCN filing, the utility said that “in the future, the state's decarbonizing efforts may benefit from a transition away from [renewable portfolio standard] targets in favor of decarbonizing policies to avoid conflict and increase impact across more sectors of the economy.”

NV Energy also warned against policies that entirely eliminate fossil fuel production or policies that limit carbon intensity from existing plants until there were renewable alternatives available.

A transition away from natural gas as the default

Despite transitioning away from coal-fired power plants and adding solar over the past decade, natural gas comprises the majority of NV Energy’s power supply. Simultaneously, natural gas is used in most homes and in commercial buildings for heating and cooking, adding to the state’s carbon footprint. 

A common theme in the report was the need for not only a substantive change but also a shift in thinking around natural gas — a transition away from the default policy of planning to use the fossil fuel well into the future.

The climate strategy specifically calls out a policy that allows utility regulators and NV Energy to use natural gas plants — rather than renewables — as placeholders in planning the utility's long-term supply.

Every three years, NV Energy is required to submit an exhaustive planning documented known as an Integrated Resource Plan. In that plan, natural gas plants that are often used as placeholders in forecasting long-term supply scenarios. The climate strategy suggests that eliminating the policy would improve the ability to plan for an electric grid that more closely reflects the state’s net-zero by 2050 goal.

“[The policy] basically says there are no goals or requirements to phase out fossil fuel reliance," said Cameron Dyer, a clean energy staff attorney for Western Resource Advocates.

“We need to get these natural gas placeholders out of being the vogue,” he added.

The climate strategy also looks at other ways to improve planning and reduce natural gas use, including changing the incentives that guide the utility when it comes to crafting its rates. 

But one of the most significant aspects of the state’s climate strategy is that, for the first time, it points policymakers beyond electricity, calling on them to phase out natural gas in buildings

The climate strategy says that “while Nevada’s electricity sector transitions from fossil fuels to zero-emissions renewables, the state must also transition from fossil-fuel combustion in homes and commercial buildings in the form of burning gas for cooking, hot water, and space heating.”

Bobzien said he did not expect this to happen overnight. 

"It's important to remember the time-scale contemplated by this framework,” he said. “It's a long-term transition to these technologies or newer homes, and it has to be sensitive to costs.” 

Environmental advocates — and the climate strategy itself — said a preliminary goal would be to ensure that consumers could choose between electric and natural gas.

The report said “a potential first step in a phased transition from gas would be to allow consumers the choice between gas and electric on existing buildings but require all-electric in new construction.

Echoing the climate strategy, Elspeth DiMarzio, an organizer with the Sierra Club, stressed that policymakers must look for ways to prevent the buildout of more natural gas pipelines that would need to be retired before the investments could be paid off.

“If you lock in new gas infrastructure now, we’ll be dealing with the ramifications for the next 30-plus years,” she said, noting that investments are typically paid off in rates. 

Questions about cost and land use

Southwest Gas, the state’s largest natural gas utility, said in a statement that the company was committed to working with the state on climate goals but was concerned about costs. 

“We believe any conversation about the sustainable energy future must consider the cost burden to Nevadans,” Scott Leedom, the utility’s director of public affairs, said in an email.

“Policy-driven electrification shifts the cost to consumers away from one of the lowest monthly utility bills they face, natural gas, to one of the highest, electricity. The voices of those who rely on natural gas to make financial ends meet in homes and businesses must be heard,” he said.

Bobzien, however, noted that electric appliances are steadily evolving to become more efficient and less costly. He pointed to the fact that costs can accelerate quickly with increased demand. 

“History has shown that these cost-curves can accelerate quickly — solar being the perfect example,” Bobzien said (the price of solar has dramatically decreased over the last decade).

Additionally, the climate strategy recommends several other policies to reduce the energy consumption of buildings: appliance efficiency standards, energy codes for net-zero buildings and the expansion of energy efficient and energy-savings contract programs. 

Nat Hodgson, CEO of the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association, said he supports the goals to reduce carbon emissions, and he was an early backer of energy efficient codes. But he cautioned an approach that could raise costs in a way that were passed down to homebuyers. 

“I'm also the guy you call about housing affordability,” he said. 

