Businesses with 100 or more employees will be required to mandate vaccination or weekly testing for their workers under a new rule announced by President Joe Biden on Thursday.
But many Nevada businesses and public institutions have already put their own employee vaccine mandates in place, with more in the works as the federal government finalizes the new rule and fleshes out its finer points. Some have gone further by requiring vaccinations not just for employees but as a condition of entry for members of the public, including at conventions, athletic events and concerts.
At the same time, some rural governments have passed resolutions banning vaccine mandates to varying degrees.
Read below for more information about what entities already have mandates in place and which policies go beyond the new federal requirement.
🔵 = full vaccine mandate
🟢 = vaccine or testing
🟡 = new hire vaccination only
🔴 = vaccine mandate ban
🔵 Clark County School District (employees): The school board authorized the Clark County School District to mandate the vaccine for employees, though it remains subject to negotiations with employee bargaining units before it is implemented. For now, the district has a vaccination-testing program in place, with unvaccinated employees required to get tested weekly. Read more here.
🔵 Nevada System of Higher Education (employees): The Board of Regents voted Sept. 10 to authorize the chancellor to develop a vaccination requirement for all system employees on or before Dec. 1. The full mandate won't take effect until the chancellor's office presents the specifics of the plan and the board takes another vote. Until then, system employees are required to show proof of vaccination or test for the virus weekly under a policy laid out for all state employees by the governor’s office, which took effect on Aug. 30. Read more here.
🔵 Nevada System of Higher Education (students):The Board of Health voted on Aug. 20 to require all students at NSHE institutions enrolling in in-person classes in the spring 2022 semester to show proof of full vaccination by Nov. 1, 2021. Read more here.
Gaming, tourism and events
🔵🟢 MGM Resorts International (employees): The company became the first major gaming company in the U.S. to announce a vaccine mandate for salaried and new employees on Aug. 16. The company is considering extending the mandate to existing hourly employees, which are currently required to either get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. Read more here.
🟢 Wynn Las Vegas (employees): The company announced on April 8 that all employees are required to get the COVID-19 vaccine or get tested weekly for the virus. Read more here.
🟢 Las Vegas Sands (employees): The company has required non-vaccinated employees of the Venetian, Palazzo and Sands Expo Conference Center to submit to weekly testing since July 26. The testing is done on-site, and the cost is covered by the company.
🔵 Westgate Las Vegas (employees): The company announced on Sept. 10 that starting Oct. 15 proof of vaccination will be required for all team members, according to KLAS. Read more here.
🟡 Resorts World (employees): Starting Sept. 12, the company will require proof of vaccination as a condition employment for all new hires, both hourly and salaried, according to KLAS. Read more here.
🔵 Las Vegas Raiders (attendees):The Las Vegas Raiders announced on Aug. 16 that attendees of all home games would be required to be either partially or fully vaccinated. Read more here.
🔵 World Series of Poker (employees/participants): The World Series of Poker, which is owned by Caesars Entertainment, announced in August all participants in the upcoming tournament in Las Vegas are required to provide proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 prior to registration. The event is scheduled for Sept. 30 through Nov. 23. A mandate was also given for World Series of Poker employees.
🔵 Conventions (attendees):Several conventions have mandated proof of COVID-19 vaccinations for all attendees, including the Global Gaming Expo (Oct. 4-7) and the Consumer Electronics Show (Jan. 5-8, 2022). The National Association of Broadcasters (Oct. 9-13) had mandated vaccine proof but announced on Sept. 15 it had canceled the conference.
🟢 Life is Beautiful (attendees): Organizers of the Downtown Las Vegas music festival announced on Aug. 11 that attendees must be vaccinated or present proof of a negative COVID-19 test. The three-day music festival starts Sept. 17. Read more here.
🟢 State of Nevada (employees): State officials announced a vaccination-testing program for state employees on July 21. Unvaccinated workers are required to get tested weekly. Read more here.
🔵 Department of Corrections (employees): The Board of Health voted on Sept. 10 to require state employees and contractors working in state-run detention facilities to get vaccinated. They have until Nov. 1 to get the shot. Read more here.
🔵 Department of Health and Human Services (employees): The Board of Health voted on Sept. 10 to require state employees and contractors working in state-run health care facilities. They have until Nov. 1 to get the shot. Read more here.
🟡 City of Reno (employees): City officials announced in August that new employees hired on or after Sept. 2 must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Unvaccinated employees are required to wear a non-medical grade N95 mask when working where other people are present, while vaccinated employees may wear a cloth or surgical mask. Read more here.
🟡 Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (employees): Sheriff Joe Lombardo told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in mid-August that new hires are required to get the vaccine. The requirement does not apply to existing employees. Read more here.
🔴 Lander County and White Pine County (employees/general public): The two rural counties have passed resolutions banning all businesses, entities and organizations from requiring vaccines as a condition of employment or entry. Read morehere.
🔴 Elko County (general public):The county passed a resolution on July 21 banning the use of “vaccine passports” by any county agency and “strongly discouraging” the use of such passports by other agencies and businesses in the county. The term “vaccine passport” generally refers to any kind of proof of vaccination submitted to participate in an activity or enter an establishment. Read more here.
🔵 U.S. Government (employees): President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Sept. 9 requiring vaccination for all federal workers and contractors who do business with the federal government, with no option to be regularly tested for COVID-19 to opt out. Read more here.
🔵 Dignity Health-St. Rose Dominican Hospitals: Hospital officials announced on Aug. 12 that all employees would be required to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 1. Read more here.
🔵 Health care workers: Under new federal requirements, all health care workers in hospitals and other health care settings will required to be vaccinated. Read more here.
Megan Messerly, Howard Stutz, Jacob Solis and Sean Golonka contributed to this report.
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The Henderson gym owner wishes she didn’t have to require her staff and kids to wear hot, stuffy masks during practice. She doesn’t want to be thinking about her employees’ vaccination status. She’s a gymnastics coach, not a doctor, epidemiologist or virologist.
But she also doesn’t want to see any of her youngest gymnasts, not yet eligible for the shot, fall ill with COVID-19. She doesn’t want another employee out on quarantine. She doesn’t want to see her gymnastics team lose its third dad in a year and a half to the virus.
For the last several weeks, Rice has been gently nudging her employees to get vaccinated. She has sent emails sharing vaccine research and data. She has told her staff she prefers they get the shot. She isn’t hiring anyone new that is unvaccinated.
The nudging has only gone so far, though. Rice estimates there are about 15 unvaccinated holdouts among 90 employees between her family’s Henderson and Summerlin gyms.
When one told Rice she believed there was still too much “mystery” around the vaccine, Rice tried to persuade her with an analogy.
“I just said, ‘I think when you’re thinking about being an expert, I’m an expert in the field of gymnastics, so people can ask me questions about that. But we are not experts in epidemiology or science in any way. We have to defer to people who study this for a living,’” Rice said. “‘A parent can’t come in and tell me the better way to teach this gymnastics move. They don’t know. That’s how it should be with this.’”
Rice has drafted a letter, one she’s leaning toward sending. In it, she has outlined a new company policy: that employees get the shot or be tested weekly for the virus.
Her coaches, some of whom have been with her for the last 15 to 20 years, are like family, Rice said. But she is also a firm believer in the vaccine.
“We’re trying really hard to do it slowly and really think through it and make a good decision that takes into consideration the staff we really love,” Rice said. “We’re not wanting to kick a member of our family out, but I believe in this being a safety issue. So, then do you follow that principle, or do you follow the principle of supporting your family?”
It is a question some small business owners supportive of the vaccine in Nevada and across the nation have been asking themselves in recent weeks as the Delta variant continues to spread and the vaccination campaign inches forward.
The considerations are complex: Some, like Rice, fear losing longtime employees. Some worry about whether a vaccine mandate will stymie their ability to hire new employees in an already-competitive labor market. Others are grappling with whether they feel comfortable requiring their employees to get the shot, even though they support vaccination.
They are thinking through the consequences of not requiring their employees to get vaccinated, too. Companies have reduced hours or scaled back operations as a result of employees testing positive or quarantining. They worry about the worst-case scenario — that the situation gets so bad again that they’re forced to close their doors like they did in March 2020.
For some, it’s more than all of that: They don’t want to see employees they care about as humans — not just workers — fall ill, or worse. It’s more than just business sense; it’s also about protecting them.
“We had one of our staff member’s husbands go in the hospital for a while, and they were really worried about him,” Rice said. “It just creates so much stress.”
While a wave of large corporations announced employee vaccine mandates over the summer, some had hoped full approval of the Pfizer vaccine last month would promptly set off an even larger wave of mandates, including among small businesses.
There is no tally of how many Nevada businesses have implemented employee vaccine mandates to date, but interviews with business owners, human resources representatives and chamber leaders over the last two weeks suggest they’re currently more an exception than the rule.
That will soon be changing, though.
President Joe Biden announced on Thursday that all businesses with 100 or more employees will be required to mandate vaccination or weekly testing for their workers, a policy expected to affect as many as 100 million Americans, though it has already faced political pushback and threats of litigation. The smallest businesses, including Rice’s, aren’t subject to the new mandate, though the new federal rule may encourage some to voluntarily follow suit.
The new mandate aside, businesses large and small will still be faced with the question of whether to go further and require all employees to get the shot, eliminating any testing option. Public health experts say vaccination-only policies are the gold standard for virus mitigation, as vaccines remain the most effective method of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Several private and public sector entities have already adopted or are in the process of adopting such policies, including the federal government, which announced a vaccination-only policy for all federal workers and contractors on Thursday. In Nevada, MGM Resorts, the Clark County School District, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Nevada System of Higher Education all have implemented or are in the process of implementing similar policies for some or all of their workers.
If scientists, public health officials, family doctors, public information campaigns and the lure of cash prizes can’t convince people to get vaccinated, the thinking goes, maybe a mandate from their employer will.
In the vaccination campaign, mandates may just be the final frontier.
‘The right thing’
Tisha Overman, who runs a small engineering firm in Las Vegas with her husband, was surprised by the reaction she got last month when she told her employees they had to get vaccinated: None.
She knew there were a couple holdouts among TERPconsulting’s staff of 30, but she had also been open about the fact that a vaccine mandate might be coming, dependent on the COVID-19 vaccine receiving full approval from the Food and Drug Administration. As soon as that approval came, she sent a message to her team letting them know that vaccines were required and asked staff to forward her a copy of their vaccine cards within a week. She told them she was available if they had any questions.
There were no questions.
“I was fully expecting to have a dialogue. I was fully expecting to have to educate myself on exemptions and what’s appropriate for exemptions, but it didn’t come up at all,” Overman said. “The small number of people who had not been previously vaccinated got vaccinated immediately after the announcement.”
The vaccine mandate, Overman said, has been a “definite positive” for their business, both because they believe in the importance of vaccination to keep themselves and their employees safe and because a number of their clients are requiring staff to be fully vaccinated in order to visit job sites. (TERPconsulting’s clients span a number of different industries, including health care, education and hospitality.)
“Both things can be true at the same time,” Overman said. “You can try to do the right thing and believe the right thing is the financially viable thing.”
The pandemic hasn’t been an easy ride for business owners. Though Overman said they were “incredibly lucky” to be in a construction-adjacent business that was allowed to operate during the spring 2020 shutdown, she highlighted the interconnectedness of business in Southern Nevada, where the hospitality industry reigns.
“As business owners, and just as members of the community, we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to not go through another shutdown, and that means following the rules and trying to keep the economy going,” Overman said. “We have an altruistic community feeling about it, but we also have a very realistic business feeling.”
As small businesses in recent weeks started to think through what implementing vaccine mandates might look like, some turned to their local chambers of commerce for help. Prior to the federal government's announcement, chambers hadn’t been pushing business owners either way. Instead, they were informing them that vaccine mandates are allowed under state and federal law and helping them navigate the mechanics of how to enforce them, sometimes using their own vaccine mandates as a model.
The term “vaccine mandate” is used broadly, though there are actually a number of ways to approach a mandate: Vaccination for all employees, vaccination plus weekly testing for unvaccinated individuals and vaccination for new hires only.
Under the new federal rule, all businesses with 100 or more employees will be required to have a vaccine plus weekly testing policy in place, at the minimum, though businesses could choose to go further by requiring vaccination either for all employees or for new hires, with no testing opt-out. Small businesses, which aren’t subject to the new rule, will continue to face the same dilemmas over whether to implement vaccine mandates.
While some have argued against vaccine mandates as overly burdensome, Ann Silver, CEO of the Reno + Sparks Chamber of Commerce, framed them as another requirement employers might enact as a condition of employment, similar to a background check or drug screening.
“Every individual business owner may have a political view, religious view, social view, moral view about vaccines, and I’m not inquiring about that. I’m just letting them know they can require it if they wish to,” Silver said. “The more I can spread that word, the more the chance that businesses pick up that opportunity.”
Silver, in an interview last month, said she didn’t know how many of the chamber’s 2,300 members had put in place or were considering employee vaccine mandates, though she said she was pleased that the chamber’s entire leadership class — which represents a couple dozen businesses in the region — said they had gotten the shot.
“That’s a good indicator. They’re all coming from different businesses and industries,” Silver said. “Whether it was required or they did it on their own, I was thrilled to see that 100 percent compliance.”
While some had hoped the recent full approval of the Pfizer vaccine would spark a wave of employee mandates, it didn’t play out that way in practice. Chamber leaders, in recent interviews, said they hadn’t seen an uptick in inquiries from member businesses about employee vaccine mandates as a result of the Pfizer approval.
Federal officials are now trading hope for a mandate.
“We’ve been patient,” Biden said on Thursday, speaking directly to the unvaccinated. “But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us.”
Prior to Biden’s announcement, Mary Beth Sewald, CEO of the Las Vegas Chamber, said what seemed to have an impact on small business interest in vaccine mandates were the decisions large employers, including those in the casino industry, made. While many of Las Vegas’s biggest resorts have long had vaccination and testing programs, MGM Resorts was the first major gaming company to establish a full vaccine mandate with no testing opt out. (That policy is, for now, limited to salaried employees and new hires.)
“[The resorts] are definitely leading the way, and they’ve kind of pulled the Band-Aid off creating these policies to keep people safe,” Sewald said. “The big picture, really, is we want to reduce the number and trend of COVID cases, and the best way for us to do that is to create a safe environment through vaccinations, negative COVID tests, mask wearing and continuing the social distancing.”
But it’s been a slow process. In an interview before the White House’s announcement, Sewald said that while some businesses have already implemented vaccine mandates, others are still ramping them up and putting plans in place.
“It’s really about finding the right balance for their employees and for their customers as well,” Sewald said. “Having a policy that requires proof of vaccination or weekly COVID tests for their employees, it really does make a lot of sense in keeping the workplace safe.”
Vaccine mandates are easier said than done, even for business owners who strongly support vaccination, something that helps explain why employee vaccine mandates weren’t more common before the Biden administration moved in that direction this week.
Take Tom Young, brewmaster and owner at Great Basin Brewing, who is getting ready to host the brewery’s fourth on-site vaccination event, called “Shot and a Beer,” on Thursday. Young is hoping this one will be a particular draw, with vaccines administered inside the brewery itself, next to tanks of beer.
“We’re working hard to make this planet a better place one pint at a time,” Young said. “That sounds kind of silly and stupid and far-fetched, but it's something where you have to walk the walk.”
As dedicated as the brewery has been to supporting Northern Nevada’s vaccination effort, Young said there are still a handful of holdouts on his staff — about 10 people out of 120.
Young, in an interview last week, said the brewery had discussed establishing an employee vaccine mandate, though he would rather staff get the shot of their own volition. (All staff get rewarded with a free six pack of beer as soon as they’ve gotten their second shot.)
But from a strict business standpoint, the benefits of an employee vaccine mandate are clear, Young said. He has personally experienced the crunch of having several staff members out sick with COVID, and he also feels a responsibility generally to protect the members of the public who come into the brewery.
He also remembers what the shutdown last spring was like, when he had to lay off 55 of 115 employees. He says it’s one of the hardest things he’s had to do.
There’s also the real, human cost. Young said he recently learned a 65-year-old musician who had played at the brewery passed away from COVID being on a ventilator in the intensive care unit.
Last week, Young said he was mulling a modest vaccine mandate that would require all new staff to be vaccinated. But the Thursday announcement appears to have made the decision for him, though he is waiting to see the full details of the new rule and how it might take into consideration full- and part-time employees.
“The data is clear. Scientific endeavors overwhelmingly point to the value of getting more and more folks vaccinated. It is our best weapon so far to curb the spread,” Young said in an email following the White House’s announcement. “We will staff up for our Thursday Shot and a Beer event, inviting all procrastinators and those whose excuses have been exhausted and get started with the Pfizer first or second shot or the one and done Janssen vaccine. It is the right thing to do.”
For many businesses, the already-difficult labor market, which has caused staffing shortages, adds an extra layer of complexity to the decision, particularly when it comes to considering vaccine-only mandates. In an interview last week, Mary Beth Hartleb, CEO of human resources firm Prism Global Management Group, said that’s why she hasn’t been recommending employee vaccine mandates to her clients.
“I think you really need to take into consideration our extremely, extremely difficult labor market right now. I’ve never seen it like this in 30 years doing this type of work,” Hartleb said. “When you look at that, are you really going to hold somebody to a vaccine when there’s other things you can do to keep people safe, etc., and lose all that institutional knowledge, have to replace these positions, train people? I mean, that’s an incredible cost to a business.”
Fears about losing workers to vaccine mandates may be overstated, though, and changing with time. Though polling on vaccine mandates varies depending on how the question is asked, a recent Axios-Ipsospoll found that 43 percent of unvaccinated Americans would get the shot if their boss required it, up from 33 percent a month ago. Nationally, only about 14 percent of Americans say they definitely won’t get the COVID-19 vaccine, while another 10 percent are still in the “wait and see” phase and 3 percent say they’ll get it if required, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s vaccine monitor survey.
(On the other hand, a Gallup poll in August found that 38 percent of U.S. employees would either oppose or strongly oppose their employer requiring all employees to get the shot, and a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 72 percent of unvaccinated people whose employers don’t currently have mandates said they would quit if they couldn’t get a medical or religious exemption to the requirement.)
