Clark County commissioners vote to require all employees to wear masks indoors at work

Employees of businesses across Clark County will be required to wear masks while working in indoor public spaces as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rapidly rise across the Las Vegas Valley.

The new mask mandate, which members of the Clark County Commission approved during an emergency meeting on Tuesday, will apply to all businesses in incorporated cities and unincorporated parts of the county and takes effect at the stroke of midnight on Thursday. Commissioners framed the decision, which they approved unanimously, as a way to buy time as health officials work to boost low vaccination rates in the county and hospitals continue to fill up with COVID-19 patients.

“We have to do something because we can't afford to allow hospitals to become [even worse] in terms of their crowding,” Commissioner Jim Gibson said.

Employees will be allowed to remove their masks while working alone in their office or another enclosed space but must wear one when entering and exiting those spaces. The mask mandate will remain in place at least through August 17, when county commissioners will evaluate what steps to take next.

The decision to reimpose a mask mandate, even just for employees, represents the most concrete action taken by local officials to respond to climbing case numbers in the county, after Southern Nevada Health District officials on Friday recommended — not required — all vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals wear masks in crowded indoor public spaces. As of Tuesday, Clark County’s seven-day average case rate had climbed to 727, a number the county hasn’t seen since early February.

Gov. Steve Sisolak, in a statement on Tuesday, lauded Clark County’s decision.

“I support the Clark County Commission for using their local authority to issue this mitigation measure amid significant community transmission in Southern Nevada and as we continue our joint effort to increase access and confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines,” Sisolak said. “The State remains completely committed to provide every resource and support available to all of our counties as we see a rise in cases among the unvaccinated, driven by the Delta variant.”

Though the commission was united in its decision, some commissioners voiced skepticism about whether a narrow mask mandate on employees would be enough to stem the rising tide of cases. Across the border in Los Angeles County, where case numbers are less than half of what is being seen in Clark County, residents are being required to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.

“I don't have a problem with this concept of moving forward today with requiring employees to be masked, but I don't pretend that I think that it's going to have much of an effect ... on transmission of the virus,” Commissioner Justin Jones said. “If the headline from this meeting is that we imposed a mandate on employees, then we will have failed.”

In an hour-long public comment period before the commission’s discussion, dozens of people berated the commission and promoted debunked conspiracy theories about masks, vaccines and the pandemic. Some, however, also shared emotional stories of the toll the last year has taken as they have lost jobs or businesses as a result of the pandemic-related shutdown last year. 

Small business owner Ben Cucio pleaded with commissioners not to close businesses again.

“People are not going to make any money and they’re not going to make any semblance of a reality having to face another shutdown,” Cucio said. “My business survived, but barely.”

Commissioners, in response, made clear they have no desire to close businesses.

“I don't think that anybody up here, including the health district, wants to shut down anything because that was hard for everybody,” Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick said.  “We're trying to figure out what are some things that we can do short term to slow it down.”

While cases are rising in many counties across the state, Clark County has borne the brunt of this recent surge, which experts attribute to its high population density and low vaccination rate as the highly transmissible Delta variant continues to spread. As of Tuesday, only 38 percent of Clark County residents have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, compared to nearly 50 percent in Carson City, which leads the state in percentage of fully vaccinated residents.

Commissioners also voted on Tuesday to require businesses to post signage letting customers know about the health district’s indoor mask recommendation, though Commissioner Ross Miller said the county will have to take further action if people don’t start taking the recommendation seriously.

“We don't want to move towards reduction in capacity or face the consequences of other jurisdictions imposing restrictions on Las Vegas and see our economy shut down,” Miller said. “The public should have a very clear understanding that if they're not getting vaccinated, if they're not wearing masks — even though it's voluntary now, if they’re out in grocery stores and the places that the health district has identified — if the public is not inviting by those voluntary recommendations, this will have consequences.”

Beyond the mask mandate, the county commission voted to require large businesses, including casinos, malls and grocery stores, to submit plans to the county’s business department by Monday detailing how they plan to protect employees and customers. The decision comes against a backdrop of rising concern among those in the gaming industry that conventions may cancel if they believe not enough is being done to address the spread of cases in the county and as officials in some other states, including those in Los Angeles County, have advised against travel to Nevada. 

Nevada Resort Association President Virginia Valentine voiced support for the indoor employee mask mandate during the public comment portion of the Tuesday meeting.

“Whatever you decide today, we ask that you provide written guidance and time to operationalize and communicate the requirements so that we can fully prepare and fully comply,” Valentine said.

The Vegas Chamber also voiced support for the mask mandate, with David Dazlich, government affairs director for the chamber, calling masks the “second most effective tool next to vaccinations” in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

“We support a mask mandate to help curb transmission rates until we can up our vaccination rates throughout Clark County and finally relegate COVID-19 to the pages of medical history books next to preventable illnesses like smallpox and polio,” Dazlich said.

Many questions remain as A's seek to follow Raiders to a billion-dollar stadium in Southern Nevada

Less than five years after bringing the NFL’s Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas, Southern Nevada is dancing with Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics, the Northern California city’s last professional sports franchise, which is seeking to flee the crumbling Oakland Coliseum for possibly a new multi-billion dollar stadium in the desert.

The situation surrounding the Athletics – often referred to as the A’s – has far different scenarios and circumstances than the 2016 endeavor by the now-Las Vegas Raiders. The AFC West team launches its second season inside the $1.9 billion Allegiant Stadium next month.

However, when this dance music ends, the possibility exists that the A’s will remain in Oakland.

A’s President David Kaval said the franchise is on parallel paths toward vacating the 55-year-old Oakland ballpark that also formerly housed the Raiders.

One path is a waterfront ballpark in Oakland as part of a $12 billion development at the Howard Terminal near Jack London Square. But the A’s and the city are roughly $500 million apart in negotiations on a term sheet. A preliminary vote on the 34,000-seat stadium by Oakland’s City Council is scheduled for Tuesday.

The other path leads to an estimated $1 billion retractable roof ballpark with 33,000-to-35,000 seats located on a yet-to-be-determined Southern Nevada location. At least two sites on the Strip, behind Bally’s Las Vegas and across from the Sahara, are being considered. 

The A’s contract to play in the nearly 47,000-seat Coliseum expires in 2024, so a time element is in play.

The unanswered question hanging over the process like a fog bank above San Francisco Bay is how much the A’s would seek in public financing from Southern Nevada to build the stadium.

Las Vegas has the distinction of providing the single-largest-ever pot of public money for a stadium project in the U.S. – $750 million – to help the Raiders develop the 65,000-seat glass-domed facility. A special session of the Legislature was needed to approve an increase in the Strip’s hotel room tax.

Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, as seen on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Allegiant Stadium is located on 62 acres along the west side of Interstate 15, across from Mandalay Bay, and has large lanai doors that open to offer views of the Las Vegas Strip.

Kaval said the baseball stadium’s location – the A’s are considering nearly two dozen potential sites – would help determine a private-public partnership. Allegiant Stadium is in unincorporated Clark County. Meanwhile, the A’s have been exploring sites along the Strip, in downtown Las Vegas, Henderson and Summerlin.

“It’s too early to figure that part out yet. We don’t know,” Kaval said during a half-hour phone interview with The Nevada Independent last week. “We’re approaching this with humility and we’re just dipping our toe in the water to see what’s possible and to understand. Obviously, the community is just coming off the pandemic and you have a lot of things happening. We just want to be really thoughtful about how we approach it. We’re really trying to learn more about the opportunity and how some of these partnerships take place.”

At last week’s Major League All-Star Game in Denver, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said Las Vegas was not a bluff to frighten the city of Oakland. Kaval insisted that the Las Vegas Valley was not a stalking horse to push a favorable Oakland vote. He said the team is serious about Southern Nevada.

He and other A’s executives have made three trips to Las Vegas since Major League Baseball gave the A’s approval to explore stadium options outside Oakland. Another trip is planned Wednesday, regardless of the vote.

Kaval said the team retained Legends Global Partnerships, a company part-owned by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, to conduct a market study on Southern Nevada to help determine a location for the ballpark and the potential audience for the American League franchise.

“If (the market study) shows (a) 90 percent locals (fan base) then a location like Henderson or Summerlin makes a lot of sense,” Kaval said. “If there is going to be a predominant or significant number of tourists, then being in the resort corridor makes sense.”

The Raiders engaged Legends to secure their stadium’s naming rights and as the official premium ticketing and sponsorships agency.

“Key questions need to be answered,” Kaval said. “This will drive a lot of our decision-making. We commissioned the study because we are very serious about this parallel path in Las Vegas. That’s why we’re coming every two weeks. The early returns are positive and exciting, and we want to see how this plays out.”

Baseball fans during the Aviators game at the Las Vegas Ballpark in Downtown Summerlin on Thursday, July 14, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Public financing downsides

Stadium financing pitfalls concern some observers.

Las Vegas could join a handful of cities that have funded multiple stadium projects simultaneously or in close proximity and have run into financial troubles.

Victor Matheson, a sports economist and economics professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, said Baltimore had financial “horror stories” providing public financing for Camden Yards, home to baseball’s Baltimore Orioles, and M&T Bank Stadium for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens.

When the recession hit in the late 2000s, Matheson said Cincinnati had trouble paying off bond obligations that funded the Great American Ball Park for the Cincinnati Reds and Paul Brown Stadium for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals.

Baseball stadiums, he said, often sit empty before and after 81 regular season home games. The challenge in Southern Nevada, he said, could be creating two multi-billion-dollar venues that are competing for the same events other than football and baseball.

Matheson also warned of a “substitution effect” as both tourists and locals spend money at the stadium that would have gone into the local casino market. He was critical in 2016 of Allegiant Stadium’s public financing.

“Las Vegas, which was among the hardest-hit places by the pandemic because it depends heavily on the hospitality sector, may not have the money to provide significant public funding,” Matheson said in an interview last week. “Convention traffic is not yet back in Las Vegas, nor is international tourist traffic. This could put Las Vegas in the same boat as Cincinnati and Baltimore.”

The Raiders played the 2020 inaugural home games at Allegiant without fans because of capacity restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, recording zero dollars in game day ticket sale proceeds and concession revenues.

Tourism declines led to a more than 60 percent drop in Las Vegas hotel room taxes in 2020, which fund the stadium’s public financing. Clark County twice dipped into the Las Vegas Stadium Authority bond reserve to make its twice a year payments. 

Jeremy Aguero, a principal at Applied Analysis, a research and consulting firm that serves as staff for the Las Vegas Stadium Authority Board, said two years of reserves were built into the Allegiant Stadium financing and more than a year-and-a-half of debt service financing remains. Las Vegas, he said, is building back its room tax generations.

As for financing a potential stadium for the A’s, he said it was a “loaded question” when asked if there could be concerns about public money for another ballpark.

Until “we know all the circumstances of what is being proposed,” he wasn’t going to speculate about a potential stadium for the A’s. Aguero said he hasn’t met with the team’s representatives.

“The approach they are taking is correct because they are not leaving any stone unturned and they are doing a lot of groundwork,” Aguero said. “We just have to be mindful of the structure of any deal. The devil is in the details, but what we’ve learned, no one can pull off a major project like Las Vegas.”

Kaval agreed with Aguero’s analysis on that last point.

“The success Las Vegas has had in doing big projects, like Resorts World, Allegiant Stadium and the convention center expansion is a positive attribute that the commissioner’s office noted,” Kaval said. “That’s important to make this a reality.”

Clark County Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick said in an interview she was hesitant to support any public financing for a baseball stadium “at this time.” She had “just a meet and greet” with the team’s contingent and was looking forward to seeing any detail the team provides on the public financing aspect.

“I think it’s way too soon. I don’t think we can fund what they might be asking for,” Kirkpatrick said. “We have a lot of businesses still hurting and we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.”

Toward the end of the legislative session in May, lawmakers rejected an idea by a lobbyist representing a consortium of Southern Nevada governments, who said there was interest in allowing Sales Tax Anticipation Revenue (STAR) bonds and Tourism Improvement Districts as a potential “tool in the toolbox” for developers. Language for allowing the use of STAR Bonds for a stadium was removed by lawmakers during the conference committee.

Kaval said it was important for the A’s to “understand what the options are.” A few years ago, he said Mesa, Arizona – where the A’s hold spring training – funded a new baseball facility through a rental car tax. In 2008, Washoe County financed $30 million of the $55 million cost for Greater Nevada Field in Reno through a 2 percent tax on rental cars. 

Having Major League baseball in Southern Nevada would drive tourism and drive jobs,” Kaval said.

A man walks past a sign at the Las Vegas Ballpark on Thursday, July 14, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Show me the money

A recent Forbes study showed the value of the Raiders was $3.1 billion at the end of 2020, up from $761 million in 2011 and an increase of 117 percent over just the past five years.

The rise was attributed to the move to Las Vegas, as well as personal seat licenses and ticket sales associated with Allegiant Stadium. The Raiders are now the 12th most valuable NFL franchise and the 29th most valuable professional sports franchise.

Major League Baseball took notice of the figures.

Bo Bernhard, executive director of the UNLV International Gaming Institute, suggested, “in the sports world, locating a franchise in Las Vegas can catapult your value.”

Bernhard was involved in the early stages of the Raiders move by producing a report that showed the NFL and Las Vegas could co-exist when Nevada was the only state with legal sports betting.

That issue disappeared with the nationwide legalization of sports betting in 2018.

Sports betting consultant Sara Slane said Major League Baseball has multiple sports betting partnerships for official league data and league-controlled assets.

“Major League Baseball is very ingrained in the sports betting industry,” Slane said. “The teams have also embraced sports betting. These deals range from direct market access for mobile and retail (wagering) in Arizona with the Diamondbacks to more traditional sponsorship and marketing opportunities.”

Bernhard expects the A’s would follow the same path with marketing agreements and partnerships as the Raiders and the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights.

“The Raiders found new ways to monetize the game experience and Las Vegas is far more attractive to those in the corporate world because of the entertainment here,” Bernhard said. “The Raiders, and baseball, add to that value.”

The Las Vegas Festival Grounds, located on the southwest corner of Sahara Ave. and Las Vegas Blvd, seen on Thursday, July 14, 2021, is being considered by the Oakland A's as a site for a stadium. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

All roads lead to the Strip

The 2016 debate over the Raiders’ stadium request quickly ended when the major Strip casino operators, including MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment, agreed to a room tax increase – roughly 0.88 percent or $1.50 a night – that was overwhelmingly approved by the Legislature and signed off by then-Gov. Brian Sandoval.

The other fact was the Strip’s insistence that the $1 billion, 1.4 million-square-foot expansion to the Las Vegas Convention Center’s West Hall also be funded.

Several gaming insiders questioned whether Strip casino operators would support another room tax increase to fund a baseball stadium, especially if it’s built in the suburbs away from Las Vegas Boulevard.

Officials from MGM Resorts and Caesars declined to comment on the A’s.

In a statement, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority CEO Steve Hill said he met with the team’s leadership and appreciated the interest in Las Vegas. 

It’s great the A’s organization is considering Las Vegas for its potential relocation,” Hill said. “The rapid growth of professional sports teams and high-profile sporting events in Las Vegas have quickly catapulted the destination to become the sports capital of the world.  We think it would be a great fit.”

Don Logan, president of the Las Vegas Aviators, the A’s Triple-AAA farm team since 2019, believes the stadium would find support from the Strip, even if the ballpark is built in Henderson or Summerlin. Logan, now in his 39th season with the minor league franchise, said casinos would use the A’s games to bring in customers from all over the country.

“It’s about filling rooms, and these are very sophisticated marketers,” Logan said. “The tourists will come for major league sports. It allows Las Vegas to offer more as a destination.”

At least two Strip locations are being looked at as potential stadium sites.

A spokeswoman for Treasure Island owner Phil Ruffin confirmed the A’s toured the Las Vegas Festival Grounds, a 60-acre site at the corner of the Strip and Sahara Avenue Ruffin acquired from MGM Resorts in 2019 as part of his $825 million purchase of Circus Circus.

A 27-acre location behind Bally’s Las Vegas, Paris Las Vegas, and Planet Hollywood is also under consideration, according to Kaval. The site was a potential stadium location for the Montreal Expos back in 2004. The team studied Las Vegas as a relocation possibility before settling on Washington D.C. The land is owned by real estate investment trust VICI Properties.

“VICI doesn’t comment on specific conversations,” company President John Payne said in an email. “However, our significant land bank in Las Vegas represents a compelling opportunity to widen the Las Vegas Strip along the center of gravity and we regularly study opportunities to maximize long-term value.”

Kaval said architectural designers are working up plans and conceptual ballpark designs for many of the potential sites.

A vacant lot located north of the Galleria Mall is a possible Major League Baseball field is the Oakland A's move. The site is bordered by North Stephanie Street, Galleria Drive, and U.S. 93-95. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Cone of silence

State and local elected leaders have toned down the initial exuberance for a baseball stadium. Many declined interview requests and sent statements through their press offices.

Gov. Steve Sisolak, one of the primary proponents behind the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas and an advocate for the Allegiant Stadium’s public financing, didn’t offer answers to questions about the A’s that were provided to his spokeswoman.

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman said in a statement, “We have had great discussions with the A’s management, and we look forward to future talks with the team to showcase the advantages of moving to Southern Nevada.”

A spokeswoman said Henderson City Manager Richard Derrick had a second meeting with the A’s on July 8 to discuss the team’s “continued interest in relocating to Southern Nevada.” The discussions were described as “largely exploratory.”

One site in Henderson that has drawn attention includes three vacant parcels totaling 109 acres and is adjacent to the Galleria Mall and bordered on the east by U.S. 93-95. The Aviators’ Logan targeted the location for a spring training complex in the 1990s.