Hodgson said new homes are already far more energy-efficient than they were a decade ago. Most homes in Southern Nevada, he said, exceed standards for energy efficiency. 

But Hodgson said housing prices could increase if there were requirements for things like charging stations or specialized outlets to allow for electric appliances in the future. He said the more cost-effective strategy would be to focus funding on retrofitting existing homes. 

“Everything we can do, "he said. “But it comes at a cost. The number one issue is affordability.”

Environmental groups said climate change demands an upfront investment that, with the right mix of incentives and rulemaking, will ultimately benefit the consumer and keep costs down. If new homes are retrofitted for a future that demands electrified buildings, it will pay dividends when there is increased demand for electric appliances. 

“It's not in our head that we're going to flip a switch and do this all in a year and everyone is going to have a fully electric efficient building,” said Dylan Sullivan, a senior policy analyst with NRDC. “It's not going to happen like that. It doesn't make sense for it to happen like that."

He said electric alternatives to gas appliances, including heat pump water heaters, are competitively priced. Sullivan said it just requires a change in thinking about building. He also pushed back on the idea that preparing homes for electric appliances is more costly.

“It's only a sunk cost if you go in and install the gas appliance,” he said. 

And many businesses support climate action. Two days after the strategy was released, the Reno and Sparks Chamber of Commerce held a series panels on the climate strategy that brought in a range of perspectives, from the Nevada Mining Association to the Sierra Club. The chamber’s CEO, Ann Silver, said in an interview that she was supportive of the strategy, noting that there were a lot of things that individuals could do to help reduce emissions. 

“I don't think we should view this as something costly,” Silver said. “To me, it's comparable to wearing a mask. Maybe you are spending $3.99 on a mask, but that’s saving a death."

Silver said businesses want to show that they are acting on climate change, and it’s often demanded by customers. She noted that change does not happen overnight. But when there is a choice to be made — like replacing old light bulbs or replacing a fleet of vehicles — businesses and consumers should consider the climate implications of their actions. 

“I don't think we've done enough to normalize the activities that should occur,” she said.

Beyond economic costs, a massive deployment of renewables to offset natural gas could have significant environmental costs on the landscape and protected habitat for imperiled species, from the Mojave desert tortoise to the Greater sage grouse.

Environmentalists and wilderness advocates said that the climate crisis is a top priority, but they have urged the state to adopt a careful planning approach that avoids causing further environmental damage in pursuing more renewable energy infrastructure. 

Jaina Moan, external affairs director for The Nature Conservancy in Nevada, has advocated for siting solar, as much as possible, on previously developed land, like abandoned mines. 

The state’s strategy acknowledges issues around siting renewables, advocating a “smart-from-the-start” approach. Moan hopes to see a continued commitment from the state.

“A commitment and incentives for developing on lower-impact lands are needed,” she said.

Reducing emissions in transportation

As the state phases out natural gas, the strategy emphasizes the need to transition away from fossil fuels in the transportation sector, the leading source of the state's emissions.

To do so, the climate strategy included five policy proposals: the adoption of low- and zero-emissions vehicle standards, a clean truck program, low-carbon fuel standards, a “cash for clunkers” program and ending a loophole that allows car owners to evade emission checks. 

Electrifying the transportation sector was identified as one of the most complex issues facing the state’s decarbonization goal, one that requires buy-in from consumers and an array of state and local governmental agencies responsible for roads and infrastructure.

In addition to adopting electrification policies, the report said the state should also look for ways to manage transportation demand, decreasing the number of miles traveled in personal vehicles and increasing incentives for public transit and telecommuting.

Tackling how cars are used is crucial, the report said, with the number of miles traveled in cars — calculated as Vehicle Miles Traveled — increasing faster than the population.

“If this trend does not change,” the report says, “[emission] targets will be difficult to meet, even with aggressive changes to vehicle efficiency and fuel type, due to turnover rate of vehicles and other transportation-related [greenhouse gas] emissions, such as roadway building and maintenance.”

Despite the headwinds, the report also casts electrifying transportation as an opportunity. 

“Nevada is uniquely poised to capitalize on its unique assets by leveraging growth in the EV sector to become a hub for transportation electrification,” the report said.

