Federal COVID aid has given small boost to Nevada’s underfunded mental health services

Vitality Unlimited provides substance abuse treatment in Elko

This story is one in an occasional series exploring how Nevada is spending coronavirus relief funds. For frequently updated information on the federal interventions, check out our federal aid tracker.

While Nevada has long struggled with a widespread lack of mental health resources, the state has recently used more than a million dollars in federal coronavirus aid funds to provide relief to some citizens most at risk from the increased stresses of the pandemic.

The state has funded mental health crisis response teams in both Northern and Southern Nevada, and to combat youth suicide, the state purchased gun and medicine safes, offered training and launched a public relations campaign aimed at prevention.

“More and more, people are now living daily with anxiety and depression because they can't predict what their future is,” said Robin Reedy, executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Nevada, a mental health care advocacy group.

Nevada got national attention for its mental health struggles, after a recent New York Times article highlighted a surge in suicides in the Clark County School District. And while data from the Department of Health and Human Services shows that youth suicides in the state were at a normal level in 2020, with 17 youth suicides last year compared to 16 in 2019, the pandemic has had an undeniable impact on people’s mental health.

Last year, calls to mental health helplines surged, as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Disaster Distress Helpline experienced an increase in call volume from 12,000 calls in 2019 to 60,000 in 2020. Call volume from Nevada for the national helpline jumped from 100 calls in 2019 to 400 in 2020, and calls for the Nevada suicide prevention Lifeline increased from 19,000 to 21,000 year over year.

The pandemic has also affected students’ mental health at K-12 schools and Nevada’s colleges. But the state has taken action to combat those challenges.

Using funds received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the state dedicated $1.65 million to mental health mitigation and youth suicide prevention. Those funds were distributed through the Division of Public and Behavioral Health, with $445,000 allocated for youth suicide prevention and the other $1.2 million split between Northern and Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services to be used as funding for their Mobile Outreach Safety Teams.

Pandemic challenges aside, funding is key to a state in desperate need of help for its mental health services. 

Mental Health America, a Virginia-based nonprofit, ranked Nevada last in the country for mental health based on a combination of the state’s prevalence of mental illness, poor access to care and a significant lack of workers in the field. The group also ranked Nevada last for youth mental health in its 2021 report.

“Speaking on the mental health side, I go around saying all the time, ‘we are number 51, we are dead last, and take dead literally.’ When you start talking about pediatric mental health care, I don't know, can you go lower than 51?” said Reedy.

Misty Vaughan Allen, the state’s suicide prevention coordinator, emphasized that there are a lot of details to understand when considering such rankings. Allen said that the access to lethal means, such as firearms, across the state and the ruralness of Nevada are both contributing factors, while Allen, Reedy, and Mental Health America’s rankings all pointed to a lack of resources as one of the biggest challenges.

Other states in the Intermountain West, including Idaho, Colorado and Utah, also rank near the bottom of mental health rankings. And Allen added that perception of mental health is also an important factor.

“Then you have stigma, the culture in this region. Mental health, suicide carry heavy stigma. And so kind of getting those messages of help seeking or help offering can be a challenge,” said Allen.

Youth suicide prevention

To aid youth suicide prevention efforts, the state has used CARES funds on a wide array of programs that included suicide-focused trainings, awareness campaigns and resources for families.

One of those programs was the Reduce Access to Lethal Means Program, which provides safes and locks for firearms and medications to families.

“That is one of the few proven suicide prevention strategies that exists,” Allen said. “And the goal is really to put space and time between that event that might be a young person [thinking] of suicide and the access to something lethal that they might grab… And a large majority of that CARES funding went to reducing access to lethal means.”

With CARES funding, the Office of Suicide Prevention purchased 226 security safes, which are used for medications and firearms, 360 locks, including trigger locks, padlock and gun locks, and 1,696 Deterra bags, which are used for safe, at-home medication disposal. Those resources were distributed to families through various community partners.

The agency has also tried to increase awareness among families about how to keep their homes safe and how to recognize when a young person is struggling with mental health or with thoughts of suicide. 

Allen said that messaging went out through social media ads about reducing access to lethal means, and her office created a public service announcement that went out over television and radio, as well as postcards that were sent directly to families. Both the public service announcement and the postcards were distributed in English and Spanish.

The state was also able to purchase a variety of different trainings for families, faith leaders and clinicians using the CARES funds, including an online suicide prevention training called LivingWorks Start, a suicide treatment training for clinicians and other online trainings focused on mental health first aid and youth mental health first aid.

Allen said that more than a thousand people have attended the trainings since the beginning of the pandemic and that the opportunity to administer them virtually has allowed the Office of Suicide Prevention to reach a broader audience.

“I also think mental health support has become more accessible for families, especially in our rural communities, when transportation can be a real challenge or childcare can prevent them from getting the treatment they might want,” Allen said. “So with telemedicine, they can stay at home with their kids or with their therapy pets and get help they need.”

Many people have pushed to get kids back to in-person classes in order to combat some of the negative mental health effects that come with online learning and social isolation. 

“When we started to see the uptick in children taking their lives, we knew it wasn’t just the Covid numbers we need to look at anymore,” Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara told The New York Times. “We have to find a way to put our hands on our kids, to see them, to look at them. They’ve got to start seeing some movement, some hope.”

Clark County School District has plans to bring back pre-kindergarten through third-grade students for in-person instruction starting on March 1, though there are also options for hybrid and full-distance learning, but Reedy cautioned that a return to school would not be a cure-all.

“People want to go back to what they consider normal, and there is a certain comfort in doing that,” she said. “But I do think that … even when they end up going back, mental health and suicide prevention needs to be high up on everyone's awareness because even going back will create stress for a certain segment of people.”

Mobile Outreach Safety Teams

In a continued push to connect Nevadans with mental health resources, the state allocated approximately $1.2 million in CARES Act funds to its Mobile Outreach Safety Teams. Those federal funds were used in place of money from the general fund: $427,386 was administered through Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services, and $780,972 was administered through Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services.

While there are small differences between the teams’ operations in Northern and Southern Nevada, both have the common goals of stabilizing individuals in crisis and reducing hospitalizations. 

“So they assess individuals and provide, especially related to the CARES funding, provide preventative measures, education and resources. And it's to reduce hospitalizations that add a burden at this time to an already surging number affected by the pandemic,” said Jo Malay, deputy administrator for clinical services at the Division of Public and Behavioral Health.

The teams are typically connected to individuals by referrals from law enforcement after a 911 call. The outreach teams also are part of a greater movement across the nation to connect mental health professionals, rather than just police, to people in crisis.

An American Medical Response Crisis Response Team vehicle
A crisis response vehicle used by the Mobile Outreach Safety Team in Las Vegas. (Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health)

In Southern Nevada, the team is composed of a paramedic and a licensed clinical social worker. The paramedic assesses the medical needs of the individual, while the social worker assesses mental health needs. The team then refers people to the best community resources based on need, such as an outpatient clinic, a crisis counselor or food and housing resources.

In Northern Nevada, clinicians on the team ride along with law enforcement from the Reno Police Department and Sparks Police Department and help provide crisis intervention and mental health evaluations, and they similarly direct individuals to the appropriate community resources and agencies.

Ellen Richardson-Adams, outpatient manager for Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services, said the teams also focus on educating individuals about their best options for help during a crisis.

“What else can you do without calling 911? Can you call a crisis hotline? Can we give you the resource or a transportation voucher to a shelter?” she said of their approach.

During the past year, many of the teams’ education efforts have also been focused on the health side of the pandemic. Malay said that the teams have provided individuals with protective equipment and have administered resources on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

However, Malay also said she has not seen the use of mental health resources substantially increase during the pandemic. Richardson-Adams agrees: the number of people reached by the teams remained consistent throughout 2020 and was similar to the numbers from the previous year. Last year, the teams served 5,910 people across the state compared with 5,761 in 2019.

With the outreach teams based in high population areas in Northern and Southern Nevada, people living in rural parts of the state are often left with less access to mental health resources. But a shift towards telemedicine has made providing care for those areas easier.

“Rural clinics have always used telehealth. And so, from a system standpoint, that was really helpful because it was established with the stay at home order,” she said. “So it really just reinforced that ability for access in need.”

Moving forward, the outreach teams will return to being funded by the state’s general fund after the CARES dollars are all spent, and Malay said the focus of the teams is still all about access and providing Nevadans with mental health resources where they need it.

Other federal funding efforts

Last year, the state also used CARES Act funding to bolster its 2-1-1 program, which is a hotline that provides information and referrals to health, human and social service organizations.

While the program does not entirely specialized in mental health services, the $184,00 of CARES funding has helped connect more individuals in crisis to community resources, including addiction counseling and suicide prevention. 

The state also used federal funds from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to create a warmline for health care workers that is run by the UNLV School of Medicine. The warmline is unlike a hotline, in that it is aimed at providing help before a crisis occurs, rather than during a crisis. Through the warmline, health care workers can receive emotional support, stress management and access to other mental health resources. Since June, the warmline has received 30 calls.

Richardson-Adams said that resources like the 2-1-1 program and warmline have been helpful for her because they contribute to the overall system of care.

“Having that warm person to talk with, and talk through that moment of crisis with them...What we've found is they don't normally need to call back because that emergency, or that moment of crisis, is met,” said Richardson-Adams.

Local governments have also used federal COVID-19 relief funds to improve access to mental health resources.

The city of Reno received approximately $47 million in CARES Act funds, and the city allocated up to $1.3 million of those funds to provide free mental health support for residents.

In December, the city council approved a contract with Talkspace, an online therapy service. The contract allows for any Reno resident aged 13 and up to receive mental health support through Talkspace, including unlimited text, voice and video messages with a therapist and one monthly video appointment.

A web page with the sign up option for the Talkspace services offered in partnership with the city of Reno.
A photo illustration of the sign up page for the Talkspace services provided in partnership with the city of Reno. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

“People are crying out for help in this moment of crisis as they experience loneliness, anxiety, grief and more,” said Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve in a release. “No one should be denied access to mental health care based on ability to pay and I strongly encourage our city’s residents to take advantage of these free services from Talkspace.”

During a news conference in late January, Dr. Rachel O'Neill, a therapist for Talkspace, said that approximately 1,000 Reno residents were already using the service during the program’s soft launch for city employees and the police department.

Moving forward, Allen said it’s important to ensure that people in crisis know how to get help.

“Access in our state is challenging. But we know we have the tools within our communities, we just have to help people understand their role, what is their role with suicide prevention and help them feel more empowered,” said Allen.