At least in some instances, job seekers may see employee vaccine mandates as a benefit. Such was the case for Amber Seifert, who left her job with an HVAC company to work for the Boys and Girls Club of Truckee Meadows in August.
Seifert estimates she was one of just about a quarter of employees at her old job who had gotten the shot, as vaccinated employees were allowed to go without a mask if they submitted a copy of their vaccine card to the company. It created an uncomfortable situation, she said, where everyone knew who was vaccinated and who wasn’t.
“Previously, it was kind of like, ‘Oh, you’re vaccinated. So that’s what you think about this and that’s how you believe about this,’ making it political,” Seifer said. “It’s definitely relieving to be working somewhere where the vaccine is required because it’s not polarizing. There’s not going to be a stigma on you because you’re vaccinated. Everybody just is.”
Seifert takes the issue particularly seriously because she contracted COVID-19 last fall. While her primary symptoms were body aches, fever, fatigue and loss of the sense of taste and smell, the virus caused optic nerve damage that required her to get an MRI, a spinal tap and drop 20 pounds in three months or face having a shunt inserted into her brain.
“Everything is okay now, but it’s just been a lot to deal with,” Seifert said.
Scott Muelrath, CEO of the Henderson Chamber of Commerce, believes some people who have been putting off getting the shot while unemployed may voluntarily decide to get vaccinated upon returning to the labor force.
“You could see people coming back into the job market and that could be a reason why they choose to get vaccinated and they haven’t thus far,” Muelrath said. “That maybe could result in an uptick in vaccinations.”
After Thursday’s announcement, many business owners will no longer have a choice in establishing some level of a vaccine mandate. Muelrath, in an email, described the decision as “not unexpected.”
“This adds the further directive and clarity that will spur people to action as to being vaccinated, whether they like it or not,” Muelrath said. “And one step closer to making it required for all, no doubt – no matter what the business size.”
The Vegas Chamber, in a statement on Friday, said that while many Las Vegas companies, including the chamber, have implemented vaccination-testing policies, it was concerned about the new vaccine mandate happening by presidential executive order without debate outside of the legislative or regulatory process.
“While many companies are voluntarily taking proactive measures to fight the spread of COVID, mandating them to do so through Executive Order sets a worrisome precedent and creates a slippery slope for future potential mandates on employers and employees,” the chamber said.
Meanwhile, owners of the smallest businesses, unaffected either way by the federal mandate, will have to base their decisions on the complex calculation of whether it would be better to weather the toll that a COVID outbreak would have on their workforce or mandate the vaccine and risk losing a portion of their employees. Which scenario would have the greater impact on their ability to keep their doors open?
“What’s the point of all this money given out to help businesses get back on their feet if a customer is walking in and possibly in a contagious state … you’re then saying, ‘Okay, now I have no choice but to quarantine them and basically shut down,’” Silver, head of the Reno + Sparks Chamber, said. “I think the mask and vaccine capability should be strengthened by a communal decision that we want to continue commerce in our daily lives.”
‘Shifting the assumption’
For those involved with the state’s COVID-19 vaccination effort, there’s a glimmer of hope that employee vaccine mandates will move the needle on the overall vaccination effort.
“The business community, they are a critical part of this effort,” Heidi Parker, executive director of Immunize Nevada, Nevada’s only statewide immunization-focused nonprofit, said.
Dr. Andy Pasternak, a family medicine doctor in Reno, said employee vaccine mandates — or even just talk about potential vaccine mandates — are one more thing that will encourage people to think about getting the vaccine. And for those who are, he encourages them to talk with their doctor before doing so.
“I have had a few people that are like, ‘Okay, my employer is mandating this now, which vaccine do you think would be right for me?’” Pasternak said. “There are some differences, so I like to talk to them about which one might be the best for you.”
Amid all the hand-wringing over vaccine mandates, Ellie Graeden, founder and CEO of Talus Analytics and an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security who has been consulting with the state on its COVID-19 response, noted they actually aren’t as foreign as people might imagine.
Vaccination, Graeden noted, is the default for kids, who are required to get certain shots to attend school. There isn’t a mechanism in place to broadly require adults to get vaccines, she said, because they have already gotten them as kids.
“The only reason that we haven’t had the conversation about mandates for adults is because we already dealt with our mandates when we were kids,” Graeden said. “This is the first new disease where we’re actually needing to talk about how you get that first wave of vaccines into the adult population.”
Making vaccinations mandatory, Graeden said, may actually reduce some of the stigma around getting the shot and what vaccination might mean about someone’s personal political leanings or beliefs.
“I think that’s a real value with these mandates. You’re shifting the assumption from being, ‘Oh, this is your choice, you’re doing it because you believe in it,’ to ‘I have to,’” Graeden. “That actually does shift the discussion as well and I think actually depoliticizes it in a lot of ways.”
Employee vaccine mandates may also just be the start. While vaccination mandates for the general public are still uncommon in Nevada — unlike in San Francisco and New York, where vaccination is required for indoor bars, restaurants and gyms — they do exist.
The Las Vegas Raiders are requiring proof of vaccination to attend all home games at Allegiant Stadium, while organizers of the Life is Beautiful festival have required guests to have proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for entry.
Conventions, meanwhile, are adopting their own policies: Attendees of the HIMSS21 Global Health Conference & Exhibition last month were required to be fully vaccinated in order to attend, while two future conventions – the National Association of Broadcasters and the Consumer Electronics Show – announced in August their own attendee vaccination policies.
At the same time, a Gallup survey released this week found that 61 percent of Americans favor vaccination requirements for air travel, 53 percent for dining out and 56 percent in office or work settings.
“I do believe commerce is the answer here … It often takes some brave person that says, ‘This is what I’m going to do, and the rest of you be darned,’ and others will follow,” Silver, the head of the Reno + Sparks Chamber, said. “It takes a real leader to be brave and have strong shoulders to say, ‘This is what’s necessary, and I’m going to do it.’”
This, public health experts say, is why the private sector’s involvement is key to the vaccination effort. It means that mandates aren’t really mandates at all.
Don’t want to work for this company? No problem. Don’t want to attend this concert? No problem. Don’t want to attend a Raiders game? No problem.
The choice is yours.
For more information, check out The Nevada Independent’s vaccine mandate tracker here. You can also more pandemic coverage here and find the latest COVID-19 data on our data page.
In a sign of the pandemic winding to a close, Gov. Steve Sisolak on Wednesday announced the disbanding of the state's COVID-19 Private Sector Task Force — a group of private citizens responsible for fundraising and supporting efforts to mitigate and recover from the virus.
The governor formed the task force in March 2020, as COVID-19 cases rapidly spread throughout the state and country. At the time, Nevada faced a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies amid countless unknowns.
"We were worried about legitimately having enough body bags ... We worried about crematoriums and air quality, how bad it could get here," Sisolak said during a press conference on Wednesday. “And who do I call for help? The task force. And they were there. So, we've made it this far, and we're going to make it the rest of the way through this pandemic."
The task force aimed to harness public-private partnerships to generate the funding necessary to support PPE acquisition, distribute masks and even connect students with broadband and laptops while they learned remotely.
Members of the task force emphasized that their connections to major casino companies and the global resort industry allowed the state to connect with PPE manufacturers in China and other countries and purchase equipment at fair prices.
In total, the group raised more than $12 million, according to a report submitted to the governor. Funding supported the purchase of PPE and set up a COVID trace application used on more than one million electronic devices statewide. The task force also created the Connecting Kids partnership, which by Jan. 5, 2021 had helped ensure that most of the nearly 500,000 public school students in Nevada had access to reliable internet and an electronic device to facilitate remote learning.
Jim Murren, the chair of the task force and former chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts, said that without the partnership and support of the resort and gaming communities and large employers throughout the state, it would have been nearly impossible to adequately protect medical professionals, first responders and Nevada residents. He added that the task force provides a guide for what to do in future crises.
"We can no longer be dependent on states out of this state for our very safety and our livelihood," he said. "We're an independent state. We need to do this here at home. Because make no mistake, there'll be another crisis."
Though Nevada is reopening and recovering from the economic devastation caused in the wake of the pandemic, Sisolak said that the state is not quite out of the woods and emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated.
“The uptick in cases, the uptick in hospitalizations, none of those folks have been vaccinated,” he said. “I mean if you want to protect yourself, there's a simple solution: go get vaccinated. And I encourage everyone to do that.”
A division has emerged among Nevada Resort Association members over revisions to legislation that would allow laid-off gaming and tourism workers to return to their jobs. One company vows to oppose the modified bill and even seek a veto from Gov. Steve Sisolak.
In an email sent Wednesday morning to the casino industry trade groups representatives, South Point Casino-Hotel attorney Barry Lieberman said many of the changes in SB386 – referred to as “Right to Return” legislation – were “particularly onerous for non-union smaller nonrestricted licensees.”
Lieberman, a long time Nevada gaming attorney and a close adviser to South Point owner Michael Gaughan, voiced concern over several sections of the revised legislation that was passed out of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Tuesday evening in a split vote. A deal on the bill was reportedly reached between gaming industry representatives and negotiators for Culinary Workers Union Local 226 with less than a week left before the end of the state's 120-day legislative session.
“We voted to oppose SB386 and seek a veto of the bill by the Governor if the bill passed the Senate and the Assembly,” Lieberman wrote.
Lawmakers voted along party lines, 12-9, in the Senate early Wednesday evening, less than 24 hours after the measure passed out of committee. The changes in the bill are apparently backed by some of the casino industry's largest companies, including MGM Resorts International, Wynn Resorts and Caesars Entertainment — Nevada Resort Association lobbyist Bob Ostrovsky told lawmakers on Tuesday that the association “officially on a majority position is neutral, and we will not support the bill and we will not work against the bill as an association, we are neutral.”
In an interview, Lieberman said the legislation treats “non-union resorts in the same manner” as properties with collective bargaining agreements. Representatives from other casino companies declined comment.
Lieberman termed several amendments to SB368 as “a confusing patchwork of vague, burdensome and non-helpful requirements.” He said the changes force employers “to guess at their peril as to what the bill actually requires them to do.”
He suggested the changes to the bill “impairs” an employer’s right to rehire casino workers who have “superior skills” as opposed to other laid-off workers.
Lieberman said the Nevada legislation’s passage will actually “discourage employers from hiring new employees.” Under the legislation, properties cannot hire a new employee for a position until all the provisions for full-time and part time employees “have been satisfied.”
Four sections in the legislation fail “to draw any distinctions between on-call, part time or full-time employees,” the attorney wrote in analyzing the 20-page document. The new language, Lieberman said, is “ambiguous” in describing the timelines for laid off workers and could be viewed as more favorable to part time employees as opposed to full-time employees.
The section requiring businesses to notify laid-off workers of layoffs “makes no sense.”
In the email, Lieberman said a decision was made by a majority of members of the Resort Association’s executive committee to remain neutral “in exchange for negotiating out of SB386 some of the more onerous provisions.” He said the decision was opposed by South Point.
The Culinary Union, which represents some 60,000 non-gaming workers in Nevada’s hotel-casino industry, has said just 50 percent of the workforce has been hired back since gaming reopened following a 78-day shutdown last year. Labor organization officials said SB386 is needed to ensure its members are able to return to their previous jobs.
AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rusty McAllister, in a statement, called the legislation a “common-sense measure that is urgently needed to create stability in Nevada’s workforce.”
As part of the agreement between the casinos and the union, revisions will be made to SB4, a bill from the 2020 special session last summer that includes government-imposed health and safety standards meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as expanded liability protections for major casino resorts. The amendment relaxes requirements on cleaning, such as cleaning minibars, headboards and decorative items on beds, and changes directives to clean throughout the day to instead call for cleaning daily.
Bill sponsor and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) credited the Culinary Union, Nevada Resort Association and the governor’s office for working together to arrive at a consensus on the high-profile legislation.
SB386 would allow workers in the gaming and travel sectors a right to return to their jobs. The bill covers those workers laid off after March 12, 2020 and who were employed for at least six months in the year prior to the governor’s first COVID-19 emergency declaration.
The legislation is similar to at least a half-dozen other bills backed by the labor organization in other states. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed legislation last month that requires hospitality and service industry employers to offer new positions to laid off workers.
This story was updated on May 26 at 8:18 p.m. to reflect that the bill passed out of the Senate.
A revived, last-minute bill aimed at giving casino resorts a greater ability to ban firearms on their premises supported by MGM Resorts drew staunch opposition from an unusual group of opponents — Republicans, gun right advocates and criminal justice reform groups.
During a joint meeting of Assembly and Senate judiciary committees on Saturday, lawmakers spent a rainy Carson City morning digging into the details of SB452 — an emergency bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) and introduced last week that revives jettisoned portions of the other major gun bill of the session. Senators opted to vote the bill out of committee after the hearing on a 4-3, party-line vote.
Cannizzaro, who presented the bill alongside Sen. Fabian Doñate (D-Las Vegas), Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas) and MGM Resorts representative Ayesha Molino, characterized the bill as another step that lawmakers could take to protect workers on the Las Vegas Strip.
“We are again looking to adapt our state's legal tools to better protect our hospitality workers and our visitors and guests that traveled to Las Vegas from around the world, this time by ensuring that we can appropriately prevent instances where physical violence may otherwise be a factor,” Cannizzaro said.
This isn’t the first time that lawmakers have heard details on the concept of expanding “gun-free zones” — similar language was initially included in Jauregui’s AB286, legislation that also bans firearm assembly kits without serial numbers and so-called “ghost guns.” The concept is strongly supported by MGM Resorts, which helped present both the Assembly and Senate bills and has sought enhanced limits on firearms since the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting that took place on the company’s properties.
Despite another amendment presented Saturday, the bill drew many of the same complaints and concerns from not just gun rights advocates, but police unions, trial attorneys, progressive groups, public defenders and even several Democratic lawmakers, who said they feared the bill would lead to targeting of minority communities.
“We are going to have situations where Black folks and brown folks are going to be the ones who are going to be not asked to leave, but who are going to be the ones that the police are called on,” said Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong (D-Las Vegas). “I'm very concerned about that, because I have a commitment to my community that I do everything that I can to try and keep them safe. We know that every single time there is an interaction with police for Black and brown people, the opportunity for it to go sideways is great.”
SB452 (plus an amendment) allows for non-restricted gaming license holders (defined as more than 15 slot machines on property) to opt in to the provisions of the bill, which generally prohibits individuals from bringing firearms onto casino property with certain exemptions. Businesses would be required to post signage at every public entrance and give law enforcement a seven-day notice before opting in to the bill’s provisions.
A person who is carrying a concealed firearm would have to be given a verbal warning prior to any involvement by law enforcement, with no verbal warning given to someone openly carrying a firearm, before the person with a gun is opened up to criminal liability or a police response. If a person refuses to leave the premises or surrender the firearm, the bill would set an initial misdemeanor penalty.
Exemptions in the bill would cover security guards or police while on duty, owners of residential units within the casino property, guests who purchase a firearm at a trade show, or anyone who obtains the written consent of the property to bring a firearm there. The amendment to the bill would require any casino property that opts in to the bill to adopt policies and procedures that include training for security guards on de-escalation techniques, cultural diversity competency and implicit bias.
After the hearing, the bill was processed with another amendment that sought to address concerns raised by opponents, including:
Requiring an establishment’s firearm policies be provided on their website, and for all signs to cite the controlling portion of state law
Require police that arrive in response to a call from the establishment to identify themselves and provide the person an opportunity to comply with the policy
Narrow the definition of “premises” to exclude any adjacent properties owned by the licensee
Revise the law enforcement exemption to mirror language in existing law on a similar exemption in the state prohibition on firearms on school campuses
Supporters stressed that private businesses already have the right to prohibit firearms on their premises, but that the bill would give them an ability to better enforce their property rights — Cannizzaro said it’s “something that they may already do, and we are trying to make sure that that is something that they can properly enforce.”
“This language simply enhances the business community's toolkit to notify patrons of this prohibition and to call upon law enforcement to assist and address situations before they escalate and become dangerous,” she said.
The bill attracted support from Everytown for Gun Safety and the Culinary union — lobbyist Jim Sullivan cited the 2017 mass shooting and said thousands of union members “saw firsthand the effects of gun violence” and wanted to ensure that “no hospitality worker ever has to experience that trauma again.”
But much of the testimony on the bill was in opposition — ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Athar Haseebullah noted that the legislation drew opponents from across the ideological spectrum and called the bill “half-baked at best.”
“This simply isn't a bad bill that has good intentions, this is a deadly bill, with good intentions,” he said. “No amendment to this bill, no matter how well intended, can fix its potential outcomes. This bill is inherently unredeemable, and is a pretense for dangerous and racist stop-and-frisk policies that have plagued our country and our state.”
National Rifle Association lobbyist Dan Reid said the bill would create “a lot of uncertainty” for gun owners, saying the exemption for residential unit owners in casino resorts may not cover family members or guests.
“We think this bill is wholly unnecessary, and it really could implicate a lot of good people,” he said.
Though Republican lawmakers and gun rights advocates vigorously opposed the bill, the measure could run into difficulty in the Assembly, where many Democratic lawmakers expressed hesitancy and skepticism over the bill. Assemblywoman Cecelia González (D-Las Vegas) questioned whether the implicit bias training requirements in the legislation would be the same across the board at different properties, and said the circumstances described by proponents in which the bill would apply appeared uncommon at best.
“Just to be clear, we are seeking to address an issue that may or may not happen,” she said. “We don’t know.”
Still, supporters stressed that the bill would largely mirror prohibitions on firearm possession at schools and libraries, and said that lawmakers should take similar steps to ensure the safety of the state’s main economic driver — the Las Vegas Strip.
“As we've all noticed, the tourism economy is the lifeblood of our Nevada economy and so we should be paying special attention to the resorts and the casinos and the hotels, and all of the places that people come from all over the world to ensure that they can be safe while they are there,” Senate Judiciary Chair Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas) said shortly before the committee vote. “And we should be able to allow those facilities to have this increased and improved amount of safety on their properties.”
For more than a decade, some of Nevada’s most iconic casino resorts and businesses have benefited from the same tax abatement program — giving substantial property tax breaks for new or renovated energy-efficient buildings.