The strategy notes that Nevada could play a role in the electric-vehicle supply chain, given the need for more lithium. The country’s only active lithium operation is based outside of Tonopah, and over the past five years, there has been an increase in lithium exploration.

Earlier this year, Nevada started a rulemaking process to adopt low and zero-emission vehicle standards through an initiative known as Clean Cars Nevada. Such standards, adopted in 14 states and modeled after California’s rules, would require car manufacturers to sell low-emission vehicles in Nevada and set credit targets for zero-emission vehicles. 

Andrew MacKay, executive director of the Nevada Franchised Auto Dealers Association and a former chairman of the Nevada Transportation Authority, said he was not surprised by the proposals and said there were some common-sense ideas. He cited closing the “classic car” loophole, which allows newer cars to avoid emission inspections, as one.

But he also said his group would ultimately not support the adoption of emission standards, instead preferring a national standard and letting markets guide electric-vehicle adoption.

“My opinion is this: Let the market work," MacKay said.

Despite disagreements with some of the policy recommendations, MacKay said he wanted to see the state address climate change and was impressed by the breadth of the strategy.

"This is going to result in the drafting of big pieces of legislation, regulatory efforts and the whole nine yards,” MacKay said, noting momentum in state government to take action.

What happens at the state level is only one aspect of climate action. The report comes as large corporations set net-zero goals, demanding a more fuel-efficient and eventually zero-carbon supply chain, and as car manufacturers seek to create new electric products to meet those goals. There is also another big player in the transportation sector: California. 

Paul Enos, who heads the Nevada Trucking Association, said that what California does can have a big effect in Nevada. He said many of his members already have trucks that meet California standards, so regulatory changes in Nevada could have a more minimal effect.

He said the climate strategy’s analysis of a new Clean Trucks Program provided a “honest assessment,” considering the economics and the impact on greenhouse gas emissions. 

“The reality is that so many of the trucks that are based here in Nevada, operating here in Nevada, they're already meeting the California standard,” Enos said in an interview.

Many of the big players in the trucking industry are already moving toward reducing their emissions as large corporate end-users look to meet their sustainability goals, Enos said. But any new rules could have a disparate impact on smaller trucking companies. And unlike in California, he said Nevada might not have the ability to offer incentives to smaller players in the industry. He said state regulators should weigh that with any rules they create.

"California can afford to get a lot of things wrong that we can’t afford to do in Nevada,” Enos said. “I worry about the small guys. I worry about the owner-operators.”

Starting a conversation on climate justice

For all of the policies analyzed, the state’s strategy considers climate justice issues as one of the four most primary metrics to guide the state’s action on reducing carbon emissions. 

Averyt, who led the report’s drafting as the head of the Nevada Climate Initiative, said this was a critical part of the report. In the coming months and years, Averyt expects that more information will be added to the strategy and the state will produce additional reports. 

She said climate justice will continue to be used as a metric to analyze policy. 

Across the nation and in Nevada, the effects of climate change often fall disproportionately on marginalized communities, amplifying inequality. More heat in urban areas, for instance, can lead to increased energy demand for cooling among residents who already spend a larger percentage of their income on electricity bills. In other cases, power plants and freeways with high emissions have historically been sited near low-income neighborhoods. 

At the same time, the action needed to address climate change can also disproportionately affect marginalized communities, often least responsible for creating the problem.

Climate justice activists in Nevada are concerned with both issues. They said the report was a starting point, but they hope to see more direct climate justice policies in the future. 

“My initial reaction was that it was a good start, but it was leaving out a lot of policies that I wanted to see discussed,” said Ainslee Archibald, a coordinator for the Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition. “I felt it was kind of half of what we needed and half of what we didn’t.”

Early on, the strategy argues that climate action could be a way to correct environmental injustices that occurred in the past and create a more equitable economy moving forward.

“Through climate action, there is the opportunity to reconcile the social justice challenges Nevadans face,” the report said a few paragraphs into the Executive Summary section. 

For Archibald, who is also an organizer for the Sunrise Movement in Las Vegas, that would mean a transition from market-based systems to policies with fewer barriers to access. She said she would like to see more consideration placed on public transit and energy choice, the ability to produce rooftop solar and community solar in a way that is cost-effective. 