Governor, other elected officials slam Trump's tweet about Reno hospital, election results

A tweet from President Donald Trump angered Nevada officials Tuesday after the commander-in-chief shared a bogus charge about a Reno hospital and falsely tweeted that Nevada’s election laws were “fake.”

Trump retweeted a post insinuating that an alternative hospital site inside a Renown Regional Medical Center parking garage is fake. The president included a message of his own at the top, saying “Fake election results in Nevada, also!”

The president’s post proved inflammatory, as Gov. Steve Sisolak, Attorney General Aaron Ford and Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, among others, condemned his attack.

Sisolak issued a 289-word statement and called the president’s tweet “dangerous and reckless,” especially when the pandemic is raging in many parts of the country.

“It is unconscionable for him to continue to spread lies and sow distrust at a time when all Americans should be united during this historic public health crisis,” the governor wrote. “Enough is enough.”

Last month, Renown Health officials stood up the alternative care site inside the parking garage as COVID-19 cases surged in Reno. A Renown spokesperson said, as of Tuesday, 42 patients with mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 were being cared for in the alternative care site. 

Schieve likened the president’s tweet to an “attack on the community.”

“It is abhorrent to me that anyone, let alone a president, spout lies that mock and demean patients fighting for their lives,” she wrote in a statement. “The exceptional leaders at Renown have been forced into this unbelievable situation and I commend them for this heroic work.”

Ford echoed that sentiment in his response to Trump’s tweet.

“Nevadans from Douglas County to Downtown Las Vegas, from Pleasant Valley to Primm, and from Washoe to Winchester are suffering from COVID spikes,” Ford wrote in a Twitter post. “Stop downplaying it. Help our healthcare workers instead! For once.”

There were 2,160 new COVID-19 cases across Nevada reported Tuesday as well as a record 1,589 hospitalizations.

After decades of backing Republican presidential candidates before swinging blue for Obama, Clinton, Washoe again a battleground in 2020

For decades, Washoe County has been a study in contrasts.

Take the 1964 election. The overwhelmingly Democratic electorate in Washoe at the time voted to give its party’s presidential nominee, Lyndon B. Johnson, his first full term in office, a little less than a year after he ascended to the presidency in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But residents of Nevada’s second largest county that year also resoundingly supported Paul Laxalt, the Republican challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon.

A decade later, Washoe would again back Laxalt, by then the former governor of Nevada, for U.S. Senate, buoying him with a 8,334-vote margin, or about 19 percentage points, this time helping him defeat a young man by the name of Harry Reid by 624 votes statewide. At the same time, Washoe resoundingly supported Mike O’Callaghan, the popular Democratic governor, in his 1974 re-election bid by an overwhelming 47 percentage point margin.

It has happened time and time again in Washoe. Over the last 60 years, there have been 20 election cycles in which two marquee races — presidential, gubernatorial or senatorial — were on the ballot in the same year. Of those, Washoe County split its votes between the Republican and Democratic candidates in half of the cycles. 

In the other 10 cycles, Washoe voted for two Republicans seven times and two Democrats three times. Four of those double Republican wins were when the county was made up of more Democrats than Republicans, and two of those double Democratic wins were when the county had more Republicans than Democrats.

"When the state was two and a half to one Democrat, Paul Laxalt was elected governor and United States senator twice,” said Pete Ernaut, a longtime Republican consultant in the state. “That goes back to the spirit of Nevada, which I think is still alive.”

Most recently, Washoe County was responsible for helping to carry former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to a narrow victory over President Donald Trump. She won the county by 1.3 percentage points and the state as a whole by 2.4 percentage points. But Washoe also voted in support of Joe Heck, the Republican congressman, though his slim, 0.8 percentage point margin in Washoe wasn’t enough to carry him to victory over Catherine Cortez Masto, the Democratic former attorney general, who drummed up so much support in Clark County that she won while losing every other county in the state.

Political observers have a number of theories about why Washoe has been so swingy — and so willing to ticket split — over the decades. They chalk it up to the small town feel in Washoe, home to Reno, nicknamed the biggest little city, where the kind of retail politics that can feel somewhat antiquated in the digital age still matters. They chalk it up to personality, saying that who a candidate is and what they stand for matters more than the D or R behind their name. They increasingly chalk it up to the significant growth of registered nonpartisans in the county.

With politics polarized at the national level, some believe the state’s independent streak — with Washoe County as a microcosm of that — may be fading. Ticket splitting is becoming less and less common around the country, and candidates down the ballot are often tied to the person at the top of the ticket.

Nevada has increasingly been thought of as a blue state, and even Washoe County has swung bluer than it has in a long time in recent years. Barack Obama, in 2008, was the first Democratic presidential candidate Washoe voted to back since LBJ — and the county voted again for Obama in 2012 and then for Clinton in 2016. Last cycle, Washoe voted to support both Jacky Rosen and Steve Sisolak for U.S. senator and governor, respectively — two Democrats from the south — snubbing their Republican opponents from the north.

Though Washoe may appear bluer than it’s been in a long time, Republicans and Democrats alike are taking Washoe County seriously this year — and they have to. Besides the presidential race, there’s a key state Senate seat that if Democrats flip while holding on to two competitive seats could mean Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature, and Republicans only have a 0.2 percentage point voter registration advantage in the county.

“The Democrats have been fired up and done amazing outreach and amazing work for multiple cycles, and we’ve seen some incredible wins,” said state Sen. Julia Ratti, a Democrat who represents parts of Reno and Sparks. “But it still just always feels like it’s in play. The margins are always close enough that I would never take anything for granted.”

If the year 2020 proves one thing, it may be this: There’s Red America, there’s Blue America, and then there’s Washoe County.

Campaign signs in along McCarran Boulevard on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020 in Reno. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The rise of nonpartisans

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve is well acquainted with Washoe County’s independent streak. She is, after all, a registered nonpartisan herself.

As a small business owner turned politician, Schieve has witnessed firsthand some of the most significant changes in Washoe County over the last decade, from the revitalization of Midtown in Reno to a tech boom that has brought Tesla, Panasonic, Amazon and Apple, among others, to Northern Nevada. As tech companies have sought to expand in tax friendly Nevada instead of California, their employees have flocked to the Silver State, finding that things that seemed out of reach in the Bay Area, such as owning a home, are attainable in Washoe County.

Schieve said those employees have brought with them a much more socially liberal mindset, some a bit more pro-business than the typical Democrat.

“There’s a pretty big California influence happening here,” Schieve said. “They tend to be much more socially liberal, but economically, fiscally responsible.”

At the same time, Schieve has noticed a growing disillusionment with the major political parties as people find their views don’t line up with the traditional party lines.

“People say to me all the time, ‘I might have a D or an R behind my name but I’m so much more a nonpartisan.’ I hear that all the time. I don’t think it’s black and white,” Schieve said. “‘There’s a lot of things I agree with D’s on, a lot of things I agree with R’s on.’ I hear that a lot. I don’t think it’s cut and dry.”

The data bear out that nonpartisans are playing a bigger role in Washoe County than they ever have. Voter registration numbers are up by about 78,000 countywide over the last decade. Nonpartisans, who have seen about 33,000 new registrations over that period, make up a little less than half of that, which has driven down the share of both Democrats and Republicans in the electorate.

Nonpartisans currently make up about 22.5 percent of voters in Washoe County — up from 15.4 percent in 2010 — with Republicans and Democrats now nearly even in their voter registration numbers, 35.4 percent and 35.2 percent, respectively.

As their numbers have grown, a lot of time and effort has been spent on figuring out just who, exactly, nonpartisans are. Some are what are sometimes called “closet partisans,” those who consistently vote the party line even though they are registered as nonpartisans. Others are voters who split on issues between the two parties — perhaps someone who is concerned about climate change but fiscally conservative.

“I think part of it is they don’t feel at home in either of the major two parties,” said Greg Ferraro, a Republican consultant in Reno. “You can mix and match the issues because they don’t feel that either party is representative of their collective viewpoint.”

There’s a third subset of nonpartisans, those who are registered to vote but not actively politically engaged.

“I think the main commonality in all of those groups is they generally don’t like the conflict associated with politics,” said Jeremy Gelman, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. “Not registering is a way to express that displeasure. These are people who watched the debate and were put off by it.”

There is, however, a great deal of speculation as to how swingy nonpartisan voters truly are and how many of them are undecided about, say, whether to vote for Donald Trump or Joe Biden for president. 

A recent New York Times/Siena College poll found about 92 percent of likely voters in Nevada have decided who they’re voting for; only 8 percent said they could still change their minds. But among those not registered with either major political party, that certainty dropped to 83 percent, with 15 percent saying their vote could change.

“There are a lot of people moving into Washoe County from California. That’s a certainty,” said state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, who represents parts of Reno, unincorporated Washoe County and Carson City. “But I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion about which way they’re going to vote.”

All the same, Democrats have had more success in Washoe County as of late than they’ve had in the last six decades. In addition to the growth of the tech industry, Ernaut attributes recent Democratic successes to the fact that college educated women just aren’t voting Republican.

“Traditionally Washoe County has really been driven by women voters,” Ernaut said. “So when you take the fact that most college educated women aren't voting Republican, regardless of what party they're in, and you add to that a changing and more liberal demographic, though registration is sort of even, I think from a performance standpoint Washoe is much more decidedly Democratic than it's ever been before."

A crowd listens to Douglas Emhoff, husband of Vice Presidential candidate, Senator Kamala Harris speak outside Washoe Democratic Party headquarters on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020 in Reno. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Looking back through time

Although Washoe County is voting more Democratic than it typically has, it once used to be an overwhelmingly Democratic county — at least in voter registration. In 1960, Democrats had a 14 percentage point margin over Republicans in the county and yet overwhelmingly voted for Richard Nixon for president by 10.4 percentage points.

Republicans wouldn’t overtake Democrats in voter registration numbers until 1984 and still Washoe County voted year over year — with the exception of LBJ in 1964 — for Republican presidential candidates.

“Nixon wins Washoe County in ‘60, Kennedy wins Nevada, but Nixon wins Washoe. Nixon wins again in ’68 and all the way until ’08 it is Republican,” Ferraro said. “So I don’t know that registration is an indicator.”

It’s not exactly clear why the tides turned red in Washoe in the 1980s. Some say it had to do with the increasing number of retirees moving to the county. Others attribute it to Ronald Reagan and the rise of Reagan Democrats. Whatever the case, it became increasingly popular for politicians to shift their registrations from Democrat to Republican.