Baseball fans during the Aviators game at the Las Vegas Ballpark on Thursday, July 14, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Aviators won’t fly away

Logan and Kaval said the arrival of the A’s would not spell the end for the Las Vegas Aviators, who have been playing baseball in Southern Nevada since 1983. Three Major League teams – Minnesota Twins, Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros – co-exist in the same cities as their top minor league clubs.

“Minor League baseball is family-oriented and price-conscious,” Logan said. “It will be a challenge because you are talking about 150 baseball games combined over six months. That’s a lot of baseball. Everyone I’ve spoken with said it’s viable.”

Logan told his staff the process for the A’s “needs to play itself out” and the team would support the effort.

The Aviators franchise is owned by Howard Hughes Corp., as is the 10,000-seat Las Vegas Ballpark in Downtown Summerlin. The stadium opened in 2019 and the LVCVA has a 20-year, $80 million naming rights deal for the facility. The stadium has been widely praised in minor league baseball circles.

But could it house the A’s on a temporary basis if a major league ballpark were in construction?

“Major League Baseball will make that decision,” Kaval said.

A rendering of the Oakland A's proposed waterfront stadium at the Howard Terminal in Oakland, California. (Rendering courtesy Oakland A's and Major League Baseball).

Good-bye Oakland?

Manfred, the baseball commissioner who approved the Las Vegas exploration, said Tuesday’s vote “will determine (the) fate of baseball in Oakland.” However, even if the council votes in favor of the waterfront stadium, other approvals, such as the environmental impact on the site, are still needed.

“A no vote accelerates the effort in Las Vegas,” Kaval said. He noted that Major League Baseball rejected the Coliseum site.

“The league said a renovation or a new rebuild is not something that fits the future of baseball,” he said.

The A’s have spent more than three years working on the Howard Terminal location and Kaval said the site was preferred by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. But the council has never taken a vote on the project. A spokesman for Schaaf did not return multiple phone messages, emails or text messages.

After Manfred’s remarks, Schaaf reiterated her support for the Howard Terminal project in a statement provided to the East Bay Times.

“MLB has once again made it clear that the only path to keeping the A’s rooted in Oakland is a ballpark on the waterfront, and we agree,” she said through spokesperson Messiah Madyun. “We are continuing to work closely with the A’s on a deal that is good for Oakland, good for the A’s, and good for our entire region.”

Update at 6:01 a.m on 7/19/2021: AB386, the bill relating to improvement districts, was vetoed by Gov. Steve Sisolak on June 10.

Clark County Sheriff Lombardo announces run for governor as Republican; says he’ll veto new taxes, take ‘law and order’ tack

Citing his law enforcement credentials and a need to end one-party rule in state government, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo on Monday officially launched his gubernatorial campaign with promises to veto tax increases and roll back many of the policies instituted under Gov. Steve Sisolak and legislative Democrats.

Lombardo, 58, officially announced his campaign for governor at a speech at Rancho High School in Las Vegas — where he graduated from in 1980 — and promised that if elected governor, he would serve as a check on legislative Democrats on issues from taxes to elections and education.

“I have been elected twice as a conservative in our state's bluest county. I have never compromised on principles to get elected, and won’t do so now,” said Lombardo, whose previous sheriff campaigns were in nonpartisan races. “Today, I'm standing here to announce my candidacy for governor, because if we don't put an end to the single-party rule eroding our state of the values, laws and opportunities to make Nevada great, we won't have a lot left to fight for.”

Much of Lombardo’s speech on Monday previewed his coming campaign messaging — including calling Sisolak the “most partisan governor in Nevada history” and saying Sisolak has copied the “worst policies of some of the most liberal governors in the country.” Lombardo also promised to block any effort to teach critical race theory in public schools, to back efforts requiring identification to vote and rolling back several Democrat-backed election changes including ballot collection and expanded mail voting.

Lombardo, who plans to embark on a statewide campaign launch tour this week, joins what may become a crowded Republican primary to take on incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in the 2022 midterms. 

Other announced candidates include North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, a recent convert to the Republican Party, and Reno attorney Joey Gilbert, who argues that Trump actually won the last election. Rep. Mark Amodei and former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller are also weighing potential bids. Former Lieutenant Governor Mark Hutchison, once considered a potential candidate, has endorsed Lombardo.

Lombardo, who is in his second term as Clark County sheriff, hinted that one of his major campaign themes will be his law enforcement experience. He said that “police reform is needed” but that legislators were moving too fast and creating an “environment where the police are handcuffed.”

“What we currently have is ... a sense up in Carson City that we're more concerned with felons’ rights, lessening penalties associated with crime and handcuffing the police,” he told reporters after the event. “That's a paradigm, or that's a program that just doesn't breed success into the future. We have to change that.”

After his Las Vegas kickoff, Lombardo headed to a Reno wine bar in the evening, holding a meet-and-greet at the Napa-Sonoma restaurant. He pitched his candidacy to the roughly 40 people in attendance, mirroring his rhetoric in Las Vegas, and took questions from attendees on elections, guns, education and more.

Former educator Sandy Horning, 77, said she appreciated Lombardo’s background in law enforcement and had a strong grasp on improving schooling across the state. 

“He knows what’s going on in the streets … he’s very impressive with education,” the Reno resident said. “I think he hit all the high spots.”

Carson City high schooler Jessica Gonzalez, 16, said she liked Lombardo’s speech but sought more detail on what his campaign hopes to achieve. 

“I wanted him to go more in depth on how he’s going to defend our rights and how he’s going to explain to the younger people how he is going to reach them,” she said.

A cadre of Democrat-aligned groups including the Democratic Governors Association and Nevada Democratic Victory issued statements on Monday panning Lombardo’s announcement. DGA Executive Director Noam Lee accused him of walking “every partisan ideological line as he’s pretended to represent the constituents he promised to serve and protect while trying to avoid estranging the Republican base he needs for his pending political career.”

Asked by reporters on Monday if he would seek the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, Lombardo said “seek” is an “arbitrary word” but would accept the former president’s endorsement if offered.

“If I receive it, I'll embrace it. Sure,” he said. “You know, anybody that's willing to endorse me and what I believe in, and the direction I want to go in, I'm not going to turn them away.”

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo announces his candidacy to run for Nevada governor during a news conference in Las Vegas on Monday, June 28, 2021. Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)


In addition to pledging to veto any new taxes, Lombardo said he would oppose any efforts to introduce a state income tax, raise property taxes or any other efforts to “advance public policy that would make Bernie Sanders blush.”

Asked whether he would seek to repeal or lower any existing state taxes, Lombardo said that would be a “matter of evaluation as we move forward” and promised to evaluate all existing tax sources. He said the state needed to develop a “tax environment” to attract other industries outside the casino industry to help to diversify the state’s economy.

“You have to be living in a cave not to see that the casino, the mother milk of our economy, will not continue to support us in perpetuity into the future,” he said.


In his remarks, Lombardo pledged to “undo the reckless partisan policies out of Carson City, and replace them with election law that is transparent, honest and fair.” 

He promised to support requiring some form of identification to vote, eliminate ballot collection or “ballot harvesting” where non-familial individuals are allowed to turn in mail ballots, and to repeal the “new practice of mailing ballots to people who did not request them.”

That’s a reference to AB321, a bill permanently expanding and enshrining expanded mail voting used in the 2020 election that passed on party lines in the 2021 legislative session. The bill was signed into law by Sisolak earlier this month, making Nevada the sixth state to adopt a largely all-mail voting system.

Lombardo also said he would support a bipartisan “election integrity commission” to oversee elections and “guarantee fairness,” and the creation of a non-partisan or bipartisan redistricting commission to draw new boundary lines for congressional and legislative districts.

Asked by reporters if he believed that the 2020 election in Nevada was accurate, Lombardo said he wasn’t “privy” to the data but believed the current electoral system “makes it easy for people to commit fraud.”

“Your question is, ‘Do I think there was fraud in everything?’ I'm not even going to give you an answer on that,” he said. “My concern is moving forward and how we can better make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

The Trump campaign and Nevada Republican Party filed lawsuits and repeatedly made claims of fraud in the weeks and months following the state’s 2020 election. All of the lawsuits failed to make headway in state and federal courts, and Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s office released two reports finding no evidence of “wide-spread fraud” in the 2020 election.


Among the challenges Lombardo will face in a Republican primary is defending himself over his 2019 decision to withdraw from the 287(g) collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His decision came after a lawsuit from the ACLU and a subsequent court ruling in California that determined “detainers” — holding people in local custody for extra time to allow ICE to detain them — constituted a new arrest and violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against warrantless arrests.

Immigrant advocates, who argue that local police should stay out of immigration enforcement so immigrants can report crime to police without fear of detainment or deportation during the interaction, have said that Metro continues less-formal collaborations with ICE absent the title. Lombardo said that after withdrawing from the program, Metro “dedicated more internal resources to … identifying and deporting violent criminals.” 

“There's been a lot of rhetoric out there that I have created a sanctuary jurisdiction. That is absolutely not true,” Lombardo said. “What we did is adjust, moved resources and addressed the problem to move forward, versus backing up and say, ‘We raised our hands and gave up.’” 


Lombardo has also struck a more moderate tone on firearm issues, telling the Nevada Firearms Coalition during a question-and-answer panel last week that he supports universal background checks on firearm purchases, opposed “constitutional carry” and tepid support for limits on high capacity magazines.

“I'm a strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” he said. “This isn't rhetoric. I've carried a gun every day for more than 30 years in the Army as a cop and as your sheriff. I will always support the rights of law-abiding citizens to responsibly own and carry guns.”

Policing and criminal justice reforms

Lombardo took aim at Democratic state leaders for being “more concerned with felons rights, lessening penalties associated with crime and handcuffing the police,” and said he would distinguish himself from his Republican primary opponents by taking the “law and order lane.”

“Yes, police reform is needed ... I appreciate that and we have looked at that, but it's adapting too fast,” he said. “We have created an environment where the police are handcuffed and have an inability to do their job.”

Lawmakers in 2019 passed a comprehensive bill aimed at reducing penalties for certain crimes and ultimately reducing the prison population. The goal is to use the hundreds of millions of dollars in anticipated savings for “reinvestment” activities, such as better preparing inmates for reentering the community.

In 2021, lawmakers passed a bill to decriminalize low-level traffic offenses on near-unanimous votes and decriminalized jaywalking unanimously, making it a civil infraction without the possibility of arrest. On policing, they passed a bill requiring ample warning to protesters before deploying tear gas, calling for data collection on the demographics of people stopped for traffic violations and requiring police maintain an “early warning system” for “bias indicators or other problematic behavior” among officers. 

Progressives have characterized the policing reforms as largely just codifying Metro’s existing policies and not going far enough, while police agencies and certain police unions have framed them as demoralizing for officers and part of an anti-police narrative.

Lombardo also addressed interactions between police and protesters — an issue that came up in the summer of 2020 amid frequent racial justice demonstrations.

“While Portland, Seattle in Baltimore gave into rioters, looters and vandals, we instituted a zero tolerance policy for violence,” Lombardo said. “Let me be clear, I will always stand up for the rights of anyone to peacefully protest. But if you intend to bring harm to our people, our communities, or those visiting in our community, you will face the full force of the law.”

At least six people face charges for graffiti, breaking windows and other property damage to a federal courthouse at one of the protests in Las Vegas last summer. Las Vegas police say they handled 318 protests last year, and updated their police and protest response protocols that year, including only deploying pepper spray if approved by a supervisor.

Death penalty

Lombardo expressed support for the continued use of the death penalty as a way to curb crime, as the Clark County district attorney's office is currently pushing for the execution of Zane Floyd, who was convicted of killing four people inside a Las Vegas grocery store two decades ago. Floyd would be the first execution in the state since 2006.

“I believe that there's a need for it,” Lombardo said. “I believe that it's a natural deterrent in the mindset of a criminal, and it's a solution for individuals that have committed egregious crimes against society.”

Lawmakers made the most significant progress to date on an effort to repeal the death penalty during the 2021 session, as members of the Assembly voted 26-16 along party lines to pass a bill that would abolish the penalty. However, the measure was spiked by the governor and Democratic leaders in the Senate, after Sisolak said that the penalty was warranted in extreme circumstances.


Lombardo criticized Sisolak on education policy, saying the Democratic governor has failed to provide a plan to reduce class size and opposes school choice, although the sheriff offered only broad-strokes statements about his own plans for K-12 and higher education.

On his website, Lombardo says he supports school choice and wants to expand Opportunity Scholarships, a tax credit-funded program that gives lower-income students scholarships to attend private K-12 schools. Democrats backed legislation in 2021 to preserve funding for the program as part of a compromise to raise taxes on the mining industry, after previously barring new entrants to the program.

Lombardo also nodded to building out workforce development programs.

“We must bring back and focus on trades so Nevada can attract good paying manufacturing jobs, and we must do a better job of keeping our best and brightest right here in Nevada,” Lombardo said.

He also invoked a topic that in recent months has exploded in popularity on conservative media outlets such as Fox News and has spurred states to limit how teachers approach issues such as racism and sexism — critical race theory. State officials have said the decades-old academic study area of critical race theory is not included in state academic standards, although concepts such as social justice and diversity are.

“As governor, I will block any time to force critical race theory on our public school children,” Lombardo said. “We can teach our children to respect each other, and treat everyone with dignity.”

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo announces his candidacy to run for Nevada governor during a news conference in Las Vegas on Monday, June 28, 2021. Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)


Lombardo, the son of an Air Force Veteran, was born in Japan before moving to Las Vegas in 1976 and graduating from Rancho High School in 1980. Hired by Metro in 1988 after serving in the Army and National Guard from 1980 to 1986, Lombardo steadily rose through the ranks of the state’s largest police force before being hired as assistant sheriff in 2011.

After nearly 30 years at Metro, Lombardo opted to run for Clark County sheriff in 2014. Described as a “policy wonk” by the Las Vegas Sun, Lombardo won endorsements from multiple former sheriffs including Doug Gillespie, Bill Young and Ralph Lamb, and ultimately won the nonpartisan race on a narrow 51 to 49 percent split over Retired Metro Captain Larry Burns — who was endorsed by the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, which represents rank-and-file Metro officers.

In his first term, Lombardo took steps to decentralize operations for detectives and to re-open shuttered substations closed because of budget cuts.

Lombardo also attracted international attention and notoriety as the face of law enforcement response to the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, which left 60 people dead and nearly 550 people injured. For weeks, Lombardo oversaw the investigation and provided information to the public and news media on details of the mass shooting, though his office fought efforts by the Las Vegas Review-Journal to release public records related to the event.

Lombardo won re-election to a second term in 2018, winning the nonpartisan race outright with more than 73 percent of the vote. His first campaign ad included appearances by former Gov. Brian Sandoval, and prominent state Democrats including former state Sen. Yvanna Cancela and Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick.

PHOTOS: After more than a decade of starts and stops, $4.3 billion Resorts World Las Vegas is open

The opening last week of Resorts World Las Vegas added to the landscape on the Strip’s north end and ended an 11-year-drought of new megaresort unveilings in Las Vegas. Since 2007, the 88-acre land parcel has had two owners and for eight years was an unfinished structure that sat untouched.

Thursday evening’s grand opening celebration for Malaysia-based Genting Berhad’s $4.3 billion property included a traditional Asian lion and dragon dance, drum performances and a ribbon cutting. But the big event in the porte-cochère of the Conrad Hotel portion of Resorts World will not be the last ceremonial event at the property.

Three areas – a 5,000-seat theater in partnership with AEG, Zouk Nightclub and the property’s spa – are being held back until the fall and winter months while additional enhancements are completed. Singer Celine Dion will open the theater in November.

Genting Chairman KT Lim, during his prepared remarks, also teased that the company is already planning for a second phase on the undeveloped portion of the site.

Lim was praised in remarks during the event by Resorts World Las Vegas President Scott Sibella, Hilton Hotels CEO Chris Nassetta, Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV), Clark County Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick and County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, whose district includes the hotel-casino complex.

Segerblom complimented the construction workers who continued to build the resort during the pandemic. Sisolak said following the ceremony that maintaining construction as an essential business last year when other businesses, including gaming, were ordered closed turned out to be the correct decision.

During the pandemic, construction workers finished – along with Resorts World – Allegiant Stadium, the Las Vegas Convention Center’s West Hall expansion, Circa Casino Resort in downtown and a remodel of Virgin Hotels Las Vegas.

“All those properties have opened, and we’re on our way back,” Sisolak said. “That is something no other city can say they have.”

Sisolak has attended every event associated with Resorts World site: The implosion of the Stardust and the subsequent groundbreaking for Boyd Gaming’s Echelon, both in 2007; the announcement of the sale of the halted Echelon project and site to Genting in 2013; and a ceremonial groundbreaking for Resorts World in 2015.

“It’s done, and (Genting) went through a lot with the property,” Sisolak said. “Who back then would have thought we would have a pandemic to also deal with?”

During Thursday evening and well into Friday morning, Genting and Resorts World executives basked in the adulation from several thousand invited guests participating in a VIP extravaganza throughout the 117,000-square-foot casino. The party progressed onto the five-and-half-acre pool deck, where guests were entertained by celebrity DJs on the sixth-floor outdoor pool area that overlooks the Strip. Images from the evening were shown on the property’s 100,000 square foot LED screen attached to the south facing hotel tower.

During the evening, party guests sampled items from many of Resorts World’s 40 restaurants, including breakfast-centric Sun’s Out Buns Out, Japanese-themed Kusa Nori and Los Angeles chef Ray Garcia’s Mexican oriented Viva!

Resorts World’s food court, dubbed Famous Foods Street Eats, offered guests items of Filipino, Japanese, South Indian, Chinese and Singapore origin, as well as Texas barbecue and Italian cuisine. 

