As unemployment benefits stop for close to 150,000 Nevadans, observers fear tough road ahead

Benefit programs that have buoyed hundreds of thousands of unemployed Nevadans for more than a year came to a hard stop over the weekend, raising concerns of a trying transition for those who have yet to find a job.

Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) Director Elisa Cafferata said that while the Department of Labor has authorized states to use American Rescue Plan funds to continue benefits past Saturday’s deadline, her agency had no plans to do so. An extension would require a special legislative session, such a program would not come with federal money for administrative expenses and it would take that federal aid away from other possible uses, she said. 

“We've certainly taken a look at it,” Cafferata told The Nevada Independent. “But I think … we really just, for the long-term health of the economy, need to help folks get back to work.”

Programs that ended over the weekend include Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) for gig workers and the self-employed (nearly 40,000 were filing claims to Nevada’s program in the most recent week), Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (nearly 76,000 enrolled), and a $300-per-week Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation add-on that applies to all of those claimants, as well as nearly 33,000 people on regular benefits. 

A small State Extended Benefits program serving fewer than 100 people ends this coming Saturday, leaving only the regular unemployment benefit program running, and even then only offering beneficiaries a maximum of 26 weeks of assistance.

The cutoff comes as Nevada’s economy has improved — the number of people on the unemployment rolls is fewer than half of the well over 300,000 it was during peak weeks earlier this year — but the state continues to have the worst jobless rate in the nation at 7.7 percent in July. About one-third of the jobs the state lost when the pandemic hit have not come back, according to DETR. 

Voices on all points of the spectrum acknowledged that the benefits cliff could be difficult for the more than 148,000 people who were claiming benefits as of Aug. 21. Amber Hansen, an administrator of a large Facebook group that supports PUA claimants, said there’s pervasive fear among members of her collective.

“They don't know what they're going to do. And they're scared out of their wits because they feel like there's just, there's nothing else for them to do,” she said. 

DETR officials said they had been warning beneficiaries for months that the programs, which have paid out nearly $13 billion since last March, would be coming to an end, and urged claimants to look for jobs. The agency has been communicating with claimants through their online portals, posting information about job opportunities on social media and sharing an evolving list of retraining opportunities.

“There are a lot of supports out there for them. And probably the best thing to do is just … start making this transition back to work, while you have all of these resources available to help you,” Cafferata said. 

But Hansen said the reality on the ground is much harsher than DETR portrays. The handout DETR provides lists resources that many claimants already know about, such as welfare programs and rental assistance, but may have been unable to tap into.

“I have worked single handedly over the last year with thousands of Nevadans … thousands of people that have applied for those programs and have either hit a wall have been told that they can't get help, have been told that they don't meet the criteria,” she said.

The CHAP rental assistance program in Clark County, for example, has helped 9,000 households since the pandemic began, but has 8,500 applications for aid still pending and has denied about 5,200 applications. Meanwhile, about 61,000 households in Nevada are projected to be behind on rent — mostly in Clark County.

If people in need are unable to successfully secure enough help, they could be part of an eviction wave. Even among those who have received rental assistance, there are people who are headed back to square one because the support is for a limited time.

“They've already tapped out their 12 months of benefits, and they're still unemployed, and now their unemployment's going away. And so what do they do?” said Jim Berchtold of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, which offers free help to tenants facing eviction. “It just really seems like there needs to be a bigger picture solution about job retraining and about figuring out what the issues are that are leading to the eviction and trying to address them.”

Lalo Montoya of progressive advocacy group Make the Road Nevada has seen firsthand how people can get lost in the system if they hit technology-related hurdles, language barriers, eligibility hang-ups or are otherwise confused by systems offering help. His organization helps those it can, but it doesn’t have the funding to serve as formal navigators who would personally guide the tens of thousands of people who need help.

“It's a crisis that I can't even put my head around,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, all we can do is help those that come to us directly or that we meet out on the streets or during tabling events. And I'm glad that when they do find us, they found that they find a voice, they found a place of advocacy, they find a place where they can go and be connected to navigate the systems. But we're doing it out of just survival.”

People wait for their tables at a restaurant at Town Square in Las Vegas on Saturday, March 6, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

A disincentive effect?

Randi Thompson’s organization, the Nevada Federation of Independent Businesses, has been vocal in urging Nevada to end benefits earlier than Sept. 4, blaming them for exacerbating a worker shortage.

“We hope that the governor will not extend those extra benefits, because our small businesses are dying, we have businesses, restaurants that are closing early. They're not taking a dinner shift, they're closing on Sundays,” she said.

Gov. Steve Sisolak did not heed that call to curtail the benefits, but nor did he take the step of creating an additional state-level program to keep the benefits going into the fall.

Thompson said she’s still concerned about workers in industries that have not rebounded, such as those supporting conventions, which brought half a million attendees to Las Vegas in 2019 but zeroed out for a long stretch during the pandemic.

“I'm optimistic that those who have chosen to stay home and not work will decide to go back to work,” she said about the deadline. “My concern, still, is for those whose jobs are not there.”

A debate over whether the more-generous-than-usual pandemic-era benefits were disincentivizing people from returning to work has raged in the political sphere, prompting about half of governors — all Republicans — to voluntarily disenroll their states in certain benefit programs as a way to nudge the jobless back to the workforce. But an early analysis from the firm UKG suggests that states that cut the safety net early actually saw slower growth in the number of shifts worked than states that kept the benefits. 

Economists also largely believe that while benefits may serve as a minor disincentive to return to work, it is not a major factor, and a survey of the unemployed ranked benefits as the last on a list of reasons why they had not returned to work, behind reasons such as lack of child care, concerns about the spread of COVID, and having a spouse who is still in the workforce.