"You had prominent Republicans like former Lieutenant Governor Bob Cashell, former state Sen. Randolph Townsend or [former Rep.] Jim Santini,” Ernaut said. “When you had people changing parties, and it became sort of fashionable to do that, the whole tide changed in the early 80s in Washoe County for 25 years."

But even after Washoe County turned red, its residents didn’t just stop voting for Democrats. In fact, they still won the county, sometimes overwhelmingly. 

In 1988, Richard Bryan, at the time the Democratic governor of Nevada, carried Washoe County by 4.3 points in his successful bid to oust U.S. Sen. Chic Hecht, a Republican. 

Reid lost Washoe County again in 1986 — though he was still elected to the U.S. Senate — but carried it in three of his four re-election bids, including by 5.1 points in 2010 against Sharron Angle, a former Assemblywoman from Washoe County. He also only lost Washoe by 2.3 points to John Ensign in 1998, though Republicans had an 8.8 point voter registration advantage in the county.

Gov. Bob Miller carried Washoe County by 12.4 points in his 1994 re-election bid, successfully defeating Republican Jim Gibbons, a then-assemblyman representing Washoe County.

And as voter registration numbers have narrowed between Republicans and Democrats over the last decade, Washoe County voters have only ramped up their ticket splitting. In 2010, voters supported Reid for re-election but backed Brian Sandoval for governor — over Rory Reid, the elder Reid’s son. In 2012, they voted for Obama for president but Dean Heller for the U.S. Senate. In 2016, they backed Clinton and Heck.

“In Washoe County I still think it matters how well that person is thought of. It’s not a county that’s going to go right down the line, or at least history tells us that’s not the case,” Ferraro said.

While Democrats carried the top two statewide races in 2018, the rest of the statewide offices were split. Washoe County backed Democrats Kate Marshall and Catherine Byrne for lieutenant governor and controller, respectively, but supported Republicans Wes Duncan, Barbara Cegavske and Bob Beers for attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer. And the county continued to back Republican Mark Amodei for Congress.

“Here’s the paradox in Washoe County. Last election, non-presidential, you’ve got half D, half R in Washoe County,” Ferraro said. “Rosen wins but Amodei wins. Cegavske wins but Marshall wins. Duncan wins but Sisolak wins. It’s mixed.”

Though ticket-splitting is increasingly uncommon across the nation, it still somehow seems to be possible in Washoe County. Most people attribute it, at least in part, to the kind of small town feel that’s still possible in Northern Nevada.

“I remember being at a Reno Aces game — Dean Heller was in the Senate — and after a game, I turned behind me and Dean Heller is standing there all by himself watching his grandkids run the bases too,” Kieckhefer said. “It’s that kind of access and exposure and interaction that people get that is something that helps drive some of those weird outcomes in elections.”

But the nationalization of Nevada politics may be starting to change some of that. Heller, the beloved Carson City boy who earned respect from Democrats during his tenure as secretary of state, lost his re-election bid to the U.S. Senate by 3.6 percentage points in Washoe to Rosen, the first-term congresswoman from Henderson, after carrying the county by 11.1 points in 2012.

Rosen’s campaign had painted Heller as “Senator Spineless,” the nail in his coffin his hot and cold relationship with President Donald Trump and his waffling on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. It was no match for the goodwill he had earned.

“You’re starting to see that creeping of the nationalization into Washoe County politics,” Gelman said. “I think the best evidence of that was Dean Heller lost Washoe County.”

A rally in support of law enforcement organized by the Nevada Republican Party on Thursday, July 30, 2020 outside the Legislature in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The next three weeks

Residents of Washoe County still have a lot of faith in the power of retail politics. Kieckhefer said that one-on-one interactions with voters can be “incredibly powerful” for a candidate in his experience.

“If someone has a real strong reaction to something that you voted for or something you voted against, walking through that thought process with a voter about why you did something is a really powerful way to connect with that voter,” Kieckhefer said. “Demonstrating you’re thoughtful and you do things for a reason, it’s not a reaction on a party line, they tend to respect that.”

Kieckhefer is of the mind that Washoe County voters are discerning and unwilling to buy into what he framed as the “broad brushstrokes” of national politics that state and local candidates are often painted with.

“I think that the majority of people see through that crap, frankly. You can’t sit here and try to tell me that Catherine Cortez Masto is the same thing as Nancy Pelosi and that’s going to drive my vote,” Kieckhefer said. “That’s not how people in Northern Nevada are going to do that.”

The question this year, then, is how the power of those personal relationships built through retail politics might be diminished by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

On the other hand, perhaps the better question is how they might be enhanced.

Ratti said that where a candidate might have once been excited to get 40 people to show up for a town hall at a library, they can host a virtual town hall over Zoom and a couple hundred people will show up.

“In some ways, the pandemic in our political lives and our personal lives has increased connection,” Ratti said. “We’re not doing the same things we used to, but we’re still connecting.”

Both the Trump and Biden campaigns have made significant investments in Washoe County this cycle. Trump Victory spokesman Keith Schipper said that the campaign has made more than 600,000 voter contacts in Washoe and has had staff on the ground in the county for more than a year.

In fact, the first Trump Victory office anywhere in the United States outside of the national headquarters was in Reno, Schipper noted.

“All the people that have visited, the investment we have made, obviously Washoe having the first field office in the country shows not only how important Washoe County is for winning Nevada, but it says a lot when you put the first office in the country in Washoe County,” Schipper said.

Trump was initially scheduled to rally supporters in Reno last month, but the venue was changed to Minden after officials at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport scuttled the event on the grounds that it would have violated state coronavirus health and safety directives. Several thousand supporters, most of them not wearing masks, showed up to the outdoor rally at the Minden-Tahoe Airport.

At the same time the Biden campaign, which has primarily run a virtual campaign since the beginning of the pandemic, though it recently announced a transition to some in-person campaigning, has been recruiting volunteers, phone banking and texting voters from afar and recently opened a campaign material distribution center at the Washoe County Democratic Party headquarters. The campaign is also now doing lit drops at voter doors four days a week with plans to ramp that up.

Alana Mounce, Biden’s state director and most recently the executive director of the Nevada State Democratic Party, attributed recent Democratic electoral success in Washoe County to the effort Democrats have put in to get voters to turn out. In 2018, Republicans had a 1.9 percentage point voter registration advantage over Democrats but Rosen defeated Heller by 3.6 points.

“In 2018, Democrats had a 2 percent voter registration disadvantage and because of the work that we focused on with independent voters, nonpartisan voters, we were able to win in Washoe County,” Mounce said. “2020 is no different. Part of the broad base of people that we are talking to, engaging with, is our nonpartisan voters, especially in Washoe County, but across the state."

With ballots now mailed out to every active registered voter in Nevada, the unknown this year is just exactly what turnout will look like in November. The primary, which saw more than 490,000 ballots cast, the vast majority of them mail-in ballots, was one of the highest turnout primaries in the state’s history.

The recent New York Times/Siena College poll taken earlier this month found that about 42 percent of respondents plan to early vote — traditionally the most popular voting method in Nevada — with another 27 percent voting by mail and 24 person voting in-person on Election Day. This year is also the first year that voters are able to register to vote on Election Day and still cast a ballot.

“I expect turnout to be very, very high, between mail-in ballots, early voting, and in-person voting with same-day registration,” Ferraro said. “We have a presidential race that will drive turnout higher … I think all of those combine to drive turnout really high.”

As unusual as this year has been, it has made it even harder to forecast what the outcome will be next month.

“The ways that we have contact with people are just so different that I don’t trust my experiences the same way that I might in another year,” Ratti said. “I feel less confident about how I even think about what’s happening in our county. And it’s not that I’m not having contact, but the contact is just so different that trying to benchmark it against any prior experience feels difficult, feels unreliable.”

As for the future of Washoe County, those who have worked in politics for a long time in the county are hopeful that its community spirit will persist even in the face of a polarized national electorate.

"I think the natural order of things at some point will mean that the pendulum will swing back to the center in Nevada,” Ernaut said, “because that's what Nevada's DNA is — to be more center and more independent.”

State Senator Heidi Seevers-Gansert drops campaign literature in Northwest Reno on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Election Preview: Real estate agent J.D. Drakulich, incumbent Jenny Brekhus vie for Ward 1 post on Reno City Council

As Election Day approaches, candidates in four nonpartisan Reno City Council races are squaring off in an election that will shape how the city navigates the devastation the pandemic has brought on local revenue, a housing crunch spurred by a burgeoning population, and calls for racial justice reform amid nationwide protests against police brutality.

Well-established incumbents and challengers for three ward positions and one at-large position are reaching out to residents by every means possible to earn votes ahead of Election Day on Nov. 3. Though many of the campaigns are separated by large funding gaps favoring the incumbents, challengers are hoping to sway voters with bold policies and fresh perspectives.

In three of the races, incumbents are backed by significant donations from developers. Opponents question the conflict of interest the donations might present given that the council decides the fate of various developers’ projects, but incumbents remain steadfast in their position that they serve the citizens of Reno, not other interests.

Three of the seven council seats, including the mayor who votes on the council but does not represent a specific geographic district, are not up for re-election in the 2020 cycle. Council seats are nonpartisan and council members receive salaries of about $80,000 along with benefits each year.

The Nevada Independent is releasing two Reno City Council election previews Thursday and Friday giving an overview of the two candidates, their campaign funding standings along with each candidate’s platform and stances.

***

Ward 1 is one of the city’s tightest races, with the two candidates mounting well-funded campaigns as they vie for the position.

J.D. Drakulich, a real estate agent, is squaring off against incumbent Jenny Brekhus. Drakulich and Brekhus advanced to the general election after defeating Britton Griffith, vice president of Reno Engineering Corporation, her family’s development firm, during the June primary, which determines the two candidates running in the November election.

Mayor Hillary Schieve endorsed Griffith for the seat in October, citing Griffith’s “positivity” and experience working with the council.

Even though Schieve said her endorsement had nothing to do with Brekhus and was focused on who would be a better fit for the council and the direction she believes it needs to head, the endorsement was one of many signs of a fractured relationship.

Schieve has not endorsed any candidate since Griffith lost the race.

The winner of the November election will represent a section of Reno containing many historic homes and parks. 

Drakulich is a board member and two-term president at Eddy House, a youth homeless shelter in Reno. He said that one of his motivations for running is that he feels Brekhus neither represents the majority of Ward 1 residents nor has fresh ideas for solving the homelessness crisis and other problems in the city.

He cited his role as a residential real estate agent and work with families from various income levels and backgrounds as something that allows him to connect well with residents. He said his main goals are increasing attainable and affordable housing, addressing problems related to homelessness, developing solutions to the budget crisis and increasing public safety.