Moore, an organizer for EcoMadres and a member of the coalition, echoed these calls. 

“It's great that we are talking about electrification of vehicles and electric infrastructure but we need to think about ways to make these things accessible to everyone,” Moore said.

She said part of what the state should do, moving forward, is ensure more direct outreach to communities rather than conduct public outreach primarily on social media. Doing so, she said, would allow officials to more adequately address climate justice in policy making.

“There is so much work that still needs to be done,” Moore said.

Small businesses eye fragile future as shutdown tests their survivability

If customers didn’t know any better, they might think they made a wrong turn and ended up inside a medical office rather than Paymon’s Mediterranean Café & Lounge.

The front-desk employee dons a surgical face mask and rubber gloves. Bottles of hand sanitizer sit on the counter. But this is just business as usual for a Las Vegas restaurant trying to survive amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

At the eatery’s Eastern Avenue location, customers stream in and out, keeping social distance from others and grabbing tightly wrapped bundles of takeout food. When they will be allowed to dine in remains a big question mark. So for now, the longtime Las Vegas establishment with two locations is trying to scratch together an existence through curbside delivery or takeout service — an operation model that’s only netting 25 percent of normal revenue. Management furloughed about 62 of the restaurants’ 75 employees, marking the first economic-related layoffs in Paymon’s 31-year history.

“We’ve taken pretty good measures to try to keep people during all the difficult times,” said Jeff Ecker, owner of Restaurant Consultants of Las Vegas, which manages the Paymon’s restaurants on Eastern and Sahara avenues. “This one was just impossible.”

It has been nearly six weeks since Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered the closure of nonessential businesses in a bid to slow the fast-spreading upper-respiratory virus and not overwhelm Nevada’s health care system. State health authorities suspect COVID-19 cases have plateaued, but the governor has signaled he’s waiting for a confirmed downward trajectory before bringing pieces of the economy back to life.

Ecker supported the governor’s shutdown directive. The state, he said, needed to combat the life-threatening virus. Still, Ecker said he would like to see a “partial reopening” soon. He knows patrons won’t return in droves right off the bat. There will be an adjustment period.

The industry is also staring down a minimum wage increase that goes into effect July 1.

“We’re kind of in a scary spot right now as far as survivability of restaurants,” he said.

The same could be said for numerous other small businesses across the state. The safety-minded closures have limited, if not paralyzed, revenue for companies or organizations already operating on thin profit margins. Business chamber leaders in both Northern and Southern Nevada acknowledge that even if the governor gives the green light for businesses to reopen, some simply won’t be able to welcome back customers.

Rebecca Mulheron, an employee at Paymon’s Mediterranean Café & Lounge, takes an order over the phone at the restaurant's Eastern Avenue location in Las Vegas on Friday, April 24, 2020. (Jackie Valley/The Nevada Independent)

***

The questions came like an avalanche from the very beginning. As businesses deemed nonessential closed their doors, heeding Sisolak’s directive in mid-March, their owners flooded the Vegas Chamber with calls and queries.

Cara Clarke, the organization’s vice president for communications, said common questions included: How do I get a Small Business Administration loan? What other resources are out there? And what about rent?

“Businesses are really looking for answers, and they need a friend to guide them,” she said, “and that’s really our role.”

If one chamber role is serving as a conduit — connecting businesses with information and resources — the other is being a business advocate in government. But those dual purposes only go so far. Business survivability in the age of COVID-19 will depend on multiple factors, including the length of closures, a company or organization’s cash on hand and customer behavior in the aftermath, Clarke said. And at least some of those variables remain unknown at this point.

For instance, will customers feel safe returning to eateries and stores, even with social-distancing measures in place? Or will the shaky economy and health concerns encourage frugal spending patterns?

“We can guess at what that’s going to be, but nobody really knows what that will be for sure,” Clarke said, referring to customer behavior.

Ann Silver, chief executive officer of the Reno + Sparks Chamber of Commerce, said small businesses are stuck in a “miserable state” — waiting for federal relief funding, trying to make do with what they did receive or folding because they can’t make it with or without temporary aid. The chamber defines small businesses as organizations with fewer than 100 employees. Think places such as coffee shops, jewelry stores, clothing boutiques, bakeries or liquor stores.