Shortly after a fireworks display from atop Resorts World Las Vegas’ roof, the doors were opened for thousands of visitors waiting to visit the Strip’s first new resort in more than a decade.

Here are some photos from the opening.

A dragon dance procession leads the first customers during opening night at Resorts World Las Vegas on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
Genting Berhad Chairman KT Lim paints a dragon during the Resorts World Las Vegas grand opening party on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
Gov. Steve Sisolak holds a souvenir following the Resorts World Las Vegas ribbon cutting on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
Rick Hilton with his daughters Paris, left, Nicky and wife Kathy during the Resorts World Las Vegas grand opening party on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
Guests mingle around the digital sphere during the opening night at Resorts World Las Vegas on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
An employee prepares a roulette table during opening night at Resorts World Las Vegas on Thursday, June 24, 2021. Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
The scene in the casino area during opening night at Resorts World Las Vegas on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
Guests mingle at Gatsby’s during the Resorts World Las Vegas grand opening party on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
An Elvis impersonator stands in front of luxury cars at the Resorts World Las Vegas on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
Former Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, now UNR president, with his wife Lauralyn during the Resorts World Las Vegas grand opening party on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
Guests mingle in front of Viva! during the opening night at Resorts World Las Vegas on Thursday, June 24, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

With new law, Las Vegas water agency bets on ‘aggressive municipal water conservation measure' to remove decorative turf, conserve Colorado River supply

The backdrop for the legislation was set hundreds of miles away from Carson City, where the Colorado River meets Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam outside of Las Vegas. 

Over the past two decades, Lake Mead, which holds nearly all of Las Vegas’ water, has dropped more than 100 feet amid drought and overuse. In response, federal regulators expect to declare the first-ever shortage for the Colorado River next year, triggering cuts to Arizona and Nevada’s allocations. 

With Lake Mead approaching critically-low levels, the Southern Nevada Water Authority recently turned to the Legislature to double-down on its existing strategy for using less water: turf removal.

Earlier this year, Las Vegas water planners asked the Legislature to pass a new law that prohibits water-intensive decorative turf within medians, along roads and in business parks. Lawmakers approved it with little opposition and Gov. Steve Sisolak signed the bill on Friday. 

Now, the water authority, which serves the Las Vegas metro area, is tasked with implementing what its general manager, John Entsminger, described as probably “the most aggressive municipal water conservation measure that's been taken in the western United States.” 

For decades, the water authority has been looking at the prolonged drought and preparing for shortages. Officials with the agency stress that they are able to weather the expected cuts because Las Vegas is already consuming less water than it is entitled to use.

But they are also looking to a future where the population of Las Vegas continues to grow — Nevada is one of the fastest-growing states — as climate change poses new challenges for managing an overused river system shared by about 40 million people across the Southwest. 

The legislation, AB356, aims to reduce per capita water use by prohibiting Colorado River water from being used to irrigate ornamental turf not used for a single-family home after 2026. Ornamental, or nonfunctional, turf typically refers to grass that is installed for decorative purposes and is rarely walked on or used.

Entsminger, in a recent interview, said the prohibition would result in significant water savings. The removal of an estimated 3,900 acres of decorative turf could save roughly 9.3 billion gallons of water annually — about 10 percent of the state’s entire Colorado River allotment.

“Being able to save 10 percent of our total water supplies, without really impacting any quality of life, is really a tremendous achievement and a benefit for the overall community,” he said.

In Carson City and elsewhere, politics around water are often fractious. State-backed proposals to change water law died early into the legislative session. But the water authority’s plan earned broad buy-in from rural and urban lawmakers, industry groups and environmental groups, even some of the same people who have criticized the agency’s legislative maneuvering in the past. 

“It’s an old trope in Nevada politics that your enemy one day is your friend the next day,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of Great Basin Water Network, a coalition of water users who supported the effort. “That doesn’t foreclose on the fact that we could be at odds again down the road as it relates to water policy. In this specific case, I was thrilled to work with them.”

Ornamental grass in The Lakes on Monday, June 1, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Addressing decorative turf

The water authority serves more than 2 million residents and the millions of tourists who come to Las Vegas each year. To understand where the decorative turf is and how much water it uses, the agency uses aerial imaging that reveals where water is evaporating.

“And then we use that data to make estimates of how much [ornamental turf] we think is in each sector,” said Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of resources for the water authority. 

The agency estimates, for instance, that about 1,500 acres of decorative turf exists within the footprint of multi-family residences, a category that includes apartment buildings. About 1,000 acres of the turf exist at commercial and industrial properties. 

In an arid climate like Las Vegas, one that is only predicted to become warmer as the climate continues to change, the amount of water consumed to irrigate grass can add up quickly. 

A square-foot of grass needs about 73 gallons of water each year to survive. The legislation would require the removal of about 3,900 acres of decorative turf (the final version of the bill exempts single-family residences). Assuming all of the grass is converted to desert landscaping, which uses about 18 gallons each year, the bill would save about 9.3 billion gallons of water.

For years, the water authority has offered cash incentives to residents and businesses looking to convert turf to desert-friendly landscaping. But in an era of cutting back, the program has run into its limits, as Entsminger noted at a water authority board meeting earlier this year.

The agency has met resistance from homeowners associations who see decorative turf as an appealing feature, Entsminger said. At the board meeting, the agency presented one response from the Altura community within Summerlin: “...our community chose Altura for the beautiful green entrance. As we are well aware there is not much of it unless you live on a golf course. With that said, Altura is declining to move forward with the proposed turf replacement.” 

The water authority also encounters other types of challenges in removing decorative turf. Apartment buildings and commercial properties sometimes have a diffuse ownership structure — governed by layers of LLCs — or out-of-state owners who are accustomed to grass-centric landscaping.

Water authority officials say those ownership dynamics can make it challenging for the agency to contact a property owner about decorative turf. In other cases, out-of-state property owners, unfamiliar with the arid climate of the Southwest, might not understand the severity of the issue. 

In all, turf removal has declined since the 2000s and stayed below the water authority’s goal of converting at least 150 acres per year, even after the agency increased the rebates in 2018.

“The era where just carrots are going to get [us to] where we need to get is coming to the end,” Entsminger said during the March board meeting. “We’re going to have to use some sticks.” 

The water authority board, comprising local elected officials, agreed. In addition to the issues around turf removal, Entsminger raised another argument for acting: consumptive use — the total amount of water used by Las Vegas and not recycled in Lake Mead — ticked up in 2020. 

“We’re probably going to have to make some harder decisions this year to right the curve,” said Marilyn Kirkpatrick, who chairs the agency’s board and the Clark County Commission. 

An example of a vegetation classification analysis, which allows the Southern Nevada Water Authority to spot water use. Yellow polygons with markings are used to locate grass. Yellow polygons with no markings are used to show trees. Purple polygons show pools, and blue polygons display pool covers. (Provided courtesy of the Southern Nevada Water Authority)

Flipping the script in Carson City

Before Assemblyman Howard Watts III (D-Las Vegas) was elected to the Legislature and came to chair the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, he worked with the Great Basin Water Network. The advocacy group is best known for fighting against the Las Vegas water authority’s decades-long effort to pump rural groundwater from rural eastern Nevada to urban Las Vegas. 

Now, as chairman of the legislative committee, the roles were reversed. Watts actively helped the water authority get its legislation to the governor’s desk. During an interview in his Carson City office last month, Watts described the new law as “hugely significant in a couple of ways.”

Watts said he viewed the turf removal legislation as “the next step in a paradigm shift for the Southern Nevada Water Authority", one where more emphasis is placed on conservation of its existing Colorado River supplies, rather than importing new supplies.

“I worked for a long time to try and get the authority to move away from the pipeline project in eastern Nevada, which they’ve done,” Watts said. “As a result, they know that the Colorado River is their primary source of water for the foreseeable future — and we need to do more to protect and enhance that source.” 

When the legislative session began in February, none of the proposed bills addressed Colorado River conservation — at least directly.

But one bill, AB356, proposed by the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, looked at water issues more broadly. The bill, as it was originally proposed, aimed to create a conservation credit system for managing water rights. At the same time, there were rumblings that the water authority wanted its own conservation bill.

The market-based approach in AB356, along with companion legislation (AB354) to establish water banks, was received with skepticism from conservationists, ranchers and farmers. They were concerned the state’s proposal was not fully vetted and could lead to speculative behavior.

In that opposition, the water authority saw an opening. 

In April, a few weeks after the agency’s board meeting, water authority lobbyist Andy Belanger proposed an amendment to AB356 that replaced the original bill with the turf removal program. 

At the meeting where the water authority introduced the idea, a group of key players came out to back the amendment: The Vegas Chamber, the Southern Nevada Homebuilders Association and local governments. Environmental advocates quickly backed the plan, too. The Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group, released a supportive statement that same day.

With Watts’ help, AB356 was amended to become the water authority’s bill. It eventually passed unanimously in the Senate. It then passed on a largely party-line 30 to 12 vote in the Assembly, with four Republicans voting in favor. On Friday, Sisolak signed the bill into law.

“It's incumbent upon us, for the next generation, to be more conscious of our conservation and natural resources, water being particularly important,” Sisolak told reporters last week. 

Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka), well-known in the Legislature for having vast knowledge of Nevada water law and being a critic of the water authority’s pipeline project, voted in favor of the bill.

In an interview, he said the numbers the water authority presented spoke for themselves. They showed significant savings.

Goicoechea initially raised concerns that removing that much grass from the valley could increase surface temperatures, but he said he was assured by the water authority’s plans to offset those impacts with the planting of new trees on drip irrigation.

“It clearly is an area that has to be addressed,” he said, referring to nonfunctional turf. 

Assemblyman Howard Watts inside the Legislature on Tuesday, March 9, 2021 in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Setting the stage for a drier future

Now the challenge is implementing the turf removal program.

The legislation leaves much of that up to the water authority’s board of local elected officials. But it also calls for the creation of a Nonfunctional Turf Removal Advisory Committee. Most importantly, it sets a target date about five years from now — Dec. 31, 2026 — for the removal of most of the 3,900 acres of grass.

That year is also important for the Colorado River.

Existing rules for how to manage Lake Mead and the Colorado River expire in 2026. Leaders from the seven states that use the river, Colorado River tribes, environmental groups, agricultural interests and developers are gearing up for negotiations over how water from the river is managed as climate change increases the risk of shortages. 

In a recent interview, Entsminger said the situation is serious, but that the agency is preparing for cuts by lowering demand. The turf removal legislation is one of several programs. He said  removing the 3,900 acres of turf would nearly offset the deepest cuts the water authority agreed to under the Drought Contingency Plan, an agreement that spells out tiered cuts during drought.

“When people see the headlines about the hydrology on the Colorado River, when they read about these looming shortages, I think they need to know that that is serious,” he said. “That is not hyperbole. But we as a community have the tools at our disposal to meet that challenge.”

For developers and environmental groups, there is also another side of an equation: Growth. Eyeing population growth, Clark County is actively looking to increase the Las Vegas footprint.

Conserved water can also serve as a new water supply. Roerink, who leads the Great Basin Water Network, said it was not lost on him that the business community, including homebuilders and the Vegas Chamber, came out in strong support of the legislation to remove decorative turf. But he warned about the rush to put conserved water back into use for homes or new developments. 

“That would be a tragic mistake,” he said. 

Watts acknowledged the concern. Several big-picture trends that are driving growth in Las Vegas and across the Southwest, he noted, and it’s important for policymakers to be prepared. It would be imprudent, he said, to allow growth and do nothing to conserve water. 

“I'll leave it to other people to debate the bigger-picture questions around how and how much we should grow,” Watts said. “But [the bill is] about addressing issues with the resource.”

Watts said his hope is that removing decorative turf could serve “as a model for the southwest and for other Colorado River-dependent communities.” 

A view of Hoover Dam in the daytime
A view of Hoover Dam is seen from the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The regional significance of ripping out grass

In the West, municipal water agencies are wary of comparing their policies, sometimes for good reason. Every municipal water system is unique, even if they rely on the same water source. But many agencies have encouraged their customers to reconsider lawns.

Oftentimes, these rules apply to new development, said Peter Mayer, an expert in municipal water management who runs WaterDM, a consulting firm based in Colorado. What makes the water authority’s turf removal program significant is that it applies to existing decorative turf. 

“The startling part of this proposal is the concept of removing existing turf,” he said.

Mayer said removing ornamental turf could put Las Vegas, which already uses a small amount of Colorado River water, in a powerful position as Colorado River negotiators meet to discuss how to manage the river after 2026. Las Vegas officials can now point to the clear and aggressive measures they have taken to ensure the sustainability of the river. 

“That's a powerful position to take, especially when you've got upstream neighbors, such as Utah and Washington County, where they are proposing additional withdrawals,” he said.

For years, Utah’s Washington County, which includes St. George, has sought to permit a project that would divert Colorado River water from Lake Powell to southern Utah.

There are other less tangible benefits to removing turf. 

Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River program director for the Audubon Society, said removing decorative turf helps remind people in the Southwest that they live in an arid climate. 

“It helps to change the local population's perception of where they live,” she said. 

Water managers, she noted, are often wary of one-size-fits-all solutions. Different water agencies have different portfolios and demands. For instance, some cities within the Colorado River Basin rely on other water supplies, not just the Colorado River.

"At the same time, I think people can learn from each other, and I'm using people on purpose, because it's both water managers and also landscaping managers and communities,” she said.

In addition to leading the water authority, Entsminger serves as the president of the Colorado River Water Users Association. He declined to say whether other cities should adopt similar turf standards, but he said “everyone on the Colorado River, in all economic sectors, is going to have to use less water.”

"I think everybody has to use less water,” Entsminger said. “And if they want to choose having turf in a traffic circle over some other sector of their economy, then that’s their decision. But our decision is to really focus on the removal of this nonfunctional turf.”

Sprinklers water turf in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 23, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Indy Q+A: UNLV President Keith Whitfield on COVID, budget cuts and the future

unlv president whitfield

When UNLV President Keith Whitfield took the university’s top job last summer, he came to Nevada at a pivotal moment. 

The university’s first Black president, he arrived by way of Michigan’s Wayne State University just as the country was roiled by inflection point after inflection point, from the ongoing public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic to weeks and months of protest over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. 

UNLV’s fourth president since 2014, Whitfield came to the higher education system at a time defined, both then and now, by a series of slow-motion crises. Budget were slashed last year as revenues fell, almost all instruction was shunted online and questions loomed as to how institutions would plan their recoveries in the absence of hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. 

Even now, as the worst public health effects of the pandemic have ebbed as vaccine availability has widened, the higher education picture remains mixed. Optimism is high for a return to largely in-person instruction in the summer and fall, but enrollments remain down from pre-pandemic levels, and administrators are waiting with bated breath to see whether lawmakers will go beyond the 12 percent budget cuts recommended by the governor. 

The Nevada Independent sat down with Whitfield to discuss some of the biggest issues facing UNLV — from the pandemic to land grant status to diversity and racism.

Editor’s note: This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

How will UNLV manage COVID restrictions differently in the fall than over the past year, if at all? 

Our intention is that we're going to be back in person in the fall. We haven't hit the exact number in terms of percentages, you know, before we were 80 percent, remote 20 percent [in-person], and we vacillated around those numbers just a little bit. But we do expect that to be flipped, that we're going to have, you know, 85, maybe higher than that be in person. 

But we will still have some, we call them "hyflex" hybrid classes, where professors will actually offer both, both remote [and in person]. You know, this, it speaks to how skillful our faculty are, because it's almost like a Merv Griffin kind of moment, that they're kind of managing those two things. But I think that's one of the things we need to take as a positive, is that our faculty have kind of gained a new skill set in being able to manage their core classes and courses using technology and using that virtual environment. And they can go back to what they know best, which is doing it in person. 

So we're trying to make as much flexibility as possible. It can't be done for everybody, but we're thinking strategically about which courses we might think about trying to have in that hyflex space. And we work very closely with our faculty to figure that out. 

But that's what our intention is for the fall, that it's going to be in person, July 1.

What do you believe UNLV’s role is in managing the public health aspect of the pandemic moving forward? 

You've seen a role that we played, it's one of the things that I take a certain — I'm just so proud to be here. We have truly been an integral part of how we've been trying to encourage people for vaccinations and make sure that there was testing available. We've used our campus, we've used our faculty, we've used our staff to be able to do whatever is needed in this part of Southern Nevada, to be able to try to help with that. 

And I think you've asked a really good question, which is how will that messaging go through in the future? And it does, in part, depend on how we move. There's even some numbers that suggest that, while herd immunity may be around 80 [percent], — which, the number keeps going up, which is a little discouraging to me — there's some decision points around 60 percent. And that, we want to truly try to get us to at least 60 percent, and that that's going to help some. 

Our folks work with the Southern Nevada Health District to be able to work on some of the messaging, I did find it interesting when I was driving in this morning on one of, I think, one of our pieces of property, there's a big lighted sign saying, ‘Hey, students, you can come get a free vaccine.’ So we're going to continue to do that. 

With the drop in numbers, though, you know, there have been vaccination sites that have been closing. And we take our directions from the county and the health district, about whether they need us or not. But we're here to hang in here as long as we can. Our public health people are very interested in the messaging piece, and I think that that's going to evolve over time. You know, right now, we're starting to move into more of a time when the people who haven't gotten their vaccination, a lot of it’s because of fear and hesitancy. And we need to just be able to encourage them in different ways. 

Will UNLV students be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine before they can come back to in person classes? 

We will not. We do follow what the state suggests, or orders us to do, which is that that will not be a requirement. There are some requirements that the state, again, actually puts forward in terms of immunizations to attend public schools. But that's where we take our marching orders from, the state, and that is not a part of what will go on in the future. 