The state’s Green Building Tax Abatements program is still in heavy use — a state report estimated more than $25 million in property taxes were abated through the 2020 fiscal year, with $105 million in property taxes abated since 2010. State budget analysts say that more than 160 buildings in the state — from Park MGM, Wynn/Encore and even the T-Mobile Arena — enjoy partial property tax abatements through the program.
But the abatement program’s days could be numbered.
Lawmakers in a joint budget meeting on Friday approved moving forward with the planned elimination of the abatement program, which will also see an estimated loss of $87,500 in program application fees. But the budget committee only deals with the financial impact — a bill draft request eliminating the program has been requested, but not yet been introduced so far this session.
So why the request to wind down the program? According to the Governor’s Office of Energy, which administers the program, adoption of the 2018 International Energy Conservation Code (model building codes adopted by many states for minimum design and construction standards related to energy efficiency) led the state to reassess the efficacy of the abatement program.
In a statement, GOE Director David Bobzien said the agency contracted with a third party to evaluate the relationship of the minimum energy efficiency required under the rating systems and the newly adopted building standards — finding that the minimum standards now exceeded the state requirements for the abatement program.
“The continuance of the GBTA program will allow property owners to receive a partial property tax abatement for building to the minimum standard already adopted in the state, which no longer aligns with the intent of the program as initially established in (state law),” he said in an emailed statement.
Current beneficiaries won’t be affected by the program ending, as approved buildings receive through the program a partial property tax abatement ranging from 25 to 35 percent for a period of either 5 or 10 years. Established during a 2005 special session, the abatement program made headlines in 2007 after it was partially blamed for contributing to a substantial education funding deficit in part caused by losses in local school support taxes (one analysis estimated that the original version of the abatement program would have seen Clark County lose up to 10 percent of its tax base and close to $1 billion in lost revenue over the two-year state budget cycle).
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Enter just about any private business in Nevada, and if a “No guns allowed” sign is posted outside the premises, it doesn’t carry much legal weight.
Beefing up that section of law, and banning sale or possession of privately assembled “ghost guns” without serial numbers are the point of AB286, a bill by Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas) that attracted hours of impassioned testimony during a Wednesday morning committee meeting.
Jauregui, a survivor of the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting that left 60 dead and hundreds injured, said she was bringing the measure as an attempt to both address gun violence generally in the state — pointing to the “ghost guns” used in the 2019 mass shooting at a Los Angeles area high school — and to give private businesses, including major casino resorts, a stronger legal standing to prohibit gun possession on their property.
“I know Metro and the sheriff are doing the best they can to handle this uptick, but they simply need more tools,” she said. “In a post-COVID world, we know we need to show visitors and residents alike that we are a place where you can forget about your problems, not come to find more. We know we need every selling point we can get to get our tourism economy back on track. “
Per existing law, no firearms — open or concealed — are allowed at K-12 schools, higher education institutions, child care facilities and some libraries. Public government buildings such as a courthouse, city hall or police station can prohibit the concealed carry of firearms if they post a sign or have a metal detector on the premise, but open carry is generally allowed (Nevada has no law prohibiting open carry of firearms).
Businesses typically do have a right to ask people carrying a firearm to leave the property under threat of trespass, which carries a misdemeanor penalty.
But MGM Resorts executive John McManus, who presented the bill along with Jauregui, said that the current law lacks the “teeth” necessary to be effective, and that the proposed bill would “prevent the emergence of a culture that invites violence on the Strip.”
“We can exclude them through our general rights as a property owner, but right now, to my knowledge, there's nothing in Nevada law that stops you from carrying an illegal firearm into a casino environment,” he said.
So what would AB286 actually do? Per the bill (and an amendment making minor changes presented Wednesday by Jauregui), the legislation would explicitly authorize a “covered premise” to prohibit most individuals from possessing a firearm on its property without the written consent of the owner. A covered premise means any private business where a large number of people gather — including casinos, churches, shopping malls, stadiums, movie theaters or golf courses.
If a business opts in to the provisions, it would be required to post a “sufficient warning” — which could include a large sign in a “conspicuous place” or documents provided at the time of check-in at a hotel. The bill includes several exemptions, including for law enforcement or security guards, residential unit owners, or guests attending a trade show where firearms are purchased.
People who violate the provisions of the bill would face a misdemeanor penalty, with escalating charges up to a minor felony charge for repeated violations.
The legislation also would ban the possession or sale of an unfinished frame or receiver, and ban sale or manufacture of any firearm without a serial number (with exemptions for law enforcement, licensed firearms importers, or for antique or inoperable firearms).
Steve Lindley, a program manager with the Brady Campaign, showed lawmakers a “ghost gun” kit purchased with cash in California, walking lawmakers through the ease with which such kits can be turned into operable firearms. He said the kits often fly under the radar and don’t have a serial number, making it easier for people not normally allowed to purchase or own firearms to work around the system.
“Because they're not serialized, there's nothing that law enforcement can do to trace back to the individuals who originally purchased them, or the manufacturers,” he said. “And that is a huge problem when it comes to investigations of serious crimes, specifically, shootings and homicides.”
But much of the attention on the bill focused on the ability of businesses to prohibit firearm possession on their premises.
Asked by Assemblyman P.K. O’Neill (R-Carson City) why the bill was necessary given existing trespassing laws and penalties, McManus said that MGM Resorts and other Strip properties needed additional tools to address the recent uptick in violent crime on the state’s most famous boulevard.
“It gives law enforcement greater basis to interact with them, and to question them and to determine what their intentions are, what their purpose of having a weapon on the property is,” the casino executive said. “Right now, if they decide to walk out the door, that's where the interaction ends. All you can do with the current trespass is ask somebody to leave, there's no other sanction.”
But that section of the bill attracted much of the opposition — opponents said it would create a confusing patchwork of rules for lawful gun owners, such as concealed carry weapon holders, to navigate.
“It's really a shame that they're going to have to go out and plot out their course for any day running errands to try and navigate, who they have permission from, whether they're going to run into the sporting goods store, to the shopping mall, or perhaps they're having lunch at a certain hotel, restaurant, etc.,” National Rifle Association lobbyist Dan Reid said. “So this is really disappointing.”
John Piro, a lobbyist for the Clark County Public Defender’s office, said the bill should be modified to only allow criminal penalties for those who “knowingly” violate the law, change how the bill treats individuals keeping firearms in their cars, and standardize the criminal penalty scheme throughout the bill.
And even though the bill contains explicit carve-outs for large firearm trade shows, Michael Findlay with the National Shooting Sports Foundation — organizers of the annual SHOT show — testified in opposition to the measure, saying it could lead to a “logistical nightmare” for the organization.
“We have longstanding relationships, we love Vegas, our guys are comfortable,” he said. “Our men and women that attend the show are very comfortable in the town...But if all of a sudden they show up, and things have changed also in restaurants, lodging, locations have signs posted, because most of our attendees are from either out of state or even out of the country, there's real questions as to whether what they do in that situation.”
For her part, Jauregui said her “virtual door” was open to any parties who had an interest or suggestion on how to improve the legislation — but only for those who actually want to see the bill passed.
“I will not sacrifice the safety of every visitor and every other convention, for the convenience of one,” she said.
The vehicles streamed into the pickup lines on a recent Monday, some with popped trunks awaiting cargo.
In a North Las Vegas parking lot, they inched toward a white tent, where workers loaded brown boxes and white plastic bags filled with food into cars, trucks and SUVs. The assembly line-like operation outside the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas popped up in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 shutdown to help thousands of furloughed workers put food on the table.
A year later, it hasn’t stopped. Instead, the Culinary Academy expanded and began allowing all community members to access the roughly 40-pound batch of fruits, vegetables, grains and meat — complete with recipe cards — designed to feed families.
As of early March, the food assistance program had donated 11.5 million pounds of groceries, or the equivalent of about 35 million meals. On any given week about 6,000 to 8,000 vehicles roll through the drive-through-style line, and that figure doesn’t include deliveries made directly to those in need who cannot leave their homes or food distributed at smaller pop-up sties.
“I can tell you that the lines aren’t getting any shorter at all,” said Mark Scott, chief executive officer of the Culinary Academy. “...This past year is really a hole fairly wide and fairly deep for people, and it’s going to be a long time before people are able to dig out.”
But across town another pickup line was seeing equal, if not greater, activity — the passenger pickup area at McCarran International Airport. Hordes of flight-weary travelers, some donning face masks, scanned the line of cars as horns honked and doors opened and shut.
A year ago, this was not the case. The normal hustle and bustle of a busy airport had been swiftly replaced by an eerie quiet.
Now, the two pickup lines — separated by miles and purpose — nod to the region’s hopeful but challenged circumstances.
Nevada is, once again, healing, just as it did after the tourism industry was rocked by 9/11, the Great Recession and 1 October. Vaccination numbers are climbing, case numbers and hospitalizations remain relatively low and spring has brought forth not just tourists but an increasing sense of optimism about the future.
But the truth is Nevada’s healing has only ever been surface deep, its wounds still raw beneath and ready to break open at even the slightest injury.
Amid all the talk of economic diversification over the last decade, experts say Nevada has failed to invest in the necessary level of change to build a more stable economy. The memories of past economic devastation often quickly fade as Nevada once again returns to boom times and trusts the glittering lights of the Las Vegas Strip to save it.
Some would say Nevada’s close relationship with business is what gives the state an edge. When Nevada struggled to secure necessary supplies for hospitals in the early days of the pandemic, for instance, gaming and mining companies donated millions of pieces of personal protective equipment, money and other resources through the governor’s private-sector COVID task force.
But Nevada’s reliance on industry to save the day has also time and time again left the state dependent and vulnerable. At first it was mining, an industry so valuable, and powerful, that it was granted a special, favorable taxation structure when the state’s Constitution was written in 1864.
Then it was the casinos, who have so wholeheartedly opposed industry-specific taxes that they have gone so far as to support a widespread tax increase that would equally affect all larger businesses in Nevada. There was Tesla, Faraday Future, the Raiders and, now, Blockchains, all enterprises touted as the state’s next economic cure-all.
In its nearly 157-year history, Nevada has been unable to shrug off being a company town. This time, it’s put the state in the impossible position of choosing between saving its residents from COVID or financial devastation.
Now, the question is whether, as the lights on the Las Vegas Strip grow brighter, Nevada will once again be drawn like a moth to flame or whether it will truly diversify its economy while fixing a long-ailing unemployment system. The question is what the future holds for Nevada’s workers — many of them workers of color — who are the lifeblood of the economy and the first ones to suffer when good times turn bad.
The question is whether history will once again repeat itself.
The shutdown was swift.
Six hours after Gov. Steve Sisolak announced on March 17 that nonessential businesses would be required to shut their doors to halt COVID-19’s advance on the state, all gambling activity statewide ceased. It was the first time Nevada’s lucrative gaming industry had been prohibited from operating since gambling was legalized statewide in 1931.
Other quintessential Nevada businesses, including strip clubs and brothels, and other everyday establishments, such as salons, gyms and malls, were given an extra 12 hours to wind down their businesses.
The decision hadn’t come as a shock to gaming establishments, many of which had been on multiple calls with the governor leading up to the decision and some of which had already been making plans to shutter operations in light of canceled bookings and an increasingly bleak future for the tourism industry. Billy Vassiliadis, longtime Las Vegas adman, estimated there was 80 to 90 percent agreement among the resorts by the time the governor made his decision that the shutdown had to happen.
Plus, some casino operators saw what was happening half a world away and started preparing. Casinos in Macao shut down for 15 days in February last year.
“I think we could see that it was going to be a very serious matter and definitely going to affect operations based on what we had seen happen in Macao,” said Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association. “But I don't think anyone knew just how big an impact there was going to be or that there would be extended closures.”
More than six months earlier, the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) had carried out “economic cycle planning,” preparations that recognized a 10-year streak of economic growth would inevitably come to an end and unemployment would grow. But the domino of casino closure announcements was ominous for then-director Tiffany Tyler-Garner.
“Over time, there's this growing concern of ‘oh my gosh, yet another employer is indicating that they're putting folks on leave’ … and that all those tens or hundreds, or whatever size those businesses were, were headed our way,” she said.
The prospect of shutting down the gaming industry was more complex than it perhaps appeared from the outside. For starters, some casinos scrambled to find padlocks to secure their entryways. Locks, as it turns out, were not a standard feature in the 24-hour establishments.
Casinos also had to quickly devise plans for counting and safely storing cash, either on site or transferring via armored trucks to banks. Sandra Douglass Morgan, former chair of the Gaming Control Board, said regulators were fielding call after call from casino operators who wanted to ensure they were in compliance with all the logistical and accounting matters. At the same time, gaming properties were handling people-centric problems, such as notifying and accommodating hotel guests and standing up employee assistance programs for the wave of people facing sudden furloughs.
“If we had to do it all over again, obviously we would have said, ‘Okay, you have a week to close,’ to make sure all that information was put into place, but we didn’t at the time,” Morgan said. “But everyone was very understanding.”
State officials within the Department of Business and Industry, meanwhile, scrambled to help other businesses figure out whether they were considered essential and, therefore, whether they were required to shut down. The initial list of essential businesses Sisolak announced could remain open was specific, if incomplete: Grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, hardware stores, truck stops, daycares, gas stations and health facilities.
That left the rest of the non-casino businesses in somewhat of a grey area. Workers at the Tesla Gigafactory, Allegiant Stadium and several marijuana dispensaries reported for work as usual on March 18, unclear whether their employers would be sending them home at noon.
Clarification came that afternoon — an hour after businesses were supposed to close — in the form of a “Risk Mitigation Initiative” document, which outlined 20 essential services and sectors. Among them were ones the governor hadn’t mentioned the previous night, including veterinarian services and pet stores, laundromats and dry cleaners, and auto repair services. Construction and mining businesses were, separately, granted permission to remain open as well.
But, at the time, there was little to no federal guidance about how essential businesses ought to remain open safely to protect themselves, their workers and their customers. So, state officials hurried to come up with their own guidelines. Terry Reynolds, director of the Department of Business and Industry, said the state ended up being about two or three weeks ahead of the federal Department of Labor in the guidance it released for Nevada businesses and employees.
“Businesses can’t wait three weeks,” Reynolds said. “They need to know what they need to know quickly.”
Some of the issues state officials grappled with included how to keep small banks, which were legally required to stay open during the shutdown, running when their employees fell ill, and how to help restaurants safely pivot to a takeout model as dine-in operations closed. Reynolds said some restaurants were able to successfully shift their operations.
“Others did not shift very well,” he added. “It was very unfortunate because I think a lot of those may not come back at all.”
Echo & Rig, a popular steakhouse near Summerlin, saw a massive uptick in customers visiting its on-site butcher shop during the initial shutdown period when only takeout was allowed, chef and owner Sam Marvin said. But that alone didn’t spare the restaurant from feeling the sting of no in-person dining.
At least half the Las Vegas restaurant’s employees were furloughed, and Marvin said a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, which was established early on in the pandemic to help small businesses make payroll, “made the difference in us surviving or not surviving.”
The restaurateur doesn’t hold a grudge against state officials. Compared with California, where he operates two restaurants, Nevada gave a much earlier green light to some in-person dining when the state started to reopen. Because of all the uncertainty surrounding the virus initially, Marvin said he didn’t disagree with the shutdown, though he acknowledges his opinion may differ from others in the restaurant industry who couldn’t hang on financially.
“How can you disagree if you don’t know better?” he said. “Better safe than sorry.”
Echo & Rig’s furloughed employees were just a small slice of the hundreds of thousands of employees who lost their jobs almost overnight, pushing Nevada unemployment to levels worse than those seen during the Great Depression. In April, more than 28 percent of Nevadans were unemployed, up from 3.6 percent in February.
Those hundreds of thousands of newly jobless Nevadans quickly overwhelmed the state’s unemployment system, which was accustomed to handling about 2,500 initial claims a week but received more than 92,000 as the shutdown began. In the past year, half a million Nevadans have collected at least one week of unemployment benefits out of a workforce of 1.5 million, and the agency has received nearly two million initial applications for benefits.
“We were in response mode, without knowing exactly what the floor or ceiling would be,” Tyler-Garner said.
DETR’s problems were numerous, including a staff that had atrophied over the past decade as the federal government drew down funding. Issues as small as a vacation payout to a claimant would trigger “adjudication,” or an analytical review, but Tyler-Garner estimates only about seven people in the agency were qualified to manage that step when the crisis hit, for example.
Early on, the federal government answered pleas to support gig workers ineligible for traditional unemployment by creating the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, but Nevada officials feared that adding PUA programming into the brittle system processing traditional claims would crash it and cut off claimants already receiving benefits. They bought a separate software product to administer PUA in the name of speed and IT stability, but it created a bifurcated system that bedevils claimants to this day.
Mike Powers, a guitarist who worked for a talent agency that dispatches musicians for gigs ranging from conventions to sidewalk entertainment, is one of them. From the first day he applied to PUA, the system flagged his Social Security number as tied to another existing claim, and he believes he’s stuck in limbo a year later because someone in California filed a fraudulent application in his name.
Every day is a financial emergency, he says, but he holds out hope that he’ll someday emerge from the Byzantine system and claim the tens of thousands of dollars he believes he’s owed.
“I would hate to think that I was so close to solving the riddle and then, you know, it did not happen,” he said.
Much of the messaging from Sisolak early on was about the public health crisis at hand and flattening the curve of what was at the time an unknown and deadly virus. But to the quarter of Nevadans who were unemployed and struggling to wend their way through the bureaucratic nightmare that was the state’s unemployment system, it often felt like they were being left behind.
Joshua Meltzer, 29, worked as a singing gondolier at the Venetian and switched to the business side of live entertainment just before the pandemic hit. But a year later, he hasn’t been paid unemployment, and after months of trying to make it with the help of friends, he left the state for Minnesota and is working a clerical job to make ends meet.
He described the last year as a financial, emotional, philosophical and spiritual crisis all rolled into one. He’s always seen government as a force for great good, but its inability to help him has challenged that belief.
“I feel betrayed, in a way, by Nevada, which has been a place of … rejuvenation,” he said. “If that community doesn't take care of its own in crisis, I don't know if that can be my long term home anymore.”