Eighty percent of the northern chamber’s nearly 2,000 members are small businesses, and of those, 70 percent are considered nonessential businesses, Silver said. She worries that roughly 50 member businesses may not survive beyond the closure period.

“I don’t mean to sound terribly negative, but the small business community is suffering tremendously,” she said.

Late last month, Congress passed the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which pumped $349 billion into the newly created Payroll Protection Program within the Small Business Administration (SBA). The program was designed as life support for businesses with fewer than 500 employees, but some large companies found loopholes and scored big sums, leading to partisan outrage. The CARES Act also expanded the SBA’s long-standing Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) program. 

As of Monday, 549 loans totaling $118 million were approved for Nevada businesses under the Economic Injury Disaster Loans program, SBA Nevada district director Joseph Amato said. Silver State businesses, meanwhile, netted 8,674 loan approvals totaling roughly $2 billion through the Payroll Protection Program (PPP).

Other loan applications remain in the queue awaiting the next round of funding. President Donald Trump on Friday signed a new relief bill that includes $321 billion for the Payroll Protection Program as well as $60 billion for the disaster loan program.

Only 3.2 percent of Nevada small businesses received a PPP loan during the first round of funding, according to a Guinn Center analysis. That falls below the national average of 5.4 percent and places Nevada 50th among all states and the District of Columbia. California rounded out the bottom of the list, with just 2.8 percent of its small businesses receiving a PPP loan. 

The Guinn Center analysis suggests Nevada is “under banked” and, therefore, does not have enough financial institutions capable of processing the loan applications. Iowa, a state with a similar population size, has one Financial Deposit Insurance Corporation-backed bank for every 900 small businesses, while Nevada only has one such institution per every 14,200 small businesses.

“The relatively fewer number of financial institutions in Nevada does provide some evidence to support the concern that capacity issues could have slowed the timely processing (of) PPP loans for many small businesses in Nevada,” the report notes.

On the plus side, Nevada ranked eighth for the size of its approved PPP loans. The average loan size for Nevada small businesses was $232,181, exceeding the national average of $205,614.

Paymon’s Mediterranean Café & Lounge received a PPP loan for one of its locations. Ecker, although grateful, said he wishes the federal assistance carried a more flexible timeline. The loan may be forgivable, meaning businesses don’t owe any money, if they use it for the approved percentage of payroll costs, mortgage interest, rent and utility payments over the eight-week period after receiving it. Employers who had cut workers prior to receiving the loan have until June 30 to restaff.

“There’s no reason to bring employees back in right now based on business volume,” Ecker said. “So the clock is ticking and it would have been much better had they allowed an eight-week period of your choosing.”

Action Camera in Reno is one of the state’s small businesses that so far hasn’t received approval for a PPP loan, said the store’s general manager, Craig Moore. The small business has another Action Camera location in Roseville, California.

Moore said the Reno store has been limping along during the closure, making $200 to $500 per day compared with the $3,000 to $5,000 in daily revenue it normally raked in before the health crisis. The camera shop furloughed its hourly workers, he said, but is trying to remain connected with customers by hosting online workshops, some of which are free.

Moore said he thinks the store can survive a closure through June 30, although he noted that’s an “extremely optimistic” projection. And he wonders what in-person customer traffic will look like after the shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted.

“My fear is that this pandemic and stay-at-home order make it perfect for people to push the Amazon button on the phone and computer and get really used to stuff arriving at their house,” he said. “I believe that’s going to be a bigger battle than it already was when we reopen.”

The governor has received criticism for not offering a more concrete reopening date — instead couching reopenings as a process that will occur in phases based on downward trends in positive cases and hospitalizations. Moore doesn’t consider himself one of those critics, saying he considers the situation “a waiting game” to avoid more people falling ill.

Other small business owners are calling for changes they think would level the playing field.

Karen Hyatt-Miner, owner of Vino 100 in Reno, questions why her neighborhood shop can’t remain open, while big-box retailers and grocery stores that sell some of the same products — such as wine, jams, olives and balsamic vinegar — can welcome flocks of customers.