“People in other states are saying they thought they were going to stop the extended benefits and everyone would go right back to work and they're not seeing that either,” Cafferata said. “So I think there's gonna be just sort of this continued thing, settling out and what the new workforce looks like.”

Thompson said she believes “the mood of the workforce seems to be ‘I’ll come back, but you have to pay me more.’ And employers are realizing that's going to be the case.”

She said that might mean products and services go up in price, but she acknowledged that it’s a  shared responsibility with consumers to support jobs that offer workers enough to reach their American Dream.

“I hope you're gonna see a surge in employment,” she said. “We have well over 22,000 job openings in Northern Nevada. We have 90,000 job openings in Vegas. So, we have enough jobs to absorb the people that are unemployed.”

Amber Hansen runs a Facebook support group that advises some of the top decision makers in the state on what unemployment claimants need. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Do decisionmakers care?

Advocates for the unemployed are left wondering why elected officials didn’t do more to extend the program when so many people are still using it and major industries such as entertainment are far from recovered.

They worry that the loss of the program could accelerate evictions, prompting households to uproot and double up and thereby further spread COVID. They worry that the cutoff will force people into survival jobs with low pay, little security, and exposure to the virus.

“Our governor needs to do more. Our elected officials here need to do more. They need to extend the benefits. They need to apply for all the money that's being offered,” Montoya said. “I think they fell into the narrative that the chambers of commerce pushed on us. And they're listening to the corporations. They are not listening to workers.”

The deadline for the federally funded benefits program was set six months ago when Congress passed the American Rescue Plan. In that time, COVID dipped and surged, and now remains at one of its highest points of the pandemic. 

Asked whether the deadline is still appropriate while the health situation remains dire, Cafferata    noted that “there's always going to be an argument to be made to extend benefits.”

“It's going to be challenging for many individuals and their families,” she said. “This is just one last difficult transition, we hope, but I suspect we're going to have some ups and downs with COVID for quite some time.”

Thompson said it’s time to adapt. 

“We're gonna be living with COVID for the rest of our lives,” she said. “And it's time we all learn to live with COVID.”

From Hansen’s perspective, those in power are not showing enough compassion for the unemployed or taking nearly enough action to help. 

“This was something that was so important, and we feel like nobody cared,” she said. “It seemed like people would … gain interest and gain momentum, and then when they felt like their back’s against the wall by another party, they would just be like, ‘OK, well, our hands are tied.’”

While lawmakers have often talked about the emails and calls they receive from desperate claimants, Hansen said she doesn’t think they’ll truly register the struggle as long as they are personally financially secure.

“I just think that everybody just thinks that everything's all right and … excuse my language, they haven't really gotten into the thick of the shit like I have with my collective, to really absorb the suffering that these people have gone to,” she said.

Tabitha Mueller contributed to this report.

Lombardo bucks GOP line on guns, supports universal background checks but pushes back on recent gun control bills

Republican gubernatorial candidate and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo eschewed traditional GOP orthodoxy on firearm issues by voicing support for universal background checks on firearms sales, but also promising to repeal or restrict other gun control measures approved in past years by Democrats in the Legislature if elected.

Lombardo, who plans to kick off his campaign on Monday in Las Vegas, struck a more moderate tone than some Republican candidates on firearms issues in an hour-long Zoom question-and-answer session with members of the Nevada Firearms Coalition, the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association. Moderator Randi Thompson, the group’s lobbyist, noted that police tend to be more hesitant to encourage gun ownership “because they're dealing with it every day.”

“It's tough to be an officer and be pro gun,” she said. “But I know that you're there, protecting the people and you want to keep the honest people honest, and you want to put the bad guys behind bars and that's really all we can ask you to do at the end of the day.”

During the panel, the sheriff of the state’s largest county reiterated his support of universal background checks (while criticizing the state’s 2016 ballot background check ballot initiative as poorly written) as well as limits on certain high-capacity magazines. But Lombardo said that if elected governor, he would be willing to revisit and potentially repeal several gun control measures passed in recent legislative sessions, including the state’s so-called ‘Red Flag’ law and a measure banning so-called “ghost guns,” which are homemade firearms without serial numbers.

The deep dive into firearm policy issues and Lombardo’s more moderate stances — which included opposition to “constitutional carry” and tepid support for limits on high capacity ammunition magazines — is likely to strike a stark dividing line between the sheriff and other Republican gubernatorial hopefuls. 

North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, a recent convert to the Republican Party who has adopted some of former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, and Reno attorney Joey Gilbert, who argues that Trump actually won the last election, have already announced bids to challenge Democratic incumbent Gov. Steve Sisolak in 2022. Rep. Mark Amodei and former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller are also weighing bids for the office.

Lombardo also previewed parts of his upcoming campaign message, saying the job of law enforcement has become “extremely challenging” because of calls to defund the police, adding that officers don’t want to give the same effort to their jobs if they feel they are not supported by the people they serve. He also took a jab at Sisolak’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and some of the progressive policies discussed in the Legislature. 

“Bail reform, sentencing reform, handcuffing of police, all that matters. And that's indicative of the crime rates that are occurring across the United States right now,” he said. “The crooks are getting more rights than the victims.”

Below are other highlights from the forum.

Ghost guns

Lombardo fielded several questions on AB286, a bill banning so-called ‘ghost guns,’ that recently passed the Legislature on party lines with all Republicans opposed. The measure generally prohibits an individual from possessing, purchasing, transporting or receiving any unfinished frame or receiver of a firearm, or assembling any firearm not imprinted with a serial number. 

Lombardo said that Las Vegas police have only tracked six instances of homemade, non-serialized firearms over the past 12 months. He said none of the firearms were used in a crime, and most were found in the Las Vegas Strip corridor.