“I love this city. I'm a husband and a father, and I've got a little seven-year-old and I really hope that this is the type of town he wants to raise his family in,” Drakulich said. “I've been in this ward for 33 years. I went through the public education system. I feel really deeply connected to the families and the people around me here and representing them would be an honor.”

Drakulich criticized Brekhus, a two-term council member, for lack of a strong stance on addressing homelessness until recently, as well as her recent decision to vote against acquiring the Governor’s Bowl as a potential site for a homeless shelter.

Brekhus, whom the Reno Gazette-Journal has called “a lone voice for precision in policy on the Reno City Council,” said that she places constituents above special interests and makes decisions based on the good of the ward.

Brekhus, who is running for her last term and has experience as a city planner, is centering her campaign around improving the city’s fiscal condition, supporting healthy and sustainable city growth and increasing affordable housing. Since the pandemic began, Brekhus added that she made addressing homelessness a central part of her campaign.

“I'm running to provide continued, independent and informed leadership on the city council and, more specifically to Ward 1, continue the standard that I believe I've established of responsive constituent services to Ward 1 residents,” Brekhus said.

Both candidates said they have been reflecting on the recent protests and calls for policing reform and say that accountability is necessary, but that in the last 25 years, the city has been decreasing funding for the police department and both said budget cuts are not the solution. They both have suggested working with Washoe County to increase the number of social service responders and alleviate some of the stress on the police department.

“We can always enhance how our law enforcement officials better serve our citizens in safer ways, maybe that’s stronger training in de-escalation techniques, maybe they need better tools to de-escalate a situation without a firearm,” Drakulich said. “In reality, if you have a badge and a gun, the community should hold you to the highest of standards, but we can't turn our back on our police in that process.”

Brekhus said that she does not support defunding the police intentionally but has been pushing for an independent audit and review of the police department and would like that to inform future policies.

“There has been systemic racism in our country that we still carry around and it manifests in a lot of ways and it manifests in law enforcement and our criminal justice reform,” Brekhus said. “There’s a lot of ways to innovate there, to build the police department leadership that’s reflective of our population.”

Brekhus is ahead in fundraising efforts with a more than $5,400 lead on Drakulich for contributions received in the second quarter. She received around $22,500 in contributions and spent around $36,800, primarily on advertising and consultants. 

Drakulich reported receiving $17,100 in donations.

His top donations included $2,500 from Cathy Stiser, a resident of Reno, $1,000 from Stephen Hartman of Carson City, and another $1,000 from Heinz Ranch Land Company, which also donated to Councilman Oscar Delgado during the second quarter and to Councilman Devon Reese’s campaign in December. Drakulich spent around $28,900 on advertising and consulting as well as a special event at Homegrown Gastro Pub.

Brekhus has been outspoken on social media about campaign finance reform and has emphasized that her campaign has been largely people-powered. Her largest donation during the second quarter was $2,500 from the Reno Firefighters Association, followed by an $1,100 donation from Uppal Properties, a $1,000 donation from the District Council of Iron Workers, and $1,000 dollar donations from NV Energy, Greenstreet Development and others.

During the first quarter, Brekhus received $10,000 from Brian and Erika White, residents of Verdi, before a council vote on the Meridian project development. The Whites also donated to Councilwoman Bonnie Weber’s campaign in 2016. 

Though the Whites submitted public comment opposing the development before a council vote, Brekhus said that the Meridian project had been part of a years-long discussion, and the Whites’ contribution had no bearing on her decision to vote against the development.

“I never make any pledges to anyone on any votes,” Brekhus said, noting that hundreds of residents had sent in input on the vote.

At the end of the second quarter, Brekhus has the most cash on hand with a little less than $46,000 in her campaign account. Drakulich’s balance hovers at $822.

With just over a week of counting left, local leaders make a final push to increase responses to the U.S. census

Back in May, Mayor Ken Tedford of Fallon issued a simple challenge to Mayor Debra March of Henderson — whichever mayor’s community has the lowest participation in the census by the end of the count has to give the other mayor a key to the city. 

The deadline for that challenge is rapidly approaching as the country nears the Sept. 30 date that marks the end of counting for the once a decade U.S. census. Although response rates throughout the state aren’t as high as officials hoped, the mayors’ moves in Fallon and Henderson may have made an impact as both of these cities have response rates higher than 70 percent, and Henderson is one of only five large cities in the U.S. to surpass 75 percent.

“It’s extremely important that every single household participate in the 2020 census … to help determine where tax dollars should be used to fund education, healthcare, transportation, public safety and other programs that contribute to every resident’s quality of life,” March said in an email to The Nevada Independent. “Henderson is leading the state of Nevada in the self-response rate … In May, I accepted Fallon Mayor Ken Tedford’s invitation to a friendly census response rate challenge and if these results continue, Mayor Tedford will soon owe me a key to the city!”

The mayors’ friendly competition was meant to inspire community participation in the census in a year during which response rates have been much lower than they were in 2010 and officials fear a potential undercount. Kate Marshall, Nevada’s lieutenant governor and the chair of the Complete Count Committee charged with promoting the census, thinks this kind of involvement from local politicians and the community-bonding that comes with friendly competition can only be beneficial to raising census response rates.

“Just think about when UNR and UNLV play,” Marshall said on Sunday, during the committee’s Census Weekend of Action. “There’s a very happy competition, right?” 

More than half of the state’s counties have not hit response rates from 2010 with just over a week remaining to complete those counts. Local leaders across the state have been implementing programs that help them engage in the community in order to encourage participation in the census and educate residents about what the purpose of the census is. 

In addition to its competition with Henderson, Fallon officials have put notices in the local newspaper and set up tables at community pools to increase participation — efforts that have resulted in a response rate of over 70 percent.

“The mayor is taking it seriously and we’ve tried, I guess, about all the tricks up our sleeve that we could think of,” said Robert Erquiaga, the city’s legal and administrative director.

While Marshall has indicated that operations by the national Census Bureau have been slowing in the state throughout the past month, local initiatives have been ramping up as Nevada’s leaders try to ensure as many residents as possible provide information on their households in the last week of the census count.

“That spirit of community and collaboration … is going to take us over the finish line in a better place than we are today,” Marshall said.

The lieutenant governor herself took part in some of these programs over the weekend. On Saturday and Sunday, Marshall, joined by several community leaders including Assembly members Selena Torres and Edgar Flores and Las Vegas City Councilwoman Olivia Diaz, held outreach events in East Las Vegas, where response rates to the census are at 29.4 percent, far lower than the overall county response rate that is more than 65 percent.

Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall speaks with Las Vegas City Councilwoman Olivia Diaz and a volunteer during the Census Weekend of Action on Sept. 19, 2020. (Photo Courtesy of Nevada Complete Count Committee).

The leaders were joined by census takers and volunteers who helped residents fill out their census forms. Marshall says that the weekend’s efforts in East Las Vegas pulled in around $1 million as each person who completes the census means $20,000 for the region’s budget over the next 10-year period.

Communities with demographic makeups similar to East Las Vegas consistently have lower response rates than more affluent communities, but it is exactly these communities, according to Marshall, that need to be counted correctly the most. 

“The people in East Las Vegas need health care, education, infrastructure,” said Marshall. “So the very people who don’t have time to focus on things outside of food and shelter are the very people we need to be counted so that we can lift up this state.”

While the census may not take a long amount of time to complete, it is less of a priority in busy households where working multiple jobs, grocery shopping, and helping children with school take precedence. 

“In the Constitution when it says life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ... those are in order,” she said. “And also, quite frankly, there has been a politicalization of this process.”

Courts have blocked attempts by the Trump administration to include citizenship questions on the census and exclude undocumented immigrants, but according to Marshall and others, the damage has been done and uncertainty is rampant in Latino communities, where people fear any information they give may be used against them by immigration officers.

“I can talk about how safe it is, but when you have people like the president of the United States making a lot of political statements with respect to the census, that distorts the process,” Marshall said.

East Las Vegas and other urban communities have very high Latino populations, but they are not the only regions in the state facing this issue. Nevada’s population is approximately 30 percent Latino, and many rural communities have large numbers of immigrants, resulting in similar problems with fear and uncertainty regarding the census and the perceived possibility it may be used to deport Nevada residents.

“One in five of our residents is foreign born, and, you know, we really believe that the rhetoric that came out of the White House leading up to the census really discouraged a lot of folks from completing the census,” said West Wendover Mayor Daniel Corona.

West Wendover is located in Elko County on the eastern border of the state with a population of approximately 4,200. The city’s response rate for the census is 52.8 percent, which is higher than its 2010 response rate. However, Corona says it’s still not as high as the city is hoping for.

“We can no longer rely on 2010 numbers to fund our needs in 2020 and until 2030,” he said. “It's so important that everyone takes the census as we were undercounted in 2010. And we can't afford to have that big of an undercount again in 2020.”

West Wendover has been sending out census reminders with every household’s water bill and implemented a program in March which offered residents $20 off their next utility bill if they filled out the census and brought proof of completion to city hall. According to Corona, the vast majority of those who did fill out the census took advantage of the offer, but participation in it has dwindled as the city’s response rate has flatlined over the last month and a half.

As the city’s response rate has largely settled at that 52 percent mark, the city and its census takers have largely focused on educational outreach, Corona said. Messaging has been largely focused on how census data cannot be used for immigration purposes or to deport any Nevada residents.

A lot of that educational messaging has been aimed at schools, with the hope that students who learn about the census and its purpose will relay that information to their parents and encourage them to provide information.

With just over a week left of the count, the city is expanding its education outreach in schools with public service announcements put together by the West Wendover High School journalism program. A similar video filmed by Marshall is being shown to students in the Clark County School District.

“They plan to show throughout the day in different classes, while the kids are doing their virtual learning,” Corona said. “And the hope is that if the parents are home, they're paying attention to what their kids are doing at school and, you know, parents might catch that and some of that might observe and absorb it and go and take the census.”

Fighting misinformation isn’t the only challenge Corona and other rural leaders face in increasing census participation. It is often difficult for census forms to be delivered in rural areas where many citizens have P.O. boxes. Census forms cannot be delivered to a P.O. box and instead a form must be delivered by a field operative. According to Marshall, the pandemic has “compounded” already limited field operations this year.

The mayor himself told Marshall that he received his census packet but some of his own neighbors did not, and Marshall says she has heard from Lovelock, Carlin, Fort McDermitt, and basically all of Esmeralda County that forms have not been delivered there. As of Sept. 8 in Esmeralda, the smallest county in the state with less than 1,000 residents, the response rate was only 14.7 percent, the lowest of any county in the state and less than half of what it had been in 2010. 