Vino 100 received a call from the city’s Business License Division last week, instructing the store to close. Hyatt-MIner said she had been under the impression her store could remain open to sell food and beverage items as long as it closed a small bar inside. 

She was assembling a to-go cheese platter order at the time of the phone call.

“If more people have to go to the same place because there are so few places open, how does that make us safer?” she said. “Explain this to me.”

With little wiggle room in her nearly $3,600 monthly rent, Hyatt-Miner, 52, said she fears the future of her business and economic livelihood.

“I’m working toward my retirement,” she said. “I’m not there yet. If I lost the business now, my retirement would be almost nothing.”

***

As businesses, many of them small and local, struggle, organizations are launching programs or brainstorming ways to help keep them afloat.

The Vegas Chamber partnered with Switch, Metro Police and ItsOnMe — a mobile gifting company headquartered in Las Vegas — to create the “Switch to Kindness” campaign, which allows people to purchase electronic gift cards from local businesses. Electronic gift cards can be donated to local first-responders or sent to the buyer’s recipient of choice.

Businesses that are members of the Vegas Chamber can participate. For those not already members, the organization is offering temporary free memberships.

The Nevada Small Business Development Center also announced it is beginning a social media campaign Sunday to support small businesses. The five-day challenge will involve activities that can be done from home, such as tagging businesses on social media, buying gift cards, writing online reviews and sending caring messages to business owners.

The Reno + Sparks Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, has submitted a proposal that goes a step further to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development for consideration. Dubbed “curbside commerce,” the program would allow small, nonessential businesses to re-enter the marketplace by providing curbside sales.

The two-page memo outlines the process that would allow customers, one at time, to buy goods in a parking lot or driveway without hand-to-hand contact. For example, no money could be exchanged during the transaction, meaning all purchases would be completed by phone or online before scheduling a specific pickup time. Additionally, business employees would be required to wear face masks and gloves, and customers would need to display facial coverings.

“We understand and fully respect the governor’s focus on the health and safety of Nevadans,” said Ann Silver, the chamber’s CEO. “At the same time, I feel strongly that there are some very strict measures that small businesses could take to at least generate some income rather than slowly die on the vine waiting for phase one, phase two, phase three.”

Silver said she was trying to present the governor with “potential solutions, not just complaints.” She characterized the program as a “stepping stone to reopening” that would be tested within the chamber’s constituent area in Northern Nevada.

As someone who lived through the 9/11 attacks in New York City and saw people change their routines in the aftermath, Silver said it’s incumbent on the business community to innovate. She expects consumers to be wary of large groups for a while.

“What will be the new norm two years from now?” she said.

Even with outside-the-box thinking, it’s all but inevitable some businesses will fold.

Joseph Amato, the SBA Nevada district director, said the pandemic — a variable element outside of anyone’s control — could cause more business attrition than normal.

“Every economic cycle there are businesses that are basically lost due to attrition,” said Amato, an entrepreneur who studied economic cycles before joining the SBA. “Businesses that are strong will remain in business. The businesses that are weak will likely shut down.”

The SBA’s loan program, he said, tries to “fill that financial gap” and prevent some of the businesses from failing. At this point, no one can say with certainty how many will succeed, but Amato said Nevada’s small business owners have a history of resiliency.

Experts say the full extent of coronavirus-inflicted damage on small businesses won’t be known for quite some time.

“The vast majority of businesses that were deemed nonessential and told to close did so without a lot of resistance,” said Clarke with the Vegas Chamber. “They knew it was the right thing to do. There will be some of those that will have paid the ultimate sacrifice.”

Disclosure: The Nevada Independent was approved for a PPP loan.

City of Reno orders non-essential businesses to start closing

Reno City Hall sign

The plan was changed at the last minute. 

Going into a press conference Monday afternoon, Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve intended on requesting all non-essential businesses — mainly bars, restaurants and gyms — begin preparing to close on Tuesday in an effort to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

But shortly before the press conference, Schieve received information from the Washoe County Health District that led her to believe that the district favored mitigation measures with more urgency. And Schieve said the closures would be mandatory, effective at 10 a.m. Tuesday, and they would apply to casinos. Businesses were caught off guard.

