The Holdouts: UNR students preparing to head back to campus explain why they waited for the vaccine

This story is part of "The Holdouts," an ongoing series about Nevadans who have been hesitant about getting vaccinated against the coronavirus.

For more than a year and a half, tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff across the Nevada System of Higher Education have waited eagerly for an end to the often-onerous online “Zoom school” of the pandemic. 

That return is finally less than a week away. But amid a surge in cases spurred by the Delta variant, many of the hopes for normalcy have widened to include the implementation of familiar COVID mitigation measures: masks, distance and the vaccine. 

With masks now required in most places and social distancing restrictions unlikely to return following the economic pain of 2020, many public health experts have pointed to the COVID vaccine as likely the most effective tool in limiting the spread of the virus on college campuses. 

But as debates have raged over which board has the legal authority to mandate vaccines for college students and when that process might actually take place, some institutions have sought to ramp up localized efforts to boost vaccination rates. 

At UNR, that effort has emerged this fall as “Vax the Pack,” a raft of COVID vaccine events and vaccination incentives (ranging from $5,000 in tuition scholarships to parking passes, all doled out through a prize drawing) meant to boost rates in the absence of any formal mandate from the state-level. 

During one such vaccine event on Friday, Aug. 13, The Nevada Independent spoke to students on UNR’s campus about why they waited to get their shot.  

Trey Mckoy

A 22-year-old marketing major, Trey Mckoy said he didn’t want to rush into getting a vaccine that he felt was developed much more quickly than the years-long processes typically used to develop other vaccines. 

The first coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna were developed and received initial emergency approval in just 11 months — a historically short timeline, but one that occurred in extraordinary circumstances and that still involved tens of thousands of individuals participating in clinical trials that ultimately deemed those vaccines to be safe and effective. 

“The main reason why I didn't go get it sooner is just from hearing people who didn't have something good to say about it,” Mckoy said. “So I kind of wanted to hear them out. And if I didn't have people in my ear saying, ‘Oh, it's a bad idea,’ then I definitely would have got it sooner.”

Trey Mckoy, 22, gets his COVID-19 vaccine inside the Joe Crowley Student Union on Aug. 13 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Still, after several months and after many of his friends had received shots of their own — coupled with reports that the vast majority of severe COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths were among the unvaccinated — Mckoy said he decided it was “probably just a good idea to go and get your vaccination.” 

“Combined with just, like, different things I've seen on social media, there's no real good reason not to get your vaccine at this point,” he said. “Everybody who's gotten it that I know has been fine. So I figured I might as well.”

Amber Scheid

Also concerned that vaccine makers “came out with it too early,” 20-year-old nursing student Amber Scheid said she finally got the vaccine because of a push from her mother — even if she was still “iffy” on the possible benefits. 

“She went and got it, and she was really strong about it,” Scheid said. “She's always been strong about vaccines, and I just thought, I mean, I should do it for her, too. If she wanted me to do it, I do it.”

Nursing major, Amber Scheid, 20, poses for a portrait after getting his COVID-19 vaccine inside the Joe Crowley Student Union on Aug. 13 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Scheid said there was little else that could have pushed her to get the vaccine sooner. 

“I think it was, definitely — I just needed to see how it played out,” she said. “I definitely didn't want to, right when it came out, be the first one to get it. I wanted to wait a little bit.”

Orlando Osuna

A freshman who had just moved to campus the day before, 17-year-old Orlando Osuna arrived at Friday’s Vax the Pack event in large part because he saw a post on Instagram.

“I thought maybe it was a chance to get it because the rest of my family is vaccinated,” Osuna said. “And since I had to move, I'll be on my own, my mom told me to be safe, not to get sick, and my older sister said that it'd be wise to, you know, utilize the things they have at UNR so I can get the vaccine so I can stay safe.”

Freshman Orlando Osuna, 17, poses for a portrait after getting his COVID-19 vaccine inside the Joe Crowley Student Union on Aug. 13 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Why did he wait? Because he had been skeptical that the vaccine was effective and, like so many others, was concerned that it was developed so quickly. Coupled with reports of an extremely rare but potentially deadly blood clotting disorder associated with the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Osuna “wasn’t too sure if I should get it.” 

“But my mom and sisters had gotten it,” he said. “My mom felt some symptoms from the Pfizer one, but my other sister, she was okay. So I was like, ‘Maybe it won't be so bad on me. Maybe I’ll give it a try.”

Ashley Guinasso

Waiting after receiving her first shot alongside her mother, Jennifer, 18-year-old freshman Ashley Guinasso said she waited because — even though she was confident about the efficacy of the vaccine — “I wanted to do a little bit more research on it.”

Concerned about the possible effects of the vaccine on fertility in women, Guinasso said the medical studies she found — many of them conducted on or by women — “all seemed to be positive.”

The final push, however, came with the arrival of the Delta variant and the surge in infections that followed. 

“With the Delta variant going around, I just want to be extra safe,” she said. “Because you can never know if you're going to get it or not, and so just the vaccine is just an added bonus, that I will be okay and I won't need to go to the hospital, if for some reason I got COVID.”

Freshman Ashley Guinasso, 18, left, and her mother, Jennifer Guinasso pose for a portrait after getting their COVID-19 vaccine inside the Joe Crowley Student Union on Aug. 13 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Her mother, Jennifer, said the pair “always knew we were going to get [vaccinated],” and that their wait was more of a question of “when, where [and] how.” She added, however, that both had already recovered from COVID infections, and amid the Delta surge, they didn’t want to risk getting it again. 

“I was down for more than a month each time,” Jennifer said, referencing two bouts with COVID. “And it wasn't serious, but it was hard to function. I couldn't get out of bed most days because I just couldn't breathe very well. My lungs hurt, I was tired. And I, as well as her, had done a lot of research and I particularly wanted the Janssen [vaccine]. But it's extremely hard to find in this area, so when they said they had it here, it was like ‘Okay, let's do it, let's get it done.”

(Disclosure: Jennifer Guinasso is a cousin of Jason Guinasso, an occasional contributor to The Nevada Independent opinion page).

Jack Oxtal

A 19-year-old sophomore studying biomedical engineering, Jack Oxtal is heading back to campus this fall as a resident assistant (RA) in UNR’s residence halls — making him one of a small number of students who, as university employees, must either prove vaccination status or take weekly COVID tests. 

“I just figured it was time,” Oxtal said. “I heard about the upcoming precautions if you weren't vaccinated, especially as an RA — the weekly tests and so on. And I just wanted to build a more comfortable community, at least within my building, and give them confidence that I am vaccinated.”

Student and resident assistant Jack Oxtal, 19, gets his COVID-19 vaccine inside the Joe Crowley Student Union on Aug. 13 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Oxtal said he likely would have gotten the vaccine even sooner, had it not been for what he described as an “anti-vax” environment at home. Now, out on his own and working with other students, “I figured now, especially, [it] was very important.”

“I still get like, bi-weekly messages from my parents about why not to get it,” he said. “And my mom has already gotten it; it's my stepdad who's very against it. But I decided I'm just gonna do it anyway.”

Still, Oxtal said the decision to get vaccinated didn’t come without at least some hesitation. Also pointing to rare issues identified earlier this year with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the speed of vaccine development, he said he was “a little nervous.”

“But I then had the realization — I've gotten so many vaccines,” he said. “And yeah, it came out pretty quick. But it has to be quick, it has to be proactive. So I just figured, I trust it, and I'm gonna give it a shot. Literally.”

What Happened Here: A company town turned ghost town during the COVID shutdown starts to rebuild

The vehicles streamed into the pickup lines on a recent Monday, some with popped trunks awaiting cargo.

In a North Las Vegas parking lot, they inched toward a white tent, where workers loaded brown boxes and white plastic bags filled with food into cars, trucks and SUVs. The assembly line-like operation outside the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas popped up in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 shutdown to help thousands of furloughed workers put food on the table.

A year later, it hasn’t stopped. Instead, the Culinary Academy expanded and began allowing all community members to access the roughly 40-pound batch of fruits, vegetables, grains and meat — complete with recipe cards — designed to feed families.

As of early March, the food assistance program had donated 11.5 million pounds of groceries, or the equivalent of about 35 million meals. On any given week about 6,000 to 8,000 vehicles roll through the drive-through-style line, and that figure doesn’t include deliveries made directly to those in need who cannot leave their homes or food distributed at smaller pop-up sties.

“I can tell you that the lines aren’t getting any shorter at all,” said Mark Scott, chief executive officer of the Culinary Academy. “...This past year is really a hole fairly wide and fairly deep for people, and it’s going to be a long time before people are able to dig out.”