We really do want to encourage students to be able to get vaccinated, and to come back on our campus full time, that’s going to make our environment, our community as safe as we think it can be. So that's, that's what we're going to encourage, but there won't be a requirement.

UNLV President Keith Whitfield on Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

With the expectation that the Legislature will cut 12 percent of the higher education budget this legislative session, what is UNLV’s strategy for mitigating or negating the worst effects of the cuts in the long term?  

There needs to be certain priorities. One of the priorities that we have is student success, and so we have to make sure that as students now have to transition back to the old way of doing things, that they actually have all the mechanisms that they need. We're looking into seeing ways that we can increase advisers, for example, because that creates clear pathways for our students to be able to get their degrees. So that's one element. 

Another element is about our ability to be able to hire and retain faculty. You know, that was one of the huge swaths that we used as a mechanism for being able to address the cuts from last year. And we're hoping that — you know, it's so funny to almost hope, we're not hoping for a 12 percent [cut], we're hoping that it's no more than a 12 percent cut. Because it's still going to really, severely hamstring us. 

One of the reasons why this is important is to be able to deliver the best education to our students, and to be able to have a full faculty be able to do that. Second is we've recently become a Research-1, Carnegie, top-designated research university, and that's driven by our faculty. And so having to dip into that resource that we have, in terms of being able to recruit and hire great faculty to come here, is something that worries me greatly, that it's something that we're really going to need to be able to do for us to be able to retain that status. 

In addition to that, it is the other kinds of operations that we do as a university, both internally and externally, what we give to what we provide for the community, but also the kinds of things that we just do to run our normal operations. We have people working on it, I would say, you know, I could call them any point in time and say, ‘What are you doing,’ and they're working on trying to figure out ways that we can find efficiencies, because we're being forced to. It’s not necessarily the best practice, may not even be the best thing for us. But it's to accommodate and to try to adjust to a budget cut.

One major higher education issue in the Legislature right now is SB287, which would formally designate UNLV and the Desert Research Institute as land grant institutions in statute. Why do you think SB287 is necessary or good, or both, for UNLV? 

Our perspective on all of this is that we want to figure out a way to grow the pie, as it were, for the state. There are grants that can be pursued; we've identified a number of them, that we have the talent, and because of our location, to be able to do that. We are an urban research university, and that's a very unique combination of skills, where it's not just even for the city — we do outreach into rural areas, as well — and so we have that balance there, and there are some opportunities for us to be able to do that. 

It doesn't necessarily mean it just because we're local, but we are in this part of the state, we're connected to the community, but we're going to be connected even more to the community as time goes on. And so our ability to be able to help provide support for different aspects of the community, whether it be, you know, 4-H, or….urban sorts of things in terms of economic growth and things, those are things that can fall under that land grant item, that we're very well positioned to do — we're already committed to doing those things. 

But it would be great to have those additional dollars. Those additional dollars come to the state and they have more of an impact than just paying for people, they actually promote other parts of economic growth for the state. Just because there's indirect costs, it's less of a reliance on other things. I mean, you have to be careful with research dollars, because research actually usually costs money as much as it actually brings dollars in, but this is one where we kind of grow the brand of this part of the state as being both you know, community serving and research oriented. 

And the land grant status designation is not only for us, but for [the Desert Research Institute] as well. We think we'll really be able to help that and expand that. So it's more of an issue of just making sure that there's fairness and the opportunity to be able to grow and do other things.

I want to ask specifically about the Extension, because President Brian Sandoval at UNR has said that there is no more room for the pie to grow, that there won’t be more federal dollars available if this change is made and that it will irrevocably harm programs already offered by UNR without being able to fully fund those same programs at UNLV. What would you say to that? 

It's an interesting perspective. And I think from our university's perspective, we think a lot about collaborating. I think this is the idea of, too, that, you know, when I say grow the pie, that doesn't mean that there's only one slice per person. It's the idea that we can actually take some of these things and make an approach that's more of a collaborative approach, so that we can actually provide the best services that are possible. 

Some of that money for Extension also comes from the county, [Clark County Commission Chair] Marilyn Kirkpatrick has spoken about this, and actually asked that the state, you know, put more money into Extension, and some of that comes from our citizens as well. And so we want to make sure that we can provide the additional kinds of assistance operations programs that we're suited to be able to help do. And some of that could come from collaborations between our universities, rather than just saying, "It's yours, or it's mine." I don't think that that is a way forward on most things. We really need to figure out when we can collaborate and President Sandoval and I have said this, now, a number of times — when we can collaborate, it makes sense to collaborate. And when we can compete, it makes sense for us to compete. 

There's, I think, there's several things that make it sensible for us to be able to collaborate on some of those things, maybe make better, more efficient use of some of those dollars. And that's our perspective on it. 

Our biggest thing, too, is that we don't want to do any harm. We're not looking to try to take away programs, we're trying to figure out, "Hey, is there a way that we either, you know, programming starts here at UNLV, or programming might be some that we reach out to our partner or our collaborator, UNR, that work that's done here in Southern Nevada, that we're better positioned to be able to help do, that we can actually take it to another level and do better.” 

Sometimes, it's not always about the individual dollar, it's about the effort and the people that are there. And given our connection to the community, our desire to do everything we can — I think that's demonstrated through COVID, but it really extends to everything we do. This is a possible benefit, rather than thinking about shrinking dollars.

So when we discuss fairness and equity as part of the land grant issue, what does that mean? 

I think it's more opportunity than anything else, that we have the opportunity to, one, provide services, and two, it’s not just those Extension dollars, it is these other grant dollars that are available, too. There, there are millions of them that are out there that we can do. 

And, you know, that's the main crux of the idea, of just being fair. Again, one of our priorities will always be, and I think this is an easy one to think of, that we want to make sure that nothing actually decreases in terms of services and opportunities for people. We actually want to try to grow them. And so we think us being able to be at the table offers an opportunity for us to grow that, and then that it's a fair operation going forward.

unlv campus
UNLV campus on Thursday, April 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

So as a relatively recent outsider to the state, have you observed a regionalism or rivalry between UNR and UNLV in terms of access to funding or resources? 

It's so funny when you start that, Jacob, and you said, you know, “as an outsider.” I love this town, I love being here, so, you know, I'm struggling with that a little bit, but I do understand that I have a relatively recent understanding, interacting, seeing what goes on, some of the conversations that go back and forth. 

I think that a little bit of it does exist, a little bit of it still does exist. I think even the history is very complicated, because when I've looked at things like people have looked and said, “Oh, look at all the funding that goes to UNR,” but you know, they've taken a different approach to certain things, like they have used their bonding capabilities differently than we have. And so there's some differences between those two that are differences in approaches. 

They are — in higher ed, we think about it as, they're a residential college or they're a residential university. And we're an urban university, and it usually comes with, I hate the word, but it's “commuter campus.” And so we attack and we deal with things in a different way, in a different approach. 

I hear about the history, and I know that it comes from changes in, you know, the power base, and where people were and all those other kinds of things. And I tell you, I listened to it, I love hearing history — I never let it constrain me, I never let it constrain what we can do as a state, because this is one state. 

I'm not so Pollyanna-ish to believe that we'll just eliminate that, you know, people have blue and people have red, they're going to….have those things in terms of both their political affiliations as well as their university affiliations. But I think we have to just make sure that we keep the greater good in mind. This is one of the things that I have so enjoyed about working with President Sandoval so far, is that we really do share that, you know, hey, you know, I bleed red, he bleeds blue. That's absolutely fine. But if we see something, that's an opportunity, and we are looking at some opportunities right now, with the leadership of President [Kahmud] Acharya at DRI, of ways that the three research universities around research that we can collaborate. And Chancellor [Melody] Rose is — she is a very important, unique person. And she was a really good pick, partly too because she's outside (Rose was appointed chancellor last year following decades of higher education administration experience in Oregon). And she comes with me, with not that ingrained thinking of one or the other, but thinks about possible collaborations. 

But we have talked about other ways in which, for example, community colleges, and the four years can actually work together — I have experienced from having been in my last institution of having pathways from community colleges to four-year institutions that make it so that it fosters if students want to do that, they can do that. And it benefits not only the four-year institution, but also the community college. And so you know, community colleges are very, very complex and different ways than research universities are, and the pathways that they create for students are critically important. 

[Nevada] ranks very, very low in terms of college-educated folks. And so we have to figure out every which way we can to be able to make it so that people who do want to pursue a four-year education can do it. And so it is this bigger — I think that's what Chancellor Rose tries to keep us mindful of — is that, you know, there's much more at stake, than just whether we win the [Fremont] cannon any one year, it really is these other things. 

We can have fun doing some of those competitive things, but the things that we can collaborate on that actually build capacity, build opportunities for folks, we need to make sure that we do. And like I said, President Sandoval and I have agreed on that. And he I think, is a very honorable person, and he has stuck with that. But there's things that we compete on, there's things that we want for our institutions, as well. And so we have to manage those two different pressures.

One of the criticisms made of the push for SB287 is that it has been donor driven, rather than driven by UNLV. Do you believe that the donors have outsized influence in these kinds of policy decisions for UNLV? 

I'd say now, what it is, is more of a collaboration. You probably noted recently, we named the School of Medicine the Kerkorian School of Medicine. That was not done because we were strong-armed some kind of way. That was, it’s that we talked about it — it's way before my time, that was talked about. One of the possibilities, or even of actually eventualities, is that you name schools, and particularly medical schools. It's very important. If you look at what's happening in the landscape of higher education, that gives a certain level of prominence to universities. 

And for us, you know, that particular example is one where we said, “You know, we're working together doing these things, we have certain desires, and guess what, we've found a way that it ultimately benefits both of us.” You know, I know that there's things that are going on in the background — you noted the [Vegas Chamber] and the chamber has been supportive of things that would benefit us. And I have very good friends in the chamber, but I don't think that they're thinking about UNLV specifically, they're thinking about the region, you know, that's what a chamber is actually for. So they're promoting those things, and then we're a mechanism by which we help them. 

I mean, we're a great piece of that, and they do see, I think, the promise and the capabilities of this great university to be able to do those things. And so those things get intertwined. There's lots of ways that states move forward. And those entities that you talked about are very active in things that affect both Las Vegas and the state. But our relationship with them is one that is one that's built on trust; that's what had to be there, was that we had to trust each other. 

We trusted them, that they shared our passion for trying to grow health care in the state of Nevada. And then you come together. It's a partnership, but it is really based on trust, it goes back and forth. We have good communications, we have good connections with them. As you know, we've had a couple of changes in leadership, but we have absolutely outstanding leadership. That, too — what I like is that they appreciate it. They're like, “Oh, you share the same passion as us,” and so then it becomes a partnership.

UNLV campus on Thursday, April 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

It’s been a couple months since you mentioned a push to tackle systemic racism at UNLV in your State of the University address. How are the initiatives you mentioned at the time shaping up? 

Well, we're positioning ourselves to figure out just what those initiatives have been. I was blessed to be able to come to a university that was already talking about those well before what we saw happen last year, and even the current situation with George Floyd. You know, our office [for student diversity and social justice] has been there for, I think it's three years now. So those things are nothing new, we're tied for the second most diverse campus in the country. And that, then, has been a piece of how we've understood who we are. 

And so, my arriving, it was really to say that, let's not fool ourselves. I think sometimes in education and higher education, we believe that, because we're educated, that racism doesn't have, you know, a foothold. And it does. And I think we're trying to be honest with ourselves about it, and think about ways that we can try to deal with that. 

We've talked about this relative to hiring faculty. While we have a very diverse student body, our faculty isn't as diverse. I try to be nice, because I think our faculty, particularly the faculty Senate, our leaders, they're really passionate that we need to change these. And I go, “You know, be nice to ourselves, because we're not as far behind as others are.” Yes, we can do better, but you know, we've got a foundation to be able to do better. 

But it's those structural things, and it's some of the interactions. It's so fascinating, because it's another kind of interaction or intersection that we have, like last year. What we had was the intersection between seeing George Floyd and what happened to him that intersected with COVID and a pandemic. And it was like these two monumental things that were changing our lives that really were this fascinating intersection that, hopefully, will bring long, sustainable change. 

I think now we're at another point where we're recovering, and we're in a position to create a new normal. So what is that new normal going to be? And it's both between “Are we going to wear masks?” That is now one of the big questions. And also, “What are we going to do, trying to make a more fair, just and equitable society?” 

And so it's something that — we're leaning on [former Chief Diversity Officer Barbee Oakes], the history that she's done, but our chief diversity officer has retired. And we've thought about that as not — while it's a huge loss, I mean, I am very sorry to see her go, because I think that she was really a force — but it does give us an opportunity to try to reset and to try to think, “Okay, so let's look now at what we've done and think about how we're going to do the next level.” 

And so we're having those conversations both with faculty, staff, and with students, about what we might want to try to do, moving into both the summertime and then into the fall. I think you're gonna see a lot more activities where we make sure that we hear the voices of students and faculty and staff. I think that has been one of the biggest challenges, is that it's not necessarily about numbers sometimes. Because when you talk about effective groups, sometimes, or disadvantaged groups, many times they're minority groups, meaning that they're a smaller group. But what you want to do is to be able to hear those voices. And so we've been trying to set up ways to hear voices. 

One of the things that I really have enjoyed doing, and we're only stopping because graduation’s coming up, is that I've been having lunches with students. And we do them virtually, it's not opportune, but we have a lot of fun. And they really bring up a lot of conversations, a lot of issues, that I then, you know, have a little notepad, I start taking them down, and I go to my Cabinet, my staff, and we start talking about ways that we can try to address those. 

And so there are some things that are behind the scenes that are smaller issues that we're working on a building, and there aren't going to be other things that we're going to see and think of. I think we're going to see ways in which we can try to make sure that, as we look at pools of [faculty] candidates, that there's always a good amount of diversity in those pools. And if not, we don't think about them as being successful candidate searches. 

Taking a look at our curriculum and seeing what opportunities we have to be able to really provide diversity, one of my little pet desires is to be able to use small videos, short videos, and other opportunities to be able to build cultural intelligence. And that be something that a student could walk away and show to a future employer, “Hey, you know, I'm going to be a great team member, I'm going to be a team member not only in terms of the state, maybe nationally, maybe internationally, but because I've got a great education, but I've also got these other experiences, and some of them are, in the way of being able to understand issues around cultural intelligence.”

So we've got a few dreams of things. We've got to keep our eye on the budget to make sure we can do things that are sustainable, because we don't want to start things that we ultimately have to end, either because we don't have the money now or that we have the money in that it's one time funding, which is a lot of money that's coming from the federal government, even from the state. We want to build things that are going to be sustainable and put us on a different trajectory relative to trying to deal with issues of diversity.

Ancillary to all this, the Hey Reb! mascot was also retired in January. What was the thought process behind that decision?  

You know, my predecessor, Marta Meana, actually started that process [last year]. And essentially, we weren't using it for anything in terms of what our goings on were. A lot of times you see those characters at some of the sporting events, and so that was so different [under pandemic restrictions], so we didn't see him there. 

And so that really started before then, and so by the time we came to January, and I just thought, “This has been such a longstanding issue that we have already kind of moved in this direction, we're going to stay in that direction.”

So was it more related to the history and perception of Hey Reb!, or was it a function of inertia, that Hey Reb! was already more or less phased out by that time? 

Well, I'll be honest with you, the background of why he wasn't in use is because of those beliefs about that. And what's fascinating is, I can't remember which bill it is, but there's actually a bill that likely would have put a lot of pressure on us to do something about it. I think it's now positioned more for the high schools, but if you do have any mascot, or representation, that represents racism, or bias or whatever. 

So there is an actual bill now that's being considered around that, I think we were just a little out ahead of it, because we've been dealing with it and thinking about it for a long time. But you know, those things were behind it. 

We’re rebels. I mean, that's what we are. And believe it or not, people weren't completely happy with me keeping the “Rebel” name. Because they, in some ways, think about that rebel name with that. You know, we really want to be thoughtful about who we are as a university, and that we are “rebels,” we try to do things differently. We're not afraid to try to invent and initiate and be entrepreneurial and go out that kind of — you know, I've been called a rebel all my life. And so I don't have any problems with that. 

But I really did listen to people, and I think that there was a difference between how people view that caricature and view the name “rebel.” Also, nationally, this university is known as the UNLV Rebels. It's one of those things where, you know, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's all good, but I don't think that it's one that we can say has the same kind of, you know, problems or issues that we saw with the caricature [of Hey Reb]. I think that there's a certain amount of pride that we can take when being rebels and being different down here in this part of the state, and so I'm hoping that we continue to embrace that.

As other colleges and universities have phased out racist mascots or alumni songs or other spirit-related traditions, there’s been pushback from some big-money university donors. Did you see any complaints from donors when Hey Reb! was retired? 

I didn't. Our donors, we’re very thankful for them, they're part of our community. And when I spoke to them, I was really surprised that there are people who said, “Yeah, we've been arguing about this for forever, you know, it's not a big deal, let it go,” or others that say that, “You know, I do think that there was an issue with it.” 

To be honest with you, I was surprised. I thought that there was going to be much more pushback from donors who have that heritage. It's that they've always seen that particular caricature, and that somehow, just because they've seen it, actually made it more important than what it was. I think the idea of keeping who we are, as rebels, was far more important to them. That was more of an identity than that caricature was.

After governor announces 100 percent June reopening goal, some counties share plans to get there faster, others take a ‘measured’ approach

Three counties have signaled to the state their intent to open to 100 percent capacity as soon as possible after assuming responsibility for pandemic health and safety decision making at the beginning of May.