After the press conference, the city backed off, but only slightly. 

The city released a statement clarifying that the closures applied specifically to bars, nightclubs, gyms and restaurants, excluding takeout, delivery and drive-thru. Casinos can keep their gaming operations, but their bars and restaurants have to shut down. Businesses can continue operating this week, the city said in the statement, but should aim to close by Friday at 5 p.m.

They will have to stay closed until at least April 5th.

With the announcement, Reno became the first jurisdiction to announce the mandatory shutdown of businesses, placing more pressure on Las Vegas to do the same. It also placed added pressure on Reno’s neighbors, Washoe County and Sparks, to close businesses. 

“At this point, we have to make the decisions that are tough for the city of Reno,” she said.

In an interview Monday evening, Schieve defended her decision to close bars and restaurants, saying the cost of not doing so would be far greater by allowing the virus to spread. She said the action, which states across the country have taken, has loomed over discussions about how to contain the coronavirus and that “everyone has been talking about it in a roundabout way.”

“It has to be on everyone’s mind,” she said. “If you are an elected official, it has to be.”

Schieve said that it was one action the city was taking under its emergency declaration. 

“Everyone needs to do all they can right now,” Schieve told reporters on Monday. “We are under some strict timelines when it comes to this virus. That’s why we are taking the measures that we are. We are doing this to save lives. I think everyone needs to understand that first and foremost that we are doing this to save lives. If that’s not enough, I don’t know what is. I don’t.”

Essential businesses, including doctor’s offices, gas stations and grocery stores, will be allowed to remain open. College campuses can also remain open for regular business, but restaurants on campus most close or transition to drive-thru and pick-up orders only. 

During the press conference on Monday, Schieve said the Washoe County Health District had sent a text saying “we need to make [the closures] mandatory,” a direction the city of Reno was already going in. But on Monday evening, the health district clarified in a statement that it had not called for mandatory action, though it supported business closures and event cancellations.

Washoe County and the city of Sparks have not directed businesses to close.

Responding to a tweet Monday afternoon, the city of Sparks said that its “managers are in meetings and we are working closely with our regional partners to determine the best approach while following the recommendations by the @WashoeHealth and the CDC.”

Small businesses could be hit especially hard by business closures.

Ann Silver, CEO of the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce, said she was torn when she heard the news because “the intent is very pure and sincere” but the fallout could be “astronomical.”

“It is tragic in terms of the impact on small businesses that are desperate to stay alive,” Silver said, noting that many small businesses cannot weather a closure if it extends for months.

Schieve said the decision was challenging, especially in a state like Nevada, where hospitality businesses often operate around-the-clock and employ a large percentage of the workforce.

“This is hard,” she said. “We’re not used to this. For a lot of us across the state, this is really challenging because we can go anywhere at any time of day, night and find just about anything you want here in Nevada. For us, to be restricted is even that much more challenging."

The leader of Northern Nevada’s top economic development agency wasn’t surprised by the decision, but he also didn’t sugarcoat the financial toll it will wreak.

“Most small businesses, especially in the retail space, are in for some rough days,” said Mike Kazmierski, chief executive officer of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada.

Even so, Kazmierski said the region has a “vibrant economy” and should be able to weather this significant, albeit unexpected, situation in the long term. He said a company considering a relocation to the Reno area is still planning a visit this week.

There are currently nine confirmed cases of coronavirus in Washoe County, where officials have noted the occurrence of community spread. The Southern Nevada Health District has confirmed 35 cases but has yet to make a recommendation about the closure of bars and restaurants. 

At a press conference Monday afternoon, Michael Johnson, a community health director for the health district, said an action could be likely but that it would be the governor’s decision to make.

Las Vegas city spokesman Jace Radke said late Monday that the city continues to monitor the situation but that Mayor Carolyn Goodman was “not considering a business shut down at this time.”

In an email she sent to the “city family” on Monday, she expressed confidence that “our great scientists and medical professionals are working diligently on solutions which shall in time, prevail.”