But across town another pickup line was seeing equal, if not greater, activity —  the passenger pickup area at McCarran International Airport. Hordes of flight-weary travelers, some donning face masks, scanned the line of cars as horns honked and doors opened and shut. 

A year ago, this was not the case. The normal hustle and bustle of a busy airport had been swiftly replaced by an eerie quiet.

Now, the two pickup lines — separated by miles and purpose — nod to the region’s hopeful but challenged circumstances. 

Nevada is, once again, healing, just as it did after the tourism industry was rocked by 9/11, the Great Recession and 1 October. Vaccination numbers are climbing, case numbers and hospitalizations remain relatively low and spring has brought forth not just tourists but an increasing sense of optimism about the future.

But the truth is Nevada’s healing has only ever been surface deep, its wounds still raw beneath and ready to break open at even the slightest injury. 

Amid all the talk of economic diversification over the last decade, experts say Nevada has failed to invest in the necessary level of change to build a more stable economy. The memories of past economic devastation often quickly fade as Nevada once again returns to boom times and trusts the glittering lights of the Las Vegas Strip to save it.

Some would say Nevada’s close relationship with business is what gives the state an edge. When Nevada struggled to secure necessary supplies for hospitals in the early days of the pandemic, for instance, gaming and mining companies donated millions of pieces of personal protective equipment, money and other resources through the governor’s private-sector COVID task force.

But Nevada’s reliance on industry to save the day has also time and time again left the state dependent and vulnerable. At first it was mining, an industry so valuable, and powerful, that it was granted a special, favorable taxation structure when the state’s Constitution was written in 1864. 

Then it was the casinos, who have so wholeheartedly opposed industry-specific taxes that they have gone so far as to support a widespread tax increase that would equally affect all larger businesses in Nevada. There was Tesla, Faraday Future, the Raiders and, now, Blockchains, all enterprises touted as the state’s next economic cure-all.

In its nearly 157-year history, Nevada has been unable to shrug off being a company town. This time, it’s put the state in the impossible position of choosing between saving its residents from COVID or financial devastation. 

Now, the question is whether, as the lights on the Las Vegas Strip grow brighter, Nevada will once again be drawn like a moth to flame or whether it will truly diversify its economy while fixing a long-ailing unemployment system. The question is what the future holds for Nevada’s workers — many of them workers of color — who are the lifeblood of the economy and the first ones to suffer when good times turn bad.

The question is whether history will once again repeat itself.

The shutdown was swift.

Six hours after Gov. Steve Sisolak announced on March 17 that nonessential businesses would be required to shut their doors to halt COVID-19’s advance on the state, all gambling activity statewide ceased. It was the first time Nevada’s lucrative gaming industry had been prohibited from operating since gambling was legalized statewide in 1931.

Other quintessential Nevada businesses, including strip clubs and brothels, and other everyday establishments, such as salons, gyms and malls, were given an extra 12 hours to wind down their businesses.

The decision hadn’t come as a shock to gaming establishments, many of which had been on multiple calls with the governor leading up to the decision and some of which had already been making plans to shutter operations in light of canceled bookings and an increasingly bleak future for the tourism industry. Billy Vassiliadis, longtime Las Vegas adman, estimated there was 80 to 90 percent agreement among the resorts by the time the governor made his decision that the shutdown had to happen.

Plus, some casino operators saw what was happening half a world away and started preparing. Casinos in Macao shut down for 15 days in February last year.

“I think we could see that it was going to be a very serious matter and definitely going to affect operations based on what we had seen happen in Macao,” said Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association. “But I don't think anyone knew just how big an impact there was going to be or that there would be extended closures.”

More than six months earlier, the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) had carried out “economic cycle planning,” preparations that recognized a 10-year streak of economic growth would inevitably come to an end and unemployment would grow. But the domino of casino closure announcements was ominous for then-director Tiffany Tyler-Garner.

“Over time, there's this growing concern of ‘oh my gosh, yet another employer is indicating that they're putting folks on leave’ … and that all those tens or hundreds, or whatever size those businesses were, were headed our way,” she said.

The prospect of shutting down the gaming industry was more complex than it perhaps appeared from the outside. For starters, some casinos scrambled to find padlocks to secure their entryways. Locks, as it turns out, were not a standard feature in the 24-hour establishments.

Casinos also had to quickly devise plans for counting and safely storing cash, either on site or transferring via armored trucks to banks. Sandra Douglass Morgan, former chair of the Gaming Control Board, said regulators were fielding call after call from casino operators who wanted to ensure they were in compliance with all the logistical and accounting matters. At the same time, gaming properties were handling people-centric problems, such as notifying and accommodating hotel guests and standing up employee assistance programs for the wave of people facing sudden furloughs.

“If we had to do it all over again, obviously we would have said, ‘Okay, you have a week to close,’ to make sure all that information was put into place, but we didn’t at the time,” Morgan said. “But everyone was very understanding.”

State officials within the Department of Business and Industry, meanwhile, scrambled to help other businesses figure out whether they were considered essential and, therefore, whether they were required to shut down. The initial list of essential businesses Sisolak announced could remain open was specific, if incomplete: Grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, hardware stores, truck stops, daycares, gas stations and health facilities.

That left the rest of the non-casino businesses in somewhat of a grey area. Workers at the Tesla Gigafactory, Allegiant Stadium and several marijuana dispensaries reported for work as usual on March 18, unclear whether their employers would be sending them home at noon.

Clarification came that afternoon — an hour after businesses were supposed to close — in the form of a “Risk Mitigation Initiative” document, which outlined 20 essential services and sectors. Among them were ones the governor hadn’t mentioned the previous night, including veterinarian services and pet stores, laundromats and dry cleaners, and auto repair services. Construction and mining businesses were, separately, granted permission to remain open as well.

But, at the time, there was little to no federal guidance about how essential businesses ought to remain open safely to protect themselves, their workers and their customers. So, state officials hurried to come up with their own guidelines. Terry Reynolds, director of the Department of Business and Industry, said the state ended up being about two or three weeks ahead of the federal Department of Labor in the guidance it released for Nevada businesses and employees.

“Businesses can’t wait three weeks,” Reynolds said. “They need to know what they need to know quickly.”

Some of the issues state officials grappled with included how to keep small banks, which were legally required to stay open during the shutdown, running when their employees fell ill, and how to help restaurants safely pivot to a takeout model as dine-in operations closed. Reynolds said some restaurants were able to successfully shift their operations.

“Others did not shift very well,” he added. “It was very unfortunate because I think a lot of those may not come back at all.”

Echo & Rig, a popular steakhouse near Summerlin, saw a massive uptick in customers visiting its on-site butcher shop during the initial shutdown period when only takeout was allowed, chef and owner Sam Marvin said. But that alone didn’t spare the restaurant from feeling the sting of no in-person dining. 

At least half the Las Vegas restaurant’s employees were furloughed, and Marvin said a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, which was established early on in the pandemic to help small businesses make payroll, “made the difference in us surviving or not surviving.”

The restaurateur doesn’t hold a grudge against state officials. Compared with California, where he operates two restaurants, Nevada gave a much earlier green light to some in-person dining when the state started to reopen. Because of all the uncertainty surrounding the virus initially, Marvin said he didn’t disagree with the shutdown, though he acknowledges his opinion may differ from others in the restaurant industry who couldn’t hang on financially.

“How can you disagree if you don’t know better?” he said. “Better safe than sorry.”

Echo & Rig’s furloughed employees were just a small slice of the hundreds of thousands of employees who lost their jobs almost overnight, pushing Nevada unemployment to levels worse than those seen during the Great Depression. In April, more than 28 percent of Nevadans were unemployed, up from 3.6 percent in February.

Those hundreds of thousands of newly jobless Nevadans quickly overwhelmed the state’s unemployment system, which was accustomed to handling about 2,500 initial claims a week but received more than 92,000 as the shutdown began. In the past year, half a million Nevadans have collected at least one week of unemployment benefits out of a workforce of 1.5 million, and the agency has received nearly two million initial applications for benefits.

“We were in response mode, without knowing exactly what the floor or ceiling would be,” Tyler-Garner said.

DETR’s problems were numerous, including a staff that had atrophied over the past decade as the federal government drew down funding. Issues as small as a vacation payout to a claimant would trigger “adjudication,” or an analytical review, but Tyler-Garner estimates only about seven people in the agency were qualified to manage that step when the crisis hit, for example.

Early on, the federal government answered pleas to support gig workers ineligible for traditional unemployment by creating the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, but Nevada officials feared that adding PUA programming into the brittle system processing traditional claims would crash it and cut off claimants already receiving benefits. They bought a separate software product to administer PUA in the name of speed and IT stability, but it created a bifurcated system that bedevils claimants to this day.