Claimants have also criticized elected officials’ handling of the situation, from the governor failing to mention the unemployed in certain press conferences to formulaic responses when claimants poured out their hearts in desperate emails to their congressional representatives.
“The best thing you can do is just listen better and realize that there are people that are truly hurting,” Powers said.
Reflecting back on his public communications to unemployed Nevadans, Sisolak said he “tried to speak to their plight.” He also said he wishes the state had an “army of people” to quickly work through the hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims that poured in, noting it can take up to an hour for a state worker to process some of the more complex claims.
But, mostly, he blamed yearslong underfunding and neglect of the state’s unemployment system. During a period of record low unemployment in 2019, DETR told lawmakers that after years of successive budget cuts, it was struggling to handle its call volume and expected to be able to handle only 2,800 phone calls a week in 2020.
During the pandemic, a single claimant from Dayton reported calling DETR 2,200 times during a two-week period in April, and many others reported placing hundreds of fruitless calls a day.
“You've got a system that was basically ignored session after session after session,” Sisolak said. “Then when suddenly you're hit with a pandemic that you get claims that are 20, 25 times what you are normally getting, no system is going to work under that situation.”
To make matters worse, state officials were also tasked with sifting fraudulent claims from the legitimate ones. While DETR hasn’t quantified how many illegitimate claims were approved and how much the state paid out on those claims, they estimate they prevented billions of dollars of fraudulent payouts through blocking payment on hundreds of thousands of claims on which they couldn’t verify identity.
As of March 4, DETR reported there were 306,632 claims with pending identity issues that are suspected to be fraudulent. At least another 437,000 PUA claims were denied over identity verification issues in two rounds of mass disqualifications last year.
“The amount of fraud that was happening was unconscionable,” Sisolak said.
But a focus on fraud has had unintended consequences for claimants. Amber Hansen, an administrator of a popular Facebook group for PUA claimants, said it casts a stigma on PUA applicants “that we’re fraudulent … some of us are inherently bad.”
“We still do have people that have eligible claims, and that need to be helped,” she said. “We have to kind of move off that issue.”
Jason Guinasso, a Reno attorney who studied DETR’s backlog as a court-appointed special master last year, said the unemployment agency has erred too much on the side of trying to control fraud, and is making policy “based on the exception, not the rule.” He compared it to a department store assuming all its customers showed up to steal.
“Imagine if they ran their store based on trying to stop shrinkage, and that's all they cared about,” he said. “Your experience going to Macy's to buy a dress would be a lot different than it would be if they were running their store to cater to the majority of people [who] are not there to steal.”
The governor praised the staff at DETR, which increased the number of people working on unemployment issues threefold by January and had many staffers working overtime to process unemployment claims under immense pressure, scrutiny and even threats, including to the director of the department. But he also acknowledged the state’s shortcomings.
“Could we have done a better job? Certainly we could have done a better job,” Sisolak said.
As spring pushed toward summer and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 started to decline, the number of people unemployed because of COVID-19 creeped higher. Pressure mounted on Sisolak to start reopening the state’s economy. Leaders in some local jurisdictions signaled they weren’t going to wait for the governor’s lead, touting their own plans for reopening.
At the end of April, Sisolak announced the state would begin an “active transition” toward reopening that would start with some of the safest businesses, including indoor retail spaces, before progressing to the riskier establishments, such as casinos. At the time, he credited Nevadans’ “incredible discipline” in halting the spread of the virus.
The casinos had a model for reopening: Macao. Casinos in the special administrative region in China had already opened their doors again. But when they did, it was with significant capacity limits, social distancing at table games and slot machines, temperature checks and face masks. Resorts in Las Vegas could essentially take the Macao playbook, make a few adjustments for scale, and put it into practice.
Casino floors — known for their winding paths that keep gamblers wandering and shoving money into slot machines — would have considerably more elbow room. The Gaming Control Board issued a policy document in May spelling out some of the new rules of the trade.
Table games now have player limits: six people for craps, three for blackjack, four at roulette and poker tables. Some slot machines, meanwhile, were placed in an extended hibernation to make way for social distancing. Conversations also occurred around how to disinfect gaming chips without compromising their integrity.
And then there was the human aspect.
The Culinary Union lobbied hard for the approval of SB4 during a special legislative session last summer. The bill, which passed and was signed into law by the governor, shields many Nevada businesses from frivolous lawsuits related to COVID-19 — but only if the companies adhere to the strict, government-imposed health and safety protocols that prevent spread of the virus. Union officials pushed for the measure in honor of Adolfo Fernandez, a utility porter at Caesars Palace who died in June after falling ill with COVID-19.
Despite the bill’s passage, the union wants to see more done to protect hospitality workers, many of them on the front line interacting with people who have traveled to Las Vegas. D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, the parent organization of the Culinary Union, said he was unhappy that food service and hospitality workers weren’t prioritized higher up in the state’s vaccination schedule. Casino workers in Clark County did not become eligible for vaccines until Thursday.
He framed it as both a safety and equity issue.
“Who are workers on the frontlines?” he said, referring to the union’s membership. “They’re predominantly female and people of color.”
For Las Vegas, as a tourist destination, the focus was not only on safety but how to effectively communicate to tourists how seriously the industry was taking precautions. This wasn’t the first time the city had to pivot its branding strategy. In the years after 9/11, the “What happens here, stays here” slogan was born. In the wake of 1 October, it was, “#VegasStrong” and a message of resilience.
But the city had never had to market itself in the middle of an ongoing public health crisis. In the weeks before casinos reopened, cases had been fluctuating. In early June, right around when casinos opened, cases started to climb.
"This one, you didn't know where we were going,” said Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners, the ad agency for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “It was like we were in this abyss, making decisions and consulting with folks with daily information that was fuzzy at best.”
The message Las Vegas ended up adopting was one that balanced safety with freedom. A weekend in Las Vegas, even with masks and social distancing, was still a lot more fun than a weekend stuck at home ordering DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats.
“We didn't need to have the old Las Vegas for them to feel free,” Vassiliadis said. “They just needed more freedom than the restrictions they had been living under for the previous three months.”
There was just one catch: Sisolak didn’t announce a statewide mask mandate until 20 days after casinos reopened. While employees were wearing masks, it was up to casino patrons whether to don that extra layer of protection. In mid-June, the Gaming Control Board issued an industry notice that required patrons to wear face masks at table games if there was no barrier or shield separating the players and dealers.
Even Caesar himself — the statue version, that is — wore a giant mask in a bid to encourage others to follow suit. By the second week casinos were open, Morgan, then the state’s chief gaming regulator, said it was clear many people weren’t heeding that advice.
“It was harder for casino staff to tell people to wear masks if it wasn't mandated,” she said.
The governor’s order, issued on June 24, turned the option into a requirement. But controversy surrounding the decision spilled into gaming properties where some security officers suffered injuries after upset guests lashed out when told to wear a mask, Morgan said.
“No one should have bodily harm being threatened because you’re just doing your job telling people to comply with the mask mandate,” she said.
Pre-opening visitor surveys showed it was a “much younger and more rambunctious crowd” that was eager to return to Las Vegas, Vassiliadis said. And those surveys were borne out in reality: The crowd that first returned to Las Vegas was made up of younger, healthier people who were less concerned about contracting the virus and more concerned about busting loose after months of quarantine, and low room rates meant that some of Las Vegas’s top properties were now affordable for younger people, particularly if they stayed two or three to a room.
In the wake of its reopening, Las Vegas saw fights, shootings and stabbings on the Las Vegas Strip. In response, resorts stepped up their security and the Las Vegas Metro Police Department increased its police patrols.
“Underscoring that's not tolerated here to a lot of those visitors, I think, changed the situation rather quickly,” Vassiliadis said. “I don't think we suffered any kind of reputational long-term hit. I know we haven’t.”
At the state level, the governor’s office sought to convey to surrounding Western states the tightrope Nevada was walking by trying to balance the state’s economic and public health needs. In some ways, Nevada needed the buy-in of surrounding states so that they would keep sending their residents to Las Vegas and not blacklist the state through a travel advisory.
Michelle White, Sisolak’s chief of staff, recalled having “candid, open conversations” with other members of the Western States Pact, a compact established early on in the pandemic between Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, about Nevada’s difficult situation.
“We have states around us who I think were exceptional in understanding the situation that we were in … and genuinely were rooting for us to be OK,” White said. “Being able to explain that to folks and talk through that I think was really, really helpful in our efforts.”
Still, at one point in early December, California — which is home to 1 in 5 visitors to Las Vegas — issued a travel advisory encouraging residents to avoid nonessential travel to other states; it was a little less a month after Sisolak had encouraged visitors to continue traveling to the state even as cases surged in Nevada.
“If there were times where [Western states] said, ‘You know, we're concerned for our residents in a surge and so we're going to require quarantine,’ that’s an acceptable, reasonable thing to do for other leaders who are concerned about their residents. The way it was discussed, at least, was never about in response to Nevada directly,” White said. “It was more of, ‘This is a step we're going to take, this is another mitigation measure we're going to take to try to slow the spread and the surge.’”
For other businesses, reopening would bring with it a host of questions: Would employees have to wear masks? Could they hold meetings in person? What happens if an employee tests positive for COVID-19? There were also industry-specific considerations. How should salons disinfect their equipment? Could movie theaters open their snack bars? Would vehicles need to be sanitized at car dealerships between test drives?
To answer those questions and more, the state authored a series of reopening guidelines. Reynolds, director of the Department of Business and Industry, said the state got feedback on reopening plans from a number of different industries, from the Retail Association of Nevada to the REALTORS.
“In most cases, they were extremely helpful in terms of giving us perspective on what to look at and what can be done to keep things going and what we needed to do, how we need to approach things in concert with the medical advice that we got,” Reynolds said.
But businesses had to make adjustments beyond those required by the state to stay financially afloat as they reopened under strict capacity limits. Echo & Rig, for instance, added more seating in a second patio area that had previously been largely unused and trimmed its menu — from 60 to 42 items — as a cost-containment measure.
Some menu items went up in price as well to balance the ripple-effect felt throughout the supply chain. Restaurants are still dealing with changes in where they’re able to source certain food items, he said. Some of their beloved vendors went out of business.
Marvin, the restaurant's owner, was pleasantly surprised by the number of people willing to venture out and dine at Echo & Rig once it opened its doors. He’s hopeful that customers, at his restaurant and other eateries, will continue to offer them patience — knowing that things will still look and feel a bit different because of safety protocols and other changes designed to keep the businesses viable.
Once businesses reopened their doors, the next challenge was enforcement. Reynolds said state officials took a “one, two, three” approach, giving businesses guidance on how to come into compliance on their first two visits before issuing citations on the third visit.
“A lot of businesses basically just needed a little bit of training on how to do things,” Reynolds said.
To date, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has conducted about 13,000 first visits to businesses. Compliance with the state’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols is about 92 percent in Northern Nevada and 90 percent in Southern Nevada, though Reynolds noted that compliance on first visits has been 100 percent most weeks since January.
Reynolds said that of the businesses found to be not in compliance with the state’s rules, he estimates only less than 10 percent were truly thumbing their nose at the state’s requirements.
“We were tough on the front end on a lot of these businesses, but I think now we’re seeing for the last six, seven weeks good compliance overall,” he said.
And some businesses that initially seemed uninterested in complying with the state’s guidelines eventually came around, Reynolds said. About $60,000 in health and safety-related fines were issued to Walmart before it came into compliance.
“All of a sudden, corporate culture came in and started working on it very strongly,” Reynolds said. “It just took time. Once they did, it grabbed hold and they’ve done well.”
Even as businesses began to heal, Nevada workers continued to struggle.
When nonessential businesses started opening in May and the 78-day casino shutdown lifted on June 4, it didn’t have the same lightswitch effect with unemployment. There were still 285,610 people seeking Nevada unemployment benefits the first week of March — nearly one in five people in the state’s labor force.
A report by the Anderson Economic Group, which has been following the economic effects of COVID-19, described the December jobs numbers as a “continued trend of lethargic recovery.” Between November and December, the leisure and hospitality industry lost 2,000 jobs in Nevada, though gains in other industries offset that.
Only about 50 percent of the members of the Culinary Union, which represents roughly 60,000 resort employees across the state, including guest room attendants, cooks and porters, have returned to work since last year, though their work hours may not be the same. At the height of the shutdown, 98 percent of the union’s members were furloughed.
“Our industry — the hospitality industry overall — has been the hardest hit,” said Taylor, UNITE HERE’s president, said. “Now, we always see signs of life coming back in certain areas, which is great, but until people feel very safe travelling, until they feel safe with indoor dining and staying indoors, it will be challenging.”
Mary Ann Bautista is among those who haven’t been called back to their union jobs. Before the pandemic, she spent 14 years as a buffet food server at The Strat.
As a single mother with several teenagers still living in the house, she said it has been difficult to make ends meet on unemployment benefits alone. Bautista has leaned on the Culinary Academy’s food assistance program for help over the past year. She longs for the day when she can resume her job.
“This is not our fault. We didn’t do this,” she said. “This is a pandemic. We didn’t ask for this. We work hard.”
DETR Director Elisa Cafferata said when she arrived at the agency in August, there were nonstop calls from constituents needing help and a major backlog. To this day, she said the applications haven’t tapered off as much as she expected.
“We've definitely made a lot of progress. There's still a lot of hard work to do,” she said. “The thing I'm most focused on is how do we sort of pivot and help people start thinking about going back to work.”
But the employment figures also highlight a troubling trend, said Brian Peterson, director of public policy and economic analysis with the Anderson Economic Group. In Nevada, nearly 74,000 people dropped out of the labor force completely between February and December of last year. These are people who have reported not actively looking for a job in the past four weeks.
“The big question is, what are those 74,000 people doing?” he said. “Have they become discouraged? Are they planning on waiting out the pandemic? My guess is that at least some of those 74,000 folks want to have a job, but they just haven't been able to find anything.”
There is a certain optimism within the resort industry about Las Vegas’s ability to once again come roaring back as a tourist destination.
Las Vegas has already, essentially, been at the capacity allowed under the state’s emergency directives for some of the recent three- and four-day weekends, Vassiliadis said. World of Concrete is slated to be the first major convention to return to Las Vegas in June, and Cirque du Soleil is hoping to bring back its aquatic acrobatics show “O” at the Bellagio by July.
Tourism officials say the old notion of Las Vegas — a great escape in the desert where fun and freedom trump judgment — could be the very reason it will bounce back more quickly than other destinations. Sure, it might currently lack some of the traditional offerings. Nightclubs, for instance, aren’t jam-packed with partygoers on the dance floor. But the sunshine, warm weather, dining and gambling options might be enough to lure travel-hungry guests, even if other entertainment options are somewhat limited.
“People want to see family and then they want to get away, and when they want to get away, Vegas tops that list,” said Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Of course, this all boils down to people’s willingness to travel. Vaccine deployment will play a crucial role boosting that confidence level, state leaders say. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t exactly given would-be tourists its blessing. The nation’s top health authority recently issued guidance discouraging travel among fully vaccinated people — a point that has received pushback from some within the travel and health industries.
Plus, it’s unclear whether COVID-19 cases will remain at their current plateau or see a springtime surge as a result of the increasing spread of variants and loosening restrictions. In Las Vegas, tourism outpaced projections when casinos initially reopened last summer but then took a nosedive toward the end of the year as coronavirus cases multiplied again.
“I'm pretty optimistic about the direction we're headed in now,” Hill said. “But we didn't anticipate the extreme nature of the spikes that we saw around Thanksgiving and Christmas and how much damage that did to the economy here.”
Another variable: the return of business meetings and conventions, which boost the economy during off-peak travel seasons. There’s even hope that some conventions might return to Las Vegas in the second half of 2021 and then return during their normally scheduled time in early 2022.
The Las Vegas they return to, however, will likely look a little different. Resorts have more eagerly embraced new technologies, such as remote check-in and keyless hotel room entry. In the case of MGM Resorts, a partnership with Clorox as the resorts’ “official guest disinfectant and hand sanitizer brand” is now a selling point.
Jim Murren, former CEO of MGM Resorts, envisions Las Vegas marketing itself as the “preeminent health safety tourist destination in America” — even beyond what resorts are already doing.
“When you do that ... we rip conferences and conventions away from Atlanta and Miami and New York and Chicago and Dallas and LA,” Murren said. “If they have a choice of listening to Lady Gaga in LA versus Vegas, and we can market that it’s safer to do it here, they’re going to come here.”
There is, however, less optimism about the future beyond the Las Vegas Strip. It’s not that state officials don’t believe Nevada’s economic situation will improve across the state — they do — but they worry about the small businesses and workers getting left behind.
Lawmakers have taken steps to help, including authorizing $100 million for the Pandemic Emergency Technical Support (PETS) grant. They hope $10,000 or $20,000 cash infusions backed by federal dollars will keep thousands of small businesses alive.
“It's always easier to keep what you've got … You're so much better off doing that and trying to spur new startups,” said Bob Potts, deputy director with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “The recovery side of things — that has to be paramount.”
Sisolak is hopeful he will be able to work with the Legislature to fix the longstanding problems with the state’s unemployment system. A computer modernization project that could cost up to $50 million is on tap for the next few years pending availability of funding, and a “strike force” led by former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley made extensive recommendations for how DETR could be better prepared to scale up staffing if another crisis hits as suddenly as COVID.
“Prepare for war in times of peace,” Tyler-Garner advised. “I couldn't underscore more the need to ensure that we're always planning to strengthen our systems, because we never know what the demand might be in the future.”
But there’s also an acknowledgement among many in the state that Nevada’s problems run deeper, and that recovery cannot begin and end with Nevada’s tourism industry, or even with fixing the state’s unemployment system. The goal, they believe, has to be a long-term fundamental shift in thinking about the state’s economy. Murren, who became the CEO of MGM Resorts during the Great Recession, recalled seeing the “economic, social, mental, physical devastation of our community” because of Nevada’s reliance on one industry for a significant chunk of its tax revenue.
“Here we are again, and what did we learn? It seems very little,” Murren said. “Whenever things are doing well here in our state, there seems to be this expectation that they'll always be that way and that we should just not rock the boat.”