The sheriff — who is named in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law — said his department was neutral on the bill because “we enforce the laws, we don’t make them in the law enforcement community” but that he would “absolutely deny” the bill as governor.

Lombardo added that Las Vegas police wouldn’t be zealous in enforcement of the new law.

“We are not proactive as a police department, nor would I give direction with the police department, to be proactive in that space,” he said.

Red flag orders

Lombardo said he would be open to repealing the state’s so-called “Red Flag” or extreme risk protection order law, which gives family members and law enforcement the ability to petition a judge for a court order that allows for the seizure and suspension of firearm possession rights for up to a year, even if the person has not been arrested or convicted of a crime.

The sheriff said that law enforcement found the law to be “frustrating,” saying that the process only involved the court system and the state’s firearm sales background check system but not patrol officers, who “have no idea whether you're a prohibited person when we encounter you.”

Lombardo said that Metro has seen only two applications for the extended protection orders since the law was passed in 2019, and both of them were never processed by the state. He said that patrol officers typically don’t have a lot of knowledge about a person’s mental state to make that kind of evaluation.

“I think that law has gotten too convoluted. It's amiss in its original intent, and it's not benefiting either side of the house,” he said. “So to answer your question, yes, I would consider repealing it.”

Background checks

Lombardo said he supports universal background checks.

“People that shouldn't have guns shouldn't have the ability to get guns,” he said. “There's always that mantra that folks are going to get them, no matter what; the universal background check isn't going to fix it. That doesn't mean you don't create a system that could prevent bad guys from getting guns.”

But he said he was neutral on a 2016 state ballot question on the matter because it was “poorly written.”

The ballot initiative, Question 1, passed by less than one percentage point after being opposed by all 16 other county sheriffs and most Republican officials in the state. It called for private party transfers of guns to go through licensed dealers for a background check, but there were questions about whether it could be enforced because it called for the FBI to do the checks and the FBI declined.

Lombardo said that he’s been carrying a gun for 34 years during his military service and police career, but that there should be requirements to ensure responsible and safe gun ownership.

“It’s a very huge responsibility to own a firearm. No matter how some people see it, in my opinion, it’s a huge responsibility,” he said.

Concealed carry backlog

Lombardo gave a detailed response to why applicants for concealed carry permits are experiencing significant delays in booking an appointment and having applications processed.

In Clark County, there has been a sharp increase in applications for concealed carry permits. Lombardo said that from 2017 to 2019, the county was averaging about 16,000 such applications a year, but received 37,000 in 2020, and is keeping up a similar pace in 2021.

He said he transferred four employees and a supervisor to the unit to address the application backlog, and then a few weeks ago, added another six people to the task. He said he is also increasing the number of appointments available.

But he said multiple required steps involving data transfers to the state, as well as limitations in technology — including the high costs of machines that can take fingerprints — slow the process.

“I guarantee you your viewers are going to be frustrated and they're going to be, ‘what are you talking about? It's 2021. Technology is here and it should be a lot easier to do,’” he said. “But the government is quite often years and light years behind.”

Constitutional carry

Lombardo said he opposes making Nevada a “constitutional carry” state, in which residents need not obtain a concealed weapons permit to have a gun on their person.

That’s because he supports the training requirements involved in obtaining a permit, which entail completion of an eight-hour CCW safety course and registration with the local law enforcement. Officials screen out prohibited people, including individuals who have felony convictions, are subject to restraining orders or have any of a host of other disqualifying factors.

Lombardo said the requirements are not overly onerous, and thinks mandating training as a prerequisite for a permit ensures that people actually get training.

“If we don’t require it, people won’t do it. more often than not,” he said.

High capacity magazine bans

Asked about his 2016 comments to the Las Vegas Sun in support of limits on high-capacity magazine sales, Lombardo said he never specified a number of rounds and that about 30 bullets per magazine, or the manufacturer's intended specifications, were “probably about right.” 

He said his comments at the time were more focused on a law enforcement perspective, noting that the October 1 mass shooter had thousands of rounds of ammunition available in his hotel room, and that the breaks required to reload a gun gives law enforcement a window of opportunity to stop a shooter.

“When we encounter a critical incident or mass shooting, the only time we've ever had the upper hand in that, besides an overwhelming force …is if it was an individual officer when an assailant or suspect had to change the magazine, we have one or two seconds to intervene, hopefully stop the threat,” he said. “That was the context of that question.”

If elected governor, Lombardo said the issue of banning high-capacity magazines was a “non-starter” and “not even a discussion for me to have.”

Nine U.S. states and Washington, D.C. have implemented bans on large capacity magazines.

Why he’s running

Lombardo said the state has not put enough emphasis on Pre-K education — something that he says could “change our ranking from 50 to 25 overnight.” And he said the state is not putting enough emphasis on training people for “blue collar” trades, particularly in high school and at the community college level. 

Lombardo called for reinstating accountability measures, such as the mandate that students learn to read by grade three. Previously, Nevada law called for children to be retained if they could not read at grade level by third grade, but the mandate was eliminated in 2019.

Lombardo also said that the current arrangement in which Democrats control both houses of the Legislature and hold the governor’s post is a “failed system” that goes against the values of push and pull between two parties.

He also asserted that the politically powerful Culinary Union and the teacher’s union are running the state government rather than the governor and the Legislature.

He specifically faulted Sisolak’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying decisions about capacity limits in businesses were not grounded in science. The subjective nature of the restrictions made it hard for the people who have to enforce those rules, according to the sheriff.

“It was too willy nilly. He was moving the goalposts on a continual basis,” Lombardo said.

Nevada business interests make their case to Congress for COVID-19 liability protection

East front of the U.S. Capitol.