Mike Powers, a guitarist who worked for a talent agency that dispatches musicians for gigs ranging from conventions to sidewalk entertainment, is one of them. From the first day he applied to PUA, the system flagged his Social Security number as tied to another existing claim, and he believes he’s stuck in limbo a year later because someone in California filed a fraudulent application in his name. 

Every day is a financial emergency, he says, but he holds out hope that he’ll someday emerge from the Byzantine system and claim the tens of thousands of dollars he believes he’s owed.

“I would hate to think that I was so close to solving the riddle and then, you know, it did not happen,” he said. 

Much of the messaging from Sisolak early on was about the public health crisis at hand and flattening the curve of what was at the time an unknown and deadly virus. But to the quarter of Nevadans who were unemployed and struggling to wend their way through the bureaucratic nightmare that was the state’s unemployment system, it often felt like they were being left behind.

Joshua Meltzer, 29, worked as a singing gondolier at the Venetian and switched to the business side of live entertainment just before the pandemic hit. But a year later, he hasn’t been paid unemployment, and after months of trying to make it with the help of friends, he left the state for Minnesota and is working a clerical job to make ends meet.  

He described the last year as a financial, emotional, philosophical and spiritual crisis all rolled into one. He’s always seen government as a force for great good, but its inability to help him has challenged that belief.

“I feel betrayed, in a way, by Nevada, which has been a place of … rejuvenation,” he said. “If that community doesn't take care of its own in crisis, I don't know if that can be my long term home anymore.”

Claimants have also criticized elected officials’ handling of the situation, from the governor failing to mention the unemployed in certain press conferences to formulaic responses when claimants poured out their hearts in desperate emails to their congressional representatives.

“The best thing you can do is just listen better and realize that there are people that are truly hurting,” Powers said. 

Reflecting back on his public communications to unemployed Nevadans, Sisolak said he “tried to speak to their plight.” He also said he wishes the state had an “army of people” to quickly work through the hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims that poured in, noting it can take up to an hour for a state worker to process some of the more complex claims.

But, mostly, he blamed yearslong underfunding and neglect of the state’s unemployment system. During a period of record low unemployment in 2019, DETR told lawmakers that after years of successive budget cuts, it was struggling to handle its call volume and expected to be able to handle only 2,800 phone calls a week in 2020.  

During the pandemic, a single claimant from Dayton reported calling DETR 2,200 times during a two-week period in April, and many others reported placing hundreds of fruitless calls a day.

“You've got a system that was basically ignored session after session after session,” Sisolak said. “Then when suddenly you're hit with a pandemic that you get claims that are 20, 25 times what you are normally getting, no system is going to work under that situation.”

To make matters worse, state officials were also tasked with sifting fraudulent claims from the legitimate ones. While DETR hasn’t quantified how many illegitimate claims were approved and how much the state paid out on those claims, they estimate they prevented billions of dollars of fraudulent payouts through blocking payment on hundreds of thousands of claims on which they couldn’t verify identity.

As of March 4, DETR reported there were 306,632 claims with pending identity issues that are suspected to be fraudulent. At least another 437,000 PUA claims were denied over identity verification issues in two rounds of mass disqualifications last year.

“The amount of fraud that was happening was unconscionable,” Sisolak said. 

But a focus on fraud has had unintended consequences for claimants. Amber Hansen, an administrator of a popular Facebook group for PUA claimants, said it casts a stigma on PUA applicants “that we’re fraudulent … some of us are inherently bad.”

“We still do have people that have eligible claims, and that need to be helped,” she said. “We have to kind of move off that issue.”

Jason Guinasso, a Reno attorney who studied DETR’s backlog as a court-appointed special master last year, said the unemployment agency has erred too much on the side of trying to control fraud, and is making policy “based on the exception, not the rule.” He compared it to a department store assuming all its customers showed up to steal.

“Imagine if they ran their store based on trying to stop shrinkage, and that's all they cared about,” he said. “Your experience going to Macy's to buy a dress would be a lot different than it would be if they were running their store to cater to the majority of people [who] are not there to steal.”

The governor praised the staff at DETR, which increased the number of people working on unemployment issues threefold by January and had many staffers working overtime to process unemployment claims under immense pressure, scrutiny and even threats, including to the director of the department. But he also acknowledged the state’s shortcomings.

“Could we have done a better job? Certainly we could have done a better job,” Sisolak said. 

As spring pushed toward summer and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 started to decline, the number of people unemployed because of COVID-19 creeped higher. Pressure mounted on Sisolak to start reopening the state’s economy. Leaders in some local jurisdictions signaled they weren’t going to wait for the governor’s lead, touting their own plans for reopening.

At the end of April, Sisolak announced the state would begin an “active transition” toward reopening that would start with some of the safest businesses, including indoor retail spaces, before progressing to the riskier establishments, such as casinos. At the time, he credited Nevadans’ “incredible discipline” in halting the spread of the virus.

The casinos had a model for reopening: Macao. Casinos in the special administrative region in China had already opened their doors again. But when they did, it was with significant capacity limits, social distancing at table games and slot machines, temperature checks and face masks. Resorts in Las Vegas could essentially take the Macao playbook, make a few adjustments for scale, and put it into practice.

Casino floors — known for their winding paths that keep gamblers wandering and shoving money into slot machines — would have considerably more elbow room. The Gaming Control Board issued a policy document in May spelling out some of the new rules of the trade.

Table games now have player limits: six people for craps, three for blackjack, four at roulette and poker tables. Some slot machines, meanwhile, were placed in an extended hibernation to make way for social distancing. Conversations also occurred around how to disinfect gaming chips without compromising their integrity.

And then there was the human aspect.

The Culinary Union lobbied hard for the approval of SB4 during a special legislative session last summer. The bill, which passed and was signed into law by the governor, shields many Nevada businesses from frivolous lawsuits related to COVID-19 — but only if the companies adhere to the strict, government-imposed health and safety protocols that prevent spread of the virus. Union officials pushed for the measure in honor of Adolfo Fernandez, a utility porter at Caesars Palace who died in June after falling ill with COVID-19.

Despite the bill’s passage, the union wants to see more done to protect hospitality workers, many of them on the front line interacting with people who have traveled to Las Vegas. D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, the parent organization of the Culinary Union, said he was unhappy that food service and hospitality workers weren’t prioritized higher up in the state’s vaccination schedule. Casino workers in Clark County did not become eligible for vaccines until Thursday. 

He framed it as both a safety and equity issue.

“Who are workers on the frontlines?” he said, referring to the union’s membership. “They’re predominantly female and people of color.”

For Las Vegas, as a tourist destination, the focus was not only on safety but how to effectively communicate to tourists how seriously the industry was taking precautions. This wasn’t the first time the city had to pivot its branding strategy. In the years after 9/11, the “What happens here, stays here” slogan was born. In the wake of 1 October, it was, “#VegasStrong” and a message of resilience.

But the city had never had to market itself in the middle of an ongoing public health crisis. In the weeks before casinos reopened, cases had been fluctuating. In early June, right around when casinos opened, cases started to climb.

"This one, you didn't know where we were going,” said Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners, the ad agency for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “It was like we were in this abyss, making decisions and consulting with folks with daily information that was fuzzy at best.”

The message Las Vegas ended up adopting was one that balanced safety with freedom. A weekend in Las Vegas, even with masks and social distancing, was still a lot more fun than a weekend stuck at home ordering DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats.

“We didn't need to have the old Las Vegas for them to feel free,” Vassiliadis said. “They just needed more freedom than the restrictions they had been living under for the previous three months.”

There was just one catch: Sisolak didn’t announce a statewide mask mandate until 20 days after casinos reopened. While employees were wearing masks, it was up to casino patrons whether to don that extra layer of protection. In mid-June, the Gaming Control Board issued an industry notice that required patrons to wear face masks at table games if there was no barrier or shield separating the players and dealers.

Even Caesar himself — the statue version, that is —  wore a giant mask in a bid to encourage others to follow suit. By the second week casinos were open, Morgan, then the state’s chief gaming regulator, said it was clear many people weren’t heeding that advice.

“It was harder for casino staff to tell people to wear masks if it wasn't mandated,” she said.

The governor’s order, issued on June 24, turned the option into a requirement. But controversy surrounding the decision spilled into gaming properties where some security officers suffered injuries after upset guests lashed out when told to wear a mask, Morgan said.

“No one should have bodily harm being threatened because you’re just doing your job telling people to comply with the mask mandate,” she said.

