Clark County DA suggests Nevadans should consider a referendum on the death penalty

After a ban on the death penalty failed to clear the Legislature this spring, Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson is suggesting that Nevada citizens should voice their opinions on capital punishment through a referendum, which allows voters to approve or disapprove of an existing state law during a general election.

Wolfson’s comments came at a monthly Hispanics in Politics event in Las Vegas on Wednesday, where guest speaker Gov. Steve Sisolak reiterated his support for the death penalty in extreme circumstances. Las Vegas Democratic Socialists of America Co-Chair Shaun Navarro, wearing a T-shirt saying, "The death penalty kills innocent people," asked whether the Democratic governor would support a repeal of the punishment in a future legislative session. An abolition bill was scuttled earlier this year after Sisolak expressed hesitation about it, marking perhaps the highest-profile letdown of the session for progressives.

“I think the death penalty is overused. I know I’ve got the [district attorney] here,” Sisolak said. “He and I might agree or disagree on that. I've got a problem where I think there has to be some circumstances that the death penalty is allowed.”

Wolfson’s office has recently pursued a warrant to execute Zane Floyd, who was convicted of killing four people and injuring a fifth person inside a Las Vegas grocery store in 1999. Floyd’s execution, originally scheduled for late July, was delayed at the end of June to allow his lawyers time to consider the lethal injection protocols set forth by the Nevada Department of Corrections.

Wolfson, who was in the audience at the Wednesday gathering, and Sisolak both said that the 2021 legislative session was not the right time to consider the issue because of the limited time for testimony during bill hearings. Testimony was typically limited to two minutes per person with 30 minutes set aside for testimony in support, opposition and neutral. 

AB395, which would have abolished the death penalty, was spiked by Sisolak and Democratic leaders in the Senate after passing along party lines in the Assembly, with all Republicans opposed. Wolfson publicly opposed abolishing the death penalty during the legislative session, testifying during a March hearing that it has public support and is an appropriate punishment for people who kill multiple people.

“You and I are in agreement that it wasn't the right time,” Wolfson said to Sisolak on Wednesday during the breakfast. “What I would like this community to consider, potentially, is a referendum. Let's bring this issue before the voters because we all hear that more Nevadans still favor the death penalty, but that number is growing smaller and smaller.”

Scott Coffee, a public defender and member of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, told The Nevada Independent that the idea of bringing forward a referendum on the issue is a “smokescreen” and said that the Legislature is the best place to move forward with an effort to abolish the death penalty.

Coffee said that all of the views on the death penalty, including from the families of victims, have already been laid out through testimony over multiple years, and he emphasized that it is important now for Wolfson to concede that there are problems with the death penalty system, such as the extreme cost of administering the punishment.

No ballot initiative about the death penalty has yet been filed.

For more on how referendums work, see our explainer video here.

Mixed signals from governor, election considerations blamed for failure of death penalty repeal effort

After more than 20 years of trying to ban the state’s death penalty, and following former death penalty stronghold Virginia's repeal of capital punishment in mid-March, activists hoped that the 2021 legislative session would finally be the time for Nevada to end capital punishment. 

But in spite of the state's Democratic trifecta, those efforts culminated in one of the biggest heartbreaks of the session for criminal justice reform advocates when the bill was spiked by Gov. Steve Sisolak and legislative Democratic leaders earlier this month. 

Though no one has been executed in the state since 2006, the Clark County district attorney's office is now pushing for the execution of Zane Floyd, who was convicted of killing four people inside a Las Vegas grocery store two decades ago. Advocates said the move made passing a repeal even more urgent this session.

So why did repeal fail?

No single cause of death is named on the legislative coroner's report, but interviews with involved parties suggest a combination of factors — ranging from personal belief, mixed gubernatorial signals, potential election-related considerations and the fact that the two senators responsible for hearing the bill work for the Clark County district attorney — helped kill the measure and keep Nevada as one of 24 states with the death penalty.

The entire debate takes place against the backdrop of a state still closely divided in party registration, with some top senators — including Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) — winning election by a single percentage point. Republicans flipped several legislative seats in the 2020 election, and Gov. Steve Sisolak’s expected re-election challenger in 2022 is Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo — a candidate likely to highlight a message of law and order. 

Those political dynamics make public opinion a key consideration, but the data has been somewhat inconclusive. A 2017 poll commissioned by The Nevada Independent indicated that most Nevadans support the death penalty, but advocates have long questioned whether the solid tilt toward capital punishment had to do with the way the poll question was phrased.