“As we assess the strange situation in which we are living at this time and with the day-to-day plans being dictated by others who are in positions of greater authority, please be assured that we in the City, too, are ever-vigilant in a time-sensitive manner, are being extremely cautious but are not being blinded by the fear and panic that is resulting,” she said. “Now, we must continue to rely on each other to remain calm, wise, and be diligent bearers of what Las Vegas has come to be. This is our City, our home, our future, and one-by-one, all together, we will overcome.”

Update: This story was updated on Monday, March 16 at 10:04 p.m. after the city and the Washoe County Health District sent out clarifying press releases.

Compromise paid sick leave bill draws support from business interests, left-leaning groups

A broad amendment requiring private employers to offer paid leave for their workers is winning guarded support from business interest and progressive groups.

In a quickly-arranged hearing on SB312 on Thursday evening in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, bill sponsor Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse was joined by both left-leaning and business groups in support of the bill, which saw no opposition and was voted out of committee unanimously.

Although some progressive advocates chafed at a 40-hour per year limit of paid time off offered under the bill, Woodhouse and other supporters lauded the measure as a hard-won compromise that would result in a necessary benefit for private workers.

“Across the board, policies that give workers paid time off have not been job killers,” she said.

As amended, the bill would allow employees to earn up to 40 hours of paid leave per year, with the amount of compensation equivalent to either an individual’s hourly rate or at the amount a salaried employee would earn if they worked 40 hours a week, not including any discretionary bonuses or overtime. It also changes “paid sick leave” in the original bill to just paid time off, meaning employees do not have to give a reason for the time off.

The bill allows employers to choose whether to offer the paid leave upfront or accrued over time throughout the year and requires employees to take the paid time off in 4-hour chunks. It also allows employers to decide whether or not unused paid leave carries over to subsequent years, while setting a 40-hour cap per year on any hours of paid time off carried over from a previous year.

Employees can start using paid time off within 90 days of being hired, and the bill requires any employee fired and rehired within 90 days have their accrued time off reinstated. The bill also prohibits employers from denying the use of accrued paid leave, requiring an employee to find a replacement or retaliating against them for using leave.

But the bill would only apply to employers with more than 50 employees, and exempts any newly formed small business from following the provisions until 2022. It also exempts all temporary or seasonal workers, or workers who have 40 hours of paid leave from a collective bargaining agreement or if that amount of paid leave is offered by the employer.

Those limits drew some complaints from advocates from Time to Care Nevada, a collective of 23 progressive organizations pushing for a paid sick leave bill in the Legislature. Natalie Hernandez, the group’s campaign manager, told lawmakers that moving the employee limit from 25 to 50 would exclude an estimated 192,000 workers from the provisions in the bill.

“Although this is a very big step in the right direction for Nevadans and working families, we ask that this committee reduce the number of employees from 50 to 25,” she said. “Families should not be forced to make the choice of taking care of themselves or their families to provide for their households.”

But the bill drew support and guarded neutral testimony from some of the state’s most prominent business organizations, who thanked Woodhouse and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro for amending the bill to a place they could support. Ann Silver, the CEO of the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce, said 75 percent of her members had 50 or fewer employees and said the change from paid sick leave to paid time off provided flexibility and avoided the difficulty of having to document paid sick time off.

“Our chamber understands the needs for employees to have paid time off, whether it is to care for an ill family member or to have time off to personally recharge,” she said.

Bob Ostrovsky, a longtime lobbyist for the Nevada Resort Association, said the casino industry group was neutral and wanted to see the actual language of the bill prior to publicly supporting it but that it was largely content with the bill.

“None of those things are insurmountable,” he said. “As recently as this afternoon, I’ve had an opportunity to speak with the sponsors, and I believe we’ll get there very shortly.”

In 2017, Democratic lawmakers approved a similar paid sick leave bill with amendments designed to garner support from the business community — but the bill passed on party-lines and was vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval. At least eleven states and Washington D.C. have a mandated paid sick time off for private employers, and four states — Rhode Island, Maryland, New Jersey and Michigan — have adopted their policies since 2017, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Gov. Steve Sisolak signaled support for the policy in his January State of the State address, calling on lawmakers to “find a consensus on paid leave for Nevada’s workers.”