Following guidelines recently issued by Gov. Steve Sisolak for a phased re-opening of the state’s economy, Nevada businesses are looking to the federal government for protection from customer and worker lawsuits should they contract COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

“There's just this concern that it's now a very broad liability issue,” said Randi Thompson, state director of National Federation of Independent Business Nevada, the state arm of the national small-business advocacy organization.

Supporters of including liability protection in the next coronavirus relief got a boost from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has pledged that “if there’s any red line, it’s on litigation.” But liability-protection opponents, including unions and trial lawyers, are pushing Democrats to resist that effort. 

An NFIB survey of its members nationally showed that 70 percent said increased liability is among their major concerns about re-opening. The issue is that lawsuits cost money to settle or fight, and many small businesses already operate on low cash reserves and thin margins.

“It'll put businesses out of business, bottom line, especially small businesses,” Thompson said.

One Las Vegas business, Nacho Daddy, initially required workers to sign a waiver affirming that the business would not be held legally responsible if the worker contracted COVID-19. Nacho Daddy ultimately forwent the waiver after a public backlash. 

NFIB Executive Director Karen Harned said the Nacho Daddy scenario underscores the need for legislation. 

Paul Moradkhan of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce said that businesses want the assurance that, if they are following federal, state and local safety guidelines, they will not be liable if a customer or worker catches COVID-19.

“It’s not just for us, it’s for every state. Every business community across the country is trying to get clarity and direction on what they have to do to do the right thing to protect their employees and customers,” Moradkhan said.

The Las Vegas chamber signed on to a letter Wednesday from a coalition of chambers to every member of Congress calling on them “to pass timely, temporary and targeted liability relief legislation to provide businesses a safe harbor from unwarranted lawsuits.”

Harned added that while the issuance of federal guidelines would help some bigger businesses, NFIB wants its members, which average 10 employees or fewer, to have the flexibility to do what’s safest for their businesses.

“We are always skeptical—if not hostile—to one-size-fits-all policies, and when it comes to making your workplace safe for customers and employees, I definitely think that's the case,” Harned said. 

“We just don't want every business having to be held to some gold standard to ensure that they're not sued because that gold standard may not work for them, may not make sense, they may not even know how to implement it,” Harned continued, adding that as long as a business is making a good-faith effort, “that really should be enough.”

The NFIB released a list of principles that it would like to see inform any legislation, including having the workers’ compensation system handle claims from workers alleging they contracted COVID-19 while on the job and shielding businesses from liability from customers or third-parties unless they can prove the business knowingly failed to develop and implement a reasonable plan for reducing the risk of exposure to COVID-19 — and that the failure caused the injury.

The push comes as Sisolak is looking to transition to Phase Two of the state’s reopening plan after successfully completing Phase One, in which businesses such as restaurants and hair salons were allowed to open on a restricted basis. At a recent press conference, Sisolak said that it was too early to know what the reopening of those businesses had done to infection metrics or when the state will move to the next phase, but he said health indicators are pointing in the right direction.

As businesses in Nevada and other states make their case to Congress, enacting liability protection will not be easy as the issue touches on a political fault line that divides Democrats and Republicans. 

Labor unions, which tend to support Democrats, have raised concerns about providing liability protection that they argue could threaten the safety of workers. Trial lawyers, who also typically back Democrats, have also opposed liability protection. The American Association for Justice, a trial lawyer interest group, commissioned a Democratic polling firm earlier in May to help make their case. The poll that showed that 64 percent of respondents said they opposed giving companies such immunity.

Good government groups such as Public Citizen contend a federal liability shield would trump state laws that protect consumers and workers. 

Business owners, for their part, often tend to back Republicans, and McConnell has made liability protection a top issue for the GOP in the next relief package.

“We are very, very, very happy that Senator McConnell has taken such a strong stance on that because we think it's critical to the success of getting the economy going and businesses re-opened,” Harned said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she has no red lines, leaving open the possibility of a deal on a package that includes a liability protection provision. The $3 trillion HEROES Act, the Democrats’ latest effort to pass another relief measure, included a provision requiring the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop and issue a temporary final standard to protect employees from workplace exposure to the virus.

The partisan split also shows up among members of the delegation when they and their offices were recently asked about the issue. 

Rep. Mark Amodei, the state’s only congressional Republican, said that if a business is complying with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance, it should be protected. 

“If you've done that, then quite frankly, that doesn't mean you get out of jail free, but it should go a long ways toward going, unless you got something that says that they should have known that wasn't good enough in a situation, that ought to be, you know, they did the best they could,” Amodei said.

He also the Legislature should weigh in. “Quite frankly, it's a state issue,” Amodei said. “States have done all sorts of tort reform and if you don't believe me ask the insurance companies because their rates differ by what the rules are in a state.”

His view differed with that of Rep. Dina Titus, who believes worker safety should be paramount. 

She said she’s heard about the need for liability protection from the restaurant and franchise interest groups “but you've got to protect the workers,” Titus said.

“Protecting the company from the workers, I think is not going to go very far with the Democratic majority in the House,” Titus said.

Other members were more circumspect. 

Rep. Susie Lee said those “who have proven to be negligent by needlessly putting workers, families, and consumers’ lives at risk must be held accountable. At the same time, there is a difference between negligence and the initial uncertainty surrounding this unprecedented pandemic.” 

“Any language limiting liability in upcoming COVID-19 relief deals must first acknowledge and differentiate between those who lacked credible information on the true threat of the coronavirus, and outright negligence from those who understood the threat and failed to take appropriate action to mitigate its spread,” she continued, adding that liability protection should be coupled with strengthening workplace safety standards for airborne diseases.