Tyler-Garner said before the pandemic, she had been working on how DETR would respond to problems that lurked just below the surface of the state’s illustrious unemployment rate: Wage stagnation. Jobs without adequate benefits. Dramatically higher unemployment in subgroups such as the formerly incarcerated.
“Some of the families that were already working two or three low wage jobs ... I shudder to think of what is happening to those families right now,” she said. “Those segments of our community were invisible.”
For Buckley, who runs Legal Aid of Southern Nevada as her day job and has seen the agency deal with a record of nearly 163,000 clients in 2020 in a region of a little more than 2 million, the pandemic has highlighted the need to invest further in the safety net and — deeper than that — Nevada schools.
“I think that key leadership throughout our state do recognize our shortcomings and are working on plans to change our over reliance on gaming and hospitality,” she said. “But as many have pointed out, it means more of an investment is needed in education and in our schools, to allow us to compete.”
That’s, in part, why the governor’s private-sector COVID-19 task force, which has in the last year helped the state secure personal protective equipment, ramp up testing, build out a contact tracing app and bridge the digital divide for students, plans to focus next on workforce recovery. Nevada was also one of nine states awarded up to $100,000 in grant funding through the National Governors Association to help states prepare for a post-COVID economy.
But Murren, who chairs the task force, believes economic diversification will only happen in Nevada if and when the state chooses to make a significant investment into the quality of life of its residents, including supporting education, health and safety, the elderly and homeless individuals. And he believes it will take the support of everyday Nevadans, too.
“What makes me incredibly angry is that so many people move to our state to avail themselves to our lifestyle, to our weather, to our natural beauty, to our entertainment, to what is great about Nevada, but they don’t contribute to it,” Murren said. “The will of the people seems to be that we don’t want taxes, or little taxes, or we don’t want to raise any revenue, any form of proper investment. Then, you get what you get in Carson City as well.”
Nevada’s budget was already slim to begin with, and it became even slimmer when lawmakers cut nearly a billion dollars from the state’s budget over the summer. That included hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on health care and education. Though Nevada received nearly $25 billion in federal aid in the last year, state officials felt like they were constantly worrying about how to pay for needed services.
“Nevada doesn’t have a huge safety net to provide on the best of days, and that’s the reality of it,” said White, the governor’s chief of staff. “That’s the hard reality of it.”
That reality is visible in places like the Culinary Academy’s parking lot. Its food distribution operation is called Helping Hand, and Scott, the organization’s CEO, said it’s not time to let go yet. The Culinary Academy anticipates providing food assistance to needy families through the end of the year in some form.
Scott knows community members remain appreciative.
It’s not uncommon, he said, to find notes of gratitude waiting in the vehicles’ trunks.
The virus came to Nevada slowly, and then all at once.
At the beginning, it was a specter, a theoretical possibility but — public health officials optimistically thought at the time — an improbability. Nevada’s state epidemiologist, on Jan. 13, 2020, penned a report on the developing situation: Health officials in China had identified a novel coronavirus. There were 41 confirmed cases, all residents of Wuhan besides one recent visitor to the city, and one death.
“At this time there has been no evidence of person-to-person transmission, although there is still much to learn in regard to this novel virus,” state epidemiologist Melissa Peek-Bullock wrote in the report.
The primary focus from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said, was on standing up facilities at the three primary airports travelers to the U.S. from Wuhan pass through in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. All passengers from the city were to be screened upon arrival and, if unwell, referred to a hospital for further evaluation.
At that point, all state health officials here could do was communicate that information to local health authorities statewide and continue to monitor the situation. She wrote that the CDC believed the overall risk to the public was low.
The Silver State’s first brush with COVID-19 came nearly two weeks later. A Northern Nevada resident was transferred to a Bay Area hospital for isolation and monitoring after arriving in San Francisco from Shanghai with a cough, shortness of breath, fever and other flu-like symptoms. Her travel companion, who had not been stopped in California and made it back to Washoe County, fell ill too. Though neither of them had been to Wuhan, the first woman’s case was concerning enough to place them formally under investigation for the virus.
Fortunately, they were soon cleared after the first woman tested negative for COVID-19.
A few days later, a Southern Nevada man who had recently traveled to Wuhan was admitted to a local hospital after coming down with a sore throat, fever, cough, chills and body aches. He also tested negative.
The most dramatic early investigation centered around a Southern Nevada flight attendant who had been exposed to a confirmed COVID-19 case while on the job. Health officials had instructed the man to isolate; instead, he traveled with his family to Los Angeles, where he came down with a cough. Health district officials told him not to fly back to Las Vegas. He refused. They suggested he drive back. He refused. They asked for his itinerary. He refused.
For two hours one February evening, state officials, CDC officials and health officials in Las Vegas and Los Angeles scrambled to secure a public health “do not board” order that would prevent the man from flying. Complicating things, because the man was a flight attendant, he could fly standby on any one of the many airlines that flies between the two cities — and his name wouldn’t appear on a flight manifest until he had boarded.
The “do not board” order came too late: State officials received a call from the CDC at about 8 p.m. The man had flown standby and had just landed in Las Vegas. The “do not board” order was issued just after he boarded the plane. But, once again, it ended up being just a close brush with the virus. Health district officials that night made contact with the man, who agreed to cooperate with their investigation and isolate in his home; four days later, he tested negative for COVID-19.
This game of whack-a-mole continued for several weeks as it became clear that finding COVID-19 in Nevada was not a matter of if but when.
State and local health officials from across the nation, during a call on Jan. 26, shared their concerns about asymptomatic spread of the virus; China had reported that such spread was occurring, but the CDC had been unable to confirm. The possibility of asymptomatic spread was important because it meant that a traveler or multiple travelers could have unknowingly already brought the virus to the U.S. With little to no testing available at the time and extreme restrictions in place on how tests could be used, health officials would have no way of knowing to what extent the virus was already here.
Health officials on the call discussed the possibility of school closures and requiring employers to allow remote work, measures to help halt viral spread. But there was still so much they did not know about the virus.
“It was emphasized that decisions are required to be made with a lot of uncertainty and limited knowledge of the infectious period, overall infectiousness and sustainability of transmission and severity of this novel virus, so decisions need to be cautious and re-evaluated as we learn more about the virus,” Peek-Bullock wrote in one of her daily reports about the call.
A month later, a virus that had once been a point of interest was now a cause for concern. Fourteen cases had been identified in the United States, including two cases of person-to-person spread, while an additional 39 people with the virus from the Diamond Princess cruise ship and Wuhan had been repatriated to the country. Nevada health officials held a call with representatives of local health districts, the state public health lab and the state hospital association to discuss federal guidance, testing capacity, hospital preparedness, isolation and quarantine and public messaging.
Peek-Bullock, in her Feb. 24 daily report, underscored the seriousness of the situation, bolding and underlining the following:
“During the weekly national call today, CDC emphasized their goals, stating we cannot stop every traveler now that sustained transmission is occurring outside of China, but it is important to continue to slow and continue to contain the spread in the U.S. CDC stated that we are to expect spread to occur in the U.S. and now is the time for states to assess their readiness and ensure they are prepared. They emphasized this is not expected to go away, and in fact is expected to escalate.”
In short: The virus was here in the U.S., even if we hadn’t found it yet in every state. The only option now: Slow it down.
Four days later, Gov. Steve Sisolak gathered together more than two dozen of the state’s top government and health care leaders — state health officials, hospital representatives, local health district leaders, congressional staffers and education officials among them — in a crowded, standing-room only conference room at the Grant Sawyer State Office Building in Las Vegas. More joined from Northern Nevada by phone.
It was a meeting of the minds, so to speak, except that many had never actually met, according to some who attended. But in the coming weeks and months, their names would be familiar throughout the state: There was Dr. Mark Pandori, head of the state public health lab; Dr. Fermin Leguen, head of the Southern Nevada Health District; and Christopher Lake, the public face of the hospital association on all things COVID-19.
Despite the growing seriousness of the situation, those in the room didn’t have any idea just how quickly things were about to change, how bad it would get or how long it would last.
Afterward, the group descended to the building’s lobby, where they huddled behind Sisolak for his first press conference on COVID-19. He stressed to the public three things: That there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases in Nevada, that the immediate health risk from COVID-19 was low and that there had been no COVID-19-related deaths in the United States.
He did, however, note that more COVID-19 cases were likely to be identified.
“We’re going to prepare, not panic,” he said. “We’re going to choose collaboration over chaos.”
Six days later, on March 5, Ronald Pipkins became the first Nevadan to test positive for the novel coronavirus.
It was the beginning of, perhaps, the most difficult year in Nevada’s history, one that would lay bare the chronic underfunding of public health systems, a lack of investment in aging state infrastructure, including its unemployment system and continued economic overreliance on the tourism industry.
It was a year that would see 1 in 10 Nevadans test positive for the virus and more than 5,000 lose their lives to it, more than all U.S. military casualties in the nearly nine-year Iraq War.
It was a year that would see a quarter of Nevadans unemployed, as the state’s economy came to a sputtering halt last spring in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. It was a year that would see a sharp rise in depression, anxiety and substance abuse in a state that already struggles to provide mental health services to its residents even in good times.
It was a year that would pit the state’s public health needs against its economic ones, every day a Sophie's choice.
It was a year that would see Sisolak come under heavy criticism for not communicating with the public well enough, for not bringing local governments into the fold early enough and for making policy decisions that seemed, to some, arbitrary and capricious, infringing on their individual liberties.
It was a year that would sow deeper divisions in a state with a long history of bipartisanship that’s increasingly been tested in the last few years. It’s a year that would see rural communities refocus their longstanding mistrust of government from the federal level to the state.
It was a year that would see Nevada’s health care providers pushed to their limits, overwhelmed, scared and at a loss for how to best care for their patients. It’s a year that would see Nevada’s fragile health care system pushed to its limit, too, and, surprisingly, not break.
It was also a year that would see resilience in the face of despair.
It’s a year that would see rank-and-file public health officials work harder than ever under the most scrutiny they had faced in their lives.
It was a year that would allow Nevada to take advantage of its relative nimbleness and lack of bureaucracy and move quickly to devise innovative solutions to meet the state’s needs, even when those solutions didn’t always work out as expected.
It was a year that would make clear to many that Nevada, as divided as it is, is still, at its heart, a scrappy Western state whose residents are accustomed to fighting for survival against the odds.
This is the story of that year.
Early in January 2020, public health experts didn’t see much reason to worry.
There are outbreaks of disease all the time, and a novel coronavirus in of itself wasn’t necessarily concerning.
SARS and MERS, two novel coronaviruses that surfaced in 2003 and 2012, respectively, claimed relatively few lives despite their high levels of mortality, in part because their spread was typically associated with symptomatic individuals. That meant that isolating people who were ill was very effective in containing spread. Plus, there are a bunch of everyday coronaviruses that circulate through the general population that only cause the common cold.
“There are weird things always popping up all over the world, and most of them don't turn into anything,” said Brian Labus, an assistant professor of public health at UNLV and former senior epidemiologist for the Southern Nevada Health District. “That's why it's hard to get really excited early on when you hear about some new virus like this because most of the time they do not spread that easily from person to person, which means we're not going to have a big outbreak.”
Public health officials started to take the virus more seriously, though, as more information came to light about it, including the fact that it could be transmitted person-to-person and spread by people showing no symptoms.
On Feb. 11, Nevada State Public Health Lab officials validated the CDC’s assay, meaning that they now had the capability to test for the virus at their lab in Reno. It was the same day the virus received its official name from the World Health Organization. It would be labeled SARS-CoV-2, and the disease caused by it would be called COVID-19.
Lab officials, though, didn’t want to sit around and wait for the virus to come to them. They were already having conversations with the Washoe County Health District about whether they might be able to start looking for COVID-19 in samples already at the lab that had been collected to be tested for other respiratory illnesses. So much of the focus to that point had centered around testing symptomatic people who had relevant travel history or were close contacts of confirmed cases. Northern Nevada health officials wanted to know if the virus was already here.
But, at the time, the CDC had strict rules about how the test could be used, namely, to test those with travel history or contact. That would’ve made sense, public health experts say, if the virus had behaved more like SARS. But even by that point in February, there were indications the virus was spreading asymptomatically, even if the role of asymptomatic transmission was still unclear.
That meant that Nevadans sick with respiratory illnesses might have COVID even without a relevant travel history or confirmed close contact.
“It's not that I'm trying to point fingers or make fun of anyone, but we already knew how ridiculous that was then,” said Pandori, the lab’s executive director. “The chief [epidemiologist] of Washoe County and myself already wanted to start looking, but we had to wait.”
Heather Kerwin, Washoe’s chief epidemiologist, believes Nevada might have been able to identify cases a few weeks, if not an entire month, earlier had officials been allowed to start screening respiratory specimens for COVID-19. Pandori said it is “very easy to hypothesize” that earlier surveillance testing could’ve had an impact on the trajectory of the virus.
“When you don't react quickly to something or as quickly as you can, from a surveillance perspective, it's essentially a fact that you allow it to make headway or to spread in a manner that you might have had an opportunity to intervene,” Pandori said.
But, at that point, the federal government, at the highest echelons, wasn’t taking the virus seriously. President Donald Trump, at the White House on Feb. 10, said the country was in “great shape” and suggested the virus would disappear “in April with the heat, as the heat comes in.” Two weeks later, he said the virus was “very much under control in the USA” and that the country had had “very good luck.”
We still don’t actually know how early COVID was circulating in Nevada. When the antibody test for the virus came out last spring, the state lab tested old blood samples they had stored from December 2019 and January 2020 but didn’t find any antibodies for COVID-19. Some studies have tried to extrapolate how early the virus was spreading in Nevada and elsewhere across the country. One projects the virus was already spreading in Nevada by mid-February and puts the state among the first 10 to have community transmission.
Doctors here, based on what they now know about COVID, believe they were seeing cases as early as January. At the time, they chalked it up as a particularly severe flu season.
“In January, we were seeing tons of people with flu-like illness, and we were calling it the flu,” said Dr. Scott Scherr, the regional medical director for TeamHealth, which manages five emergency departments in Las Vegas and one in Elko. “When you look back at it, it wasn’t flu at all. It was COVID.”
In those early days, it wasn’t yet clear what kind of an impact the virus would have on Nevada, but government officials and the health care industry were starting to prepare. Clark County started updating its emergency plan. Hospitals started to think through the difficulties they might face in securing personal protective equipment, much of which is manufactured in China. They also dusted off their mutual aid agreements, which let them lean on each other for support in a crisis situation.
What was clear though, by the end of February, was that COVID was coming. For Las Vegas, a city that hosts nearly 50 million visitors a year, the virus was always just a short drive or plane flight away.
“We understood that it had all the makings to be a large scale, global pandemic at the time,” Peek-Bullock said. “But early in January and February, I don't know if any of us would have predicted where we would be sitting here a year from now.”
The situation escalated quickly: Concern became alarm.
On March 5, Nevada went from zero COVID-19 cases to two: Pipkins and a Washoe County man in his 50s who contracted the virus after sailing aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship. Though government officials, public health entities and health care workers had been preparing for the last few weeks, the first two cases brought the seriousness of the situation into sharp focus.
“Once we had the ability to really start identifying cases, those case counts grew very quickly,” Peek-Bullock said. “We know now the virus is transmitted very efficiently person to person, so I think that from our perspective, it really ramped up quickly for us too.”
Within a week, two cases had become 11, and health officials here knew that as they continued to test they would only find more cases.
Publicly, state and local officials put on a brave face: Yes, more cases might be identified. But if Nevadans did their part — avoiding contact with sick people, cleaning surfaces and washing their hands — we would get through this together. After all, Nevadans had leaned on each other in the aftermath of the mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip two and a half years earlier. Why would this be any different?
“I encourage all Nevadans to prepare, not panic, and to continue to choose to collaborate over chaos,” Sisolak urged at a press conference two days after the first cases were announced.
But panicking happened anyway. Grocery store shelves were stripped bare as Nevadans, and those across the country, stocked up on toilet paper and canned goods, unsure of what was to come.
Behind the scenes, the governor’s office was assessing whether it had enough body bags and having conversations about air quality control standards should the furnaces in the crematoriums start burning overtime. In the governor’s office, a chart on the office wall showed the cases increasing day by day, doubling and then tripling. What they needed was more information, more guidance. Enter the governor’s Medical Advisory Team.
Dr. Paul Sierzenski, chief medical officer of the acute care services at Renown, was in the parking lot of Raley’s one day in early March when he got a call from the governor’s office asking him to join a new five-member advisory team Sisolak had established to help guide his decision-making.
The group’s first meeting was March 14, and the governor’s objectives, according to the meeting’s minutes, were straightforward yet seemingly impossible: He wanted to, one, figure out how to help identify individuals with COVID-19 and, two, define goals for the state to contain and mitigate the spread of the virus.
The governor’s office, the minutes note, wanted guidance only on one initial objective: “How do we inform the governor to make decisions on social distancing, mass gatherings, school closures, based on logic and facts for containing, mitigating, preventing?”
The members of that team, in interviews, praised the science-based approach and the decision to bring them — some of the state’s top minds in public health and infectious disease — into the fold so early on. The group still provides advice to this day, though it doesn’t meet nearly as frequently as it did in March and April last year, when it convened almost daily.
But there was one big problem: The Medical Advisory Team knew about as much about this novel virus as the rest of the public did. Sure, its members were familiar with SARS and MERS. They grasped influenza pandemic planning. They knew the playbooks on what they were supposed to do. But knowing what to do and figuring out how to do it are two entirely different things, they quickly learned.
“We had the plan but not the infrastructure,” said Trudy Larson, dean of the School of Community Health Sciences at UNR and one the members of the governor’s Medical Advisory Team. “This is so new for us as a country. No matter how much we wanted to, we really didn’t know all the pieces to put in place and, really, because of some of the social disruption that the country had gone through, we also didn’t have a common way of looking at these things.”
Caleb Cage, former head of the Division of Emergency Management under Gov. Brian Sandoval, who was pulled in to assist the Sisolak administration’s response to the pandemic, felt similarly. Though the state had previously participated in exercises to drill the state’s pandemic response such as Operation Rabbit’s Foot in 2015, Cage said that nothing could’ve prepared them for what it would be like to live through the last year.