West Wendover is also planning to host a virtual town hall over Facebook in the next week as a final attempt to educate residents and encourage them to fill out information about their households. Using social media to encourage residents to complete the census is something other cities have been trying as well.

“We’re working under a completely different landscape, which is challenging, right? We’ve never seen this before,” said Hillary Schieve, the mayor of Reno. “That’s why we really look to social media because we believe more people are using technology to communicate.”

Officials in Reno have been making use of the Nextdoor app among other forms of social media to spread the word about the census. Nextdoor allows neighbors who live in the same community to share information with each other as well as connect with businesses and public agencies.

“There’s a lot of residents that are paying attention, and they’re engaged,” Schieve said. “We’ve seen in the past, certainly, when we’re working on messaging to the community that those are really effective ways.”

The response rate in Washoe County is slightly higher than that of Clark, at over 68 percent.

In addition to improving response rates in inner-city and rural areas, from Sept. 22 to Sept. 24, the state will be conducting outreach to unsheltered and transient populations. Nevada’s homeless population was undercounted in 2010, and Marshall expects the same to occur this year, but hopes that efforts made by non-profits will at least improve the rate of response.

Counting of Nevada’s transient populations will take place through service providers as census takers are not allowed and not trained to visit encampments and other locations where homeless individuals are known to congregate.

The state has also been making an effort to leave forms at temporary housing units in order to get as accurate a count as possible.

Nevadans wait to fill out census forms during the Census Weekend of Action on Sept. 19, 2020.

Although attempts have been made to further extend the counting deadline for the census, with officials arguing that finishing the count at the end of the month would result in a flawed count, Marshall does not anticipate receiving any additional time. Even if time were extended, census operations have been winding down and would have to be ramped up again.

“We learned [Saturday] that there are only about 12 census takers in the entire state of Nevada right now,” Marshall said. “One of the reasons that I called for the push this weekend is because quite frankly, if we in the state of Nevada had not called for that, it wouldn’t have happened.”

But Marshall says that even while operations have been slowing, she’s grateful for the work the Census Bureau did during its time in the state. She also says she is grateful for the work local politicians and community members have done to try and get as accurate a count as possible.

“I am overwhelmed with the community that we have shown and grateful, and it gives me hope,” she said. “It gives me a feeling that when we come together, we can achieve the things we need for our community, that really we talk about Nevada as our Nevada, right, and we matter.”

Sparks Mayor Ron Smith dies of pancreatic cancer, new mayor to take office in September

City of Sparks signage

Sparks Mayor Ron Smith has died of pancreatic cancer almost two years after receiving his diagnosis, the city announced Wednesday. He was 71 years old.

A Nevada resident of 46 years, Smith became the 25th mayor of Sparks in 2018 after representing Ward 3 on the Sparks City Council for 12 years and serving as mayor pro tempore, the person who assumes duties if the mayor is unable to do so, from 2012 to 2018.

Throughout Smith's tenure, Northern Nevada's second largest city experienced increased expansion and development accompanied by growing pains of rising rent, homelessness rates and disagreements over how to best address the changes in population and need. 

“I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Sparks Mayor Ron Smith. Smith had a long history of service to the Sparks community," Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a statement following the announcement. "With an eye on growth, economic development and flood control, Smith was focused on helping the community he loved so much."

Ron Smith

During his time in office, Smith focused on infrastructure and transportation needs in Sparks after serving many years on the Regional Transportation Commission and the Truckee River Flood Management Authority, most recently as chair of the Truckee River Flood Management Authority board of directors.

He received the Public Official of the Year Award by the Builders Association of Northern Nevada in 2012 and the SIR ("Skill, Integrity and Responsibility") Award from the Association of General Contractors in 2019 for his work in infrastructure.

"We’ll remember Mr. Smith for his important impact on our growing community, such as his support for transportation and infrastructure needs, but we’ll mostly remember him for his friendship, determination and his leadership in working together on some of our area’s most critical issues." said Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve.

Smith, a Navy veteran that did two tours in the Vietnam War, spearheaded the creation of the Nevada Veterans Memorial Plaza that will be at the Sparks Marina and served as director of the project.

“As a veteran himself, Ron was extremely passionate about this project,” said Councilman Kristopher Dahir. “What he cared about most was that the almost 1,000 Nevada veterans that died fighting for our country were honored, and he wanted to make sure the next generation knew of the sacrifices of those who died for our freedoms. He was very driven to see this project completed. We have every intention of making this happen in his honor.” 

Smith faced controversy in 2019 with open opposition to and an attempt to shut down an event where drag queens read to children at a Sparks library. Smith told The Reno Gazette Journal that it didn't "make any sense" to him and he was concerned about the drag queens taking off their clothes and not having background checks.

Outside of public office, Smith worked in the grocery industry for 42 years and later worked at High Sierra Industries, which works with people with disabilities.

"Mayor Smith’s commitment to serve the public went above and beyond, including his passion for vulnerable populations, veterans of our community, and many other commitments outside of being Mayor," said Washoe County Board of Commissioners Chair Bob Lucey in a statement. "Mayor Smith’s big heart and commitment along with his steadfast dedication to this community will be sorely missed."  

Mayor Pro Tempore Ed Lawson will be sworn in Sept. 14 and will complete Smith's term until the next mayoral election in 2022.

“Ron was a good friend and mentor, and a man who deeply loved his City and community. His mark will be left on this community for decades to come,” Lawson said. 

Smith leaves behind his wife of 40 years, Karen, four children and nine grandchildren.

Details on the memorial service have yet to be announced. The Smith family is asking that donations be made to the Nevada Veterans Memorial Plaza Project in lieu of flowers.

Sisolak: Facial coverings now mandatory in public spaces amid rising COVID-19 cases

Citing a troubling uptick in the state’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Steve Sisolak has announced a new state mandate requiring individuals to wear a facial covering or mask while in public.

Sisolak made the announcement on Wednesday during a press conference in Carson City, following in the footsteps of neighboring states such as Washington and California that have issued mandates requiring people to wear masks while out in public.

The governor, who in the past has been hesitant to require mask-wearing, said he was concerned with both the rising COVID-19 caseloads in the state as well as photos and videos of crowded Las Vegas casinos with most people not wearing any kind of facial coverings.

“I don't know why, but when (did) protecting our health and our neighbors lives become a political, partisan, or even philosophical decision?” he said. “For me it's none of those. It's a medical necessity, a human obligation. And it’s good for businesses.”

The decision by Sisolak marks the first significant tightening of restrictions since Nevada entered “Phase 2” of limited business reopenings at the end of May, and nearly three weeks since the state’s casino industry was allowed to reopen for the first time since March.

The directive will take effect on Friday, and empowers OSHA, licensing boards, local governments and the attorney general to enforce the directive and if necessary impose fines or criminal penalties. Sisolak emphasized that it wasn’t his goal to heavily police individuals or businesses, but he thought a mandate was necessary in order to ensure a greater percentage of the population started to wear masks.

The directive also exempts some categories of individuals from the requirements, including:

  • Children under the age of 9
  • Individuals experiencing homelessness
  • Anyone who cannot wear a face covering or mask due to a medical condition or disability, or cannot remove a mask without assistance. Individuals are instead encouraged to wear alternatives, such as face shields, but won’t be required to “provide documentation verifying their condition.”
  • Anyone who is incarcerated
  • Individuals for whom “wearing a face covering would create a risk to the person related to their work”
  • Anyone who obtains a service that would require removal of the mask to access their face or nose
  • Individuals at a restaurant or other establishment to eat or drink, provided they are at least six feet away from other patrons
  • Anyone engaged in outdoor work or recreational activities, such as swimming, walking, hiking, bicycling or running

As with the rest of the nation, the number of new COVID-19 cases statewide has ticked up significantly in the last two weeks, with the 7-day moving average of test positivity rate exceeding 10 percent for the first time since early May. In three of the last seven days, the statewide case count has jumped by more than 400, with a high of 462 new cases announced Tuesday.

Julia Peek, deputy administrator for the state’s Community Health Services division, said contact tracing efforts were continuing to get off the ground and help track potential future outbreaks. For example, she said that between June 4 and June 16, about 11 percent of people called by a contact tracer reported attending a mass gathering, and 12 percent said they had been to a “civic activist event.”

A study published earlier this month indicated that one of the most effective ways to stop person-to-person spread of the virus is through wearing a mask. Facial coverings and masks can limit the spread of the virus by preventing outward transmission of the virus from an infected or asymptomatic individual, as well as protecting a person surrounded by people who could be carriers.

Sisolak said he didn’t want to get to the point of having law enforcement walk around and ticket people for not wearing a mask, saying it was “troubling and really discouraging” that some people had made the act of wearing a mask into a political or partisan argument. 

“We're hoping that they will understand the severity of the situation and voluntarily wear masks,” he said. “I mean, every responsible medical professional will tell you a mask helps reduce the spread of an infectious disease. Anyone who’s denying that is just denying reality.”

Sisolak previously raised the idea of requiring facial coverings, saying last Friday that he was asking his medical advisory team “to evaluate potential options for enhanced face covering policies.” Several local government leaders, including Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, have indicated support for a mandatory mask policy.

The politically powerful Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents many workers at Las Vegas Strip properties, called for a mandatory mask policy earlier this week.

Several hours before the governor’s announcement, Caesars Entertainment made masks mandatory for anyone inside its casino properties, including guests, vendors, contractors and employees. The new rule went into effect at noon, with exceptions carved out for when people are eating or drinking. It builds upon the prior policy that required face masks for all employees and guests playing table games.

People who refuse to wear a mask after being asked to do so will be directed to leave, company officials said.

“We are immediately requiring everyone in our properties to wear masks, because the scientific evidence strongly suggests that wearing masks and practicing social distancing may be the most important deterrents to spreading COVID-19 from person to person,” Caesars Entertainment CEO Tony Rodio said in a statement.

Other top casino operators quickly weighed in after the press conference to express support for the new mandate. MGM Resorts acting CEO Bill Hornbuckle said the company supported the governor’s decision “and will begin to enforce according to his guidelines.”

A spokesperson for Wynn Las Vegas said the company “applaud(s)” the governor’s decision and that “face coverings will not diminish the unique experiences only Las Vegas can offer visitors.”

Budget issues

Sisolak — who said this week that a planned legislative special session to deal with the state’s budget would be pushed back to early July — said the latest figures developed by state and legislative fiscal staff indicated a $1.27 billion shortfall for the 2021 fiscal year, which starts next week. That’s about 25 percent of the approved operating budget.