Rep. Steven Horsford, who did not directly say whether he supported or opposed liability protection, said he was put off by McConnell’s attempt to use the issue as leverage “with the need to provide more relief and especially assistance to families, workers and businesses.”

Earlier this year, McConnell had said he would not support funding for states and localities in the next package and recommended that they seek bankruptcy protection. He later said he would only agree to state and local funding if the package also included liability protection. 

“I understand not getting your way and having to talk things through,” Horsford continued. “ can't start off saying ‘let the states go bankrupt’ and then move to ‘I will only consider something if it has liability.’”

Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen both said they’ve been in touch on the issue with the state business community, but also were noncommittal.

“She continues to have discussions with her colleagues, hear from businesses and vital industries in state, and engage with the insurance industry to evaluate potential bipartisan legislative solutions on the issue,” Cortez Masto’s office said.

Rosen’s office said the senator “has been participating in a number of discussions with Nevada’s business community to hear about the challenges and concerns around liability issues that business owners are facing in the wake of COVID-19. Senator Rosen is working hard to help secure PPE and other critical resources for health care and frontlines workers in Nevada as the state starts to lift restrictions in place as part of its Phase One planning.”

From marijuana to coffee shops, Nevada businesses cautiously opened doors after COVID-19 shutdown

As the state emerged from its coronavirus-induced hibernation over the weekend, Nevada residents faced a personal decision: Should I stay or should I go?

Even with sunny weather and a go-ahead from Gov. Steve Sisolak — who last week announced the state’s scheduled reopening date would be moved up by more than a week — many Nevadans remained cautious about going out to dinner, shopping or other activities put on hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stephen Lafer, a Reno resident, has limited his excursions over the past seven weeks to the grocery store, Costco for his prescription medication, Home Depot for gardening supplies and the occasional takeout dinner. The loosening of restrictions won’t change the 71-year-old’s habits for now.

“I’m in that age group that is vulnerable,” he said. “And, besides that, I kind of feel it’s wrong to go about doing what might possibly enhance the danger of the virus spreading.”

In spite of polls showing some skepticism about reopening too soon, Nevada is not alone. More than half of the states in the country have moved to some kind of gradual reopening, according to a tally kept by the New York Times, even as many continue to not see the kind of continued decreases in COVID-19 cases recommended by public health experts before reopening.

Local governments say they have taken a gentle approach to enforcement, focusing on educating businesses and residents rather than bringing down the hammer on crowds. Meanwhile, businesses that reopened say they’re navigating a world of broader safety precautions and lower volumes but grateful to break out of cumbersome delivery-only models.

Lafer, a retired University of Nevada, Reno, professor, doesn’t have a timeline for when he might feel comfortable patronizing more stores or restaurants. He said it depends on the circumstances. 

When a group of anti-shutdown protestors marched down his street several weeks ago, it didn’t leave him feeling confident about the broader public’s participation in safety measures.

“That kind of behavior bothers me immensely,” he said. “It makes me wonder whether or not a democracy is a good idea.”

Village Barber Shop in Reno opens with COVID-19 procedures on Saturday, May 9, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

But the gradual reopening came as a welcome relief to some people. Jon Nichols, 45, said it felt like “Christmas shopping” walking into a Total Wine & More and viewing products in person. He also stopped by a drive-through sportsbook at the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino in downtown Las Vegas and dined at the off-Strip Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse.

Nichols, whose brother died by suicide years ago, said that loss has instilled in him a zest for life. He worries what prolonged isolation will do for people’s mental health.

“I do my best and I keep distance, but I also feel like I’ve gotta live,” he said.

Nichols, a Henderson resident, said he knows some people will judge his decision. But the software engineer is quick to point out that he doesn’t align himself with the protesters gathering outside state buildings. He dons face masks in crowded public settings like grocery stores and respects others’ decision to stay home. 

From the safety precautions he observed this weekend, though, he’s not afraid to visit certain places. 

“It was kind of a quiet environment. It was cool,” Nichols said of his dining experience. “I certainly never felt like I came in even 10 feet of anyone other than the staff.”

Gary Sessa, 53, just wants people to display a bit more patience. As he picked up takeout from Nacho Daddy in Las Vegas, he witnessed a disgruntled group leave the restaurant after being told they needed to make a reservation. He felt badly for the staff, who had taken time to ensure proper social distancing inside and outside the restaurant.

“We’re all trying to do what we can to make this work,” he said. “It’s difficult for everybody. There are some people who are trying to make the best of the situation, and there are other people who just want to sit and complain.”

Sessa isn’t ready to dine in at restaurants or take a shopping trip, but it’s mostly because of a medical condition. He has a swollen lymph node in his chest courtesy of a disease called Sarcoidosis. His doctor has advised him to keep a low profile.

“I’m taking it slow,” said Sessa, a teacher at Bonanza High School. “I’d rather let things kind of settle down before I start going into restaurants for any length of time or going to get my hair cut. I’m all for these things being open, but I’ll wait a little longer.”

New requirements

Under Sisolak’s Phase 1 reopening plan, a broader array of retail stores are allowed to open as long as they do not exceed 50 percent of capacity as determined by the local fire marshal. Restaurants are also allowed to open for dine-in service, provided they follow the new capacity rules, space tables six feet apart and employees wear masks at all times.

Personal care services, including barbershops, hair and nail salons, are allowed to open if stations are six feet apart and if employees wear face masks. Customers must make appointments, and walk-ins are prohibited.

Businesses that are not allowed to open include bars, nightclubs, massage parlors, spas, gyms, fitness studios, brothels, strip clubs, movie theaters (except for drive-ins), bowling alleys, live sporting events and casinos.