Pre-opening visitor surveys showed it was a “much younger and more rambunctious crowd” that was eager to return to Las Vegas, Vassiliadis said. And those surveys were borne out in reality: The crowd that first returned to Las Vegas was made up of younger, healthier people who were less concerned about contracting the virus and more concerned about busting loose after months of quarantine, and low room rates meant that some of Las Vegas’s top properties were now affordable for younger people, particularly if they stayed two or three to a room.

In the wake of its reopening, Las Vegas saw fights, shootings and stabbings on the Las Vegas Strip. In response, resorts stepped up their security and the Las Vegas Metro Police Department increased its police patrols.

“Underscoring that's not tolerated here to a lot of those visitors, I think, changed the situation rather quickly,” Vassiliadis said. “I don't think we suffered any kind of reputational long-term hit. I know we haven’t.”

At the state level, the governor’s office sought to convey to surrounding Western states the tightrope Nevada was walking by trying to balance the state’s economic and public health needs. In some ways, Nevada needed the buy-in of surrounding states so that they would keep sending their residents to Las Vegas and not blacklist the state through a travel advisory.

Michelle White, Sisolak’s chief of staff, recalled having “candid, open conversations” with other members of the Western States Pact, a compact established early on in the pandemic between Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, about Nevada’s difficult situation.

“We have states around us who I think were exceptional in understanding the situation that we were in … and genuinely were rooting for us to be OK,” White said. “Being able to explain that to folks and talk through that I think was really, really helpful in our efforts.”

Still, at one point in early December, California — which is home to 1 in 5 visitors to Las Vegas — issued a travel advisory encouraging residents to avoid nonessential travel to other states; it was a little less a month after Sisolak had encouraged visitors to continue traveling to the state even as cases surged in Nevada.

“If there were times where [Western states] said, ‘You know, we're concerned for our residents in a surge and so we're going to require quarantine,’ that’s an acceptable, reasonable thing to do for other leaders who are concerned about their residents. The way it was discussed, at least, was never about in response to Nevada directly,” White said. “It was more of, ‘This is a step we're going to take, this is another mitigation measure we're going to take to try to slow the spread and the surge.’”

For other businesses, reopening would bring with it a host of questions: Would employees have to wear masks? Could they hold meetings in person? What happens if an employee tests positive for COVID-19? There were also industry-specific considerations. How should salons disinfect their equipment? Could movie theaters open their snack bars? Would vehicles need to be sanitized at car dealerships between test drives?

To answer those questions and more, the state authored a series of reopening guidelines. Reynolds, director of the Department of Business and Industry, said the state got feedback on reopening plans from a number of different industries, from the Retail Association of Nevada to the REALTORS.

“In most cases, they were extremely helpful in terms of giving us perspective on what to look at and what can be done to keep things going and what we needed to do, how we need to approach things in concert with the medical advice that we got,” Reynolds said.

But businesses had to make adjustments beyond those required by the state to stay financially afloat as they reopened under strict capacity limits. Echo & Rig, for instance, added more seating in a second patio area that had previously been largely unused and trimmed its menu — from 60 to 42 items — as a cost-containment measure. 

Some menu items went up in price as well to balance the ripple-effect felt throughout the supply chain. Restaurants are still dealing with changes in where they’re able to source certain food items, he said. Some of their beloved vendors went out of business.

Marvin, the restaurant's owner, was pleasantly surprised by the number of people willing to venture out and dine at Echo & Rig once it opened its doors. He’s hopeful that customers, at his restaurant and other eateries, will continue to offer them patience — knowing that things will still look and feel a bit different because of safety protocols and other changes designed to keep the businesses viable.

Once businesses reopened their doors, the next challenge was enforcement. Reynolds said state officials took a “one, two, three” approach, giving businesses guidance on how to come into compliance on their first two visits before issuing citations on the third visit.

“A lot of businesses basically just needed a little bit of training on how to do things,” Reynolds said.

To date, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has conducted about 13,000 first visits to businesses. Compliance with the state’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols is about 92 percent in Northern Nevada and 90 percent in Southern Nevada, though Reynolds noted that compliance on first visits has been 100 percent most weeks since January.

Reynolds said that of the businesses found to be not in compliance with the state’s rules, he estimates only less than 10 percent were truly thumbing their nose at the state’s requirements. 

“We were tough on the front end on a lot of these businesses, but I think now we’re seeing for the last six, seven weeks good compliance overall,” he said.

And some businesses that initially seemed uninterested in complying with the state’s guidelines eventually came around, Reynolds said. About $60,000 in health and safety-related fines were issued to Walmart before it came into compliance.

“All of a sudden, corporate culture came in and started working on it very strongly,” Reynolds said. “It just took time. Once they did, it grabbed hold and they’ve done well.”

Even as businesses began to heal, Nevada workers continued to struggle.

When nonessential businesses started opening in May and the 78-day casino shutdown lifted on June 4, it didn’t have the same lightswitch effect with unemployment. There were still 285,610 people seeking Nevada unemployment benefits the first week of March — nearly one in five people in the state’s labor force.

A report by the Anderson Economic Group, which has been following the economic effects of COVID-19, described the December jobs numbers as a “continued trend of lethargic recovery.” Between November and December, the leisure and hospitality industry lost 2,000 jobs in Nevada, though gains in other industries offset that.

Only about 50 percent of the members of the Culinary Union, which represents roughly 60,000 resort employees across the state, including guest room attendants, cooks and porters, have returned to work since last year, though their work hours may not be the same. At the height of the shutdown, 98 percent of the union’s members were furloughed.

“Our industry — the hospitality industry overall — has been the hardest hit,” said Taylor, UNITE HERE’s president, said. “Now, we always see signs of life coming back in certain areas, which is great, but until people feel very safe travelling, until they feel safe with indoor dining and staying indoors, it will be challenging.”

Mary Ann Bautista is among those who haven’t been called back to their union jobs. Before the pandemic, she spent 14 years as a buffet food server at The Strat. 

As a single mother with several teenagers still living in the house, she said it has been difficult to make ends meet on unemployment benefits alone. Bautista has leaned on the Culinary Academy’s food assistance program for help over the past year. She longs for the day when she can resume her job. 

“This is not our fault. We didn’t do this,” she said. “This is a pandemic. We didn’t ask for this. We work hard.”

DETR Director Elisa Cafferata said when she arrived at the agency in August, there were nonstop calls from constituents needing help and a major backlog. To this day, she said the applications haven’t tapered off as much as she expected.

“We've definitely made a lot of progress. There's still a lot of hard work to do,” she said. “The thing I'm most focused on is how do we sort of pivot and help people start thinking about going back to work.” 

But the employment figures also highlight a troubling trend, said Brian Peterson, director of public policy and economic analysis with the Anderson Economic Group. In Nevada, nearly 74,000 people dropped out of the labor force completely between February and December of last year. These are people who have reported not actively looking for a job in the past four weeks.

“The big question is, what are those 74,000 people doing?” he said. “Have they become discouraged? Are they planning on waiting out the pandemic? My guess is that at least some of those 74,000 folks want to have a job, but they just haven't been able to find anything.”

There is a certain optimism within the resort industry about Las Vegas’s ability to once again come roaring back as a tourist destination. 

Las Vegas has already, essentially, been at the capacity allowed under the state’s emergency directives for some of the recent three- and four-day weekends, Vassiliadis said. World of Concrete is slated to be the first major convention to return to Las Vegas in June, and Cirque du Soleil is hoping to bring back its aquatic acrobatics show “O” at the Bellagio by July.

Tourism officials say the old notion of Las Vegas — a great escape in the desert where fun and freedom trump judgment — could be the very reason it will bounce back more quickly than other destinations. Sure, it might currently lack some of the traditional offerings. Nightclubs, for instance, aren’t jam-packed with partygoers on the dance floor. But the sunshine, warm weather, dining and gambling options might be enough to lure travel-hungry guests, even if other entertainment options are somewhat limited.

“People want to see family and then they want to get away, and when they want to get away, Vegas tops that list,” said Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Of course, this all boils down to people’s willingness to travel. Vaccine deployment will play a crucial role boosting that confidence level, state leaders say. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t exactly given would-be tourists its blessing. The nation’s top health authority recently issued guidance discouraging travel among fully vaccinated people — a point that has received pushback from some within the travel and health industries. 

Plus, it’s unclear whether COVID-19 cases will remain at their current plateau or see a springtime surge as a result of the increasing spread of variants and loosening restrictions. In Las Vegas, tourism outpaced projections when casinos initially reopened last summer but then took a nosedive toward the end of the year as coronavirus cases multiplied again.

“I'm pretty optimistic about the direction we're headed in now,” Hill said. “But we didn't anticipate the extreme nature of the spikes that we saw around Thanksgiving and Christmas and how much damage that did to the economy here.”