The governor said that once tax revenue collection figures for the month of April are released in the next few days, he and his staff would update the projected budget shortfalls for both the current and upcoming fiscal years; the clearest picture yet of what cuts the state will have to make in order to balance its budget.

Sisolak emphasized “this is not a normal recession,” and that revenues could rebound quickly if everyone follows social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines. But he defended himself, without naming names, from criticism offered by legislative Republicans regarding his office not sharing budget cut details.

“It would be irresponsible to release every minute-by-minute revision of this budget proposal without proper vetting by our fiscal experts before receiving these numbers with the hopes of reducing the potential dramatic impacts to our state budget,” he said.

Unemployment troubles

Unemployment insurance claimants who have not yet been paid, sometimes because of questions about whether they should be drawing from traditional unemployment benefits or the federally funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for independent workers, have sued the state to try to speed up the benefits.

Asked about workers who are in that limbo, Sisolak said there’s no easy fix beyond waiting for the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) to work through the issues.

“Unfortunately there is not another answer,” he said. “DETR is working around the clock to resolve these issues. We’ve gotten to as many of them as quickly as we possibly can. Unfortunately, the ones that are still having trouble are usually an isolated case that they have a specific instance like you’re saying with their wages or whatnot. They have to be handled on a one at a time, case by case basis.”

Asked if there’s a way to speed the process, he noted that claims can sometimes take 30 to 60 minutes to resolve, and individual claims processors are sometimes limited to reviewing about 12 a day. Robocallers who clog the phone lines are also making it more difficult for claimants to receive help, he said. 

“We are working through them as fast as we possibly can,” he said.

Sisolak also spoke to the departure last week of DETR Director Heather Korbulic, who said she was leaving because of threats to her personal safety. He declined to go into detail about threats to other state employees or himself but said there was a “whole team that tracks threats.”

“It's unfortunate that Heather was put in this position,” he said. “And sometimes people are just — I don't think they think before they go online and say some of the things that they say, and do some of the things that they do, but Ms. Korbulic really should never have had to go through what she went through and we're doing everything we can to keep her safe and all of our state employees safe.”

Eviction moratorium

A moratorium on evictions is set to go through at least June 30, but Sisolak hasn’t yet announced whether that will be extended or how it would be lifted when the time comes. He said he expected the question would be addressed in the next three to five days. 

“We’re still gathering some data and talking to some of the groups that are involved with this and should have an update on this in the next few days,” he said.

He did confirm that the moratorium’s protections would not disappear all at once.

“There’s a lot of anecdotal stories about individuals that unfortunately haven’t gotten their PUA or their [unemployment insurance]. It’s definitely something that we’re considering and we will have a phased in or rolled back approach,” he said. 

Schools reopening and child care

School districts in Washoe and Clark counties have proffered plans on how to reopen that suggest staggering student schedules and mixing in-person and virtual learning. The possibility of children staying home for days or weeks when they would usually be at school has concerned parents who wonder whether they can return to work or afford child care to accommodate such an arrangement.

Sisolak said he was confident that state Superintendent Jhone Ebert would be able to work with districts, parents and teachers to develop individual reopening plans.

The governor said it was highly unlikely there would be any “infusion of state money” to help the state build up its child care capacity to handle the expected increase in demand, given the state’s ongoing budget shortfalls.

Jackie Valley contributed to this story.

Directive 024 Face Coverings by Riley Snyder on Scribd

Directive 024 Face Coverings by Riley Snyder on Scribd

State and local officials mull mandates for facial coverings amid troubling COVID-19 trends

Facing upticks in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Steve Sisolak and some local governments say they are considering requiring or expanding requirements to wear a mask while in public. 

Coming a day after California made facial coverings mandatory in public or high-risk settings, Sisolak said in a pair of tweets that his administration is considering beefing up face-covering requirements in Nevada, where they are currently only mandated for public-facing employees and not for members of the public. 

“As the State evaluates the latest COVID data here and around the country, I am asking the Medical Advisory Team to evaluate potential options for enhanced face covering policies and to provide any recommendations for consideration to strengthen our response to this pandemic,” the governor tweeted on Friday.

Although no action has been taken, the governor’s public consideration of adopting a stricter mask policy is another sign that the state’s trajectory of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and other metrics is plateauing or even reversing amid the “Phase 2” business reopening.

Sisolak has previously hesitated to order any kind of state-wide policy on mask-wearing for members of the public, saying “I don't want to go there if we don't have to” during a press conference on Monday. The governor previously said he was concerned that a mask requirement could lead to violence, as it has in other states.

The governor’s initial orders for the state’s phased-in business reopening requires employees who interact with the public to wear masks, and he has strongly urged members of the public to wear facial coverings when possible. But governors in other states have taken more forceful steps to require individuals to wear facial coverings while in public.

The World Health Organization advocates for the use of masks in addition to following social distancing practices and taking other preventative measures such as handwashing. Masks can limit the spread of COVID-19 by preventing outward transmission of the virus from an infected or asymptomatic individual as well as protecting oneself when surrounded by people who could be carriers.

Sisolak has also granted local governments the power to implement stricter safety requirements — such as requiring facial coverings in public — than the state, but so far no counties or local governments have taken steps to implement any stricter requirements.

But that may change.

Even though Washoe County has not yet mandated mask-wearing, County Commission Chair Bob Lucey said the local government is working with other jurisdictions in the area to develop a unified policy that could include a mask requirement.

“Due to the increased positive cases and seeing the community becoming relaxed in social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing, the Commission may consider a mask-wearing mandate,” he wrote in a statement to The Nevada Independent. “It is imperative to stay open in order to move toward reopening our schools for the next school year, ensure the economic vitality of our region, and allow us to enter Phase 3.”

In Reno, Mayor Hillary Schieve was one of the first officials to encourage face coverings in public settings. Even before the state issued guidelines, she was outspoken about wearing masks as a preventative measure against the spread of COVID-19. In recent Twitter posts, she has reiterated the importance of masks and highlighted local businesses following CDC recommended guidelines.

During an interview with The Nevada Independent, Schieve said she “felt strongly” about mandatory mask-wearing and encouraged all residents and businesses to follow guidelines to save lives.

“We are the only effective weapon to fighting this virus so masking, social distancing and washing our hands are the best preventative measures to slowing the spread,” she said. “The numbers should speak volumes to the fact that this virus is highly contagious and deadly.”

Despite supporting the concept, Schieve said she doesn't believe she has the direct authority to enact an emergency ordinance to mandate masks without a vote of the full Reno City Council. 

Sisolak’s emergency directive superseded any powers Schieve had after the city declared a state of emergency surrounding the pandemic and per Reno municipal code, the council must unanimously approve emergency city ordinances.

Schieve said she hopes to bring up an agenda item related to face coverings but is still working on it.

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who offered the city as a "control group" during the shutdown to test if social distancing measures were effective, said that she would follow the governor's orders.

“The top executive of the state of Nevada is the governor, and he has not mandated, but has encouraged everyone to wear a mask when in public except in specified situations," Goodman said in a statement. "We comply with the governor’s mandates.” 

Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick could not be reached for comment, but county spokesperson Dan Kulin said that the county is following state guidance.

“At this time we are strongly encouraging people to wear a face covering and follow social distancing guidelines. We will continue to monitor the situation in Southern Nevada and are regularly reevaluating the restrictions in place," Kulin said.

Some Nevadans would like to see the governor follow California’s lead on requiring face coverings. 

Jeanette Neikirk, 80, said she wants the governor, local officials and private businesses to make wearing a mask mandatory inside buildings. Neikirk, who lives in North Las Vegas and has mild chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that affects her lungs, said she and her asthmatic daughter don’t enter any building or business that doesn't require patrons to wear a mask. 

She used to love shopping at Target, but said she won't go there anymore as it has no mask requirement. Now, she shops exclusively at Smart and Final, a store she's never shopped at before, because of its mask requirement.

"I don't know whether or not these people are asymptomatic," Neikirk said. "They don't even know if they have the disease 'cause a lot of people have it and they never have a symptom."

Other Nevadans have questioned the legality of enforcing mask-wearing.

At the Washoe County primary voting site last week, one voter — 52-year-old Rob Piller — refused to wear a mask and insisted on voting in a booth, saying that forcing him to wear a mask was infringing on his rights. County officials had to clear the room so that he could vote at a machine.

“We’re losing rights left and right. They’re imposing guidelines and trying to act like they’re laws,” Piller said. “They’re going after my Second Amendment rights. They’re going after my First Amendment rights. They’re trying to impose draconian laws by wearing a mask, but it’s a guideline, not a rule.”

But for public health issues, experts say there are no major legal barriers to mandates implemented for safety purposes.

“Your freedom to determine your own life doesn't give you the right to put other people's health at risk,” UNLV Boyd School of Law Health Director David Orentlicher said, responding to a question about the potential for mask mandates to infringe on rights. “If mask-wearing were just about protecting you, you might have a case … but the fact is if you're not wearing a mask, you're putting other people at risk.”

There are always exceptions, he noted, such as people with disabilities or health conditions that do not allow someone to wear a mask who should be exempt from such ordinances.

Before enacting an ordinance, Orentlicher — who is also running for a seat in the Assembly — emphasized that mandates can promote backlash, and it would be more ideal to normalize mask-wearing through providing free masks or using messages from celebrities or respected community leaders. He added that a well-established social norm is critical for people following laws.

“I think it comes down to a policy question, what's the best way to get people to wear masks?” he said. “It's useful to try alternatives … but sometimes, we’ve seen a number of public health issues, drunk driving, seat belts, where having legal mandates was essential to solving the problem."

What to watch in Nevada’s 2020 primary election

The first results from Nevada’s unique, mostly mail primary election will finally be released on Tuesday after more than a month of voting, but calling some of the state’s top races could take up to 10 days. 

A substantial number of high-profile races will eventually be decided out of Tuesday’s election, including Republican challengers to Democratic Reps. Susie Lee and Steven Horsford, both who represent swing districts and have attracted a broad field of GOP candidates.

But congressional races aside, several major legislative races will be decided in the primary election, and two state Supreme Court seats could also be decided if candidates achieve more than 50 percent of the vote. Other major races include contests for seats on the Clark County Commission and a hotly contested Reno City Council race.

Polls will close at 7 p.m. on Election Night, with counties expected to turn in their initial vote totals to the state by about 8:30 p.m.

As of Monday, more than 343,000 people had cast a ballot for the primary election, or about 18.7 percent of all registered voters. The vast majority of ballots have been cast by mail (339,853), while around 2,971 people have cast a ballot through in-person early voting.