“I’m not saying it is bad training and a bad exercise, but it certainly doesn’t stand up to the experience that we’ve had over the last nearly a year,” Cage, the state’s COVID-19 response director, said. “The stakes are real. In an exercise the stakes are, ‘Oh, you learn a lesson and you don’t do it again next time.’”
Part of the problem was, as the governor was asking his Medical Advisory Team big, important questions about how to respond to the virus, the members were themselves still trying to answer basic questions: How easily does the virus spread? What’s the death rate? What will actually stop the spread?
Those in the governor’s office said they were sure the answer — whatever it was — would be found in science: They believed in science. They trusted the scientists. They wanted to do what the scientists said.
“I think there's always this mindset that we will figure this out, that we will figure out a way as a country to control this and get a handle on it,” said Michelle White, the governor’s chief of staff. “I think that was the expectation of all Americans, that that's what we do, that we will get a grip on this and figure out a way to keep it controlled.”
The virus, however, had other plans.
When Nevadans awoke the morning of March 18, the roar of everyday life had dulled to a quiet murmur. School playgrounds were empty. The state’s four-mile-long adult playground was empty too as casinos famed for never closing chained their doors and boarded up their windows.
Slot machine screens blinked blue. They were out of service, and Nevada was too.
The writing had been on the wall. Two days earlier, schools in Nevada and 25 other states closed their doors, the rest to follow suit in the days to come. By the time Sisolak announced all gambling in the state would cease as the clock struck midnight on St. Patrick’s Day, several major resorts were already in the process of shutting down their operations, facing a wave of canceled bookings. Other nonessential businesses were given until noon to close up shop.
A bevy of people — public health experts, doctors, epidemiologists, business owners and representatives of various sectors of the economy — had provided their input to Sisolak and his staff in the days and hours leading up to the shutdown. But the decision was Sisolak’s alone to make. White said it was an “excruciating” process.
“At some point, when you’re the leader and everyone’s looking at you, you have to make that choice and you know it’s going to be massively consequential and you know that it is going to be applauded or it is going to be booed by all sorts of people and that that doesn’t matter at some point, that you just have to do what you think is best with the information you have in front of you,” she said.
Sisolak, in an interview, recalled walking out onto the balcony of his office at the Grant Sawyer Building in Las Vegas one evening in early March and looking out at the lights of the Strip.
“I’m saying to myself, if I shut this down, those lights are all going to go dark and 100,000 people are going to be out of work and kids aren’t going to be able to go to school, and I thought about the potential ramifications of what those decisions would be,” Sisolak said, choking up. “I came in and I said, ‘I’ve got no choice, we’ve got to shut it down,’ because too many lives were at risk.”
His primary focus, as he made clear at the time, was the public health crisis at hand. Back then, public health officials didn’t even know how deadly COVID was. Because of limited testing early on, data out of New York City, which was hit early and hard by the virus, showed that nearly 1 in 10 New Yorkers who had tested positive for the virus died from it. Some health experts were recommending people clean their groceries and packages because of concerns about surface-to-surface transmission. Little had been confirmed about the role of asymptomatic transmission.
At a press conference announcing the business closures, many questions focused on cause and effect: Would businesses face penalties if they remained open? How would the government police it? Sisolak, however, seemed irritated.
“I don't know if I can make this any clearer ... This is affecting the lives of our citizens. People are dying. Every day that is delayed here, I'm losing a dozen people on the back end, they're going to die as a result of this,” Sisolak said, bristling. “It's incumbent upon the citizens of this state to take this seriously. Next question.”
It’s not that the governor’s office wasn’t aware of the economic consequences of shutting down and how many Nevadans’ lives would be affected. But the public health crisis seemed so daunting and the shutdown so necessary to get the virus under control.
Furthermore, the shutdown was billed as a short-term situation. The school closures were initially supposed to last only three weeks. Businesses were to be closed only for 30 days. But the virus stubbornly lingered as hospitals scrambled to secure resources and learn how to treat this new disease.
At the beginning of April, Sisolak put in place a “stay at home” order, formalizing what had existed in spirit for several weeks and extended the closures of nonessential businesses and schools. By the middle of the month, the shutdown had been extended to an undetermined date and schools closed for the rest of the academic year.
“It’s a symbol of truly no one really knew how long this was going to last for,” White said of the early emergency directives. “It was this immediate decision making needed to protect the health of the public in that moment.”
Everyone wanted certainty in that time, from everyday Nevadans to the governor himself. Everyone wanted to know that if only we did X, then all of this would be better. But we didn’t know what X was. In those months, the entire world was still solving for X.
“We want to be able to say, ‘This one is 100 percent foolproof,’ and oftentimes in this situation, the options that we had to lay out on the table — not only is it not always a no-win situation, it is, how do we lose the least?” White said. “How do we do the most good for the most people, understanding that each one of these choices is going to have a negative impact on someone or something somewhere?”
At the worst point in April, statewide unemployment hit 28.2 percent, climbing to 33.5 percent in Las Vegas. Today, 1 in 4 Nevadans is enrolled in Medicaid, the state’s insurance program for low-income individuals and families, up from 1 in 5 before the pandemic.
State officials and public health experts say it can be easy to criticize these early decisions with the benefit of hindsight. We now know the virus is not as deadly as we initially thought, though still more deadly than the flu. We also know that COVID got much worse in Nevada this fall than it ever did in the spring. When Sisolak closed nonessential businesses in March, there were only 55 confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide. At the worst point in the pandemic this fall, the state was identifying more than 2,700 new cases a day. But they say that lessons learned during the spring shutdown and the time it bought the state were precisely what allowed many businesses to remain open, at least to some extent, this fall.
Had we known back in March what we know about COVID today, those who helped advise the governor said, they might have made different recommendations about closing businesses and schools. But thinking back to what they knew at the time, they — and the governor himself — believe that shutting down was the only option.
“It was really just a lot of unknowns that led us to all we could do to stop the transmission,” Labus, one of the members of the governor’s Medical Advisory Team, said. “Nobody knew what was going on with this particular virus. We were still trying to understand it.”
In late March, as the refrigerated trucks began to pull up to New York City hospitals, Nevada — a state where people sometimes grimly joke that the best health care you can get is at McCarran, the airport, leaving town for a city with world class medical care — braced for an onslaught.
Health officials worried that if New York City, which has some of the most hospital beds per capita of anywhere in the country, couldn’t handle COVID, how would little Nevada fare, particularly its rural residents, some of whom live more than 100 miles from the nearest hospital?
“If they couldn’t handle it there, we definitely couldn’t handle it in Nevada,” Labus said.
Sisolak temporarily placed the state’s Department of Health and Human Services and Division of Emergency Management under the direction of Major General Ondra Berry, adjutant general for the Nevada National Guard.
It was an operation completely unfamiliar to the Guard. In some ways, it was easier: Guard members weren’t deployed overseas and could return home to their families every night. They didn’t have to face the day-to-day horrors of war. In other ways it was more difficult: They faced the danger of bringing the virus home to their families, as the death toll mounted quickly.
Berry likened the daily COVID death reports on the nightly news to the daily casualty reports they’d get during the Gulf War. Since March 26, at least one Nevadan has died from COVID-19 each day with the exception of one day. At the peak this winter, Nevada lost 47 in a single day.
“It may not be the same atrocity that you may see in war, but you are in a battle for people’s lives,” Berry said. “If the best solutions are not in place, then those who we care [about] and love and matter may not get to see tomorrow. It’s a different kind of similarity, but it’s a fight.”
And it was coming. Nevada, the state born in the heat of battle, readied itself.
When Pipkins tested positive for COVID-19 at the North Las Vegas VA Medical Center in early March, his doctors were in disbelief. It was the first novel case in the VA system nationwide. Higher-ups from Washington, D.C. called every day for an update on his case.
The initial treatments Pipkins’ doctors tried didn’t seem to work, so they did the only thing they could think to do — put him in a medically induced coma and hook him up to a ventilator to keep him breathing while his body continued fighting.
“That’s all that we had at the time. That feeling as a physician — especially when people would come to us and say, ‘Hey, listen, you’re the expert. What can you do to make me better?’ — I had no good answer at the time. All I could say is, ‘Listen, I can keep you alive until something happens, but that’s the best that I can do,’” said Dr. Myron Kung, a pulmonary critical care physician at the VA hospital and one of Pipkins’ doctors. “That’s a frightening position to be in as a provider.”
Kung said he was learning more and more about the virus watching CNN, just like everyone else was.
Scherr, the emergency medicine physician, recalled patients flooding into the ER in March and April struggling to get enough oxygen; doctors’ first instincts were to intubate them and place them on ventilators to keep them breathing. Just as state officials were working with the best information they had at the time, so, too, were doctors struggling to fight a virus with what they knew. Though patients’ chances of surviving significantly dropped once they were ventilated, it still gave those like Pipkins a fighting chance.
The problem was, what would they do when they ran out of ventilators?
“In the beginning of it, our ICUs were full,” Scherr said. “Our ventilator capacity was near 80 percent.”
Once the state effectively shut down, the numbers started to drop. A peak of 711 COVID hospitalizations in early April plummeted to 421 just a month later. In the same timeframe, the state went from having 240 COVID patients on ventilators to only 115.
Doctors, nurses and hospital officials across Nevada say that initial shutdown — painful as they know it was for so many of their friends, family and fellow Nevadans — bought them critical time to prepare. They secured additional resources, including personal protective equipment and ventilators, set up additional bed space and learned more about the virus and how to treat it. That decision, they say, saved an untold number of lives.
It’s impossible to know exactly how many lives Nevada might have lost had it acted differently. If Nevada were New Jersey, which like New York was also hit early and hard by COVID, it would’ve lost more than 8,000 of its residents to the virus. If it were Mississippi, which has taken a relatively lax approach to COVID restrictions, it would’ve lost 7,000.
To date, Nevada has lost more than 5,000 lives to the virus.
“When we first started seeing that surge of COVID, there was not a single hospital in the [Las Vegas] valley that was ready to deal with that,” said Dr. Shadaba Asad, UMC’s medical director of infectious disease and another member of the governor’s Medical Advisory Team. “If the city had not been shut down and that spread of infection had not been halted, or at least reduced, I think it would have resulted in a catastrophe where our hospitals would not have been able to take care of the patients who became ill.”
Early on, hospitals were focused on making sure they had the bed space and staff to handle a sudden influx of COVID patients, who typically require lengthy hospital stays. There were two ways to accomplish that: Facilities could either increase bed space, as Renown did when it made the decision at the end of February to set up an alternate care site in its parking garage, and bring on additional staff, difficult when states were competing for a limited pool of traveling nurses, or they could decrease the number of patients in the hospital, thereby reducing the number of beds and staff needed.
While some hospitals focused on the former, Nevada hospitals statewide did the latter, suspending all non-urgent surgeries. That means people who needed hips replaced could not get them replaced and people who needed tumors removed at some point in the near future could not get them removed.
“It’s really with a heavy heart that you make that decision that we’re going to stop that,” said Lake, executive director of community resilience at the Nevada Hospital Association, which announced the suspensions back in March. “It’s not a financial decision, it’s really a triage decision.”
Nevada hospitals, like those everywhere else in the world, also struggled to secure personal protective equipment (PPE) for their workers as global supply chains collapsed and the cost of basic, necessary medical equipment like masks, gloves and surgical gowns skyrocketed. Because testing was so limited early on, hospitals had to treat every patient as if they might have COVID. So did first responders. That meant expending significant amounts of PPE on every patient — PPE that had quickly become the scarcest resource.
“It was sort of like a shark feeding frenzy with blood in the water,” Lake said.
The situation got so bad that the first mission of a private-sector task force established by the governor to assist with the state’s COVID response raised $10 million dollars to purchase personal protective equipment, including 2 million N95 masks, 2.6 million surgical masks, 1.5 million gloves and hundreds of thousands of face shields and goggles.
Meanwhile, in hospitals some workers say their facilities were keeping PPE under lock and key. Others tried to buy their own supplies and bring it from home. But the heart of the issue was that there just wasn’t enough available in Nevada, across the country or around the globe.
“I can’t even begin to explain this fear and dread even amongst health care providers when we started getting these first patients because it’s a highly contagious disease and knowing very little about it, being exposed to it day and night and not sure if we were actually protecting ourselves, if we were taking the disease back to our loved ones,” Asad said.
And time has borne out how important personal protective equipment is in protecting hospital workers. When Yarleny Roa-Dugan, a labor and delivery nurse in Las Vegas, fell ill to COVID in January 2021, it wasn’t because she had been exposed to a patient but rather to her carpenter husband, who they believe contracted the virus at work from someone who wasn’t wearing a mask and later tested positive.
On one level, the concerns over PPE were about protecting health care providers. But they were also making sure that hospitals had enough staff to treat all of their patients. If health care workers were already a scarce resource in Nevada before the pandemic, what would hospitals do if a significant portion of their workforce had to quarantine because of exposure to COVID or because they fell ill to the virus themselves?
When Pipkins came into the VA hospital in March, 47 employees who came into contact with him had to quarantine at home for 14 days because they weren’t wearing PPE.
“If you started quarantining health care providers exposed to people with COVID, before you knew it, you would have nobody to take care of these patients,” Asad said. “We started learning slowly, and this had primarily to do with availability of health care providers, if a health care provider was exposed to somebody with COVID, as long as they had absolutely no symptoms concerning for COVID, they were allowed to work with precautions, daily symptom monitoring and daily screening.”
The state shutdown also bought doctors critical time to learn how best to treat the illness. They discovered it was better to place patients on their stomachs and give them high flow oxygen for as long as they could bear, only putting them on a ventilator as the last resort. They started giving their patients steroids. They started using remdesivir, an antiviral drug, and convalescent plasma.
Spring, as it turns out, was just the beginning for Nevada’s hospitals. The state would see nearly twice as many COVID-19 patients hospitalized during the summer surge and three times as many during the fall surge compared to the worst point during the spring.
But doctors believe if not for the initial shutdown, they never would have been prepared for what was to come.
“It would have broken down the health care system completely and it would have resulted in innumerable, avoidable deaths,” Asad said.
If the goal had been solely to stop all spread of COVID-19, the best way to accomplish that would have been to lock every single person on the planet inside their home until everyone infected with the virus had either recovered or died from it.
This was, of course, never a realistic option.
Nevada’s lockdown, by comparison, was relatively porous. People were still allowed to go to the grocery store and pick up takeout. Workers in some essential industries, such as manufacturing and construction, were allowed to continue to go to work. Friends and family could still gather privately in small groups in their homes.
Still, some Nevadans may have been hopeful the lockdown would eliminate the virus and they would be able to emerge sometime in late spring or early summer and return to life as they knew it. State officials, however, knew that was not going to be the case. Their focus was mitigation.
They knew a lockdown couldn’t reasonably last forever, and they knew that cases would rise once it ended. That’s why, once the initial tide of COVID-19 cases started to ebb, their focus turned to figuring out how to reasonably stop as much spread of the virus as possible while also allowing Nevadans to do the things they reasonably needed to do to sustain themselves.
The answer was, on its face, simple: One, they needed Nevadans to continue to interact as little as possible to limit the spread of the virus; two, they needed all Nevadans who wanted to get a test to be able to get a test in the event they fell ill; and three, they needed to be able to contact trace all Nevadans exposed to the virus to prevent them from spreading it to more people.
But changing human behavior is a tricky, if not impossible, proposition. Plus, Nevada was already lacking in public health infrastructure prior to the pandemic, which meant it was nowhere near prepared to undertake a testing and contact tracing effort of this magnitude, despite best intentions.
Early projections suggested that states would need 30 contact tracers per 100,000 residents. That would mean Nevada would need nearly 1,000 contact tracers. State officials estimate they had 10, maybe 15, contact tracers at the time.
Other gaps quickly became apparent as well. State officials discovered early on that several counties, which are required by state law to have county boards of health, did not.
“I remember calling one sheriff in a rural county and saying, ‘Who's your county health officer? Tell me about your last board of health meeting,’ and he was like, ‘I have no idea what you're talking about,’” said Julia Peek, deputy administrator in the state’s Division of Public and Behavioral Health. “He scrambled to get it set up, to a ton of his credit.”
The state's two public health labs — the Nevada State Public Health Lab in the north and the Southern Nevada Public Health Lab in the south — were also ill prepared for something of this scope. Both labs were well-accustomed to testing for infectious diseases, foodborne illnesses and sexually transmitted infections on a small scale, but widespread testing for COVID-19 for every Nevadan who wanted it?
“I think people still don’t appreciate or understand that there was not and there still is not and there likely will never be an infrastructure whereby every person can get a test when they want it,” Pandori, head of the state public health lab, said. “Even with disaster and bioterror preparedness, which started to be financed pretty heavily after 9/11, in particular, that money does not come within a trillion miles of making labs and public health labs possible to test anyone who needs a test at any given moment.”
That didn’t stop Nevada from trying. Health officials knew that as soon as Nevadans were allowed back out in public again, the virus would start spreading and they would need a way to find it. The answer, for Southern Nevada, came from an unusual source: UMC, the county-run, safety-net hospital. UMC’s mission, as a public hospital, is to serve the community. In the time of the pandemic, that meant effectively joining the state’s public health response.
“Did I ever think we would be doing COVID testing and running a massive vaccination enterprise? Absolutely not,” Mason VanHouweling, UMC’s CEO, said.
Toward the end of March UMC realized it needed a better solution for COVID testing. It was still the tail end of the flu season, and the hospital couldn’t tell whether its patients were sick with the flu, COVID or both. From there, UMC started talking about how the hospital could not only expand testing for its own patients but also help with the demand for public testing, which was incredibly slow and scarce at the time.
So, the hospital shuffled its funds around, including capital it had originally intended for other projects, and made the decision to set up a second, complete lab that would be able to turn around test results within 24 hours and run up to 10,000 COVID tests a day. To date, UMC has run nearly a million COVID-19 tests across Nevada, about a third of the 2.7 million tests that have been run across the state. The lab ended up costing the hospital about $1.3 million to develop and $57.5 million to operate in labor and supplies.
While there were initially talks with the governor’s private sector task force about bringing in a Chinese company, BGI, to help to establish the lab — which the U.S. government warned against — VanHouweling said the hospital decided on its own to go a different direction.