Another variable: the return of business meetings and conventions, which boost the economy during off-peak travel seasons. There’s even hope that some conventions might return to Las Vegas in the second half of 2021 and then return during their normally scheduled time in early 2022.

The Las Vegas they return to, however, will likely look a little different. Resorts have more eagerly embraced new technologies, such as remote check-in and keyless hotel room entry. In the case of MGM Resorts, a partnership with Clorox as the resorts’ “official guest disinfectant and hand sanitizer brand” is now a selling point.

Jim Murren, former CEO of MGM Resorts, envisions Las Vegas marketing itself as the “preeminent health safety tourist destination in America” — even beyond what resorts are already doing.

“When you do that ... we rip conferences and conventions away from Atlanta and Miami and New York and Chicago and Dallas and LA,” Murren said. “If they have a choice of listening to Lady Gaga in LA versus Vegas, and we can market that it’s safer to do it here, they’re going to come here.”

There is, however, less optimism about the future beyond the Las Vegas Strip. It’s not that state officials don’t believe Nevada’s economic situation will improve across the state — they do — but they worry about the small businesses and workers getting left behind.

Lawmakers have taken steps to help, including authorizing $100 million for the Pandemic Emergency Technical Support (PETS) grant. They hope $10,000 or $20,000 cash infusions backed by federal dollars will keep thousands of small businesses alive.

“It's always easier to keep what you've got … You're so much better off doing that and trying to spur new startups,” said Bob Potts, deputy director with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “The recovery side of things — that has to be paramount.”

Sisolak is hopeful he will be able to work with the Legislature to fix the longstanding problems with the state’s unemployment system. A computer modernization project that could cost up to $50 million is on tap for the next few years pending availability of funding, and a “strike force” led by former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley made extensive recommendations for how DETR could be better prepared to scale up staffing if another crisis hits as suddenly as COVID. 

“Prepare for war in times of peace,” Tyler-Garner advised. “I couldn't underscore more the need to ensure that we're always planning to strengthen our systems, because we never know what the demand might be in the future.”

But there’s also an acknowledgement among many in the state that Nevada’s problems run deeper, and that recovery cannot begin and end with Nevada’s tourism industry, or even with fixing the state’s unemployment system. The goal, they believe, has to be a long-term fundamental shift in thinking about the state’s economy. Murren, who became the CEO of MGM Resorts during the Great Recession, recalled seeing the “economic, social, mental, physical devastation of our community” because of Nevada’s reliance on one industry for a significant chunk of its tax revenue.

“Here we are again, and what did we learn? It seems very little,” Murren said. “Whenever things are doing well here in our state, there seems to be this expectation that they'll always be that way and that we should just not rock the boat.”

Tyler-Garner said before the pandemic, she had been working on how DETR would respond to problems that lurked just below the surface of the state’s illustrious unemployment rate: Wage stagnation. Jobs without adequate benefits. Dramatically higher unemployment in subgroups such as the formerly incarcerated.

“Some of the families that were already working two or three low wage jobs ... I shudder to think of what is happening to those families right now,” she said. “Those segments of our community were invisible.”

For Buckley, who runs Legal Aid of Southern Nevada as her day job and has seen the agency deal with a record of nearly 163,000 clients in 2020 in a region of a little more than 2 million, the pandemic has highlighted the need to invest further in the safety net and — deeper than that — Nevada schools.

“I think that key leadership throughout our state do recognize our shortcomings and are working on plans to change our over reliance on gaming and hospitality,” she said. “But as many have pointed out, it means more of an investment is needed in education and in our schools, to allow us to compete.”

That’s, in part, why the governor’s private-sector COVID-19 task force, which has in the last year helped the state secure personal protective equipment, ramp up testing, build out a contact tracing app and bridge the digital divide for students, plans to focus next on workforce recovery. Nevada was also one of nine states awarded up to $100,000 in grant funding through the National Governors Association to help states prepare for a post-COVID economy.

But Murren, who chairs the task force, believes economic diversification will only happen in Nevada if and when the state chooses to make a significant investment into the quality of life of its residents, including supporting education, health and safety, the elderly and homeless individuals. And he believes it will take the support of everyday Nevadans, too.

“What makes me incredibly angry is that so many people move to our state to avail themselves to our lifestyle, to our weather, to our natural beauty, to our entertainment, to what is great about Nevada, but they don’t contribute to it,” Murren said. “The will of the people seems to be that we don’t want taxes, or little taxes, or we don’t want to raise any revenue, any form of proper investment. Then, you get what you get in Carson City as well.”

Nevada’s budget was already slim to begin with, and it became even slimmer when lawmakers cut nearly a billion dollars from the state’s budget over the summer. That included hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on health care and education. Though Nevada received nearly $25 billion in federal aid in the last year, state officials felt like they were constantly worrying about how to pay for needed services.

“Nevada doesn’t have a huge safety net to provide on the best of days, and that’s the reality of it,” said White, the governor’s chief of staff. “That’s the hard reality of it.”

That reality is visible in places like the Culinary Academy’s parking lot. Its food distribution operation is called Helping Hand, and Scott, the organization’s CEO, said it’s not time to let go yet. The Culinary Academy anticipates providing food assistance to needy families through the end of the year in some form.

Scott knows community members remain appreciative.

It’s not uncommon, he said, to find notes of gratitude waiting in the vehicles’ trunks.

Part III coming Sunday, March 21.

Pastors say directive allowing larger gatherings is a good step, but still far from their in-person ideal

Churches that have spent the past six months meeting virtually or in groups capped at 50 as part of a statewide effort to control the coronavirus will have some more breathing room at Sunday services this weekend.

But Gov. Steve Sisolak’s new directive expanding the size of allowable gatherings has drawn mixed reactions. Churches that hold 2,500 people or less are allowed to convene 250 people or 50 percent of their capacity, whichever is less — a setup that means many churches are still well under the attendance levels they normally have.

“It doesn't give us that much of a room,” Pastor Cesar Minera of Ministerio Palabra de Vida in Reno said in an interview for the IndyMatters podcast. “For us, it would mean about 75, 80 people, so still, we are short from where we are supposed to be.”

The policy change comes as churches’ feelings about the coronavirus safety directives have evolved over the months. Pastor Brent Brooks said his congregation, Reno Christian Fellowship, was one of the first to go virtual when coronavirus first started taking hold in Nevada. 

The church of about 700 people moved almost entirely online, turning the sanctuary into a studio and gathering no more than 10 people together on stage to lead worship through online broadcasts. 

The capacity limit eventually rose to 50, but the church later began to sour on the limit, feeling they were being singled out with a hard cap on attendees. All the while, casinos — part of a tourism industry that supports a third of the jobs in the state and supplies a third of state general fund revenue — were allowed to reopen at 50 percent capacity.

“In my mind [it] was because we were on a nonprofit basis,” Brooks said. “As an organization, we were not paying taxes … And it felt like we were being discriminated against, because we didn't have the financial clout that was getting his attention.”

It was a familiar feeling for Minera, who was reminded of the discrepancy when he left his church, which is a block away from the Peppermill Casino in Reno.

“I would leave church, let's say at 7:30, after our 6 p.m. service, having 50 people inside of the church,” he said. “Yet both parking lots for the Peppermill … will be full to capacity, which means thousands upon thousands of people.”

Jason Guinasso, a Reno lawyer and associate pastor at Minera’s church, took the matter to court on behalf of plaintiff congregation Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley in one of at least two Nevada lawsuits on the issue. To this day, he said he’s still unclear whether any clergy were consulted in developing the restrictions and isn’t sure what channels churches were supposed to use to communicate to the governor their recommendations.

“I think the governor made his biggest mistake was not trusting us to do the right thing by our people,” Guinasso said. “Notwithstanding the fact that there are going to be bad actors in any group, when he gave a lot of latitude to the casinos ... I just thought he should have given us the same kind of deference.”

Sisolak often responded to criticism about the restrictions by pointing to his own experiences as a devout Catholic. If anyone wanted to return to church services in person, it was the governor, he said on several occasions, but he had to consider the safety of people like his 93-year-old mother and had transitioned to watching Mass online.

Early science on the virus backed concerns about services being a significant risk particularly when people are singing — a fear highlighted when a church choir practice in Washington state became one of the country’s first superspreader events. 

The legal challenge on the limitations and request for an emergency injunction on Sisolak’s directive made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was rejected 5-4 in July. While prevailing justices did not explain their decision, dissenting justices issued blistering criticisms of the directive.

“The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or blackjack,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito.

That initial setback aside, Guinasso is still pursuing the case in hopes the courts rule on its underlying merits. He said it’s essential that people challenge limits on executive power to avoid more nefarious situations, such as when Japanese Americans were interned in camps during World War II and the Supreme Court condoned the practice on the basis of national security concerns.