The change in process is likely to help contribute to a higher turnout than most primary elections. The 2018 primary election saw about 22.9 percent of registered voters cast a ballot, for a total turnout of 329,863. 

But the switch to a primarily mail-only election has a drawback: potential delays in determining the winners of close election contests. Ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by election officials within seven days will be counted, and county election officials have 10 days to certify the results of an election and declare a winner.

Below, check out The Nevada Independent’s preview of the major races up on Election Night. Editors Jon Ralston and Elizabeth Thompson will host a live election show beginning at 7:30 p.m., which can be viewed here.

The Washoe County Registrar of Voters on June 8, 2020. Photo by David Calvert.

NEVADA SUPREME COURT: Two seats are on the ballot: Chief Justice Kristina Pickering is defending her seat amid challenges from lawyers Esther Rodriguez and Thomas Christensen. And in the open seat held by Mark Gibbons, Judge Douglas Herndon faces off against lawyers Erv Nelson and Ozzie Fumo, the latter of whom is a sitting Assembly member.

CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT 2: Several Democrats including Clint Koble, who ran unsuccessfully in 2018, are vying for the nomination and chance to face off with Republican Rep. Mark Amodei. The district is safely Republican, meaning even the winner of the Democratic primary enters a long-shot general election contest. Read our preview here.

CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT 3: A feisty Republican primary is playing out in this swingy Southern Nevada district held by Democratic Rep. Susie Lee. The GOP field includes former wrestler Dan Rodimer, former state Treasurer Dan Schwartz and pro-Trump actress Mindy Robinson. Read our preview here.

CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT 4: A parade of Republicans is vying to face off with Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford in a district that includes North Las Vegas and rural, central Nevada. GOP contenders include businesswoman Lisa Song Sutton, former Assemblyman Jim Marchant and Nye County Commissioner Leonardo Blundo, among others. Read our preview here.

REGENTS: Four of the 13 nonpartisan seats on the board overseeing the Nevada System of Higher Education are up for grabs, and the primary will narrow the field of candidates to two. One district features former Assemblyman Stephen Silberkraus and former state Senate candidate Byron Brooks; another pits former regent Bret Whipple against former Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian. Read our preview here.

ASSEMBLY: Democrats are all but guaranteed to retain their majority heading into the 2021 legislative session, but the question is whether Republicans can score enough seats to get out of a weak “superminority” status, in which Democrats can pass taxes without a single GOP vote. The most interesting contests include primaries in swingy suburban districts. Read our preview here.

SENATE: One race for state Senate will be decided in the primary — Senate District 7, a seat held by termed-out Democrat David Parks. The Democratic primary pits two Assembly members — Ellen Spiegel and Richard Carrillo — against former Nevada State Democratic Party Chair Roberta Lange, who has the endorsement of state Senate Democrats. Read our preview here.

CLARK COUNTY COMMISSION: Four seats are up for grabs on the powerful Clark County Commission, including incumbents Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Michael Naft running for additional terms. Crowded Democratic primaries in seats held by termed-out Commissioners Lawrence Weekly and Larry Brown have drawn some familiar names, including former Secretary of State Ross Miller (District C) and Assemblyman William McCurdy, state Sen. Mo Denis and North Las Vegas City Councilman Isaac Barron (District D). Read our preview here.

RENO CITY COUNCIL: Four councilmembers are running for re-election in 2020, including Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus who is in a bitter fight with two well-funded opponents, including one endorsed by Mayor Hillary Schieve. Council members Devon Reese, Neoma Jardon and Oscar Delgado are also running for re-election. Read our preview here.

SPARKS CITY COUNCIL: Three seats on the Sparks City Council have attracted 10 candidates, with each race seeing well-funded incumbents try to fend off multiple opponents. Read our preview here.

CARSON CITY MAYOR & SUPERVISORS: Longtime Mayor Bob Crowell is termed out, and with two incumbents not running for re-election, the Carson City Board of Supervisors will have three new faces come 2021. Read our preview here.

DOUGLAS COUNTY COMMISSION: Three of the five seats on the Douglas County Commission are on the ballot, and they’ll be all but decided in the primary because no Democrats filed for the seats. One race features Danny Tarkanian, who has run unsuccessfully for major offices in Southern Nevada before moving north, against incumbent Dave Nelson. Read our preview here

WASHOE COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT: Fifteen candidates have filed to run in the four seats up for election for the board overseeing the state’s second-largest school district, including incumbents Scott Kelley and Angela Taylor. Read our preview here.

CLARK COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT: Thirty candidates are competing for four nonpartisan seats on the board that governs the nation’s fifth largest school district. Three seats are open after trustees termed out; in a fourth, Trustee Lola Brooks is seeking reelection. The primary will narrow the field to the top two, although a candidate who wins more than 50 percent of the vote wins outright. Read our preview here.

NEVADA STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION: The four elected positions on the 11-member board that works in tandem with the state Department of Education are up for grabs. Felicia Ortiz and Mark Newburn are defending their seats, while five candidates are vying for a spot representing a Las Vegas district and a lone candidate — Katie Coombs — is seeking a seat in a Northern Nevada district. Read our preview here.

JUDGES: Numerous judge positions are on the ballot, including District Court and Family Court hopefuls. Read our guide on Clark County judge races here.

As protests and violence come to Nevada, police, electeds and activists forced to have 'tough conversations'

It was about 7:30 p.m. on Saturday in downtown Las Vegas when Mauricia Watkins yelled, “Your phone is your only advocate,” her voice cracking until someone arrived with a megaphone to help her. She urged the crowd to document everything to hold the police accountable. 

Even at the protest against police brutality after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week, demonstrators were concerned about law enforcement violence. Watkins was one of the thousands of protesters in Las Vegas and Reno this week who have participated in peaceful demonstrations that have been punctuated by looting, vandalism and violence.

Black Lives Matter protest in Downtown Las Vegas on May 30, 2020. Photo by Daniel Clark.

The protesters Saturday were angry — angry about systemic racism, angry about police brutality, angry enough to put their health at risk in the middle of a pandemic. Their frustration filled Las Vegas Boulevard. Marchers made their way down the boulevard and back to Fremont Street. 

A line of police was blocking off access to 8th Street. Officers in riot gear broke through the line and cuffed a protester. Occasional water bottles were flung at police as arrests started to pick up. In one arrest, a man was thrown down, his feet came off the ground and his glasses flew off. 

With more arrests, came more water bottles and other items targeted at police. A glass bottle shattered, followed by another. As the tension between the two sides continued to mount, one protester near the back of the crowd said over a megaphone "I feel like shit's about to pop off." 

Shortly after, police deployed tear gas canisters and fired non-lethal projectiles.

The crowd scattered almost immediately. 

“We were having a very peaceful protest on Saturday,” said Korey Tillman, a Ph.D. candidate at UNLV who is studying police violence. “When we marched downtown, every time we turned a corner, there would be another blockade by Metro. They were setting up these barricades.”

Tillman said it felt like the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department was waiting for violence.  

“It's an example of them baiting protesters into violence,” he said. “When they respond to violence, the violence to police officers occurs. And then they start to call the arrests.”

But for police, especially in Las Vegas, the protests around the country have little precedent.

“From people I’ve talked to, these protests are like nothing they’ve ever seen in their entire career,” said Tom Roberts, a Republican assemblyman and former Metro police officer, in an interview Wednesday. “And this is from all over the country. They are all talking about the same thing. Bricks being thrown at police officers. Frozen water bottles. Fireworks. Glass bottles.”

On Tuesday, Roberts called for the Legislature to convene a special session to discuss police reform, a tweet that was liked by legislators in both parties. Roberts, in an interview, said that it was important for elected leaders to talk publicly about the issue and start a dialogue. 

He said that Metro has progressive policies compared to other agencies, but there is space for improvement, and a legislative session would send a signal to protesters that leaders are responding.

“If these protests are truly about police reform..., our leaders should be talking about it,” Roberts said. “And they should be out in the public saying we hear you and we’re going to talk about it.”

Police officers at a Black Lives Matter protest in Downtown Las Vegas on May 30, 2020. Photo by Daniel Clark.

Escalating tensions, recorded on video

Law enforcement officials from both Washoe and Clark counties have characterized the majority of protesters as peaceful. Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo even went as far as saying Sunday that “less than 1 percent” of people demonstrating intended to cause destruction.

Still, both police departments have deployed large groups of officers in tactical gear, prepared to launch tear gas and projectiles. On Saturday evening in Reno, the National Guard was on call, and guardsmen were also called to assist in Las Vegas, Metro announced on Tuesday. 

It comes as questions, across the country, have emerged about the excessive use of non-lethal crowd control weapons to police the George Floyd protests. In Nevada, weapons from tear gas and projectiles to flashbangs and pepper spray were deployed to disperse the protests.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Metro presented a clear narrative. Deputy Chief Jim Seebock said that Metro shared the protesters’ frustration at the killing of Floyd and respected their right to protest. But he said as the nights had gone on, the protests had grown violent. 

“Those that seek to break the law stay behind,” he said, describing how the protests evolve into the night. “These people are clearly not here for peaceful purposes. They are set on damaging our community, our businesses and to cause harm to our officers and the people in the area.”

Seebock said these demonstrators have used rocks, bats, axes and glass cutters. Seebock said that, as of Tuesday, at least 25 Metro officers had been injured while patrolling the protests. On Monday, an officer was hospitalized after being shot during a demonstration. That night, another officer shot and killed, 25-year-old George Jorge Gomez after police said he raised a firearm. 

Metro lobbyist Chuck Callaway, on Wednesday, presented photos at an emergency Clark County Commission meeting of weapons brought to protest. He said the force has seen an increase of violence unlike what Las Vegas saw during the Rodney King riots in the 1990s.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” he said. “It’s disturbing, quite frankly.”

On Wednesday, federal prosecutors charged three white Nevada men in a right-wing conspiracy to instigate violence during the recent protests. The three men with military backgrounds met at earlier demonstrations this year to reopen businesses shutdown by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Law enforcement officials in Reno, which saw a day of large protests on Saturday, presented a similar narrative. A peaceful demonstration that turned to violence and vandalism, warranting a heavy police response. On Saturday evening, demonstrators threw rocks and water bottles at a police line. Those responsible for the unrest were agitators from out of town, officials said. 

But reported arrests, at least from Reno, show most people arrested were from the area. 

And photos, videos and firsthand accounts show a forceful police response on large crowds that included demonstrators who were not instigating violence, an action that some advocates worry might have contributed to a cycle of force between protesters and police over the past week. 