Jim Murren, former MGM Resorts CEO and head of the state’s private sector task force, helped the hospital secure a contract with Thermo Fisher, a Massachusetts-based company, to provide open source, high-throughput test machines that would allow the hospital to use a wider range of supplies for the machines and meet the demand the hospital anticipated. He did so by selling them on the idea that the company would be able to pitch to its shareholders that their test supplies helped Las Vegas — and by promising them that they wouldn’t face a ton of red tape with the contract and that government officials would move quickly on the decision.
What’s still not entirely clear is why so much of the focus from government officials and the private sector task force was on helping UMC with their entirely new lab instead of assisting the Southern Nevada Health District in expanding its existing public health lab. The Southern Nevada Health District said the answer lies in the governor’s office. The governor’s office said it was just a matter of UMC being ready and willing to quickly step in to fulfill that role. Murren said it was because UMC’s lab was considered one of the best in the nation and that he was betting on VanHouweling, the Air Force veteran who turned the once-struggling hospital around.
“I bet on people,” Murren said. “I’ve done it my whole life.”
Renown, in Northern Nevada, ended up filling a similar public health role in its community by investing $3 million on expanding its testing infrastructure. At the height of demand, Renown was running 7,000 tests a week in a county with a population of a little less than 500,000.
The Nevada National Guard also played a critical role in establishing testing infrastructure statewide, both in urban Clark and Washoe counties but also in rural Nevada and on reservations where they facilitated mobile testing efforts.
“There's nothing in the National Guard playbook that talks about setting up a testing center,” Berry, the Guard’s adjutant general, said. “But these are people who bring a variety of skill sets to the fight every day and they just knew how to do logistics, they just knew how to do planning, they knew how to do communication ... Whatever they were tapped on the shoulder to do, they just figured it out.”
Testing alone wouldn’t halt the spread of the virus, though: Nevada would need to be able to trace the virus by making contact both with the people who tested positive for the virus and with the people they had potentially exposed. Early on, the state was inundated with pitches from vendors promising their platform would be the one to solve all contact tracing ills; it settled on contracts with Salesforce and Deloitte to ramp up a digital contact tracing system and workforce. Though state officials had received early indications that their local counterparts weren’t interested in a new system, the state was hopeful that if they built it, the health districts would come.
While those preparations in the spring set the stage for the state to start reopening, the coming months would push the newly expanded testing and contact tracing infrastructure to its limit. Public health experts say the expectation that the state would be able to test every Nevadan who wanted to be tested and trace every Nevadan who needed to be traced was too rosy, particularly in light of the tremendous case volume the state would see in the summer and fall.
“The way I describe contact tracing is that you're tracing down those embers of a fire, you're trying to put out the last part of it,” Labus said. “When the forest fire is raging, it doesn't make a lot of sense to find all those little embers.”
Still, as April turned to May, the state collectively breathed a sigh of relief. Cases were no longer exponentially increasing. Hospitalizations were on the decline. Testing had ramped up. Health care workers felt more equipped to treat the virus.
But it was still just the beginning. The wildfire was yet to come.
Reopening Nevada was easier said than done.
Shutting down was immensely challenging for businesses, but it was a relatively straightforward policy once it became clear what entities were allowed to stay open and what were not. Reopening, however, would not just be the reverse of closing. It would need to happen slowly and methodically, with an eye toward figuring out which businesses were the safest to open and how to mitigate risk in those deemed less safe.
Sisolak, at the end of April, announced the state would begin an “active transition” toward reopening. He emphasized that it would be done in a data-driven way and that the state would be required to see a “consistent and sustainable” downward trajectory in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, sufficient hospital capacity and health care workforce and the ability to test all symptomatic patients.
The governor laid out his reopening plan in a winding, 28-page document titled the “Nevada United Roadmap to Recovery” that strove to offer certainty to an uncertain public. It outlined a four-phase reopening plan complete with Nevada-themed nicknames for each phase: "Battle Born Beginning," "Silver State Stabilization," "On the Road to Home Means Nevada" and "Home Means Nevada — Our New Normal." Each phase would allow time for the state to reassess the data and make sure that it was on track before proceeding to the next phase of reopening.
The roadmap broadly laid out the contours of which businesses would be allowed to open in each phase. Outdoor spaces, small businesses and “select retail” would be allowed to open under the first phase with strict social distancing, hygiene measures and occupancy limits. But the finer points of which businesses, exactly, would be allowed to open and how were still yet to be determined.
That responsibility largely fell to a new Local Empowerment Advisory Panel, or LEAP, established by Sisolak to help counties assist businesses with safely reopening. The name made it sound, perhaps, more formal than it ended up being in reality.
How it actually worked was that three of the panel’s members — Clark County Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, Eureka County Commission Chairman J.J. Goicoechea, and Dagny Stapleton, executive director for the Nevada Association of Counties — would spend hours on the phone on the weekend brainstorming what guidelines they thought made the most sense, which Clark County staff would then spend hours typing up. They’d then send those over to the state Department of Business and Industry for a first review and then onto the governor’s office for final review.
“I'll tell you, it's super easy to close things down, it's very hard to open things up,” Kirkpatrick said. “You're trying to think of every single business and trying to put some common sense and public health in the same conversation so that people could navigate and be open and be open safely.”
The biggest challenge, though, was figuring out how to safely reopen casinos.
“If you look from purely a public health angle, the fact that our casinos are open seems like a really bad idea,” Labus said. “But, at the same time, that's what the economic basis of our state is, and there is going to be all sorts of public health fallout if we close them. People will lose their jobs, they'll lose health insurance, they won't be able to feed their families, all those kinds of things, and those cause health problems as well.”
Because keeping the casinos closed forever was not an option, the state focused on what could be done to open them safely. Conventions, at the beginning, were out. Table games, while not ideal, could be done with strict spacing requirements and other precautions. Other establishments inside casinos, like restaurants, would adhere to the statewide guidance for those kinds of businesses.
Even public health experts from outside Nevada emphasize there isn’t necessarily anything riskier about a casino than any other establishment that brings large numbers of people together, so long as the appropriate mitigation measures are in place.
When it comes to data on points of exposure — an imperfect science for many reasons — hotels and casinos are not at the very top. Recent data show they’re behind restaurants and grocery stores in Southern Nevada.
“You can open a casino and, yes, you can put measures in place to make sure that you reduce it to a very low level of spreading,” said Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. “To blame the casino and say, hey you guys have to do your part, and yes they have to, but also the community and everybody has to do their part.”
Both the state and the resorts had a vested interest in making casinos as safe as humanly possible. Resorts didn’t want to earn a reputation for being superspreaders, and the state worried about being put on other states’ travel blacklists, both of which would defeat the point of reopening casinos in the first place.
“We knew that it would be this tricky, delicate balance of wanting to make sure people could come here in the safest way possible at each time throughout this pandemic and protecting the reputation of the state, and particularly of Las Vegas, to make it a place where people felt safe coming and where other leaders across the country felt safe sending their own residents,” White, the governor’s chief of staff, said. “When people come here, it means Nevadans have jobs, it means Nevadans feed their kids, it means they can pay their electric bills.”
But, as safe as state officials and resorts could try to make the Las Vegas experience, bringing people together from all over the world is inherently a risky proposition. Just look at the polio scare centered around Mecca in 2005 or the superspreader conference in Boston that led to more than 300,000 cases of COVID-19.
“I would be concerned if I am a health official in Nevada, especially in Las Vegas, about who’s coming to us and what kind of variants and how much this will impact circulation of the virus in my community,” Mokdad said. “We’re not attacking the casinos, but we have proof that such events when people meet for a conference or for a wrestling game or a football game, it spreads the virus.”
For the many Nevadans who were unable to work from home this spring, the governor’s reopening plan was greeted with a sigh of relief. They would be able to go back to work. Their family members would be able to go back to work. Life would start returning to some semblance of normalcy. The four-step plan laid a clear path forward for the state.
On May 9, Nevada entered “Phase 1” of business reopenings, which allowed dine-in restaurants, hair salons and nail salons to open with capacity restrictions. Churches, gyms and bars were allowed to open as Nevada moved into “Phase 2” later that month. Finally, on June 4, tourists started to trickle back to Las Vegas as casinos once again opened their doors.
The “new normal,” it seemed, was within reach.
It was clear that cases were going to increase.
But what state officials perhaps didn’t fully comprehend as Nevada started down the path of reopening is how quickly they would do so as many Nevadans, who had for the most part been shut inside their homes for months, rushed back to their daily lives.
“It looked like, for a large proportion of people in our community, there was this sense of a kind of victory over the virus,” said Leguen, district health officer for the Southern Nevada Health District. “As you look back at the months of May, June and July and compare it with today, you will see there wasn’t that high level of compliance of people with mitigation measures, the use or masks, social distancing or the avoidance of public places. They felt at the time that the pandemic was over, everything is great, let’s go relax and party.”
At the low point in May, fewer than 100 people were testing positive for COVID-19 each day. By mid-July, that number had skyrocketed to more than 1,000.
Local health districts were quickly overwhelmed by the number of cases they needed to investigate and contacts they needed to trace. Before the pandemic, Nevada’s contact tracers were responsible for tracing relatively small outbreaks of illnesses. Even syphilis, which poses a significant public health challenge for Nevada, was nothing compared to COVID. There were only 2,000 cases of syphilis reported in 2018; over the summer, Nevada was seeing that many COVID-19 cases in two days.
While the state was able to step in and offer up its contact tracing platform and workforce, local health districts were still overwhelmed by the number of disease investigations — that’s the initial interview with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 — they had to complete.
With the help of the Nevada System of Higher Education, the state was eventually able to scale up the number of trained public health professionals who could do disease investigation and contact tracing work. But it took time and, in the meantime, people got frustrated. Some Nevadans reported it was taking days to weeks to get their test results back and even longer to receive a call from a disease investigator — if they received one at all. At some point, health districts had to triage, focusing on the most recent positive cases first before working through their backlog.
As summer drew on and the number of new cases being identified each day began to drop, the state finally started to settle into a good rhythm. Leguen said he was even starting to feel optimistic because the health district’s workforce had expanded to such an extent that it seemed to be almost too much for the number of new cases being reported each day. At the low point in September, the state was seeing fewer than 300 new cases a day on average.
But when the fall surge hit, they were once again overwhelmed. The health district again went into triage mode. At the worst point in early December, more than 2,500 cases of COVID-19 were being identified each day, still far too many for the more than 500 people currently dedicated to contact tracing in Clark County.
State and local health officials are the first to acknowledge where their efforts fell short.
“Is any of it perfect? By no means and no stretch of the imagination,” said Peek, who helped coordinate contact tracing efforts at the state level. “Honestly, we’ve probably had more tears over building up contact tracing in the end.”
In Northern Nevada, Washoe County District Health Officer Kevin Dick said, they were essentially racing against rising case numbers to get computers, phones and space set up for contact tracing staff. Complicating matters was that even when the health district was able to contact cases in a timely fashion, there was no guarantee that people would follow the guidance given to them to quarantine and monitor for symptoms.
“In a perfect, theoretical world, maybe we could succeed with that approach,” Dick said, addressing whether it would have been possible for the state to prevent case growth with contact tracing. “In the world that we live in, I think it's fraught with difficulties.”
But the system, imperfect as it was, represented a massive improvement from the state’s capabilities a year before. To date, 1 in 2 Nevadans has been tested for COVID-19 and 58,667 cases have been identified as a result of contact tracing efforts statewide, or about 20 percent of cases reported.
The state also launched a privately funded contact tracing app, called COVID Trace Nevada, in late August to help the contact tracing effort. Though the rollout of the app was initially slow, 687,244 Nevadans have downloaded the app or opted into exposure notifications on their smartphones to date and 265 Nevadans have entered a verification code into the app confirming their positive result which has resulted in 973 exposure notifications being sent.
Looking back, public health experts say perhaps the only way Nevada could’ve ramped up testing and contact tracing to the levels we eventually ended up needing in the fall would likely have been to have a cohesive national plan and federal financial investment back in February or March.
“At the time, there were few enough cases that it was actually practical to perform contact tracing around every case. But of course, that was also the period when the [Trump] administration felt that because there were so few cases we have very little to worry about,” said Dr. Kevin Murphy, an infectious disease specialist in Reno. “That was a golden missed opportunity.”
The hospitals, meanwhile, were not all right.
By fall, Nevadans and others across the U.S. had grown weary of mitigation measures and had started to engage in riskier behaviors. Increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases soon followed here and nationwide. By then, the doctors inside the hospitals responsible for treating COVID-19 patients were growing tired too.
“I think it went from a sense of, ‘Okay, let's get this done. We're on the frontlines. This is a pandemic. We're going to see the light at the end of this tunnel,’ to, six months after that, ‘This is fatiguing. I'm tired of it,’” Scherr, the emergency room physician, said. “We had tons of endorphins at the beginning, our adrenaline was up, ‘This is what we do,’ to, ‘Damn, I’ve got to see this every day, all day.’”
Things got so bad that Renown finally started putting patients in the alternate care site — a parking garage-turned-medical unit. At Sunrise, the hospital was squeezing in patients in its old emergency departments and surgical post-op spaces. Some hospitals had patients in hallways waiting for rooms to open up. At one point, Scherr’s emergency medicine group offered its services to cover the night shift at one smaller hospital where two ICU physicians were responsible for covering 60 to 70 patients, just so the doctors could get some sleep.
“Ten days after Thanksgiving, that was the longest, probably hardest hit time during COVID,” Scherr said. “Especially in Vegas, we were over 100 percent hospital capacity. Our ventilator capacity was not close to being threatened because of our new treatment strategies, but our ICU capacity was.”
As bad as things were, hospital association officials said Nevada never reached ICU collapse at any time over the last year. That’s the point where hospitals no longer have the equipment, supplies and people to provide the needed level of care to their patients. Though hospitals individually were stretched to 100 percent or more of their capacity, the system held.
But Lake, the hospital association’s executive director of community resilience, said Nevada “got pretty close,” particularly during the summer surge. At one point, ventilators loaned to the state from both California and the Strategic National Stockpile were being FedExed around the state to the hospitals that needed them.
“If you envision it as a rubber band that you’ve pulled so tight that if you add one more patient — the straw that broke the camel's back — that rubber band will snap,” Lake said.
It’s not exactly clear why the hospital situation in Nevada never was as severe this fall as it was in Southern California, which hit zero percent ICU capacity in December. There are, however, a number of theories.
One is that maybe Southern California hospitals are much more siloed and don’t lean on each other the way that Nevada hospitals do through their master mutual aid agreement. During each surge, Nevada hospital CEOs were on calls with each other every other day discussing capacity and who could take more patients.
Another is that maybe because Nevada experienced a significant surge in cases over the summer in a way that California didn’t, doctors had significant clinical competency by the fall. Doctors say that although this fall surge was stressful, there are now clearer protocols for treating COVID-19.
Maybe it’s just that Southern California is much more densely populated than Nevada so that when things got bad, they got really bad. Or maybe, for whatever reason, Southern California’s surge picked up speed faster than Nevada’s did and the mitigation measures that the governor put in place in late November successfully halted the spread.
Or it could be that it still helps to be a small state where everyone knows everyone. They have to, in some ways, to survive in a health care landscape that at times still feels like the Wild West.
“One of the upsides to being a small state and a state that doesn’t invest a lot of general fund [dollars] into public health is that we have to know our system and we know our partners,” said Richard Whitley, director of the Department of Health and Human Services. “One thing you have to do when you don’t have a lot of resources, you have to know what you do have and what you can rely on.”
The last year has been a rollercoaster.
As cases went up, down, up, down, up again, down again and now have plateaued, state officials tried to balance public health needs against economic needs. Businesses closed, businesses opened, there was a mask mandate, bars closed again, bars opened again, restrictions on large gatherings loosened, businesses and gatherings faced new restrictions and, now, finally, those restrictions are once again loosening.
Those ever-changing guidelines were part of an effort to respond to the current milieu and to ensure that the restrictions in place matched the current severity of the public health crisis. But oftentimes, they left residents confused and frustrated that things were changing once again.
As it turns out, the governor’s “Nevada United Roadmap to Recovery” plan from the spring would be just the first iteration of many documents outlining how the state would manage through the pandemic.
It would be followed by “Road to Recovery: Moving to a New Normal” in August, a plan that shifted much of the responsibility for implementing mitigation measures to a new statewide task force. Then, there was the “statewide pause” in November, which saw new limits be placed on businesses and gatherings. Now, we’re operating under “Nevada’s Roadmap to Recovery,” which plans to transition almost all responsibility for COVID-19 mitigation to local authorities.
It’s hard to say which mitigation measures have been the most effective.
Public health experts believe the case trends are probably, in part, psychological. Cases go up when people hear that cases are going down and feel safe to go out and do things; cases go down when people hear that cases are going up and they should be careful and limit their exposure. But they also believe the mitigation measures themselves have blunted the impact: When there are fewer people visiting a business or a smaller number of people at a gathering, there’s less of a chance that someone there has COVID and, if they do, hopefully more space to minimize transmission.
The one mitigation measure, though, that top public health officials say has been key to limiting case growth: the state’s mask mandate, which was announced on June 24 and went into effect two days later.
While Nevada was among the first 20 states to enact a mask mandate, multiple public health experts said they would’ve liked to see the state enact one sooner. At least seven states enacted mask mandates in April, six did in May and Nevada was one of five states to do so in June.
“[The Medical Advisory Team had] been discussing it for a while, trying to get support for that. It was just one of those things, it’s a political decision as much as it is scientific. We recognize those issues. But at the same time we were told, just think of the science. So from a scientific perspective, it's really easy to say, this is what you should do,” Labus said. “When you actually have to put it in place, it's a little different, and that's what the governor had to decide.”
The governor, for his part, said he didn’t even have a full understanding of how effective masks were when he put the mask mandate in place.
“It's easy to look back and say, yeah, I wish I’d have done it earlier, but I didn't know then what I know now,” Sisolak said. “I think at the time we made the decision as quick as I thought there was enough evidence to warrant that decision being made and that's why we did it when we did it.”
As other states like Texas and Mississippi have now begun to lift their mask mandates, Sisolak has made clear that Nevada won’t be heading in that direction. When the state transfers control of coronavirus health and safety measures to local governments in May, the statewide mask mandate will remain in place.