“I hope that as we bring these constitutional issues to the forefront,” Guinasso said, “that we won't be embarrassed 40 years from now to say that we didn't think highly enough of our constitutional guarantees and rights, enough to make sure that they endure during the time of our greatest crisis.”

Still, pastors said allowing larger gatherings is a step in the right direction. Minera said the restrictions have prevented youth from socializing with their peers and families from getting the support they need in a challenging time. Online services, while allowing a wider reach, lend themselves to distracted participants, and Minera believes about 20 percent of the congregation has become completely disconnected from the church and unresponsive during the separation.

Brooks, meanwhile, said he’s navigating a congregation that includes a wide range of opinions on safety measures, from people terrified to returning to in-person gatherings to those who want to meet in-person but chafe at being required to wear a mask. The latest change, at least, gives the church a bit more flexibility.

“We're just very glad that … we're not being put in a separate category where it seems like we're being considered the most dangerous place in Nevada,” Brooks said. “This was the right change. It was an overdue change.”

In report and court, special master details continued problems with bifurcated unemployment system, hurdles to appealing PUA denials

Nevada should do away with its two-part unemployment claims system that has been bouncing applicants from one program to the other, and the state continues to create due process concerns because of delays in the ability of claimants to appeal a denial, according to a court-appointed special master.

The observations come in a 144-page follow-up report prepared by Reno attorney Jason Guinasso as part of a court case filed by unemployment claimants who have suffered delays in getting payments. A Thursday morning hearing in the two-month-old case was the latest in a multi-front effort to dislodge payments from the clogged system, and comes after lawmakers took a stab at the problem during a special session and Gov. Steve Sisolak created a new “strike force” to work on the issue.

“Clearly, there is substantial focus, significant resources, and spirited efforts being made by the State of Nevada to resolve the problems with Nevada’s unemployment benefit delivery system,” the report says. “Unfortunately for many claimants, the progress being made is too late or otherwise not enough as they continue to suffer under the strain of not being employed and the desperation that comes from not being able to access benefits to sustain them and their families through the aftermath of the global pandemic.”

At the Thursday hearing, Washoe County Judge Barry Breslow modified a previous order, formally denying some requests for mass and immediate payments as a way to provide legal clarity as plaintiffs pursue relief before the Nevada Supreme Court. The lower court still retains jurisdiction to enforce a previous order, which called on the state to pay out three, more targeted groups of claimants.

The court date was largely a check-in on how the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) is doing meeting the prior court order. The state reported no claimants are being held up because they simply had a reduction rather than a complete cessation of gig work, unless their restarted work is bringing in wages that are too high to keep them eligible for benefits.

Of nearly 31,000 claimants who had previously been getting payments and saw them stop, DETR reported that 7,407 had been stopped for the legitimate reason that claimants started making too much money to qualify. Of the remaining 23,240 claims, DETR reported 3,500 were cleared of fraud-related flags and authorized for restarted payments.

But plaintiff attorney Mark Thierman said that number was unacceptably low, and the report was missing key information, such as the status of nearly 20,000 claims that were not cleared of fraud.

"This is a data dump, where all the missing pieces would give you a better handle on whether or not they're complying,” he said.

He also argued that the state was going in the wrong direction on addressing a backlog of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program claims for gig workers and self-employed people. As of Tuesday, 243,963 claims remained unpaid out of more than 410,000 initial claims filed. That’s up from 139,107 unpaid claims in early July, although there have been more than 124,000 new initial PUA claims that have rolled in during that period.

"We're going downhill,” Thierman said. “I can't understand why we're saying we're doing such a great job. We're losing ground."

Of those unpaid claims, 186,826, or 77 percent, are flagged for a possible fraud issue, and most of the remaining claims are flagged for eligibility in another program such as traditional state-paid unemployment.

Guinasso’s report notes that some 79,000 people have been denied for PUA, although only about 7,800 are appealing that decision. Those statistics raise questions about whether claimants truly had an opportunity to appeal — the report says a link to do so works only intermittently — and whether help is coming too slowly because formal appeals hearings aren’t expected to begin until the latter half of September.

It also goes into painstaking detail about the trials individual claimants have had trying to navigate a glitchy web portal launched three months ago to field the crush of PUA claims. It lays out 41 unique issues claimants have run into — problems categorized by the crowd-sourced, detective-like work of large Facebook groups made of PUA claimants, who try to decipher cryptic messaging sent to them about their claim holdups with limited access to knowledgeable staff.

Guinasso’s report even recommends the new unemployment strike force led by former Nevada Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley enlist the help of PUA Facebook group administrator Amber Hansen, whose findings inform a large chunk of the report. Group members have coordinated with people from out of state and personally contacted developers of the PUA portal to try to get answers in the absence of clarity from DETR.

“Ms. Hansen observed that claimants and DETR [Employment Security Division] appear to be speaking two different languages and are often weeks apart in what is occurring on the portal/claimant end versus what DETR understands and reports during press briefings,” Guinasso’s report said.

The Thursday hearing comes after Guinasso prepared a lengthy earlier report in July on the backlogged claims. Breslow in July ordered DETR to pay certain groups of claims by specific deadlines, but stopped short of declaring the agency to be in contempt of court.

Guinasso noted that DETR and plaintiffs represented by Thierman have failed to reach an agreement about how and when claimants should be paid, and Thierman has appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court.

Within the report, Thierman issued scathing responses to DETR’s statements of its progress. 

“It is obvious that DETR is still arrogantly acting like it knows best, rather than listening to the orders of the Court,” the plaintiffs’ attorney writes at one point. “DETR employees may know technically more than the Court, but in our society, DETR employees must obey the Court, even if the Court is wrong, unless they get the Court to change its order.”

Thierman said the lack of explanation about why certain claims remain unpaid was so egregious that if DETR were a person and not an organization, he would ask for a perjury conviction. But Greg Ott, a lawyer within the attorney general’s office who represents DETR, said the criticism toward staff was making it harder to recruit and retain much-needed manpower.

“There are staff pressures. People are resigning because they can't deal with the stress,” Ott said during the hearing. “The tenor of opposing counsel, asking for perjury charges and ascribing improper motives to these people, is, I think, uncalled for."

Sisolak announces ‘strike force’ led by former lawmaker to improve unemployment claims processing

Gov. Steve Sisolak has appointed former lawmaker and legal aid center leader Barbara Buckley to lead a “strike force” focused on improving the processing of Nevada’s backlogged unemployment claims.

At a press conference on Thursday in Carson City, he also named Elisa Cafferata — who was most recently a top administrator in the state’s welfare division — as the acting director of the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. The post has been vacant since Heather Korbulic resigned in June, citing threats to her safety.

“I want you to know, I hear you. I am listening, and I am taking action,” Sisolak said in prepared remarks. “One individual, one family going without benefits they deserve and need to pay the bills, put food on the table, is one too many.”

Sisolak said Buckley will work for the next 60-90 days with support from federal CARES Act dollars, and that she has already started consulting with experts to work on improving the business and technology processes at the agency. Hundreds of thousands of the more than one million initial claims for benefits filed during the pandemic have gone unpaid for a variety of reasons, including processing delays, duplication and ineligibility but also because many are flagged as fraudulent.

Through last Friday, there have been 991,641 initial claims for unemployment in Nevada since mid-March, including 606,146 for the standard program and 385,495 for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program for gig workers and the self-employed. Of those, about 420,000 individuals have been paid. Nevada's total workforce is estimated at 1.5 million people.

“All options will be considered to bring more IT, personnel and policy resources to reduce this backlog in the short-term,” the governor said in prepared remarks, “and consider how our program needs to evolve for the long- term to ensure that we can serve Nevadans in the best way possible during this pandemic and beyond.”

In June, people who had applied, with varied success, to the PUA program in Nevada filed a class-action lawsuit seeking immediate payment. A Washoe County judge declined to issue the order and, instead, appointed a Reno lawyer as a special master to investigate the issue of delayed claims.

Jason Guinasso, the court-appointed special master, prepared a lengthy report detailing bottlenecks and possible solutions in paying PUA claims. Asked about how that report would dovetail with the newly created strike force, Sisolak declined to comment on the pending litigation other than to say, “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

“It’s going to resolve a lot of complaints and hopefully in a much quicker manner than was done in the past,” he said, referring to the strike force. 

Buckley, a former speaker of the Assembly and head of Legal Aid of Southern Nevada, said she already has enlisted the help and expertise of public and private sector leaders. The group has been brainstorming solutions such as a data verification plan that could overcome an identity verification issue that has been holding up one group of claimants. That fix, she said, could lead to those claims being approved in the next week.