Sherrie Robin Wells is taken into custody after police cleared an area of protesters in Downtown Las Vegas on May 30, 2020. Photo by Daniel Clark.

Several of these videos, posted on social media, were shared widely. Rapper Lil Nas X tweeted a video posted by Las Vegas Locally that showed a Metro officer grab a man walking across the street, and drag him by his backpack on a sidewalk. It has 18 million views. At the Clark County meeting on Wednesday, Commissioner Justin Jones recounted how an attorney in town was waiting for a ride after a protest and thrown to the ground and handcuffed by police officers. 

When asked for further comment on its use of force during demonstrations, Metro referred to its transparency policy. 

In Reno, videos showed rounds of tear gas deployed in crowds, affecting journalists and demonstrators alike. The activity in Reno has prompted an ACLU observer to file a complaint. At a meeting Wednesday, Reno Police Chief Jason Soto, who is serving as acting city manager, said he was instructing the acting police chief to review the department’s use-of-force policy. 

“To get back to peace, that moment's always contextualized and very hard to define,” Tillman said during an interview Tuesday. “I think the problem lies before the violence starts.”

He said the issues lie with the policies and mechanisms police use to respond.

That the protests are occurring during a pandemic, Tillman said, creates that much more risk.

“Having to go through this protest to show solidarity has forced me to battle this question, he said. “Do I go risk my life and exposure to COVID for a cause that is threatening my life daily? 

Black Lives Matter protest in Downtown Reno, Nev. on Saturday, May 30, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

‘Really tough conversations’

Everett George traveled from Fallon with his brother Saturday to attend the protest in Reno. 

George, a 27-year-old Paiute and Shoshone artist, joined the peaceful demonstration around 3:30 p.m. in downtown Reno and continued to march throughout the day. George said he never felt in danger but said the hurt and fear were palpable. At one point, he heard glass break.

A small group of people had broken into City Hall. The group caused extensive damage to the building, even setting a fire while there were still people working there. 

Then the police arrived with tear gas. George, a bystander, was talking after the protest as he was hit by the gas. George said that it came so quick he “didn’t even know what it was” at first.

“People started running cause it affected anybody in the plaza. It doesn't matter if they were part of the protest,” George said in an interview Tuesday. “It doesn't matter if they were part of the people that actually did the stuff at City Hall. It was whoever was around, they got hit.”

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve imposed a curfew and police told the crowd to disperse. Still, around 8:00 p.m., a crowd of more than 100 was gathered in downtown Reno, standing on the Virginia Street Bridge, opposite a police line in front of City Hall. Most people in the crowd remained largely peaceful, but a small group occasionally threw water bottles and rocks. 

In successive intervals that seemed to grow faster throughout the night, the police responded with tear gas and projectiles to disperse the crowds. They were aimed at the large crowd, which included many non-violent demonstrators holding signs that were condemning police violence. 

Demonstrators in Reno hold up a sign protesting police brutality during a protest on Saturday, May 30, 2020. (Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

Two of those point-shoot projectiles hit Holly Welborn, an ACLU attorney observing the protest, and another projectile hit her colleague.

“This was an incredibly exhausting and multi-faceted day,” she said.

When incendiary graffiti was scrawled on its headquarters, the department turned a cheek. At the earlier protest by the federal building, she said the police showed an incredible amount of restraint with barely any law enforcement present. She added that the department’s tactical response to the City Hall break-in was appropriate, given the immediate risks that it posed. 

But she said putting the National Guard on-call and using tear gas and flashbangs to disperse the crowds in the evening amounted to a show of excessive force, given that there were only about 200 people left at that time. On Wednesday, she filed a complaint after she was hit twice by a nonlethal projectile, despite wearing a vest identifying her as an observer.

Similar equipment was used in Las Vegas over the past week. After media reports surfaced over the weekend that Las Vegas police had indiscriminately fired rubber bullets into a crowd, striking two journalists, Metro clarified Monday that they did not use the rubber bullets being used elsewhere in the country, but instead “pepper balls” or pepper-spray bullets. 

A non-lethal projectile loaded with a chemical irritant similar to pepper spray, pepper balls, much like their rubber-bullet counterparts, can still cause severe injury or death if they strike a person in the wrong place — such as when a 21-year-old college student, Victoria Snelgrove, was killed by Boston police using pepper-spray bullets to suppress a baseball-related riot in 2004.

Welborn wonders if the response could have been more targeted toward those inciting violence.

“It seems like the default solution are the militarized weapons or these so-called non-lethal weapons that actually inflict a lot of harm on individuals,” Welborn said in an interview. 

For Reno, the issue is a newer one, and Welborn acknowledges the challenges that face law enforcement officers who must distinguish peaceful protesters for violent agitators in a crowd.

“We’re going to have really tough conversations,” she said

A police helicopter hovers above a Black Lives Matter demonstration at the Container Park in Downtown Las Vegas on Saturday, May 30, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Both urban and rural police departments have taken advantage of a Department of Defense program, known as a 1033 program, that has allowed Nevada law enforcement agencies, like others around the nation, to acquire military equipment. 

In Nevada alone, police departments have spent hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, on surplus equipment ranging from mine-proof vehicles to night-vision goggles to helicopters, according to a review of government documents by the nonprofit Marshall Project. 

Among the 31 local law enforcement agencies in Nevada that participated in the program, the single largest buyer by far was Metro, which spent more than $7 million on military surplus for helicopters, engines and tactical gear, according to federal records of those transactions. 

In comparison, many of Nevada’s smaller departments or sheriff’s offices spent as much or more on similar tactical equipment. The Washoe County Sheriff’s office — the second largest buyer through the 1033 program in the state —  spent more than $2 million through 2014, including nearly $1 million on a utility helicopter, $41,000 on 83 rifles and another $20,000 for 22 sets of “night vision viewing sets.”

Today, local police departments in Nevada still maintain millions of dollars worth of military equipment that could be used when law enforcement intervenes. At least one agency — the Henderson Police Department — has sought to enter into the 1033 program in 2020. 

Protesters face off with police at a Black Lives Matter protest in Downtown Las Vegas on May 30, 2020. Photo by Daniel Clark.

The conversation starts

In Reno and in Clark County, the really tough conversation turned public on Wednesday.

In the morning, Metro came before the Clark County Commission advocating for an ordinance that would ban demonstrators from carrying backpacks, coolers, strollers and luggage, a move the agency argued would enhance public safety for the vast majority of peaceful protesters and officers. But it was criticized by the public for potentially making it harder to protest at rallies. 

Commissioners tabled the ordinance, many noting that it needed to be tweaked. 

And throughout the meeting, they engaged in a larger discussion about the protests and Metro’s response to them. Commissioner Lawrence Weekly raised the incident of an attorney being handcuffed after leaving a protest this week and waiting for a ride-share. Weekly noted that the attorney was also hit by pepper spray bullets, which left a large purple and black mark. 

“We all cried on the phone yesterday in tears,” Weekly said. “A bunch of men crying.”

He said that Metro had an opportunity to provide a model, but needed to address some issues. 

“We have an opportunity to be a model for the state and talking to commissioners across the state, they are saying ‘wow, you guys really are doing some good stuff from community policing to the whole nine yards,” Weekly said. “But there’s also still some other underneath-the-skin type issues — there are some blatant issues that really need to be addressed.”

Metro has touted dozens of reforms made in the last decade that have sought to boost transparency and broadly reduce the use of deadly force by its officers. 

Those reforms came, in part, in the wake of a 2011 investigation by the Las Vegas Review-Journal that found Metro alone was responsible for 310 shootings and 115 deaths between 1990 and 2011. That investigation later triggered a review of the department’s use of force by the U.S. Department of Justice and ultimately led to the massive internal overhaul of the department’s use of force policies. 

Callaway noted that it was frustrating that police officers were being painted with a broad brush across the country, but said it was unfortunate that peaceful protesters were being painted with a broad brush too, with their actions conflated with agitators who are seeking violence. 

Commissioner Jim Gibson emphasized accountability for use-of-force in real-time.

“We're definitely not perfect and, yes, you hit the nail on the head — accountability on the frontline, especially in these situations we've seen over the weekend where emotions run high and passion is out there, and people are very passionate about these issues,” Callaway said.

On Wednesday, Reno took one formal step to bolster accountability.

In a press conference, Soto said that it has been an expectation, for years, that officers step in to stop inappropriate use-of-force if they see an officer using it on the frontlines. 

“We don’t have that in policy,” Soto said. “And it’s a policy that we should have written down so our officers understand that if they don’t do that, they’re subject to discipline.”

Charges of excessive force are not unique to Metro. 

According to the Mapping Police Violence project, which tracks police shootings, use of force by the Reno Police Department killed 14 people between 2013 and 2019. Combined with Reno’s relatively small population of roughly 225,000, it puts the per capita killings from the department at 8.9, or more than double the 4.2 per capita killings attributed to Metro. 

Soto said the city’s numbers don’t support that finding, and he wondered if the report included other agencies in the region, including the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office.

“That was a shocking statistic to hear,” he said. “Our data doesn’t support that.”

In Las Vegas, volunteer legal observers will now be at the protests to answer questions about what rights protesters have, Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a press release on Wednesday.

“To all Nevadans lawfully protesting in the Valley this evening and this week: volunteer lawyers will be observing these protests,” said in a statement. “These legal observers will be wearing red T-shirts that say “LEGAL OBSERVER” — if you have any questions about how to lawfully express your rights or what conduct is lawful, please seek out one of these volunteers."

By 11 p.m. on Saturday night in Reno, law enforcement officers had pushed protesters toward a parking lot straddling downtown and midtown. Most of the crowd had dispersed. Vehicles had been damaged, including one set on fire. And individuals had looted several stores. 

As tear gas filled the parking lot, some people were watching in front of an adjacent bar. Javon Williams said he had participated in the protest earlier in the day, but at this point in the evening, he was trying to observe what was going on. He said he felt a lot of animosity and anger.

Williams, who introduced himself as a comedian, said that he was there to get material. 

“As a comedian, I wanted to put myself in everyone else's shoes and actually see the situation as it was going on,” he said of the protests, which were being live-streamed on local TV and social media. “You can't really understand it by sitting at home and watching it on TV."

In an interview later this week, he said that police “could have done a better job.” 

And in a reference to UNR alumnus and former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, he said: “They could have prevented a lot of what happened Saturday if they had just taken a knee.”

The Nevada Independent photographer Daniel Clark, intern Tabitha Mueller, reporter Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez and reporter Jackie Valley contributed to this story.