Wingfield Park in Downtown Reno, along the Truckee River on Saturday, May 9, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Local governments respond

Sisolak’s Phase 1 directive contained plenty of details on mandatory and recommended best practices for different industry types, but was short on one topic area: enforcement.

The emergency directive merely authorizes local, city and county governments to enforce the directive and industry-specific guidelines, with suggestions on possible penalties including fines or suspension/revocation of business licenses.

But many jurisdictions have avoided taking direct enforcement action against businesses or individuals who may be violating social distancing rules or other requirements ordered under Sisolak’s directive.

North Las Vegas spokesman Patrick Walker said the municipality had worked collaboratively with other Southern Nevada governments to create a business reopening guide, and sent out Sisolak’s guidance document on Thursday to all of the city’s 6,200 business license owners.

Walker said the city’s enforcement staff was investigating complaints as they came in, but had received no complaints as of mid-day Monday.

“Our businesses thus far have done an outstanding job complying with the previous emergency directives, and we anticipate that cooperation to continue,” he wrote in an email.

Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last week that the county would work with the Southern Nevada Health District, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and licensing boards to conduct business inspections, but did not say whether the county would take any additional steps to enforce social distancing or other requirements. 

Clark County spokesman Dan Kulin said business license agents visited more than 200 businesses over the weekend to help answer questions and offer guidance on how to comply with the required social distancing steps needed under Phase 1. He said the county did not receive any complaints over the weekend about businesses not following those guidelines.

It appears most jurisdictions are taking more of a public education than an enforcement route. Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve said she had heard scattered reports of people or businesses over the weekend not following social distancing rules, but that city code enforcement had generally tried to give businesses leeway in correcting issues before taking stronger corrective action.

“This is something that people are not used to, your customers aren't used to, your businesses aren't used to this,” she said. “It's a whole new environment that we have to adapt to.”

A city of Reno spokesman confirmed that outside of a few complaints of people not wearing masks — which is a recommendation, not a requirement — the city has not had any major complaints of businesses violating the governor’s orders.

Even so, businesses opening their doors now will be greeted with a much different environment, given lingering concerns about COVID-19 as well as rampant unemployment. Schieve, who owns second-hand clothing stores in Reno, said her businesses have not reopened and when they do, she expects much different consumer behavior.

“You don't just turn on the lights and everything goes back to normal,” she said. “Some businesses will do incredibly well and others, I think, are going to struggle if they're not essential or provide a service that people absolutely need right now.”

Randi Thompson, state director of NFIB Nevada, a small business association, agreed.

“If you open, they will come is not necessarily the case right now,” she said. “You’ve got people that are still wanting to hunker down.”

Hand To Paws dog groomer in Reno with a sign explaining COVID-19 procedures on Saturday, May 9, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Businesses navigate a new normal

Uncertainty about customer counts didn’t stop some businesses from opening their doors Saturday on short notice from the governor. Eric Jacobson and Kyle Howell, co-owners of Recycled Records in Midtown Reno, ordered gallons of hand sanitizer and wiped down the store for their reopening.

They estimated roughly two-thirds of customers wore masks, with everyone else maintaining a safe distance from one another.

“We haven't had to give anybody a hard time about getting too close to other people,” Jacobson said. “Everybody's been really, really great.”

Sunday was not as busy, but Howell and Jacobson said they are taking it one day at a time.

“We actually discussed not opening for safety reasons, but we thought we'll just do it this way and it's kind of an experiment and we'll see where that goes,” Jacobson said.

The Thursday announcement that Phase 1 of Sisolak’s reopening plan would begin Saturday surprised Alex Farside, the co-owner of Reno’s Coffee N’ Comics

Farside and his partner had much work to do in less than 48 hours, including setting up a plexiglass shield at the cash register and rearranging the store to increase space between tables.

Farside said it can be hard to hear customers’ orders when they speak through masks, but he’s glad for the chance to talk in person.

“We have a little patio and I went out and put a little sign next to a planter. It says, ‘The party's here!’ even though it's not really, but at least it has sparkles and it looks cute,” he said. “We're trying not to talk about doom and gloom the whole time when people come in.”

Iman Hagagg said new requirements have put a damper on reopening her Las Vegas Egyptian street food restaurant, POTs, which she said can only fit nine people under social distancing requirements. Hagagg is not closing POTs to walk-in diners, but she is also not advertising that it’s open for sit-down meals and hopes to keep serving customers via delivery for now.

“Expectation and reality are two different things,” she said.

She worries about the safety of her customers and staff and is trying to figure out how to open for full service without jeopardizing anyone’s health. 

“The face mask, how are you going to give people the hospitality they deserve?” she mused. “We cannot give the full experience to the customer, I would say.”

Inyo Fine Cannabis Dispensary in Las Vegas opened its storefront over the weekend after its reopening plan was approved by the Nevada Department of Taxation. Only 10 customers are allowed in the store at once, and customers — not just employees — must wear masks.

There’s even a contingency plan in place for how to address customers who revolt against the mask-wearing provisions.

Owner David Goldwater said allowing storefront sales has opened the dispensary up to customers who only want to spend a small amount of money on cannabis products. Under the original delivery-only model, dispensaries had to provide enough to make the trip worthwhile but not more than state regulators permit. 

“Delivery was tough because in order to do it compliantly you couldn’t have much volume. It didn’t scale,” he said.

Goldwater has added back almost half of his employees — not everyone has been chomping at the bit to come back — and is monitoring demand to see when the time is right to bring back the rest. 

“It’s been as good as can be expected,” he said of the reopening.

Village Barber Shop in Reno opens with COVID-19 procedures on Saturday, May 9, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Salons are among the businesses allowed to reopen in Phase 1 — something that thrilled Alana Davis until she realized only hair and nail salons are included. She doesn’t think it’s fair that lash and waxing salons like hers, Aesthetically Speaking in Reno, are still ordered closed. 