Representatives of Carson City, Lyon County and Storey County told members of the state’s COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force on Wednesday that their goal is to progress to a full reopening after the state hands over decision-making authority on May 1. Gov. Steve Sisolak, on Tuesday, announced that the state will lift its six-foot social distancing mandate on May 1, thereby allowing counties that want to to open up to 100 percent to do so.

However, counties are being urged to continue to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations on social distancing, which, as of now, remains at six feet. Officials from two of the three counties, Carson City and Storey County, said that they intended to still follow the CDC’s guidance, while Lyon County Manager Jeff Page noted his county’s plan is “silent” in reference to the federal recommendations.

While Sisolak’s Wednesday announcement cleared the path for 100 percent reopening, state biostatistician Kyra Morgan, during the task force meeting, cautioned counties that choose to fully reopen right away.

“For all the counties who are going to take advantage of the 100 percent reopening, I just want everyone to have realistic expectations that cases will surely go up when that happens,” Morgan said. “I just want the expectation to be realistic that we will see an increase in cases when counties increase capacity to 100 percent.”

The question is whether those case increases will then manifest as increased COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, or whether the vaccination effort is able to prevent serious illness from the virus. That, Morgan said, is the unknown.

Page, Lyon’s county manager, acknowledged that increasing case numbers is likely a reality, saying he anticipates the county will “have some bumps in the road” and that “we’re going to get some people sick for a while.” 

However, Page again urged members of the task force to encourage state officials to outline a framework now — as the state prepares to hand over control to the local governments — for at what point the state might need to take back the reins, as in the event of a significant statewide surge.

“Hopefully the state will start taking a look at that so it’s not perceived by this governor or a future governor as some political knee jerk reaction,” Page said. “It was hard enough in March 2020 to do what we did, and if we have to go back to that, it's going to be even more difficult.”

The three plans from Carson, Lyon and Storey share many similarities, though Carson’s plan still has to return to the Board of Supervisors for approval and nothing is set in stone as counties can change their rules at any time. All three plans allow retail stores, indoor malls, indoor restaurants and bars, places of worship, gyms and other establishments to open at 100 percent starting May 1.

Lyon’s County plan, which was approved by the county commission Wednesday morning, is more permissive on public gatherings than the other two, allowing gatherings and events to take place at 100 percent occupancy starting May 1. Carson’s plan, by contrast, caps indoor gatherings at 50 percent or 250 people, whichever is less, and outdoor gatherings at 250, while Storey’s limits indoor gatherings to 250 with no cap on outdoor gatherings.

But not all counties are eager to get to 100 percent immediately. Esmeralda County, which also presented to the task force on Wednesday, has proposed keeping the state’s 50 percent occupancy limits for businesses in place for the time being, with gatherings limited to 250 people or 50 percent. (Esmeralda, the state’s tiniest county by population, has a little fewer than 900 residents.)

Esmeralda Sheriff Ken Elgan stressed to the task force the county’s commitment to following federal health and safety recommendations.

“We’re cops, so we’ll follow what the health department says and the CDC,” Elgan said.

Six more counties — Washoe, Lander, Lincoln, Mineral, Pershing and White Pine — will present transition plans to the task force on Thursday, while the remaining seven counties, including Clark, will come before the task force the following Thursday.

In response to Sisolak’s Tuesday evening announcement, the Washoe County Commission canceled a special meeting it had scheduled for Wednesday in advance of its task force presentation. The county, in a statement, said it would need to update its plan — which the commission heard and proposed amendments to last week — in light of the governor’s announcement.

“I applaud the governor for reopening the state on June 1 and getting our economy moving again,” Washoe County Commission Chair Bob Lucey said in a statement. “Here in Washoe County, we have been working toward this goal for months.”

Washoe County’s original plan proposed lifting all capacity limits on businesses starting May 1 so long as they continued to provide for six-foot social distancing, a requirement that would be dropped once the county hit a 75 percent vaccination rate. Commissioners voted to amend that plan to loosen certain restrictions, such as allowing social distancing to reduce to three feet once the county hits a 50 percent vaccination rate.

In Clark County, Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick said at a press conference on Wednesday that she expected the county to be able to get to 100 percent reopening by June 1 as long as people continue to get vaccinated against and tested for the virus.

“My job is to ensure that our community is safe, first and foremost, and that’s what we’ve done all along is put public health first,” Kirkpatrick said. “However, we also need to weigh all the impacts from businesses that need to get back on track, mental health capacity for folks and unemployment, all of that weighs on a person in many ways.”

Under Clark County’s proposed plan, which will be considered at a commission meeting on Tuesday, the 50 percent capacity limit currently in place statewide for most businesses will remain in place, though certain other restrictions will be lifted. 

For instance, restaurants will be able to seat a maximum of 10 people per table instead of six, self-service buffets will be allowed and hot tubs and spas may open. Additionally, night clubs, day clubs and strip clubs, which are currently closed under statewide rules, will be allowed to open at 50 percent capacity on May 1.

The county’s plan also lays out a framework for large gatherings, with events allowed to operate at 100 percent capacity if 60 percent of the county is vaccinated, cases remain below 1,150 per week and the test positivity rate is at or below 5 percent.

Kirkpatrick noted Clark County is in a significantly different position than rural counties, which may choose to open at 100 percent on May 1. As the state’s economic driver, Clark County needs to have a “measured approach” to reopening, she said.

“Storey County has not had many positives this entire time. Lincoln County has not. So they likely could open to 100 percent much faster,” Kirkpatrick said. “Clark County is the engine that drives the train economically. We’re also the engine that has the highest unemployment rate. We do not want to shut that down.”

Jackie Valley contributed to this report.

Debate over land grant status has renewed the north-south divide in Nevada higher education

Since the inception of UNLV in the 1950s as Nevada Southern, a pervasive narrative has persisted among higher education advocates in the South: UNLV is the stepchild to UNR, constantly given short shrift in budget negotiations and suffering in the long term as a consequence, even as Las Vegas has emerged as the state's economic center over that same time period.

But is that perception a reality? 

The truth of the matter, according to more than a dozen interviews with those involved with higher education policy past and present, is in the eye of the beholder. There are vast — often uncontrollable, sometimes highly personal — forces putting different pressures on different actors. Regents, lawmakers, university presidents, faculty advocates and even the voting public all push and pull on a system that starts at the ballot box and ends in byzantine negotiations over full-time equivalent headcounts, weighted student credit hours and multi-million dollar budgets. 

Heading into this year’s legislative session, however, there was an outward display of unity in the face of devastating budget cuts triggered by the pandemic. Between UNR, UNLV, system administrators, community colleges and even regents, there was little daylight on major issues from scholarships to sexual harassment policy to the need for “shared sacrifice” in the face of yet more budget cuts.

And thus far, more than halfway through the session, that unity has disappeared on just one issue: SB287, a bill sponsored by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) that would formally acknowledge existing legal opinions that say UNLV and the Desert Research Institute are included alongside UNR as federally recognized land grant institutions. 

Originally created under the Morrill Act of 1862 and later expanded through additional federal legislation, the land grant program was meant to spur the development of universities nationwide through the wide availability and sale of federal land. Today, the designation has morphed into a historic signifier of a college's commitment to agricultural education or programming, and more broadly allows land grant schools to apply for specialized grants through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Education Committee Friday — a committee with no Northern Nevada members — clearing the first hurdle on its way toward becoming law. With it has come a renewed focus on decades of history and perceptions of that history that, advocates said, have placed UNR on a pedestal to the detriment of UNLV. 

The land grant question

The primary purpose of SB287 is a formal recognition of what several legal opinions, including those at the Legislative Counsel Bureau and the Nevada System of Higher Education, have already concluded: that the Constitution names Nevada’s “State University” as a land grant institution, and that university — the University of Nevada — includes not only UNR, but also UNLV and DRI. 

Proponents have said that because the federal government only formally recognizes UNR as the state’s sole land grant school — it was founded 147 years ago as a result of the Morrill Land Grant Act, the foundational federal law from which this entire issue derives — SB287 has become a necessity in providing UNLV equal access to apply to competitive federal grants in land grant-specific fields. 

Eric Chronister, Dean of the College of Sciences at UNLV, said the current system has created a legal limbo where, even though the university’s faculty want to contribute research under land grant-specific grants offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “they’re not able to participate.” 

“I'm sort of an absolutist,” Chronister said. “Either someone needs to say, ‘UNLV can never be a land grant institution,’ and our faculty need to know they can never apply for these things, or someone needs to say that, in fact, we are, so that they can. It's really that simple.”

When it became clear that lawmakers would pursue a formal recognition of land grant status for UNLV and DRI this year, university administrators and key donors jumped at the chance to secure access to more research funding at a time when the institution is seeking to solidify and maintain a status as a top-tier research university. 

In a letter sent to the Senate Education Committee Thursday and co-signed by UNLV President Keith Whitfield and major business leaders from the Vegas Chamber, the Council for a Better Nevada and the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, UNLV argued that the issue is primarily about providing “equal and fair” access to federal resources. 

“By expanding accessibility to federal grants that have land-grant requirements, this legislation  allows UNLV to grow the research pie by bringing additional federal dollars to Southern Nevada  and the state as a whole,” the letter said. “It is our commitment that existing programs will continue to serve the Southern Nevada community.” 

But the proposal has triggered deep skepticism from some administrators and faculty at UNR, where the criticism of SB287 has been most fierce. Most northern critics, including UNR President and former Gov. Brian Sandoval, have contended that this is not about denying UNLV land grant status or enshrining UNR as the sole land grant institution. Instead, they say, it’s about the financial gutting of crucial programs already entrenched at UNR for little gain elsewhere. 

Key to this point of the debate is the other half of having land grant status: the Cooperative Extension. Federal land grant money, supplemented with county-level taxes, supports a number of well-liked county-level agricultural and educational programs, including 4-H and other youth programs. 

Extension funding has become the core of the issue for UNR, just as it was when the issue last emerged in 2017. Then, as governor, Sandoval vetoed a similar bill, AB407, in part on the grounds that it would endanger program funding at UNR without providing the means to replace those programs at UNLV. 

“There's a fixed amount of money that we receive, that the state receives, and then the university receives programmatic money associated with this land grant status,” Sandoval said in an interview with The Nevada Independent Monday. “As a result of this bill, it will split that three ways and dilute that money which will make a two-thirds reduction, I guess you could say, from UNR’s budget in that regard, which will obviously have an effect on services.”

Indeed, as Southern Nevada lawmakers have moved to raise the land grant issue again this year, Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick co-authored an op-ed with UNR Extension Director Ivory Lyles in The Nevada Independent arguing for additional state funding for Extension programs, not less. 

“Now more than ever, residents in all corners of Nevada need access to the educational programs and services provided by Extension, to help grow their businesses, educate their children, improve their health and nutrition, preserve our natural resources, and more,” the pair wrote. “It is an essential time to begin returning to the formerly equitable state-county partnership.”

As originally worded, SB287 would have severely restricted Extension funding almost overnight, essentially splitting limited programmatic funding three-ways with little consideration for existing programs. 

That provision will likely be changed in the final bill language under an amendment proposed by the Nevada Association of Counties, which has suggested leaving the formal process of divvying up land-grant related funding to the discretion of the NSHE chancellor, Melody Rose. 

The chancellor would then become the chief arbiter of the issue in creating a committee of land grant stakeholders, including the director of the Extension, with the end goal of creating an equitable funding structure for all parties to be approved later by regents and, finally, by legislators in the 2023 session. 

Even so, Rose said the Nevada System of Higher Education is formally remaining neutral on SB287, in keeping with Board of Regents policy established when the issue arose in 2017. 

“We respect the Legislature's authority to engage in this policy analysis, and my role as chancellor is to advance all of the institutions within the NSHE system,” Rose said. “And under the current configuration of the bill, if it passes, the implementation committee would provide me an opportunity to convene the stakeholders, and in a moment of pause, consider all of the options, all of the implications and craft agreements between the presidents and bring them forward after careful consideration.”

But even as the amendment has emerged as a compromise among system and county administrators, concerns remain at UNR that SB287 could hobble the institution’s Extension funding by the time the dust has settled. 

“That amendment does nothing to cure the issue of whether the dilution of those scarce federal funds by designating DRI and UNLV as land grant institutions does not increase the pie,” Sandoval said. “It doesn't allow for more eligibility for more of those programmatic funds. That is fixed. That's a formula that says that it's fixed on the amount of agriculture that's going on in the state and some other factors. And the counties provide the matches to that program, to the Cooperative Extension, so all those formulas and things would be affected.”

And as much as the issue of the Extension has become the political hot potato at the core of the debate over SB287, it is not the only factor driving northern opposition to the otherwise simple recognition of land grant status. 

Land grant institutions across the country are deeply rooted in the history of higher education itself, developed as part of a plan in the mid-19th century to lay the groundwork for a nationwide public agricultural and “mechanic arts” education as the U.S. rapidly settled the West. 

Tracing its roots back to a class of just seven students in Elko in 1874, what would become the University of Nevada, Reno was the sole university in the state — let alone the sole land grant institution — for almost 100 years (the then-Nevada Southern University in Las Vegas only graduated its first class in 1964, and the name “UNLV” was not adopted until 1969).

The national history, observers said, has become a powerful point of pride and prestige for any and all long-time land grant schools, not just UNR. But it also has developed a sense of specialization, one driven by more than a century of focus on agricultural and mining education and research, that has given rise to an argument that no school is better positioned to deliver land-grant related agricultural programs in Nevada than UNR.  

“I think for us, it's more that we have years of history of building programs specific to agriculture, specific to our mining industry or ranching industry — those things right,” UNR Faculty Senate Chair Amy Pason said. “That's why we exist, that's why UNR, as an institution, exists.”

Pason said that part of the issue for faculty is a concern that their efforts in establishing and developing such programs would be rendered “meaningless” if “anybody can be named land grant without having to do the same kind of programs or responsibilities that we do.” 

More than that, faculty and administrators at UNR have questioned the real-world benefit of UNLV’s land grant designation in terms of access to federal grants, suggesting it would endanger the Extension at the risk of doing little to change the federal-grant landscape in Nevada. 

Sandoval said “it wouldn’t really change anything” and that UNLV and DRI would “still be able to go after the grants” they already are pursuing. Pason, similarly, said it was a minimal change, that “it doesn’t actually do anything if we just start naming our institutions ‘land grant.’”

Chronister pushed back on those characterizations as “just wrong,” pointing in part to work being done in conjunction with mining companies from the university’s geoscience department and adding that “not enough people know about UNLV.” 

“In a way, it's sort of indicative of — there's a reason why people don't know enough about UNLV, because we're not given the [land grant] status that we should,” Chronister said.

He added that he would not be “so conservative” about the raw dollar amounts that could be at stake should UNLV be recognized federally as a land grant institution, saying in part that “we know we can’t go to the state and ask for more dollars, we just want the opportunity to compete for the federal dollars that support the things we’re expert at.”

But even outside the wonky arguments over legal intent, funding and research, there remain deeper concerns over the politics of a policy like SB287 — namely who is pushing such a proposal, and why they are looking to get it passed now. 

There is open suspicion among some SB287 critics of the decidedly business-oriented backers of SB287, namely the Council for a Better Nevada (CBN), which has backed and presented several pieces of higher education legislation this session alone.

SB287 is the only measure proposed by the group this session that would directly and explicitly benefit UNLV, but critics point to a pattern of involvement that suggests the donors maintain more control of such policy decisions than UNLV itself. 

“My understanding is that, although UNLV isn't sponsoring the bill, they do support the bill, but it isn't sponsoring the bill,” Sandoval said. “The bill was presented by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) and then through testimony of Maureen Schafer on behalf of the Council for a Better Nevada, which in my understanding, is the entity that is pushing this bill aggressively. ”

CBN — a non-profit funded by Clark County business leaders seeking to “improve the quality of life in Nevada” — has for several years been openly involved in a number of high profile higher education policies and projects, including a push to remove regents from the Constitution through Question 1 last year.

Schafer, executive director of CBN and the former founding chief of staff at the UNLV School of Medicine, pushed back on CBN’s Northern Nevada critics in part by saying “there’s a lot of them who are never going to realize that there’s a Southern Nevada to Northern Nevada.”

“Change is really hard, and we're just taking the hill right now, you know,” Schafer said. “But I don't mean to demagogue Northern Nevada, it's just that 100 or so people in those positions who just think it's always going to be this way.”

The North-South divide

Schafer’s argument, and to an extent UNLV’s argument over equity with SB287, emerge from an entrenched history of disparities between universities North and South, in which one institution time-and-time again arose as the perceived “has,” while the other was relegated to the perceived “has-not.”

These arguments emerge in part, however, as a matter of perspective. Robert Dickens spent three decades lobbying for UNR, and in that time witnessed the shift of a north-south rivalry from athletics, “where that kind of rivalry is endemic in higher education,” to politics, economics and academics, where he said it had become a destructive force. 

Dickens said that as new Las Vegans — having come from elsewhere — looked to enmesh themselves in a new city, they sought the “Rebels” of UNLV as a key cornerstone of that urban community. 

“In the process, over time, of becoming a Southern Nevadan, you also drank the Kool Aid about the sectionalism,” Dickens said. “And it's rampant … And that creates a conflicting challenge for all decision makers, because you have two different institutions doing the same kind of business, both performing well … and they want to move on and take care of the things that are their missions. And, frankly, when this stuff enters the Nevada Legislature or the executive branch, it becomes deleterious.”

But, Dickens said, that sectionalism arose for a bevy of reasons, from the origins of UNLV as Nevada Southern to the geographic proximity of UNR to the Legislature in Carson City to the relationships between some UNR presidents and lawmakers to the high turnover of leadership at UNLV. 