They’re also eyeing the possibility of temporarily transferring welfare eligibility workers to assist with processing unemployment claims. And Buckley said the state would also be creating an online dashboard to provide updates to the public about the backlog and the progress working through it.

“All solutions are on the table, and the governor has made it clear that this is urgent and that all resources of state government will be engaged to help,” Buckley said. 

Sisolak also acknowledged the role fraud has played in slowing down processing of claims. This week, U.S. Attorney Nick Trutanich announced the arrest of a Las Vegas man found with at least 23 unemployment debit cards from Nevada and Arizona in other people’s names, and there have been widespread reports of DETR notifying employed people that someone has filed for benefits on their behalf.

DETR officials have said they can’t provide a precise number on fraudulent claims, and Sisolak after the press conference said he didn’t know when a precise number would be available. Agency officials have said that they believe upwards of 100,000 filings in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program are illegitimate, and Trutanich said the arrest “is likely just the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg.’”

“We are going to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law as we uncover bad actors,” Sisolak said. “That’s a guarantee.”

At the press conference, Sisolak also signed SB3, a bill passed nearly unanimously in the Nevada Legislature’s just-concluded special session that gives the unemployment agency more flexibility and intends to speed processing of claims. It will also unlock an additional seven weeks of federally funded benefits for those who have exhausted other allotments.

State reports progress complying with court order to pay out more unemployment claims, but concerns persist that it’s not fast enough

A Washoe County judge says he will not move to declare the state to be in contempt of the court in a lawsuit over delayed unemployment payments, saying the state was showing encouraging progress on working through a backlog even though he remains concerned things aren’t moving fast enough.

The comments from Judge Barry Breslow came during a hearing Thursday to check in on the progress of an order he issued last week calling on the agency to release payments to gig workers who had experienced a reduction in work but had not suspended operations entirely. He had also ordered payments that had already started and then stopped to resume again, unless there was clear evidence of fraud, applicants had failed to file weekly claims or claimants were making too much money now.

“The court continues to be concerned that the progress, however, under the circumstances that people find themselves in here in Nevada, are moving too slowly,” Breslow said. “Whether that concern rises to the level that the court finds that [the state is] either abusing its discretion, or otherwise failing to comply with its obligations under the law — we're not there yet.”

Lawyers for the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) said that the state had complied with the order to release payments to gig workers, such as Uber drivers, who had their workload reduced. Claimant attorney Mark Thierman said he conceded that point, pending verification.

Apart from that, DETR’s attorneys said the agency counted 30,647 claims on which payments had started and then stopped. Of those, 7,407 had not filed weekly claims or had earnings high enough that it pushed them beyond the eligibility threshold.

There were 22,387 claims on which payments stopped because of flags for potential fraud. After potential review since the last court hearing, about 3,000 of those payments have been cleared for release and claimants may see the money as soon as Monday.

Thierman questioned whether DETR was doing enough to sort through the remainder of the claims on which there are indicators of fraud and call applicants to give them a chance to argue that they are legitimate. DETR officials said their efforts to communicate with applicants include a messaging system that they expect to get going in coming days to ask claimants for further documentation.

But Kimberly Gaa, head of DETR’s Employment Security Division, said many of the claims with flags appear to have more than just “whispers” of fraudulent activity. She said many of the flags are coming at the direction of the FBI, Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies.

“I'm not certain that there's a large group left within the fraud flags bucket that is not not fraudulent,” she said. “This is not just DETR saying we believe that this information is suspicious. It's getting reported to us by law enforcement.”

At the end of the two-hour hearing, Breslow directed court-appointed Special Master Jason Guinasso to continue working as an intermediary between the two parties, identify bottlenecks and prepare a supplemental report on what movement is taking place. Another hearing on the matter is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 20.

He said he might consider an order compelling DETR to change course “if the court is convinced at that time that progress is not being made, or that it's being made too slowly.”

DETR says no known internal data breach driving fraudulent unemployment claims, warns of $600 payments expiring

State officials say fraudulent unemployment filings are not stemming from any known data breach within DETR, and that the agency doesn’t have any concrete information about the future of an expiring $600 weekly federal bonus payment which is subject of continued discussions in Congress.

The Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation offered the updates as part of a videoconference press briefing on Friday. It comes on the heels of debate in court about the role fraud — and the state’s efforts to fight it — have in slowing down the processing of legitimate claims.

“DETR actively monitors its systems and works with reputable companies and its vendors to ensure that all data is maintained securely,” said Kimberly Gaa, head of the Employment Security Division. “We will be limiting further information related to any investigations and will not be sharing details to protect the case integrity.”

While Gov. Steve Sisolak, Attorney General Aaron Ford and U.S. Attorney Nick Trutanich all put out public statements this week acknowledging the issue of fraud, little information has been publicly released about the extent of the problem in Nevada. The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office said earlier this month that it was investigating 37 instances of fraud; the Reno Gazette-Journal reported more than 500 instances in which claims were filed on behalf of public employees in Northern Nevada who are still at their jobs.

Attorney Mark Thierman, who represents claimants who were delayed in receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits due to gig workers and people who are self employed, said in court this week that the quest to root out fraud has gone too far and is exacerbating the struggles of PUA claimants who have gone months without income.

The gap between the number of applications filed for PUA and the number actually paid continues to widen. Officials said there have been 343,149 initial claims filed to date, and 121,980 people have been paid so far; the number of people paid has increased by less than 8,000 from the prior week. 

Nevada does not have a solid grasp on how many independent contractors and self employed people are in the state (estimates have ranged from about 70,000 to 200,000). But Chief Economist David Schmidt said that using one estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau — that there were 82,115 self-employed people in the state in 2018 — Nevada ranks eighth in the country for the amount of PUA benefits paid per self-employed person.

The agency did not answer a question submitted by The Nevada Independent about how many of the PUA claims have been denied outright. Court-appointed Special Master Jason Guinasso had recommended that the state more quickly deny applications if they appear suspicious, so legitimate claimants can begin an appeals process instead of being stuck in limbo.

Officials also addressed frustrations reported by claimants that the payment dates provided in their online portal keep moving around. 

“This is due to process steps required to review payments to ensure accurate disbursement of funds,” Gaa said. “We are aware that this is frustrating for filers as you wait for these funds to become available. We continue to work with our vendor to automate this process and make it more efficient.”

Gaa also addressed the imminent end of $600-per-week Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation payments that layer on top of state or federal benefits. The program will no longer be available starting the week of July 26, and benefit amounts will revert to levels that max out at $469 per week.

But she said people who were eligible for it in past weeks and have not received it will still be paid the benefit. An extension of some level of bonus payment is under active discussion in Congress, with some members of the Nevada delegation tweeting their support for continuing the payments and arguing the higher level of pay has made a “world of difference” for Nevada claimants.

“DETR has been in communications with the Department of Labor, governor's office and federal delegates and we currently have no updated information on any extensions at this time,” Gaa said, urging claimants to check the DETR website for information about how federal legislation might change the situation.

Quarter change

Because eligibility for unemployment is based on how much a claimant made in recent quarters, the switch from June to July made some PUA recipients newly eligible for the standard program. Gaa said PUA claimants should see messages in their portal if they need to try to now file in the standard program; the two programs operate out of two different websites.

The amount of payments flowing from PUA dipped sharply at the beginning of the month after that transition point. The change has proved confusing for claimants including Las Vegas resident Will Cannon, a personal trainer who was laid off from his job at 24 Hour Fitness in Las Vegas in March. He tried to apply for the regular program early this spring, but was denied because he didn’t have sufficient earnings in 2019.

He later applied to PUA, but has yet to be paid and has seen messages in his portal indicating “unresolved issue - PUA - other eligibility,” then “needs to be reviewed by PUA staff.” Then, earlier this month, he was told he had an “important action to take”: he needed to apply to the regular unemployment program again.

Cannon did that, sending in a variety of documents, but now the regular claim indicates it’s incomplete and Cannon should call DETR. He can’t get through when he tries, and he worries that the fact he has cases open in both systems will work against him.

“Now I have two cases open, and they’re fighting over who’s going to pay,” he said.

Cannon, 49, said his family is scraping by while he is in unemployment limbo because his wife is an essential worker. They’ve maxed out credit cards, and he doesn’t want to have to ask for help making rent.

Gyms are struggling as they try to keep occupancy down to maintain social distancing, so there’s little work available in the field. For now, he goes to the park three evenings a week and helps train his 9-year-old son and other teenagers in agility drills as a way to keep them in shape and out of mischief.

He does it all for free, because he knows many parents are struggling right now.

“I can’t try to push money from people that don’t have money,” he said.