“I think that’s an irresponsible thing to do now,” Sisolak said of governors who are lifting mask mandates. “There’s no science or medical advice that says that’s the appropriate thing to do.”
The last year has been difficult, to say the least, for most. But Nevada’s public health workers, stoic as they may outwardly appear, are struggling.
They will acknowledge that they weren’t prepared and that there were areas where they might have done better. They’re sure that even more of that will become clear with time. But they also believe it wasn’t for lack of trying, and many of them are near their breaking points.
“It’s like we were pushing a wagon, and it worked when we had four people holding the wheels on and now you’re expecting us to enter NASCAR. Guess what? We’re not prepared, and it’s not for creativity or lack of effort,” Peek said, tearing up. “We're doing the best we can with the resources that we have.”
The deck was stacked against Nevada’s public health system from the start. Nevada ranks last in the nation for public health spending per capita. As recently as 2019, public health officials had pleaded with lawmakers for additional public health dollars, which they said would allow them to be more proactive in responding to Nevada’s health needs as they develop, instead of reactive, to no avail.
In some ways, it’s a miracle the situation hasn’t been worse in Nevada. But it has taken a toll on those trying desperately to hold the wheels on the wagon.
Hateful emails stacked up in their inboxes, health officials say. Peek-Bullock, the state’s epidemiologist, recalled someone suggesting picketing outside her house after she appeared at a press conference.
“That was the moment for me that it really hit home because that crosses the line between your work life and your personal life, and you think about your family,” she said.
Like every other Nevadan, the pandemic has taken a toll on their personal lives in other ways as well.
Cage, the state’s COVID-19 response director, has seen his brother and sister struggle to run their family-owned bars and restaurants in Reno. Both he and Sisolak have also been public about their experiences testing positive for the virus. Peek recalls trying to essentially homeschool her kids in real time while also working 12 hours a day. In the evenings, Kirkpatrick, the Clark County Commission chair, spends her evenings helping her 6-year-old granddaughter with her homework and getting her ready for bed before doing even more work. Dr. Tony Slonim, Renown’s CEO, learned he lost his dad to COVID the day the hospital held a press conference in April announcing the opening of their parking garage alternate care site.
“You want nothing more than to do whatever you can to make their pain go away, right? In this case, it's the frustration, the uncertainty, the economic challenges, all of that, and trying to get to a place where you can do something that makes sense based on policy, based on science, and all of those things,” Cage said. “It doesn’t square with the emotional pull of doing something for a family member that you love dearly.”
They’ve felt overwhelmed and exhausted. They don’t know what to do with comments from people who suggest they have an agenda or are financially benefiting from the public health emergency. Many of them didn’t have their first day off from work until many months into the pandemic. As salaried employees, the state’s top health officials don’t get overtime and, in fact, have had their pay cut because of mandatory state worker furloughs. But, then, some of them have struggled with feelings of guilt because they feel lucky to have a job when so many others were and still are out of work.
They know they don’t always get it right. But they say their number one goal has been to wake up each day and do the best they can possibly do for the state of Nevada.
“The story is that the government is horrible and the government's doing something wrong, not that these people are working an ungodly number of hours per week and they rarely get to see their children for the good of Nevadans,” Peek said. “At some point we will have to exhale and we’ll have to shift down and go back to normal life. I don’t know how that’s going to look, honestly, we’ve been on full speed for forever. I don’t know how we’re going to go back to normal.”
The pandemic was always going to be an uphill battle, particularly for Nevada.
How is a state supposed to respond to a pandemic when it’s economy is built on the idea of bringing lots of people together from all around the world to a four mile patch of earth to have fun drinking and clubbing and gambling in close proximity to one another and then return home — exactly the things one ought not to be doing during a pandemic?
To the rest of the world, it may have appeared as if Nevada was being cavalier in its public health response when it made the decision to reopen casinos. But then, to the rest of the world, the totality of Nevada is Las Vegas and the totality of Las Vegas is the Strip, where we presumably all eat and drink all day long before going back to our high rise condos to go to sleep at night.
The rest of the world sees the waitresses, bartenders, bellmen and guest room attendants when they visit, the humans that make the casinos, and by extension, the state run, but they don’t see the homes those workers go back to and the families who rely on them to put food on the table. They don’t see the grocery store clerks, the delivery drivers and the teachers who make everyday life here possible. They don’t see how the taxes they loathe paying on their hotel rooms go to fund things like schools and Medicaid. They don’t see that — without the Strip, without the tourists, for better or for worse — life in Nevada ceases to exist.
State officials and public health experts knew on some level the casinos had to open. Perhaps only congressional approval of a universal basic income could’ve kept them closed. But the state’s decision to many felt — and still feels — contradictory, hypocritical even. Sisolak, during a press conference in mid-November, asked Nevadans to voluntarily stay home for two weeks as cases spiked statewide. But, when asked, he said the measure did not apply to tourists, who he urged to continue to travel to the state while following all health and safety protocols.
Sisolak, in an October speech, called it Nevada’s “great balancing act.”
“The public needs to understand that if we don’t step up together and follow all public health measures, hard decisions and trade offs lie ahead. This pandemic has been framed as a false choice, shut it all down or do nothing. But we know that's not the case. We know that doesn't have to be a reality. We know we can't afford it. We can continue doing our best to balance the health and safety of Nevadans with the need to protect our economy, keep people employed, provide an education to our kids, and more,” Sisolak said. “I promise that I'm doing everything I can to manage this balancing act, and that balancing act in Nevada is perhaps the toughest than any other state.”
But it was maybe less a balancing act than an attempt to make two inherently contradictory priorities live in harmony, like trying to force the negative ends of two magnets together. On one hand, there’s general agreement that bringing people together for lots of face to face interaction in casinos was probably not the best idea for stopping the spread of COVID. But if the casinos remained closed and tourists were warned against coming to the state, tens of thousands of Nevadans would be out of work, struggling to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. They would be thrown into poverty, which brings its own set of negative public health consequences.
Nevada didn’t have the options some other states had. White, the governor’s chief of staff, recalled a conversation with an official from another Western state and wondering how leaders there had lessened the impact of the pandemic on their economy. The official told her that most of their employees were able to work from home.
“She goes, ‘Have you considered that?’ I’m like, ‘Well, we have, that would be phenomenal, but you can’t have the dealer or the valet or the cocktail waitress or the busser work remotely. We are a state that is funded primarily on face to face social interactions in large groups with a lot of people you don't know,” White said. “It's what makes us stay fun and great and amazing. In a pandemic, it puts policymakers and decision-makers in an almost impossible situation.”
In truth, maybe it wasn’t a balancing act between COVID and the economy but rather a balancing act between preventing people from dying of COVID now and preventing people from dying from poverty, mental health and substance abuse issues later.
From the perspective of those in the governor’s office, this was exactly what they thought they had been saying all along. But they realized the sentiment had, perhaps, only been peppered here and there in the governor’s speeches, in 20-page guidance documents and calls with the press. Perhaps it wasn’t clear enough to the public. That’s why they decided to have the governor drive the point home during an October press conference.
White said that the governor’s October speech was designed to speak to the frustrations of everyday Nevadans. The governor’s office understood that Nevadans were frustrated that their favorite family-owned restaurant was struggling while Strip properties were apparently bustling with tourists.
“As people view these decisions and form opinions on them, I don't blame them if they are sitting there saying, ‘This isn't fair, I'm mad.’ because they're looking at it through the lens of their world,” White said. “Putting myself in their seat, I might be mad too.”
Those close to the governor say that, as the pandemic progressed, he got more comfortable with living with, and governing through, the uncertainty. Sisolak has a reputation for being decisive — his critics would call him headstrong or a bully, even — and he’s someone who likes to make a decision and stick with it. They’re not qualities that naturally lend themselves to leading well during a pandemic.
“One of the things he had to come to grips with here — and it took a few months — is there wasn't a decision he was going to make that might still be the right decision in two weeks. He began to really live that moment and live with the need for flexibility and agility and constant adjustment — monitor, measure and adjust — knowing that when he did some of the reopenings that he might need to pull that back,” said Billy Vassiliadis, a longtime Democratic campaign consultant who is close to Sisolak. “It was more living in that moment and knowing that decisions needed to be done and revisited and done and revisited, I think he started to communicate that more confidently. He became more confident in the certainty of the uncertainty."
Sisolak, reflecting back on the last year, acknowledges that it was difficult for him as a leader to come to terms with the fact that there were no right answers and that he might choose to do something today he’d have to reverse tomorrow. And he knows that people have disagreed with him — there have been people carrying AR-15s outside the Governor’s Mansion in Carson City telling him so.
But he said that what he focused on was doing what he thought was right at the time and knowing that when he put his head on his pillow at night that he made his decisions with the right intentions.
“Can you have a disagreement on timing or on the severity of some decisions? Sure. People are always going to be there to disagree,” Sisolak said. “I'm telling you, when I looked at that Strip and those lights and saw them all going off, it's like, man, am I doing the right thing? Is this the right thing to do? And, yeah, I know it's going to be criticized. I know people aren’t going like it. I might have lost sleep over it, but I know I did the right thing.”
There are, of course, things that Nevada could have done differently.
We could have shut down earlier, harder and longer. We could have never shut down at all. Our schools could still be closed, or our schools could have opened fully months ago. We could have devoted even more time and resources to testing and contact tracing. We could have concentrated more power in the hands of the Legislature or local governments. We could have invested more in public health over the last decade. We could’ve invested in an aging unemployment system. We could have put much more effort into true economic diversification instead of, as always in good times, once again hanging our hat on the resort industry.
“When I look back at outbreaks, and I've been working outbreaks for two decades, at the end of the outbreak, it always plays out differently than you would expect it to at the beginning. The question I always have is, well, if I were in the same position, would I make those same decisions?” Labus said. “If I can say, yes, I’d make that same decision today, even knowing ultimately that it was wrong, but based on that information it was the right decision at the time, that’s how I look at our success.”
But even the death of one Nevadan to this virus was always going to be too many, let alone 5,000.
“You talk to a surviving family member of somebody that lost a family member to COVID and couldn't get into the hospital even to say goodbye to them, and it puts things in a different perspective,” Sisolak said. “That chair where that person sat at the kitchen table is always going to be empty.”
Arriving late to the party oftentimes has benefits.
Just ask Jim Murren.
PlayStudios CEO Andrew Pascal was well into the process last fall of taking the Las Vegas-based social gaming provider public through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC). PlayStudios’ financial advisors, J.P. Morgan and LionTree Advisors, had identified several candidates. SPACs, which are also known as blank-check companies, are publicly traded shell vehicles used to take another company public.
Murren, the former CEO of MGM Resorts International, considered PlayStudios a potential candidate for Acies Acquisition Corp., a SPAC he created with two former Morgan Stanley executives.
Social gaming is one of three gaming industry niche sectors, along with live entertainment and online gaming/sports betting, where he believes there is exceptional growth potential.
“We got ourselves inserted into a very competitive process,” Murren said. “[Social gaming] is so much larger than the casino gaming market. It’s a global market with far less friction in terms of the ability to acquire customers.”
Murren and his team may have landed late, but his personal and professional relationship with Pascal and his first-hand knowledge of PlayStudios changed the course. The company has long held the exclusive social gaming and mobile platform rights to casino properties operated by MGM Resorts.
“We had a great collection of interested parties and we were very far down in the process when Jim expressed interest, “Pascal said. “They had a lot of work to do to catch up and be considered. But we felt they were the right partner and the best outcome.”
Murren, 59, and Pascal, 54, share a similar vision: growing PlayStudios into a larger presence in the social gaming sector. By becoming a public company, PlayStudios will have the funds to acquire other game developers or license new products that would be added to the company’s expanding game library.
It’s a similar approach followed by Nevada’s slot machine industry, which Pascal noted was a “fair observation.”
He founded Silicon Games in the late 1990s and developed slot machines that made their way onto casino floors in Nevada and other states. He sold the company to IGT in 2001.
“We see a lot of opportunities to partner up with really great game makers that have great products that might be under-resourced,” Pascal said of potential mergers and acquisitions activity. “Even existing companies that are chasing scale and are looking to really invigorate their products, we are looking to bring our whole model there and partner up with them.”
Prior to creating PlayStudios in 2011, Pascal served as president of Wynn Resorts’ two Las Vegas properties, Wynn Las Vegas and Encore. His aunt is Elaine Wynn, the largest stockholder in Wynn Resorts.
The company has moved to the social gaming forefront, offering the platform’s more than 4.2 million users “real world rewards” that are earned for points and game play.
“We have a proven model, platform and tool and now we’re ready to scale it,” Pascal said.
According to PlayStudios’ investor presentation, customers spend an average of 56 minutes a day playing games on the platform, often paying nominal fees for virtual tokens or other game enhancements. In addition to casino games through the myVegas platform, PlayStudios offers a large library of casual video games in the brain and puzzle, adventure, arcade, simulator and role-playing categories.
The rewards are provided by more than 80 partners and 275 entertainment, retail, travel, leisure and gaming brands. To date, PlayStudios users have collected in-app loyalty points to purchase more than 10 million rewards with a retail value of nearly $500 million.
In addition to its Las Vegas headquarters in Summerlin, PlayStudios has offices and design studios in Burlingame, California; Austin, Texas; Hong Kong; and Tel Aviv, Israel.
Gaming analyst Adam Krejcik, a partner in the advisory firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, said PlayStudios has some “unique and differentiating attributes,” but cautions that social gaming is an extremely competitive business.
“Everyone seems to have the same playbook strategy; raise money to pursue strategic (mergers and acquisitions), and do so even after going public,” Krejcik said. “I think executing on (mergers and acquisitions) is going to be very difficult, not just for PlayStudios, but everyone in the industry.”
Growing and expanding PlayStudios was at the center of the Feb. 1 announcement that several institutional investors – including MGM Resorts – are providing private investment of $250 million. Acies is contributing 89.1 million shares of the SPAC’s stock and up to $150 million in cash.
PlayStudios will emerge as a publicly traded company on the Nasdaq by the end of the second quarter.
The transaction valued PlayStudios at $1.1 billion based on two-and-a-half-times the company’s projected 2022 revenue of $435 million. The company said its expected revenues in 2020 will exceed $270 million.
PlayStudios shareholders will own 64 percent of the company and the institutional investors will own a combined 18 percent. Murren and the Acies sponsors will own 3 percent, and 15 percent of the company will be available on the open market.
Murren said he will become an “active shareholder” in PlayStudios, providing Pascal and his team “everything I can to ensure success.”
Murren, who led MGM Resorts casino expansion on the Strip and throughout the U.S. during his tenure as CEO that began in 2008, credited company founder Kirk Kerkorian with one of the reasons he was drawn to PlayStudios and Pascal.
“Mr. Kerkorian taught me to bet on people and I made a big bet on Andrew and his management team,” Murren said. “I love the space and it was exciting that Andrew was willing to engage and put us in the mix.”
He and Pascal have been acquainted personally and professionally for more than two decades. Both men are involved in helping Nevada deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Murren heads the state’s COVID-19 Response, Relief and Recovery Task Force that secured personal protective equipment, medical supplies and testing kits for the state.
Pascal and members of his PlayStudios team collaborated in the development of COVID Trace, a digital contact tracing app designed to slow the spread of coronavirus. COVID Trace is positioned to become the most effective exposure notification solution in the U.S. and a model for other states working to control the spread of the virus.
SPACs and the gaming industry
Sports betting operator DraftKings went public in April through a merger with Diamond Eagle Acquisition Corp. in one of the gaming industry’s more high-profile SPAC deals. The company’s stock price soared 10 percent above the initial projections in its first day of trading.
Since then, Golden Nugget online gaming, Rush Street Interactive and Genius Sports signed on to SPAC deals. Previously, slot machine developer Inspired Gaming and Illinois video gaming terminal provider Acel Entertainment went public through SPACs.
“I'd expect an increasing number of companies, including those with exposure to the U.S. online gambling opportunity, to seriously examine taking the SPAC route to public markets,” said Chris Grove, an analyst for Eilers and Krejcik Gaming.
The same day the PlayStudios deal was announced, Houston billionaire Tilman Fertitta announced a $6.6 billion SPAC transaction with Fast Acquisition Corp., to put his Landry’s restaurant chain and five Golden Nugget casinos – including the Golden Nuggets in downtown and Laughlin – into the public market.
Competition in the social gaming space
The worldwide social gaming space is crowded with traditional gambling companies and non-casino providers such as Zynga. DoubleU Games, which was sold by IGT, offers free non-monetary versions of real money gambling through DoubleDown Casino.
Australia-based Aristocrat and its Las Vegas-based subsidiary Aristocrat Technologies operate a social games division through the wholly owned Big Fish Games.
In 2019, slot machine developer Scientific Games spun off its social games division into SciPlay, a separate public company traded on the Nasdaq. The Las Vegas-based gaming equipment provider maintained a 17 percent ownership stake in the new company.
Israel-based Playtika, a developer of mobile games including social casino titles such as Slotomania and WSOP, was acquired by Caesars Entertainment in 2011. It operated as an independent division under Caesars Interactive until it was sold for $4.4 billion in 2016 to a group of Chinese investors, that included a private equity firm founded by Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma.
In January, the owners took Playtika public on the Nasdaq in an $11 billion deal.
Upping its presence
During the COVID-19 pandemic when stay at home orders were issued, PlayStudios launched an advertising campaign in Las Vegas and Denver dubbed In Is The New Out, which followed a young couple practicing social distancing at home and includes them playing the myVegas slot games for entertainment.
Pascal said at the time the MGM partnership allowed the company’s customers to play slot and table games in a virtual Las Vegas setting. With casinos closed, the games on myVegas, including myVegas Blackjack, offered MGM Resorts a way to maintain its presence with customers.
PlayStudios struck a partnership with Konami Gaming for KonamiSlots. In 2016, PlayStudios acquired Tel Aviv-based game studio Scene53 and launched its Pop! Slots mobile app.
Howard Stutz is a freelance gaming reporter for The Nevada Independent and the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He has been a Nevada journalist for 30 years. He can be reached at email@example.com. On Twitter: @howardstutz