Also key to this dynamic, he said, was the frequently complex and opaque manner in which the state’s budget was finalized by lawmakers. That process was for years led in the Senate by Republican Sen. Bill Raggio, a famed friend of UNR (his name now adorns the university’s College of Education) who chaired the powerful Senate Finance Committee from 1993 until 2005. 

Barbara Buckley, a former Democratic assemblywoman from Clark County who served from 1994 to 2011, including a stint as Assembly speaker from 2007 to 2011, said “it was no secret” that Raggio played a major role in how higher education funding was distributed.

“In the 90s and the 2000s, there were not as many representatives from Southern Nevada as there are today, and the Senate leadership positions were controlled by legislators in Northern Nevada,” Buckley said. “And so historically, there was a perception, and many say a reality, that UNR received greater funding than UNLV.”

Buckley said the budgeting process then was as it is now, frequently “quick and frenzied,” leaving little time to assess detailed budgets like higher education. 

But even in Raggio’s absence, most observers agree that the most substantial budgeting differences between UNR and UNLV were not ironed out until the passage of an entirely new funding formula — one based on so-called weighted student credit hours rather than full-time equivalent headcounts — in 2011 and 2013. 

Even then, controversy reignited once a Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation revealed in 2016 then-Chancellor Dan Klaich had misled lawmakers during the formula revision process by presenting a letter to a committee under a consultant’s letterhead. 

Klaich denied wrongdoing and said that some emails presented by the Review-Journal story were meant as jokes, though he did eventually resign. Shortly after his exit, legislators drafted AJR5, a measure that would pull the regents from the Constitution as a means of increasing legislative oversight over the higher education system (that measure ultimately failed at the ballot box last year, though a similar bill has been revived this year as SJR7, a bill backed in part by CBN).

These examples are only a small slice of decades of political fighting over limited state resources for UNLV and UNR, fighting that included years of haggling over the future of the UNLV medical school or, following the Great Recession, the very survival of higher education in the face of briefly proposed 50 percent cuts

Today, it’s unclear whether regionalism extends beyond the realm of sports and such niche funding issues as SB287. Last year saw the appointment of new presidents at UNR and UNLV and a new chancellor, and the trio — alongside the other college presidents and the regents — have so far signaled unity on major issues being proposed by legislators. 

Even on budget cuts, the universities have toed a similar line, stating on one hand that the 12 percent cuts being pursued by lawmakers as part of the governor’s recommended budget will be devastating in the short term, but on the other hand that they understand the need for shared sacrifice if it means long term survival. 

SB287 will next head to a floor vote by the state Senate sometime before the first house passage deadline on April 20.

Tempers flare over bill creating hybrid, partially appointed school boards in Clark and Washoe counties

The front of the Clark County School District administrative building

For years, state lawmakers and local elected officials have quietly and not-so-quietly expressed frustration at the bickering and lingering controversies from the Clark County School District Board of Trustees.

Since at least 2015, state lawmakers have introduced but failed to pass proposals modifying the school board structure in the nation’s fifth largest school district — egged on by issues ranging from workplace harassment, to ethics complaints, to a tweet telling teachers to “Dust off those resumes” if they didn’t want to resume in-person classes.

But the effort to move to partially appointed school boards may have its best chance yet to pass this session in the form of Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson’s AB255, heard Tuesday afternoon in the Assembly Education Committee.

The bill attracted more than an hour of public comment, with many local Southern Nevada governments, business groups and one teacher’s union in favor of the proposal, but with another major teacher’s union, several education advocates and trustees themselves opposed to the change.

But Frierson indicated that patience with fully elected school boards may be wearing thin.

“I think that school boards are just as important as picking a doctor, and you don’t elect your doctor,” he said during the hearing. “Because they have important decisions, whether it's HR, whether it's development of curriculum, whether it's budgets, whether it's ethics, I think these are all reasons why we need to find a way to make sure that we have a richer experience moving forward.”

The bill itself would reduce the number of elected school board positions in the Clark County and Washoe County school districts from seven to four and allow for appointment of three local governments — one from the county commission and one each from the two largest cities in each county. The new districts would need to be nearly equal in population and composed of a contiguous area, which Frierson said could be accomplished during the scheduled 2021 redistricting process.

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) has introduced similar legislation in the form of SB111, but that measure has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Frierson said he was open to suggestions on the bill, noting that he didn’t intend the measure to villainize any school board members, but said the overall goal was to increase accountability for the state’s largest school boards. 

“In a state where we have one of the largest school districts in the country, we can't afford to have some of the distractions and dysfunction that we have in years past,” he said. 

Supporters of the bill included a wide range of local Southern Nevada elected officials, including Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick, who called in to support the bill, saying that there has been “many opportunities missed” in potential collaboration between the Clark County school board and other local governments in the county. She specifically noted that a bill passed last session authorizing a sales tax increase had helped the county establish an anti-truancy program, but said the school board had proven difficult to work with in the sharing of data.

“I think what you heard here today is students, students, students need voices, voices, voices,” she said. “I think you also heard that there's a diversity of issues that are out there, and that we need folks that can bring a level of professionalism and some additional insight to the school board trustees.”

Other supporters included lobbyists representing the cities of North Las Vegas, Las Vegas and Henderson, the Vegas Chamber, the Retail Association of Nevada, and the Clark County Education Association — union executive director John Vellardita criticized the CCSD board as spending the past decade engaged in “dysfunctional behavior at the expense of students and frontline educators.”

“We need change, and we need it now,” he said.

But several opponents of the bill suggested that lawmakers could adopt other accountability changes that could increase the level of professionalism among school board members, but didn’t think lawmakers should take away the ability of voters in large counties to choose their school board representatives.

The Nevada State Education Association testified in opposition to the bill, listing several suggested accountability changes ranging from advisory seats on school boards, a statewide code of conduct for trustees with options for possible removal, better compensation, and even ranked choice voting in school board races. But union representatives said that taking away voting power would lead to less accountability, not more. 

“Appointed school boards are shielded by an appointing authority who typically has significant other responsibilities, in addition to the appointment of school board members,” NSEA lobbyist Alexander Marks said. “It's extremely rare to see an elected official voted out of office over the actions or conduct of another official they’ve appointed.”

Other education advocates said that despite any warts, electing school board trustees in the long run was the best option for a state with a political climate such as Nevada — and that decreasing the number of school board districts could reduce the diversity makeup of the boards.

“Anytime that you increase the size of a district, you are diluting minority communities,” law professor and education advocate Sylvia Lazos said during the hearing. “I think it is very important to have African-American and Latinx voices in a district that is 68 percent made up of minority children.”

One member of the Clark County School District Board of Trustees, Danielle Ford, called in to the meeting, but wasn’t allowed to testify because she had a technology issue and called in during neutral testimony. The board passed a resolution opposing the measure at a recent meeting, and a trustee from Washoe County also submitted a letter in opposition.

Clark County Trustee Irene Cepeda submitted a separate letter to the committee, writing that her three years in office had been the “most difficult responsibility I’ve ever taken on with the exception of parenting a teen and a toddler.” She wrote that the job of a trustee calls for extremely long hours on complex topics, with little compensation for the work put in.

“This first (generation) immigrant and college grad from North Las Vegas wants what everyone else wants, increased student outcomes for all our students,” she wrote. “Having a highly effective school board will help move us toward that goal, however they need to be supported. Only changing the composition of the board will amount to disenfranchisement, more constituents to represent and more of the same.”

What Happened Here: How the Battle Born state's fight against the virus turned into one against itself

Steve Waclo and his wife, Zita, have long loved the Hawaiian islands.

Last February, over the course of four days, they took a train ride around a farm on Kauai, sipped margaritas on Oahu, snorkeled with tropical fish off the coast of Maui and visited lava flows on the Big Island. The island cruise was a much-needed respite from the snowy Carson City winter for the retired couple.

As their ship clipped across the Pacific Ocean to Ensenada, Mexico, the final port of call on their cruise, the captain came in over the intercom: They had received word from the mainland that multiple passengers on the previous leg of the ship’s voyage had fallen ill with COVID-19, which was at the time still in the early stages of spreading across the globe. The ship, the Grand Princess, would be changing course and returning to San Francisco, its port of departure, immediately.

At first, the couple didn’t see any reason for alarm. No cases of the new virus had been identified onboard, and the early return seemed precautionary. The most substantial change was that they had to be served at the buffet. But when they reached the Bay Area, they watched with interest as the Coast Guard airlifted test kits onto one of the top decks of their ship.

Shortly after, all passengers were ordered confined to their cabins, their meals delivered to them on trays at their doors and the news of their fate delivered to them largely by the national media. Information on the boat itself was scarce.

“We didn’t know where we were going to go. We were out in the ocean going around, which was kind of disturbing,” Zita Waclo said. “Nobody told us even when we were going to get off the ship.”

The Waclos found themselves entirely at the mercy of the federal, state and local government officials back on land who were struggling to figure out what should be done with them and their fellow passengers.

As the Grand Princess held 50 miles off the coast of Northern California with 3,533 passengers and crew members, President Donald Trump made his preference known: that the boat stay where it was. At the time, 238 people in the United States had tested positive for the virus; results from the airlifted test kits showed the ship would add 21 more to that total.

“I like the numbers being where they are,” Trump said during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”

Two days later, on March 8, state health officials in Nevada finally received the full list of the names and contact information for the 49 Nevadans on the ship. (A 50th, the spouse of another passenger, was later identified.) As the Grand Princess docked at the Port of Oakland the next day, state officials scrambled to prepare to bring the Nevadans home so they wouldn’t be sent to an out-of-state military base to quarantine. The final decision, though, was up to Gov. Steve Sisolak.

“You have a situation where there’s this new virus. People are really fearful and scared. You have a group of Nevadans who are on this cruise ship. You want to protect the residents back home, so you don't want to bring in potentially infected folks back into your state, but you also are worried about these Nevadans who are now stuck on this ship and then being told they're going to go to an army base and then, potentially, an army base in a state very far away,” Michelle White, the governor’s chief of staff, said.

The next day, Sisolak emailed the passengers directly to let them know his decision: They would be coming home. In the email, he acknowledged their frustrations and anxiety over the lack of information they had received and said he felt the same.

“I can assure you that my frustration will be loudly and clearly expressed to leaders in Washington D.C.,” he wrote.

Back on the ship, the Waclos watched from their stateroom balcony as ambulances, buses and trucks lined up at the docks in Oakland. Below them, National Guardsmen readied supplies and rearranged tents. People needing medical attention were carried off the ship. It brought the gravity of the situation into focus.

“Watching the ambulances back up and the stretchers being taken off, we realized this is serious business, people are dying,” Steve Waclo said. “We could potentially die if we do something wrong, if someone slips up.”

When the Waclos were finally told one morning it was their turn to disembark, they had no idea where they were going. It wasn’t until they were on a bus to the Oakland International Airport they were told they wouldn’t be heading straight home to Nevada but rather flown to the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, in Southern California. Federal officials wanted to test all the passengers for COVID-19 before sending them elsewhere.

At home, state officials felt equally in the dark as the federal government provided them with an ever-changing timetable for when the Nevadans could return. 

Local health districts made preparations to receive the passengers once they landed on Nevada soil, including securing the personal protective equipment and vehicles needed to transport them home. A representative of McCarran International Airport voiced concerns about even being able to receive the Southern Nevadans when the time came because of flight restrictions associated with a planned visit by Trump that week. State officials sent out flurries of emails each day informing local officials and airport representatives that the Nevadans were coming, not coming, then coming, and then not coming again. 

This went on for four days.

“I completely understand the frustration with the lack of timely detailed information from the feds as I too share in this sentiment,” Malinda Southard, manager of the state’s Public Health Preparedness Program, wrote in an email to Clark County’s fire chief on March 11, a Wednesday. “Best I can do is keep pushing us forward to get our residents home soon and safely.”

In Washoe County, local health officials were eager for their residents to be home. They had gone to the airport three times in anticipation of the passengers’ arrival, only to be called off. Officials just hoped that when the operation was finally a go it wouldn’t be in the middle of the snowstorm expected to roll in that weekend.

Of course, it was.

“I have confirmation we have a dedicated plane out of Miramar tomorrow just for Nevada residents. US HHS confirms there are no more maybe’s probably’s hopefully’s — our people are coming home tomorrow!!” Southard wrote in an email to state health officials on Saturday.

That night, nearly two feet of snow piled up in Incline Village, half a foot in Northwest Reno and an inch elsewhere in town. Ski resorts shuttered as an avalanche warning was issued. Washoe County Health District staffers scouted their neighborhoods the next morning to figure out if the roads were passable; they even had to go buy snow chains first thing that morning for one of the vehicles.

After days of anticipation, the plane touched down in Reno at 12:27 p.m. on March 15. The Northern Nevadans, at least, were home and the Southern Nevadans, who were on the same plane, soon would be, too.

Many of the Washoe County residents needed help getting down the stairs and out of the plane before they were loaded into two vans. One of them, staffed by health district employees Jim English and Wes Rubio, would make stops in Reno before heading over Mt. Rose Summit to Incline Village. English read the directions and checked in on the passengers while Rubio drove. 

Both were suited up in white, full-body hazmat suits, full face respirators and gloves as they plowed through the snow with a van full of weary, N95-wearing, COVID-exposed passengers. An unmarked sheriff’s car trailed them to make sure there was no trouble.

At each stop, they battled snow flurries and their respirators iced over in the freezing temperatures. At one point, they swapped their transit van for a four-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee in a passenger’s Galena cul-de-sac to make it over the summit to Incline through four inches of snow. They had to keep driving. There was nowhere else for the passengers to go.

“We were trying to do as best we could to protect the public and those people that were on that on that bus just to at least get them home,” Rubio said. “It was a massive effort.”

The repatriation of the Grand Princess passengers was not only a massive effort but also the first major challenge in the pandemic where local, state and federal officials were asked to work together to solve a pressing public health problem. They would be asked to overcome many more together in the months to come, from ramping up testing and contact tracing efforts to deploying a mass vaccination campaign.

“That was a big test,” White said. “Then, it only got harder.”

For state and local officials in Nevada, the repatriation effort was largely a success story, a proof of concept that they could work together and communicate effectively to achieve a common goal. Despite their frustrations with the lack of information onboard the Grand Princess and at Miramar, the Waclos praised the state’s response. Once they were home, Carson City Health and Human Services called them every morning during the 14-day quarantine period to check in on them and offered to bring any food and medicine they needed; the governor even called once to see how they were doing.

“I was very impressed by the Washoe County people and the Carson City people,” Zita Waclo said. “They were ready for us, and they really followed up very well.”

The coming months, however, would strain relationships between state and local governments as they struggled to address a daunting public health crisis with few resources and what much of the time felt like little to no support from the federal government. 

Sometimes the adversity brought them together as they allied to face a grim future in the face of no centralized national response strategy. The Grand Princess incident, they say, should have been a harbinger of what was to come in the way of federal communication and support during the course of the pandemic. It also showed that state and local governments could work cooperatively to meet the needs of everyday Nevadans.

But the adversity also sometimes wrenched them apart, widening a growing political divide in the state and turning existing cracks in differences in beliefs over the role of state and local governments into deep chasms. Sisolak’s COVID-19 response plan, formed in the absence of a national response framework, caused rural governments long known for rebelling against the federal government to direct their ire instead toward the state. And even when the state and local governments agreed about how to best address the pandemic, underresourced and overworked officials often struggled to effectively communicate with each other, leaving wounds and eroding trust.

There’s a term doctors use to describe what happens to COVID-19 patients when their immune systems go into overdrive: It’s called a cytokine storm. When it happens, the body’s immune system turns against itself and starts to attack healthy tissue and organs.

It’s not unlike the position Nevada has often found itself in over the last year.

There’s an oft-repeated phrase in the emergency response world about how disasters should be managed: They’re supposed to be locally executed, state managed and federally supported. 

But, from the get-go, state officials in Nevada say federal support was lacking in the pandemic response. The tone was set at the top, they say, with Trump’s comments downplaying the seriousness of the virus and supporting unproven treatments. This seeped down to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which clashed with the state over more mundane, bureaucratic public health policies, including whether asymptomatic individuals should be tested and which COVID-19 tests were reliable enough to use in nursing homes.

“There was never a time when our decisions, the governor’s decisions, at the state level and our partnership with the local governments was not undermined by the mixed messages or new messages coming out of the federal government,” Caleb Cage, Nevada’s COVID-19 response director, said.

Cage, the former head of the state’s Division of Emergency Management under Gov. Brian Sandoval, said the first step in any emergency response is to move past collective denial by getting everyone’s buy-in on the seriousness of the situation. That’s much more easily done with something like the response to a wildfire, where the threat is readily apparent, than it is for a pandemic, where the threat is an invisible pathogen.

That collective buy-in, however, never happened. Instead, Trump painted Democrats’ response to the virus as part two of the January 2020 impeachment trial in an attempt to cost him his re-election; Democrats, meanwhile, were eager to point out all the ways in which they believed Trump was failing to lead on the pandemic.

“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus — you know that, right? — coronavirus, they’re politicizing it,” Trump said at a rally in South Carolina on Feb. 28. “... And this is their new hoax.”

The politicization of the virus, Cage said, created an incentive for people to stay in the denial phase, hindering the federal government’s ability to move to the collective response phase.

From the state’s perspective, it was trying to communicate one thing to the general public and having it constantly contradicted by federal leadership. A week after Nevada made the decision to shut down nonessential businesses on March 17, 2020, the president was still drawing parallels between COVID-19 and the flu. (Scientists believe COVID-19 may be 10 times more deadly than the flu, though the exact mortality rate is still unknown.)

“We lose thousands of people a year to the flu. We never turn the country off,” Trump said at a Fox News virtual town hall on March 24. “We lose much more than that to automobile accidents. We didn’t call up the automobile companies and say, ‘Stop making cars. We don’t want any cars anymore.’”