Other metrics

Initial claims for standard, state-paid unemployment ticked up again last week, with 15,548 initial claims filed in the week ending July 18. So far this calendar year, there have been 592,700 initial claims, which also include people who are filing for unemployment again after having a job for a period of time. 

The number of continued claims, or people filing week after week for benefits, is up again for the third straight week and reached 306,077 last week. The statistic covers the week immediately after Sisolak ordered bars in certain counties to close in an effort to slow the accelerating spread of COVID-19.

Continued claims for PUA dropped to 132,595 last week.

Programs serving people who have been unemployed for extended periods of time are also getting more use. The number of claims to the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program, which provides 13 weeks of benefits to those who exhausted their regular benefits, rose to 11,963 last week.

And the number of people who applied to the extended benefits program, which offers another 13 weeks of benefits to those who have exhausted regular and PEUC benefits, rose to 308.

The state’s unemployment trust fund stands at $656.7 million, which is enough to pay 5.8 weeks of regular state benefits at the current pace. Should the account run dry, Nevada expects to borrow from the federal government to keep payments flowing, as it did in the Great Recession.

This story was updated at 4:15 p.m. on Friday, July 24, to add information about Will Cannon and the quarter change.

Prosecutors warn Nevadans about identity theft used to file fraudulent unemployment applications as issue takes spotlight in court

Top prosecutors in Nevada say they believe the personal information of past and present Nevada residents is being used to file fraudulent applications for unemployment benefits, although they say they can’t release many specifics about their ongoing investigation.

A COVID-19 task force that includes Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford and U.S. Attorney Nick Trutanich issued a statement on Tuesday urging residents to protect themselves and report instances of suspected fraud. They also issued a long list of tips on how to avoid having personal information stolen.

“The COVID-19 Fraud Task Force is committed to protecting the integrity of the unemployment benefits program,” Trutanich said in a statement. “We will continue working closely with our law enforcement partners and colleagues on the Task Force to safeguard the program for Nevadans facing difficult situations.”

Officials say people generally learn about the situation when they receive a letter from the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) about an application they never filed, or their employer gets similar correspondence.

People who suspect they are a victim of unemployment fraud should file a complaint through the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), at and to DETR’s Fraud Report. The state task force, which consists of local, state and federal investigators and prosecutors, said it is working with DETR to assess the problem. 

Court-appointed Special Master Jason Guinasso identified fraud as one of several factors — along with computer glitches, lack of guidance to claimants and lack of training of contract call center staff — that has “constipated the system” and caused bottlenecks in processing many of the nearly 900,000 initial unemployment claims filed in Nevada since the pandemic began. Kimberly Gaa, administrator of the Employment Security Division, said that her agency estimates there are more than 100,000 fraudulent filings submitted to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program.

But aside from Gaa’s attestation in a court filing, details of the extent of the suspected fraud have been under wraps, with Guinasso saying in court on Monday that he couldn’t tell a judge more details about his findings on the matter except in a closed hearing.

Lawyer Mark Thierman, representing PUA claimants who experienced delays getting paid, said he believes the fear of fraud is overshadowing the imperative to pay desperate claimants. He said it would be better to inadvertently fulfill some of the illegitimate claims than to continue to hold back benefits for large groups of people who are suffering without their benefits.

“These kinds of scare tactics, McCarthyism is what I call it, of fraud in the air, without explaining it … is no reason why the system should be breaking down and not pay,” he said.

Judge orders DETR to start paying more PUA claimants, but stops short of granting all requests made in lawsuit

A Washoe County judge has ordered the state to start paying unemployment benefits to workers such as Uber drivers who have lost significant business but not entirely ceased operations, and to keep payments flowing unless the applicant stops filing claims, makes too much money or appears to be committing fraud.

The decision issued Monday by Judge Barry Breslow comes after court-appointed Special Master Jason Guinasso prepared a report of more than 300 pages identifying bottlenecks and possible solutions in paying Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims for gig workers and the self-employed. More than 200,000 PUA claims have not been paid; some are flagged for pending issues including questions about eligibility, but state officials say many are likely fraudulent.

Guinasso’s report, filed Friday, recommended a corps of volunteers to help respond to claimants and quickly denying claims suspected of fraud so legitimate applicants can get due process through an appeal.

But Mark Thierman, attorney for the plaintiffs, said those solutions would take too long to implement. He wanted the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) to pay claimants who have cleared a preliminary eligibility hurdle, even if it means that some fraudulent claims would be paid in the process.

Waiting for a just-implemented PUA appeals process to play out could mean claimants do not receive money until the fall and by then are “starved out of existence,” Thierman said.

At the conclusion of the more than three-hour hearing, Breslow said that he thought DETR had acted in a “somewhat” arbitrary and capricious manner in making judgments about workers such as Uber drivers. The rules applied to them would reward those who refused to drive passengers altogether and hurt those who were picking up jobs taking people on essential errands as a way to eke out a subsistence living.

He also said DETR should not stop payments from flowing to claimants after they had already started unless claimants weren’t filing weekly claims, started making too much money to be eligible, or there was clear and convincing evidence of fraud.

He wants payments to those groups of claimants to be made by next Tuesday, July 28.

Breslow initially spoke of ordering $600 weekly Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation payments to claimants when it was clear they should be receiving benefits, but it was not clear whether the money should come from regular state-paid unemployment or PUA funds. But he ultimately decided not to order that.

However, Breslow called for another court hearing at 10 a.m. on July 30, saying he wants to see progress from DETR on one common issue claimants tens of thousands of claimants have — being stuck in limbo because it’s undetermined which program should be paying out their benefits.

As of Friday, there have been 325,732 claims filed to the PUA program in Nevada, and 114,124 have been paid. DETR has said it expects a significant amount of those filings are fraudulent, although Guinasso said he was unable to disclose in a public hearing some of the particulars of the suspected fraud that is under investigation.

Large volunteer force, more training of contract workers among special master’s recommendations for unemployment claims backlog

A court-appointed special master tasked with a top-to-bottom review of Nevada’s unemployment claims processing recommends Nevada establish a corps of hundreds of volunteers who can help respond to claimant questions along with more training among staff at a contract call center that is handling gig worker claims but has at times subjected applicants to “cruelty.”

The recommendations were among several in a 310-page report filed on Friday by Reno attorney Jason Guinasso at the request of Washoe County Judge Barry Breslow. The judge is handling a court case filed by claimants who said they have suffered because of delays receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits, with the next hearing set for Monday.

To date, there have been 325,732 claims filed to the program in Nevada, and 114,124 have been paid. The Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) has said they expect a significant amount of fraudulent filings in the system, but have also identified other reasons for non-payment, including people potentially qualifying for regular benefits.

Guinasso and his team, who were assigned the project 10 days ago, said they reviewed 3,500 documents from DETR’s Employment Security Division, reviewed 775 emails sent directly from claimants, spent hours interviewing state employees and catalogued concerns of thousands of claimants on a spreadsheet, including those posted in a Facebook group geared toward claimants. 

“A person can’t spend the kind of time and effort on work like this without being moved to empathy for everyone involved,” the report said.

The report made eight conclusions about the system, including that:

  • There is no method for aggrieved claimants to challenge DETR’s determinations or lack thereof
  • The system is overwhelmed by the magnitude of the unemployment crisis
  • There are widespread “glitches” in the system
  • Claimant errors are “rampant”
  • Claimants don’t know where to turn for accurate information about how to file and resolve problems
  • A contract call center has “Failed to consistently deliver competent and compassionate service”
  • New benefit programs authorized during the pandemic are vulnerable to fraud, and
  • System fraud has “constipated the system”

Other recommendations the special master made include setting up an appeals process for PUA claimants who are denied (DETR said that functionality would be up and running this weekend). The report also suggests appointing a receiver — perhaps someone with military command experience — to carry out the volunteer corps project, and quickly denying claims with suspected fraud so if claims are legitimate, the question can be resolved in subsequent due process proceedings.

The report was critical of the Alorica call center that is taking and adjudicating PUA claims, saying claimants frequently reported staff was unhelpful or rude. Guinasso said he would have recommended the termination of the contract if Nevada was not already bound by it through the end of the year, and is instead recommending a quality control review and at least two weeks of training.

“It is unconscionable that the suffering of people who have lost their jobs due to circumstances beyond their control should be subjected to the cruelty of a call center that does not appear to be providing competent and compassionate service,” the report said.

It also reviewed methods other states have used to handle huge volumes of claims, including contracting with tech firms to develop applications such as “chat bots” that answer common questions and enlisting the National Guard to weed out fraud.

Special Master Report - Lawsuit from PUA Claimants by Michelle Rindels on Scribd