Anti-death penalty activists commissioned a new survey released earlier this year that showed much closer results — and even a slight lean toward abolition — when questions were phrased differently.

Past legislative sessions have often seen a small group of progressive Democrats introduce capital punishment repeal bills, but the measures never advanced far, with leadership hesitant to push a politically dicey issue through the process in the face of a likely veto. In 2017, Gov. Brian Sandoval signaled opposition to a repeal bill, and after getting one committee hearing it was never brought up for a vote.

So, when Assembly members this session voted on party lines to abolish the death penalty, with Republicans opposed, activists celebrated the measure’s move out of committee to a floor vote, the furthest the concept had ever traveled in the Legislative Building. They said the bill was essential to doing away with an "eye for an eye" mentality and a practice they say does not help hurting families move on from violence, disproportionately affects people of color and is an expensive endeavor that could lead to killing innocent people.

Opponents, including Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson and individuals who have lost loved ones to violence, however, pushed back against the repeal, saying the death penalty is necessary as a prosecutorial tool and should be an option for individuals who committed atrocities such as the October 1 shooting. 

“There are differences between perpetrators and crimes,” Wolfson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in April. “I strongly believe that the death penalty should be reserved for the very rare and extreme circumstances. … The solution is to engage and refine the law, not abandon an option the voters support.”

During a hearing on the measure in late March, lawmakers also heard from Jennifer Otremba, who described the murder of her 15-year-old daughter Alyssa in 2011 near her Las Vegas home. Javier Righetti, who was 19 at the time of the killing, received a death sentence in 2017.

"He did not consider Alyssa’s life. Why should his life be considered?,” Otremba said. “I waited five and a half years for justice for my daughter, and if I have to continue to fight politicians for the rest of my life to ensure that justice is served, then I will do that."

The measure had faced an uncertain future in the Democrat-controlled Senate — which is helmed by Cannizzaro, a prosecuting attorney for the Clark County district attorney. Cannizzaro was repeatedly noncommittal when asked whether she would allow the bill to get a hearing if it passed the Assembly, including in a Nevada Independent forum ahead of the session in January, and maintained that noncommittal stance for months.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas), a fellow prosecutor in the district attorney’s office and the key gatekeeper on the decision to give the bill a hearing, had appeared willing to give the bill a chance. Prior to the session, she had indicated her support for efforts to abolish the death penalty, and said just two weeks before the bill died that she would be willing to hear it if an amendment was brought forward addressing the concerns expressed by Sisolak.

During a brief interview with The Nevada Independent on Thursday, Scheible said she would have considered an amendment with a broad base of support, but that nothing came to fruition. 

Schedules are constantly moving, she said, adding that she tries to make sure there is always time to hear a bill, but "it takes a lot of people in this government to make such a sweeping change and so without full consensus, we weren't able to."

Scott Coffee, a public defender, said a proposed amendment that had been drafted but never released publicly tracked closely with what the governor said was palatable — making exceptions for mass shootings and terrorism. The organization Gun Violence Archive has set a definition of mass shooting as four people shot but not necessarily killed in a single event.

That’s partly why an abrupt announcement — memorialized in a series of synchronized press releases from the governor and legislative leaders — that Nevada leaders were scrapping the bill came as a shock to those working on the cause. 

Holly Welborn with the Nevada ACLU speaks during the "Protest & Vigil for Death Penalty Abolition" hosted by the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, in front of the Legislative Building on May 17, 2021. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

Branden Cunningham and Mark Bettencourt, leaders of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, told The Nevada Independent that there were ongoing conversations surrounding an amendment to the bill prior to its demise. 

"From everything we heard, [Scheible] was willing to work and hear the bill," Cunningham said. "We had heard that she had set time aside to hear the bill … the calendar was open … and instead of a hearing we got the three statements that came out."

Coffee said the press releases announcing that the bill would not advance were a surprise to him. Up to that point, advocates were actively working on the issue, hoping to connect lawmakers with the pollster commissioned by the coalition to assuage concerns.

"I have to believe the concern was over losing Senate seats," Coffee said. "There's always another election. There's always another excuse."

He said he wishes the governor would have shown more initiative on the matter but ultimately blamed senators for not hearing the bill.

“The Senate got accommodated on everything they asked for,” Coffee said. “It's laughable to talk about how good we did on criminal justice reform when we can't get a vote on a platform issue.”