The politicization of the virus made it more difficult for the state to get widespread buy-in from everyday Nevadans on the importance of key parts of the state’s pandemic response, too. On one hand, there was Sisolak, the state’s Democratic governor, advocating the importance of mask-wearing; on the other, there was Trump, the Republican president, waffling on the benefits of masks. Even though the scientific evidence only supports one of those two positions, the issue felt — and continues to feel — political to many because of the differences in the way that Republicans and Democrats spoke about masks.

The divide in messaging over public safety measures became, perhaps, the clearest when Trump rallied thousands of supporters in Minden and Henderson in September in defiance of Nevada’s COVID-19 health and safety rules. Dave Fogerson, who at the time managed Douglas County’s pandemic response as deputy fire chief at the East Fork Fire Protection District, said the event put him in a difficult position.

Officials at the county — which is home to more than twice as many Republicans as Democrats — made clear that the event would go on. The local paper, the Record-Courier, summarized the county’s position as this: “Spokeswoman Melissa Blosser said that after careful consideration and weighing the authority of state directives versus First Amendment rights, the county ultimately decided to welcome the sitting President of the United States to our community.” 

Privately, though, Fogerson said that people who supported the event were calling to apologize.

“‘Hey, sorry we’re doing this. We want to do this because how often does the president come to town? But we understand what we need to do to keep this going,’” Fogerson recalled them saying. “In the end, the county gave me an award when I left Douglas County for all those efforts — even though we were, it seemed like, on opposite ends of the spectrum — because of trying to do that balance of, ‘Here's where we need to go and here's what you need to do to get there.’” 

For state health officials, the pandemic brought a significant shift in the kind of communication they were used to having with their federal counterparts. For one, inconsistent communication from the federal government about what was expected made it difficult for state health officials to do their jobs, Richard Whitley, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, said.

“They weren’t responding to us as a state in the same way that we were familiar with,” Whitley said. “All of those seemed to be in flux and seemed to be being changed while we were needing, perhaps, that relationship to be at its strongest.”

One example state health officials point to from the beginning of the pandemic was the conflicting guidance they received from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about which individuals coming in by plane needed to be quarantined. 

In one instance, state health officials struggled to get contact information from the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine (DGMQ) for three passengers on a Las Vegas-bound Korean Air flight who had recently been in China. The state only discovered the situation after news outlets reported the flight had been diverted to Los Angeles, one of three airports that was screening for COVID-19 at the time.

State officials said that CDC representatives they spoke with seemed not to be aware of their own agency’s latest travel guidance. Melissa Peek-Bullock, the state’s epidemiologist, said one federal official even hung up on her.

“It wasn’t clear that everybody within the organization understood that guidance,” Peek-Bullock said. “The inconsistent messages that were coming from CDC to the states made it very difficult and frustrating for us early on.”

The situation prompted Whitley to pen a letter to the CDC expressing his concern.

“I understand this is a rapidly evolving situation; however, I am concerned about the breakdown between the communication the states have received from the CDC, and information provided to the CDC DGMQ,” Whitley wrote in a Feb. 11 letter. “Our state relies on DGMQ to assist in the response to travelers, and the lack of communication in this circumstance created frustration and confusion for all those involved.”

State health officials also saw politics seep into their everyday work. For instance, they were shocked when Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, directly telephoned Nevada’s chief medical officer, Dr. Ihsan Azzam, in early March to request his help in getting Adam Laxalt, the former attorney general of Nevada and a prominent Trump supporter, tested for COVID-19 after he was possibly exposed at the Conservative Political Action Conference but showing no symptoms. At the time, the CDC’s own guidance restricted testing to symptomatic individuals.

“We do everything possible to treat all people the same, focusing on their risk and not on who they are in terms of importance,” Whitley said. “That’s not a population approach. That’s a privileged approach, and so they set a tone for that.”

State health officials were also wary when the federal government quietly changed the rules to require hospitals to directly report COVID-19 data to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services instead of to both HHS and the CDC, and asked nursing homes to directly report their data to the federal government instead of to the state. Those moves made it challenging for the state to get its hands on valuable COVID-19 data, Whitley said.

“We had to figure out our own ways of collecting the data and identifying where the opportunities for intervention were and where the problems were, with not direct assistance from the federal government,” Whitley said.

The state also directly clashed with the federal government in its policymaking as well. The CDC, for instance, released new guidelines in August that said asymptomatic people should not “necessarily” be tested for COVID-19. The move prompted an immediate backlash from Nevada health officials, who made it clear the state would continue asymptomatic testing.

“When you really have large widespread outbreaks of pandemic, this is the time to test more, not the time to test less,” Azzam said.

Nevada also made the decision in late June to follow in the footsteps of more than a dozen other states and enact a mask requirement in the absence of any federal rule. It wasn’t until late January, a little more than a week after President Joe Biden took office, that the CDC finally issued its first mask order, for travelers only.

“We kept on asking the CDC, ‘Should we start implementing masking for everybody?’ and we were told, ‘No, we don’t really need that,’” Azzam said. “If we don’t know who is spreading the virus, it’s better to mask everyone. You can’t prevent 100 percent transmission, but you can prevent a reasonable amount and reduce infection.”

State health officials’ biggest dust-up with federal health officials, though, came in October. The federal government had directly distributed antigen tests — a type of COVID-19 test helpful in identifying people with COVID-19 but generally less accurate for those who don’t have the virus than the gold-standard PCR tests — to nursing homes, with what state officials described as very little guidance on how to use them appropriately. Nursing homes were also given no guidance on how to report the results of those antigen tests to the state to be counted in its COVID-19 data, state officials said.

As state health officials scrambled to develop that reporting mechanism, they noticed that the antigen tests were coming back with a high percentage of false positives. Among 39 positive antigen tests sent for confirmatory PCR testing, 60 percent came back negative for the virus.

State officials’ immediate concern was that some nursing home residents were incorrectly being identified as positive for COVID-19 and sequestered with true COVID-positive patients, thereby exposing them to a virus they didn’t actually have. So state health officials issued a directive to nursing homes to stop the use of the antigen tests as they looked into the issue further.

In a scathing letter in response to that decision, Adm. Brett Giroir, the Trump administration’s COVID-19 testing czar, accused state health officials of “a lack of knowledge or bias” and said their decision would “endanger the lives of our most vulnerable.” He added the federal government would “take appropriate steps” if state health officials did not “cease the improper unilateral prohibition” on use of the antigen tests.

“Your Department’s across-the-board ban on POC antigen tests in such settings is based on speculation,” Giroir wrote. “It may cost lives.”

In response to those threats, state health officials rescinded their directive while reiterating their concerns over use of the tests and asked the federal government to reconsider its stance. (One federal official did, however, note in an email to state health officials the CDC does not recommend that nursing homes group asymptomatic patients into a COVID ward based on a single antigen test; rather, those individuals should be considered presumptive positive and isolated with precautions until a confirmatory PCR test is performed.)

What could have been a civil back and forth over a policy difference turned into a heated clash. Peek-Bullock described the federal government’s response to the state’s decision on the antigen tests as “very unusual.”

State officials say that even when they believe the federal government was genuinely trying to help, it often did so in a way that subverted the state’s role in the pandemic response. For instance, when hospitals struggled to secure PPE early on, the federal government provided it directly to hospitals and other health care providers, instead of sending it to the state to then be sent to the counties to then be distributed to hospitals — the usual chain of custody.

“I believe in their minds they were doing it to fight bureaucracy,” Cage said. “But there's a reason this framework is in place, and that's because these private hospitals, public hospitals, aspects of the health care system in the state are asking us for resources, and we don't know how to prioritize the resources if the federal government is going around us.”

But the federal government was critically helpful to the state in one primary area: funding. As of early March, it has provided nearly $25 billion in federal aid to Nevada with $4.1 billion more on the way from the American Rescue Plan. State and local officials say that federal funding — approved by both Republican and Democratic-controlled congressional chambers and signed into law by both Republican and Democratic presidents — was key to their pandemic response efforts.

And, a year since the pandemic began, the federal-state relationship is healing. State officials say they have seen a night and day difference in their relationships with their federal counterparts since Biden took office earlier this year. They report that communication has significantly improved with federal officials — U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra met with Sisolak at the Capitol in Carson City this week — and when they have a request, such as federal support to catch up on a vaccination data-entry backlog earlier this year, it’s usually granted.

They say it isn’t because Biden is a Democrat, either.

“The difference in mutual respect, collaboration, willingness to have hard conversations, willingness to work together, willingness to not worry about who gets blamed for what and all of this — that’s just the starting point,” said Cage, who worked previously under two Republican governors and is a lifelong Republican voter. “The previous administration had what I believe will be long remembered as the poorest disaster response in the nation’s history.”

The state’s frustrations with the federal government, however, have a parallel: Local governments’ frustrations with the state.

The root causes of each are strikingly similar. Local governments, charged with executing the finer points of the state’s overall pandemic response, say they often found themselves struggling to play catch-up when the state publicly announced its latest COVID-19 health and safety policy because they had been given little advance warning. They also grappled to keep up with ever-shifting state policies about which establishments could be open, to what extent they could be open and the timetable for those rules. Some think the state struggled to be collaborative in its response as the pandemic drew on, unwilling to cede its decision-making authority even when circumstances may have necessitated different solutions for different parts of the state.

The frustrations date back to the state’s initial decision to close schools and shutter nonessential businesses in mid-March of last year. To some extent, counties understood the hurried nature of the decision: The state was in an emergency situation and was reacting to a constantly developing situation. But they still found themselves in the uncomfortable position of trying to provide guidance on a local level — to residents and businesses alike — to policies they themselves had just learned about.

“I still remember when we closed everything down and schools were closed, we met in Douglas at 7 o’clock the next morning to, ‘Oh my God, did you hear that yesterday? What are we going to do? How are we going to take care of this?’” said Fogerson, the former deputy fire chief from Douglas County. “Kind of having a panic moment because we were being reactionary.”

Local officials say they often scrambled before each state press conference to figure out what was going to be announced before it was released publicly. In the early days of the pandemic, local officials say they often received no advance information about what policies were going to be announced; they were happy when they started getting even an hour or two’s notice.

“When I was in Douglas, it was ‘What do you mean there is going to be a press conference at 3 o’clock today? Aren’t they going to tell us what it is? Why do we have to watch it on TV?’” Fogerson said. “Whereas now the governor’s office is leaning forward a bit more and getting some information out ahead of time.”

Because local officials had little warning about new state policies, particularly early on in the pandemic, they felt there wasn’t an opportunity for them to voice their concerns and have a consensus-building conversation with the state, which meant some local governments were charged with carrying out policies they didn’t agree with, believe in or understand. The state may not have needed counties’ permission to enact emergency policies under the law, but the state did need local buy-in for those policies to be most effective.

State officials acknowledge the frustrations of their local counterparts. But when they reflect on why they didn’t bring local governments into the fold earlier, they see themselves moving quickly to make choices deep in a crisis response mode that didn’t allow hours for multiple roundtables and scores of phone calls about each policy decision. White, the governor’s chief of staff, said there were dozens of consequential policy decisions the state was making each day.

“It is hard to loop in everyone who feels that they need to be looped in. I'm not saying that they shouldn't be. I'm not saying that their voices don't matter, that they wouldn't have great input,” she said. “But the reality is you have to make those decisions quickly. We have an incredibly small staff that can only make so many phone calls.”

On the flip side, the state’s attempts to centralize certain aspects of the public health response were complicated by the fact that public health in Nevada is historically decentralized. Public health services are provided at the local level in Clark and Washoe counties, as well as Carson City, which together make up more than 90 percent of the state’s population, while the state is responsible for managing public health for the remaining tenth of the population living across 14 rural Nevada counties.

While the localized public health delivery model can be quite effective, in the time of the pandemic it meant the state was often in the position of offering assistance to local health districts for contact tracing or testing, though the decision of whether to accept that help was left to local jurisdictions. That made it difficult, if not impossible, to have a standardized public health response across the state.

“There needs to be a level of statewide response consistency, yes, but there was great latitude and need for them to be completely different locally because they have different resources,” said Julia Peek, a deputy administrator in the Division of Public and Behavioral Health.

As the pandemic drew on, the state made several overtures to local governments to try to create that latitude on the emergency response side as well.

The first came in the form of a so-called Local Empowerment Advisory Panel, or LEAP, which was tasked last spring with assisting counties as they started to reopen businesses after the shutdown. Sisolak, during a late April press conference announcing the new body, said it would be a “disservice” to the state’s residents to pretend its urban and rural counties have the same needs.

When Eureka County Chairman J.J. Goicoechea was asked to join the panel as a representative of the state’s rural counties, he was optimistic. His urban counterpart on the panel was Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick, whom he had a longstanding collaborative relationship with and who had recommended him for the job.

But LEAP’s responsibilities ended up being much narrower than Goicoechea initially anticipated, centering primarily around drafting reopening guidelines for approval by the state.

“We thought we were going to have maybe a little more authority and we were going to approve this or approve that or do some things,” Goicoechea said. “It never really materialized.”

Once all businesses — save strip clubs, night clubs, day clubs and brothels — were allowed to reopen, LEAP essentially fell by the wayside. It was frustrating not only for Goicoechea but other local officials who believed the state was finally starting to get things right by delegating more authority to the rurals and bringing more people into the decision-making process.

“LEAP just dissolved, because we were no longer effective. We weren't being talked to,” Goicoechea said. “That’s the unfortunate thing.”

The governor’s office, however, said it was more that LEAP evolved.

“The input and interaction and coordination with a lot of those leaders who were a part of that group, I don’t think, has stopped at all,” White said. “I think things just take on a different form as we’re going through that response.”

In August, Sisolak announced a new pandemic response framework. This one, he said, would also take into consideration counties’ innate differences: Counties would be evaluated based on three criteria to determine whether they are at elevated risk for the spread of COVID-19 and, if so, they would be required to present a mitigation plan to a new statewide COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force.

The task force, though, ended up doing more management than mitigation. The body spent its first several weeks determining whether bars in seven counties could reopen following a summer surge in cases. As cases began to climb in the fall, counties flagged at elevated risk of transmission spent significant time telling the task force about their plans for community-wide education about the virus and almost no time about any new mitigation measures, such as business closures or limits on gatherings, they planned to put in place.

In fact, in the more than seven months it has existed, the task force has only approved one concrete mitigation measure stricter than the statewide standards. In September, Washoe County proposed keeping its gathering sizes small as the state moved to allow larger events to take place.

“[The task force] made it fairly clear that with the increase in cases that we were seeing in Washoe County that the county needed to do something or the task force was going to do something to them,” Washoe County District Health Officer Kevin Dick said. “That perspective and understanding on the part of local leadership provided some leverage to get them to that commitment.”

Even under the task force model, some counties still felt like they were under the thumb of the state. Scott Lewis, director of emergency management for Nye County, said it sometimes felt like counties were children trying to appease their parents.

“What its intended goal was, as a state, what can we do to best remedy this as a collective team?” Lewis said. “And it was never that. It was always like a parental type of approach, and we had to come up with the magical words to make our parents happy with us.”

Cage, who chairs the task force, acknowledged the body did not work out in practice the way in which he had initially anticipated. Counties, for instance, largely did not bring forward to the task force individual mitigation measures during the fall surge, and the task force didn’t put them forward either; rather, Sisolak enacted a new “statewide pause” that limited occupancy at businesses and again limited gathering sizes homogeneously across all 17 counties.

“The governor always had reserved the right to do so, and that’s where we got in November,” Cage said. “So in a sense it worked as it should. My personal opinion is that the pressure locally was so much that there really wasn’t an appetite locally to put additional measures in place.”

While it may not have been a robust decision-making body, the task force has helped repair some relationships between the state and local governments by providing a regular forum for communication. Some local officials say the task force opened a line of communication to the state.

“From my perspective, and I can only speak for Lyon County, once they developed the task force and put Caleb Cage in charge of it, the majority of my communication complaints went away,” said Jeff Page, Lyon’s county manager. “We were getting good, direct positive feedback from Caleb and the task force as to what they were expecting, what the issues were and what the challenges the state was facing were.”

Dick echoed those sentiments, calling the task force “worthwhile overall.”

“I think that relationship between the health district and Caleb Cage and the members of the task force has really strengthened over time,” Dick said.

Nowhere was the state-local relationship, perhaps, more strained over the course of the pandemic than in rural Nevada, where individual liberty is prized and love of government is scarce.

Initially, as Clark and Washoe counties were hit hard by the virus, rural counties were optimistic that they might be able to avoid the virus altogether. While urban America grappled with SARS scares in the early 2000s, rural America was largely untouched by the virus. Rural counties hoped their isolation and low population density would come in handy this time, too.

It quickly became clear that would not be the case as tiny Humboldt County, with a population of a little less than 17,000, became Nevada’s hardest-hit county, the result of a large family gathering that had exposed many individuals to the virus. As the virus began to spread across rural Nevada, public health experts and rural officials became increasingly concerned about the effect COVID-19 could have on those communities, owing to the fact that rural counties generally have older populations than urban ones and the dearth of medical care in rural counties.

For some rural health officials, the importance of community buy-in about mitigation measures quickly became evident. Rural Nevadans might not take kindly to rules being handed down to them from the federal or state governments, but they could be appealed to on an individual level to take steps to protect themselves and their community.

The rest of the country was grappling with how to balance individual liberty with the need for collective action too, but that tension was acute in the rural West.

“One of the things that makes our country special is all the choices that we have. To me, that is a very sacred thing. It is, I think, to all of us,” Dr. Charles Stringham, Humboldt County’s health officer, said. “But, as a result, when you fight the virus in the United States, your best weapon is information and also trying to encourage people by being compelling, because at no point did we ever have interest in encouraging people by regulating or legislating. We’ve just never really wanted to do that here in Humboldt County.”