“I personally believe that because the hair stylists were causing an uproar because none of them can file for unemployment, that that’s why [Sisolak] allowed the hair and nails to open,” she said.

While she’s using the extra time before reopening to continue deeply disinfecting and implementing social distancing procedures, she pointed out that estheticians were wearing masks and sterilizing tools with Barbicide well before the pandemic.

“I feel that our sanitation and disinfection policies that were in place prior to this even happening were way more than Walmart or Home Depot,” she said. 

She isn’t worried about volume when the salon finally can reopen. Most of the estheticians are booked solid for three weeks, with lash extensions, eyebrow waxes and Brazilian waxes among the most in-demand services.

Globe Salon co-owner James Reza had planned to open his two Las Vegas hair salon locations on Saturday. But after receiving about 200 calls at each location in a 24-hour period, Reza quickly realized that the salon would need more time to accommodate clients safely.

“It’s hard when we were given 19 hours notice to close, and then we waited anxiously for 49 days, and then given about 36 hours to reopen,” he said. “That was kind of an emotional whipsaw, not to mention the processes of firing up the businesses from essentially a dead stop.”

During those weeks without an appointment, some of those clients did take hair matters into their own hands.

“There are some guests who have laughingly ‘warned’ us of what to expect,” Reza said. “We did our best to encourage guests to wait it out… grown out hair and hair color is a lot easier to fix than someone who tried to freshen their balayage at home or ‘trim’ their bangs with garden shears.”

Reza expects the appointment book will be full for the rest of May. Still, it could be hard to make ends meet long-term by operating at a reduced capacity.

“Operating at partial capacity is not a realistic long term solution for any business,” he said. “But we are happy we can do so right now.”

Small businesses that did not see a rush over the weekend were left dismayed, Thompson said. Given the rapid reopening, she said next weekend will be a better indicator of consumer behavior. By that time, businesses will have had enough time to restock and spread the word about their reopening.

Even then, they know business might be slow for several months.

“There’s some reasons for that no doubt,” Thompson said. “We’ll just live with them and adapt accordingly.”

Reporter Michelle Rindels contributed to this story.

October 1 emotions drive debate on bill to ban bump stock devices, give local governments more power

Six days after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at a county music concert in Las Vegas, Sandra Jauregui wrote a letter.

It was addressed to friends and family, written on advice of a counselor who told the Democratic Assemblywoman that it could help her process the trauma of having survived the mass shooting on October 1, 2017. On Monday, she read that letter publicly for the first time; detailing how her husband Truman covered her body to protect her from bullets, how she hid under bleachers, ran into gunfire to jump a fence and escape — and how she grappled with the guilt of survival.

“I feel lucky, but I also feel bad that we made it out okay. I don’t feel like I can be happy or that I should be. I know that for every bullet that didn’t hit us it hit somebody else,” she said, reading from the letter. “I feel bad that if I could have taken care of myself, maybe Truman could have done more to help other people. It was so hard seeing people who were hurt and shot and knowing I couldn’t do anything. And just seeing them and knowing it could have been us.”

Those painful memories of the nation’s worst mass shooting in recent history — which left 58 people dead and hundreds injured — took center stage during a hearing on AB291, a bill sponsored by Jauregui that would ban firearm modifications such as bump stocks, the devices used by the shooter to mimic the fire of automatic weapons and expend 1,049 rounds in just 11 minutes.

The measure also would reverse a 2015 state law giving the Legislature preeminent authority to regulate and oversee gun laws and decrease the blood alcohol content limit for firearm possession from 0.1 to 0.08.

Nevada Republican Party Chairman Michael McDonald speaks outside the state Legislature on Monday, April 1, 2019 (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

The hearing drew impassioned testimony from supporters who implored lawmakers to ban the devices and give local governments flexibility on gun laws not afforded to the state’s part-time Legislature, and opponents who said the bill’s language was overly broad and would inadvertently make anyone with a minor firearm modification — not just a bump stock — an instant felon.

The hearing marked the second high-profile measure related to firearm regulation heard by lawmakers this session; Democratic lawmakers in February introduced and quickly passed a measure designed to implement a stalled 2016 ballot initiative requiring background checks on most private party gun sales or transfers.

Despite the emotional testimony, the bill is also likely to overlap with federal regulations. In December, the Department of Justice announced a long-anticipated administrative ban on “bump-stock” devices, which went into effect last month. Owners of the devices — estimates are around 500,000 such devices have been sold — have 90 days to turn in or destroy the devices, or otherwise face criminal penalties.

During the hearing, Republican lawmakers peppered Jauregui and bill presenters with questions on the bill, mostly regarding language they said was broader than similar federal restrictions on the same bump stock devices and could result in unexpected consequences. Republican Sen. Keith Pickard said participants in shooting competitions often trade out trigger systems for easier or more rapid-firing modifications and that his interpretation of the bill meant that those types of modifications would be illegal.

“It in no way approximates the rate of an automatic weapon, but as I read this, this bill would make possession of those weapons illegal,” he said. “So they’d become criminals as of the day of adoption.”

Chelsea Parsons, an attorney with the left-leaning Center for American Progress who helped present the bill, acknowledged that the measure was designed to be broader than federal regulations on bump stocks as a way to “anticipate future innovation by the gun industry.”

Jauregui said she would be willing to amend the bill to make it better reflect her intent, which was to ban any device that made a semi-automatic weapon fire like a fully automatic weapon, and not to make all weapon modifications illegal.

“We wanted to make sure that we were covering our tracks, so in a year or two if we just banned bump stocks, that somebody wasn’t going to create new technology or innovate new technology that essentially is a bump stock but call it something different,” she said in a follow-up interview.