Shortly after the announcement that the bill was dead, Cannizzaro defended the progress the Legislature had made on bail reform and police use of force, challenging people who say the Legislature was not doing enough. Asked whether she was personally in favor of a bill with a carveout for crimes such as mass shootings, Cannizzaro demurred.

“I don't think that I am opposed to having conversations on this topic. That has been happening,” Cannizzaro said. “Obviously Chair Yeager worked to try to come up with some compromise, and we're just not going to be able to get there.”

Though she supports the abolition of the death penalty, Scheible said the decision to not hear the bill was part of a broader discussion.

"I do work in a team and part of my job as the chair of a committee is to ensure that I am making good policy decisions, not pushing my own personal agenda," she said. "Sometimes I get to do the things that I personally want, sometimes I do the things that we need as a state, the things that my body supports, that our coalition supports, and so it's a group effort."

That group effort started and ended with Sisolak, the state’s first Democratic governor in two decades after his election in 2018, but who also was chair of the Clark County Commission when the worst mass shooting in American history took place in his jurisdiction. Sisolak was at the forefront of the response to the 1 October massacre and has talked about the effect the incident had on him personally and on his views of capital punishment during his 2018 campaign and beyond.

Sisolak had previously affirmed without qualification that he opposed the death penalty, but he never formally endorsed the legislation. Asked about the bill as the session progressed, Sisolak stuck tightly to talking points — even reading from a prepared statement when asked an impromptu question about the Assembly passing the bill — to emphasize that he opposed capital punishment but believed the measure is necessary for specific situations, such as mass shootings.

Sisolak’s hesitation over the legislation was likely heightened by the coming entrance of Lombardo into the 2022 governor’s race, where Democrats — with Joe Biden in the White House — are generally expected to suffer some midterm losses. Republicans in state and nationwide have used a pro-police campaign message in recent election cycles, so a death penalty repeal may have added more fuel to that campaign fire.

Past governors — such as Brian Sandoval in 2015 and Kenny Guinn in 2003 — opted to wait until their second term in office, post-midterms, to tackle high-profile policy goals.

A protester holds a candle in front of the Legislative Building during the "Protest & Vigil for Death Penalty Abolition" hosted by the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty on May 17, 2021. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

Activists and advocates criticized lawmakers for not giving the bill a public hearing, though, calling the decision "undemocratic" during a protest and vigil last Monday.

"You have to answer to the people," Leslie Turner with the Mass Liberation Project said during the protest. "It doesn't make sense that the death penalty bill is dead now, with no explanation, no checking in with the community."

Cunningham said those pushing for the abolition of the death penalty spoke with various senators and that it seemed as though most of them were open to considering the legislation.

At least one Republican lawmaker was a likely supporter of the bill — Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas).

"Generally I'm in favor of repealing it," he said in an interview on Tuesday. "I think it makes a lot of fiscal sense, I think it makes a lot of moral sense."

Though she was disappointed and frustrated by the death of the bill, Monique Normand, an anti-death penalty activist whose uncle was murdered in 2017, told reporters after the vigil and protest that the death penalty would not have brought her uncle back and the fight is far from over.

“People's lives are on the line,” she said. “We do have to hold [lawmakers] accountable and we can't just let them get away with, ‘you're gonna vote for us.’ No, we don't have to vote for anyone, we can withhold our votes, our votes matter. Our lives matter.”

Sisolak, Democrats spike efforts to repeal the death penalty in Nevada

Nevada leaders are scrapping a bill that would have banned capital punishment in the state, dashing the hopes of advocates who had celebrated that the measure had made more progress than ever before in the Legislature.

In a statement on Thursday, Gov. Steve Sisolak said there is “no path forward” for efforts by Democratic lawmakers to abolish capital punishment, striking a blow to the hopes of criminal justice reform advocates that the Democratic trifecta in the Legislature and governor’s office would finally take steps to end the death penalty.

“I’ve been clear on my position that capital punishment should be sought and used less often, but I believe there are severe situations that warrant it,” the governor said in a statement. “I understand there are those who will be disappointed by this outcome, however the process of determining which crimes are severe enough to warrant this punishment deserves thoughtful consideration.”

The bill, AB395, passed out of the Assembly in April on a 26-16 vote with all Republicans in opposition. But key decision makers in the Senate — including two top leaders whose day jobs are working for Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, who is a prominent opponent of abolition — did not schedule the measure for a hearing ahead of a key Friday deadline for bills to pass from their second house committee. 