Stringham’s approach was particularly introspective: If the residents of Humboldt County weren’t listening to him, he figured his message needed to be more compelling. He started a series of “Ask Me Anything About COVID-19” Zoom sessions to answer community members’ questions about vaccination, viral transmission and the efficacy of mask wearing, among others, in a commonsense, plainspoken way.

“My hope was that if people really did think that masks were ridiculous and that they didn’t work, and if people really did think that six feet seemed arbitrary, and that if people really did think that mutations in the virus would negate the effect of vaccinations, that they could call in and ask those questions and get real answers,” Stringham said.

During one of those Zoom calls in December, Stringham was asked why he and other members of the medical community were so focused on social distancing and mask wearing instead of advocating the benefits of, among other things, the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. Stringham was calm and deliberate in his answer, saying he wished the drug would have worked to treat COVID-19 but that scientific studies didn’t bear that out. 

“There's always an assumption that if allopathic physicians don't do something, that it's because we're holstering that or we're sequestering it, we're not bringing that to bear,” Stringham told the man. “But the bottom line is that in allopathic medicine, we have to be able to prove that something has an effect.”

Another asked why the media makes such a big deal about COVID-19 deaths and not flu deaths. Stringham explained that 34,000 people in the U.S. died of the flu during the last flu season; at the time, 300,000 had died of COVID-19. He also noted that people who contract COVID-19 can go on to develop long-term health conditions that impair their quality of life.

“I can't even really talk about this without getting a little bit choked up,” Stringham said. “This is not the flu. It is not the flu. I wish it were, but it isn't.”

Other rural communities took a similar approach. In Ely, Mayor Nathan Robertson went on the local radio station every day to answer people’s questions about the virus, from technical inquiries about which businesses were allowed to be open and what assistance was available to broader questions about whether martial law had been declared and whether the National Guard would prevent people from getting to their doctor’s appointments in Salt Lake City.

“There was a real vacuum of just credible answers,” Robertson said.

As the state created new COVID-19 health and safety rules, the focus for some rural leaders was how to help their businesses comply. Robertson said Ely’s focus was on assisting businesses at the local level to avoid the state sending out compliance officers.

“Everybody was just kind of in an attitude of cooperation: ‘Hey, how can we help? Our goal is to make sure your business stays open,’” Robertson said. “We can’t afford to lose a single restaurant in our community. We can’t afford to lose any of our businesses. We’re so isolated.”

In Lyon County, Dr. Robin Titus, the county’s health officer and the Republican Assembly leader, advised local ranchers about how to group guest workers into pods so that if someone tested positive for COVID-19, they would know exactly who was exposed.

“They were paying attention. They were calling me,” Titus said. “They wanted to make sure things were safe.”

And though rural Nevada has earned a reputation for opposing the state’s COVID-19 health and safety rules, several rural officials say they believe their residents took the virus seriously when it counted. Titus said she has a 95-year-old patient who was very cautious about the virus and stayed home. Goicoechea, who is also Eureka County’s health officer, said his residents were “really good” at isolating and quarantining when they tested positive or someone in their household came down with the virus.

“They may be chipping their teeth on Main Street saying, ‘This is all fake. This is a hoax. I don’t believe in it,’” Goicoechea said. “But when we called them up and said, ‘You’re positive, I need you to shut ‘er down. You gotta stay home. Let us know what we can do,’ they went home and they stayed home and they cooperated.”

Of course, compliance wasn’t universal. Robertson acknowledged there were some instances in Ely where people called the sheriff alleging a business was discriminating against them because they weren’t wearing a mask. Law enforcement would inform them that businesses could put in place whatever rules they wanted and could kick them out for not following them.

“They were like, ‘Well, what do you mean? They didn’t let me in.’ And they’d say, ‘Well, this is a private business. They don’t have to,’” Robertson said.

Multiple rural officials also noted that there was always going to be some degree of pushback from their residents about the state’s rules simply because of the high price they place on individual freedoms. But they also believe that philosophy shouldn’t stop people from doing the right thing for their neighbors.

“You don’t have to choose either safety or freedom,” Stringham said. “You can absolutely have both, and that was the message that I was trying to deliver.”

But, because of the communication role they took on, some rural officials found themselves in the difficult position of trying to be the bridge between the state and their residents. They didn’t have great answers when their residents asked why the state had allowed casinos to open to 50 percent but churches were required to be limited to 50 people. They didn’t have great answers when residents asked why their kids couldn’t go to school but daycare centers were open. They didn’t have great answers for why casino restaurants remained closed while eateries across the street could open.

“That would be frustrating, because you would be getting calls from these businesses going, ‘Hey, my neighbor across the street, who’s got a restaurant, their restaurant is open. Why can’t mine be open?’” Robertson said. “There would be a lot of calls like that.”

They also didn’t have good answers for their residents about why certain statewide policies should be applied to them when they were experiencing a low level of case growth in their communities or could pinpoint where the case growth was coming from. In White Pine, most cases were traced back to specific gatherings, including a Halloween party and a softball game, Robertson said.

“When the sheriff’s office gets something from the county health officer and that says, ‘Hey, so-and-so tested positive,’ he knows exactly where that person is most of the time. He knows who they hang out with,” Robertson said. “He can say, ‘Well this is how you get ahold of so-and-so and here’s how we do this,’ and bing-bada-boom, it’s done.”

Rural officials who have tried to actively aid the pandemic response by getting their communities to follow the state’s health and safety protocols have often found themselves in the community’s crosshairs as a result.

“There’s some lifelong friends of mine who are very, very upset. I mean, they’re to the point where they don’t want to talk to me because they think I quote-unquote ‘drank the Kool Aid,’ if you will,” Goicoechea said. “But everything I’ve done is to protect people and to protect the economy. I’m not taking unnecessary risks but, at the same time, I’m willing to take some calculated risks because I know where the disease is spreading in my community.”

It didn’t help that the pandemic became a political issue, either. If conservative rural Nevada was already wary of government officials telling them what to do, they were particularly wary of a Democratic governor from Clark County telling them what to do — particularly when that message contradicted the one coming from their local officials and a Republican president most of them supported.

Lewis, Nye’s director of emergency management, said that though local officials have become more supportive of pandemic response efforts “because they see the light at the end of the tunnel,” it used to be “horrific” to come before the county commission at each of its meetings to give a COVID-19 update when many didn’t believe in the severity of the virus.

“The political side of it was probably one of the worst things to deal with when we’re trying to make sure we meet the state’s requirements, we meet the state mandates and yet our local governments were telling us just the opposite,” he said. “They wanted nothing to do with it. They didn’t want to hear the reports. They didn't believe in the masks. They didn’t believe in the numbers and what the numbers meant. The deaths were made up, and it was a huge conspiracy, and that was extremely disheartening.”

In fact, the political discord was so severe that several rural county commissions, starting with White Pine County, passed a series of similar resolutions opposing Sisolak’s emergency directives. Robertson, who leads the only incorporated city in White Pine, framed those measures as chest-thumping by a small contingent of politically motivated individuals.

“I mean, honestly, I think I got more support for just being level-headed and cool and attending to the issues than I would have by screaming and thumping my chest and sending nastygrams to Carson City,” Robertson said.

Goicoechea, who said that he was responsible for drafting 99 percent of the version of the resolution Eureka County passed in January, acknowledged the measure was a statement. But he said it’s also one that his constituents needed to hear.

“People needed to see it in writing,” Goicoechea. “I’m not going to make a demand, knowing that he has the authority granted in the Constitution of the state of Nevada and he was exhibiting that under his emergency powers. But I did want him to hear we want things to be done differently. We expect them to be done differently.”

Looking back, rural officials wish there had been more communication with the state early on.

“We’re the ones down on the frontlines trying to implement what you’re drawing down from the top,” Robertson said. “If you want to know how it’s going, if you want some help on ‘hey, how could this go better?’ talk to your mayors, talk to these people, talk to these county commissioners, and there could’ve been more of that.”

Now, the relationship between the state and rural Nevada may, in some ways, be worse than it has ever been. Rural officials believe there is a healing process that needs to happen.

“It’s too far into it. We’re 12 months in. If it had been six months: ‘Okay guys, let’s get back to work,’” Goicoechea said. “But now we’re 12 months in and I feel that maybe some folks are really starting to entrench: ‘Hey, you guys aren’t working for us and when you do come back, you think you’re just going to come out here and start dictating how we’re going to do this stuff?’ I’m very fearful that the relationship we’re having with the state agencies, there’s going to be a long time trying to build that back.”

Beyond the rural context, the relationships between the state and local governments have continued to have their hiccups.

In response to the state’s decision to expand gathering sizes in September, health district officials in Clark and Washoe counties sent a strongly worded letter to the state, saying that it was “inappropriate” for local health authorities to not be consulted in the state’s public health decision-making process. 

More than six months after the state’s first emergency directive, local health districts found out about the decision at the same time as the public.

“Our phones would just light up here. All of those businesses were calling us to find out what was going on, how they were affected, what they needed to do. We didn’t have any more information than they did,” Dick, Washoe County's health officer, said. “That was quite frustrating.”

While they were given slightly more notice before the state put in place its statewide pause this fall, concerns over communication remain. The state’s overtures to local governments — in the form of LEAP, or the task force — while positive have often felt like just that: overtures.

“I think there could be better communications, and more regular communications,” Dick said. “There have been opportunities for those dialogues and discussions but they haven’t been continued. There’s been some activity and initiative to make sure those communications happen and then they sort of go away.”

Counties say they still sometimes have to play catch up when it comes to the state’s policies. Lewis, Nye’s director of emergency management, said everyone had just gotten on board with the state’s tiered vaccination structure — though some believed it didn’t make the most sense for Nye — when the state announced that it was moving to a new, lane-based approach.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Lewis recalled thinking at the time. “Here we are toeing the line and the line came back and snapped us right in the butt.”

Even now, a year after the pandemic began, Lewis isn’t sure what exactly his role is supposed to be. With the ongoing rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, which is supposed to be managed at the local level, he still feels like he doesn’t have the flexibility he needs to make decisions at the county level.

“Every time we made a decision it was, ‘You can’t do that, you have to do what we tell you or what we’re giving you,’” Lewis said. “I’m like, ‘Well, no, no, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say I’m responsible for the decision and then take the ability away from me.’”

In Clark County, Sisolak and Kirkpatrick, the commission chair, have butted heads at points over the course of the pandemic, including after Kirkpatrick publicly pushed for the state to reopen businesses more quickly after the winter surge and Sisolak targeted Clark County for inequalities in the vaccine distribution process. For her part, though, Kirkpatrick says communication with the state has improved.

“Some days are harder than others, because we try to understand what’s behind the reasoning,” Kirkpatrick said. “But I will tell you there are a lot more meetings, a lot more conversations.” 

And then there’s Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who during a CNN interview last year suggested the city serve as a “control group” to determine the benefits of social-distancing measures and recently said the governor’s prolonged emergency power “smacks of tyranny,” indicating that Sisolak had been unwilling to hear her input.

Sisolak, in an interview earlier this month, acknowledged his communication with local governments could have been better. But he also noted that there are hundreds of local government officials around the state and said it’s just not possible to communicate with all of them.

“Some of them were saying, ‘Wait a minute, why don’t you do this?’ or ‘Why don’t you do that?’ There’s 17 counties I’ve got to deal with, not just one,” Sisolak said. “They all want some attention, they all deserve some attention, and we can always do better.”

And, alluding to Goodman’s earlier comments, Sisolak said that he refused “to let the citizens, the residents of Nevada be used as test subjects or guinea pigs.” Whatever criticism he has received for his decisions during the pandemic — whether for being too strict or too lenient in the state’s rules — he bears.

“The buck has to stop with somebody and it stopped with me,” Sisolak said.

Still, multiple local officials said they give the state credit for the way it supported their pandemic response at the county level. Jeanne Freeman, public health preparedness program manager for Carson City Health and Human Services, said that trust between her agency and the state is deeper than it was before.

“They have their perspective and what they see, but then they have inquired, they have listened to us when we’ve said, ‘We see what you’re saying about that, but we’re not sure that’s really going to be how it’s going to work when we get it down to the local level,’” Freeman said. “We’ve met them in the middle. They have given a lot.”

Lewis said there were some state officials with "really spectacular personalities" that "shined" during the pandemic who understood the difficult situation local officials were in.

"I understand there's both sides of that because they're obviously overworked," Lewis said. "There was that lack of compassion and empathy both ways."

And some local officials, despite their complaints, give Sisolak and the state credit for the difficult position they were in.

“Part of my respect for the governor is those tough decisions that he's made to protect the state of Nevada,” Dick said. “I really commend the governor and his courage for the decisions that he's made. But I haven't seen that type of leadership, for the most part, coming at the local level.”

If anything, the pandemic has underscored the importance of relationships — and highlighted how difficult it is to build them in the middle of a crisis situation if they weren’t already there.

“Theoretically we could’ve done listening tours and town halls and developed those relationships as much as we could,” Cage said. “But the resources and the time constraints were so extreme and really remain so extreme right now as we transition to the vaccination effort that there really just was not the mechanism, the capacity to do that.”

Fogerson, who was appointed the head of the state’s Division of Emergency Management this fall, says the value of relationships is something he tries to keep in mind as a local-turned-state official.

“At the state, your job is not to do. Your job is to support and enable the local providers,” Fogerson said. “I used to get very mad at state employees that would come down and tell me how to do something or, ‘Here, we’re going to do that for you.’ … It’s going back to that civics lesson of who really needs to be the sharp end of the stick and how do we help them to sharpen that stick better?”

For some in local government, it finally feels like things are looking up.

In February, Sisolak announced the state would be transitioning the responsibility for COVID-19 health and safety mitigation measures to the counties by May 1. Mask and social distance requirements will remain in place statewide, but it will soon be up to counties to figure out how many people can be inside a business and how large gatherings are allowed to be.

Several counties, at multiple meetings of the COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force last week, voiced their intent to open businesses 100 percent as soon as they can. Most businesses across the state are allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity.

“We can do it safely. We have the plan. We’re ready. We’re looking forward to it,” Goicoechea, the Eureka County Commission chair, said. “We will be ready to go and open up safely in a big way as soon as he lets us.”

For the next couple of weeks, county staff will be working on their plans for the transition to local control and getting them approved by their county commissions. Those plans will then be presented to the task force sometime in mid-April.

“That’s one of the smart things about what the governor is doing is put that decision-making process back in the hands of the people in the state of Nevada to use the sense that they have to take care of themselves and their families, and businesses to take care of their business and their customers,” Page, Lyon’s county manager, said.

Local governments now find themselves grappling with the kinds of questions the state has been facing all along, including how to enforce any mitigation measures.

Once the transition to local control happens, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration will continue to enforce statewide policies but doesn’t have the authority to enforce local policies. That will be left to local code enforcement officers, who may not have the bandwidth to routinely surveil stores, and sheriffs, who, as elected officials worried about their reelection bids, may not be interested in enforcing the measures. 

Counties are also pondering what happens if cases once again start to rise: Will the state step back in, or will it be up to them to put in place mitigation measures on their own?

“Go ahead and kick it out to local government control, see a spike in the summer, and then issue some kind of an emergency directive that we’re going to pull back some of these openings, you will have a complete uprising,” Goicoechea said. “That is my biggest fear.”

While Sisolak said the state would remain “flexible” and continue to monitor trends on a county level during the transition to local control, the goal of the new plan is for counties to take the reins and the state to step back. Still, Sisolak will retain the legal authority to issue new statewide emergency directives unless the Legislature takes action to limit the governor’s power.

Republican lawmakers have put forward legislation this session that would do just that, though those proposals have not yet been given hearings by Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature.

“There’s three branches of government for a reason and this extended emergency stuff really needs to be defined on what the governor’s role should be, and that’s the thing: There’s really no definition of it and that’s the problem,” said Titus, the Republican Assembly leader. “We're trying to put some bills forward to define it, but so far we haven’t gotten any traction with that.”

Counties, however, are finding that taking the reins from the state is easier said than done.

“I want people to open their businesses up to 100 percent capacity, but my fear is if that happens and then we get wave three of COVID and it’s more severe than wave one or two, do we go back to what we’ve been doing? That’s a concern,” Page said. “I’ve said this publicly: I thank God I’m not the governor. I can’t imagine making those types of decisions and impacting people’s lives.”

A year into the pandemic, Titus, who is also a family practice doctor in Lyon County, is of the mind that people are well-informed enough to be able to make choices about what behavior is safe or unsafe. She says it’s the kind of conversation she often has with her patients when discussing treatment options.

“Once a person has all the information, and I give them the information that I have, they have the right to refuse treatment. They have a right to self-determination, even if I didn’t agree with their decision, even if I thought they made a bad choice,” Titus said. “Once we’ve educated everybody as the government, once we give them good informed consent, they have the right to choose not to do that.”

There are, however, limits to that idea.

“You have the right to self-determination as long as it doesn’t impact those around you,” Titus said. “You have the right to get COVID if you want to. You have a right to make a bad choice and get sick, but if your choice then impacts the entire roomful of people that you’ve now exposed, I’m sorry, we have the right to remove you from that room.”

From top state officials down to everyday Nevadans, many are of the belief that the biggest challenge of the pandemic wasn’t the virus itself, but the lack of communication — and, by extension, the relationships, community and trust that come along with that — to respond to it.

Without communication, state and federal governments can’t cooperate, state and local governments can’t work together and governments at any level can’t effectively convey important, potentially life-saving, information to their citizens.

“Communication, it’s always going to be something we have to strive for in government to do a better job of,” Page said. “It’s always going to be our biggest failing.”

Part V coming Sunday, April 4.