The Democratic assemblywoman also presented a conceptual amendment to the bill clarifying that local governments have “limited authority” to create or adopt ordinances more stringent than state law on firearms, accessories or ammunition. It comes as the bill repeals a section of law approved in 2015 as part of a slew of wide-ranging firearms bills that expanded the definition of justifiable homicide, limited the ability of a person with a restraining order related to domestic violence to own a firearm and gave the Legislature preeminent authority over state gun laws.

Former Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani and Commissioner Justin Jones both testified that the preemption laws had frustrated the county’s ability to quickly enact policies such as banning bump stocks or limiting public carry of firearms during high-density events like New Year’s Eve on the Las Vegas Strip.

“Local gun regulation is not and never will be a perfect solution to gun violence,” Giunchigliani said. “Nor is it a substitute for federal or state reform. But local governments are better positioned to deal with matters like public carrying. Commissioners know there’s no one-size-fits all solution that covers crowded urban cities and sparsely populated rural areas.”

Much of the testimony from supporters veered to the emotional. Heather Sallan, who also attended and survived the concert shooting, told lawmakers that she was wearing the same boots she had worn to the concert as a reminder of the damage caused by the shooting.

“No one attending a concert or an event of any kind should be able to explain the whistle sounds of a bullet so close to their left ear that their hair moves. But I can,” she said. “What a bump stock was made for was not relevant. What a bump stock was used for changed my life forever.”

Dan Reid, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said the bill’s removal of the preemption laws could likely open the door to local governments introducing drastic gun control measures, such as bans on magazine size or certain types of ammunition.

“This is incredibly problematic, to expect someone to know every single jurisdiction, because the way I’m reading the preemption statute with it being completely repealed, it’s open season on anyone to pass any sort of ordinance,” he said.

Nevada Firearms Coalition lobbyist Randi Thompson asked Democratic lawmakers — who have made criminal justice reform a top priority this session — if they were comfortable adding penalties that could result in more Nevadans going to jail.

“Once the governor signs this bill as presented today, thousands of Nevadans will instantly become felons,” she said. “This does not seem like the kind of reform you’re advocating for this session.”

But state government officials don’t expect the measure to result in more incarceration or a large fiscal impact. A fiscal note from the state Department of Corrections estimated the bill would cost less than $10,000 in future budget cycles, estimating that it would result in about four additional inmates per year.

In addition to the federal administrative rule, at least 11 states — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington — and some cities have banned bump stocks, primarily since the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

It’s still unclear and increasingly unlikely that lawmakers will take up a call made by Gov. Steve Sisolak on the 2018 campaign trail to ban “assault” weapons. Jauregui declined to say in an interview if she would support such as a ban, saying she thought that decision should be kept on the local level.

“I really think we need to empower the local governments,” she said in an interview. “Because we might not need to ban, maybe in just some sensitive areas. So I think we eliminate this top-down approach and leave it to local governments.”

Fix sought on sales tax issue for out-of-state gun sales

A “small but confusing” portion of Nevada tax law that requires gun dealers to collect sales taxes on out-of-state gun sales — despite not actually selling the gun — is again up for consideration in the Legislature.

Members of the Assembly Committee on Taxation heard details of AB113 during a meeting on Thursday, which would clarify that the more than 780 federally licensed gun dealers who process an out-of-state sale and background check do not have to collect sales tax on the transaction or count the sale as part of their total revenue, possibly affecting their tax liability.

The bill is proposed by Republican Assemblywoman Robin Titus, who said the measure would clarify tax law on out-of-state gun sales, which under federal law are required to be processed through a federally licensed dealer and require a background check. But Titus said that requirement left out-of-state gun sales in a sort of “no-man's-land” in terms of online sales, where sales tax is generally required to be collected by the out-of-state seller through a sales and use tax form.

A similar concept was proposed by former Republican Assemblywoman Jill Dickman in the 2015 Legislature, but the bill never made it off the Assembly floor.

But Titus and supporters, including Nevada Firearms Coalition lobbyist Randi Thompson, said the situation had changed over the last four years; businesses are now required to pay the state’s Commerce Tax on all revenue greater than $4 million, which could affect firearms dealers required to count the processing of out-of-state sales towards their yearly revenue. The measure could also be affected by passage of SB143, which requires nearly all private guns sales and transfers to first undergo a background check.

“It’s not a huge issue, but it’s a confusing issue, and one that we’ve been trying to get resolved for several years now,” Thompson said.

The state Department of Taxation approved a regulation last year requiring any out-of-state retailer to collect and remit sales tax if they meet thresholds of $100,000 in taxable sales or 200 transactions in Nevada. The department and other local governments said in fiscal notes that they were not able to determine what effect, if any, the bill would have on collecting tax revenue given that it doesn’t collect information on how many out-of-state gun sales are facilitated through federally-licensed dealers.

Several firearms dealers, the National Rifle Association and retail association lobbyist Bryan Wachter testified in favor of the bill, saying it would reduce confusion for firearms dealers and treat guns more fairly in terms of online sales tax. A lobbyist for the city of Las Vegas testified as neutral, raising concerns that requiring out-of-state sellers to collect and assess the sales tax (a move rarely done) would result in reduced sales tax collection.

Reno Guns & Range owner Debbie Block told lawmakers that although dealers can assess a small fee on processing an out-of-state sale, the hassle of collecting the sales tax on a sale she and other dealers technically don’t make didn’t make sense.

“The only reason that it’s going through me, the transferer, is to do the background check,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to be responsible for collecting the sales tax, too. I’m just making sure everybody is meeting federal laws to transfer a firearm.”