Asked about criticism that the Legislature is not living up to its commitments to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system — racial disparity is a major concern raised in the death penalty debate — Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) defended the body’s work and pointed to action taken on other issues including bail reform and police use of force.

“People who live in our communities want to have a fair system. They want to know that if they find themselves or their family members in there that is fair. They want to know that when they're victims of crime, that people are going to be treated fairly and their voices are going to be heard,” she told reporters in a brief interview after Sisolak made his announcement. “We’ve done a lot of work here in the state of Nevada and I would encourage anyone who thinks we're not doing enough to take a look at other states and ask whether or not we are, because I know when I talk to colleagues from other states, they are amazed that, that we are able to make such progress.” 

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson said in a statement that advocates had worked on potential amendments to restrict but not fully abolish the death penalty, but acknowledged that it had been a “difficult task with all of the many considerations that go into these cases.”

“While we are disappointed that we could not get across the finish line this session on AB395, we have to accept that there is a process and many of our priorities don't ultimately come to fruition,” he said in the statement. “We will continue working on policies we believe are sound and continue working with our colleagues on meaningful reform to the inequities that exist in our criminal justice system.”

Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), who presented the bill and chairs the committee that sponsored it, said it was time to refocus and move on to other tasks of the session.

"There's disappointment, but ... we live to fight another day and I certainly don't feel discouraged," he said. "Certainly doesn't take away with some of the other really good criminal justice reform measures that we've been doing over the last three sessions, and I just hope that's not lost. I mean, we really have made substantial progress. This was one piece of that."

Advocates had turned up the pressure on lawmakers, holding a press conference early this week to argue that capital punishment disproportionately affects people of color.

“This past summer, there were promises made about reforms around racial justice issues,” Yvette Williams, chair of the Clark County Black Caucus, said at the press conference. “We're looking very closely and paying attention to not only what's voted on the floor, but what bills come before each committee ... who's deciding what's going to be heard."

Supporters of the bill aired their grievances during the public comment period at a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would have been the place where the bill was heard. Officials with the ACLU of Nevada said the blame for future executions would lie with lawmakers who opted not to hear the bill and end the practice.

"Party leaders in the Senate and Governor’s office have shown that their commitment to meaningful reform is nothing but lip service," said Athar Haseebullah, the group's executive director. "The people of Nevada are ready to end the death penalty. They deserve to have a voice, and they deserve true leadership in the Legislature rather than just political cronyism. This is an embarrassment.”

In spite of polls, advertising and other lobbying activities, Sisolak maintained he was uncomfortable with repealing the death penalty in extreme cases such as mass shootings.

The demise of the bill comes as the Clark County district attorney’s office is pushing for the execution for Zane Floyd, who was convicted of killing four people inside a Las Vegas grocery store two decades ago. Prosecutors want to schedule an execution in late July after the state prison director testified that the system needs at least four months to prepare for a lethal injection.

The execution would be Nevada's first enactment of capital punishment in 15 years. The state came close to executing Scott Dozier in 2018, but a protracted legal fight about the drugs in the lethal injection delayed the execution, and Dozier died by suicide in 2019.

Reporters Riley Snyder and Tabitha Mueller contributed to this report. Updated at 2:59 p.m. on 5/13/21 to add comment from ACLU, Yeager.

There’s one month left in the session. Here’s where the Legislature is on taxes, the death penalty and more.

The checkered flag is poised to start waving as state lawmakers enter the final month of the legislative session with a host of major policy and budget issues still unresolved, from repeal of the death penalty to raising taxes on the mining industry, wholesale changes to the K-12 funding formula and many other big-ticket items.

Tuesday’s meeting of the Economic Forum — the panel of five economists who forecast expected state tax revenue — is generally viewed as the green light for a host of budgetary issues and major bills to move to the finish line before the clock strikes midnight on sine die, May 31.

Most indicators are that the improving economy, coupled with rising COVID vaccination rates, will boost state tax revenues above what the Forum forecasted in December — about $8.5 billion over the next two fiscal years, or about $500 million less than the last two-year budget cycle.

Legislators have nonetheless proceeded based on the less-rosy budgetary picture, making tough cuts to education and health care programs that at times drew heated debate. While a recovering economy is expected to help alleviate some of those previously identified cuts, lawmakers say they’re still waiting on the bigger piece of the puzzle — U.S. Treasury guidance on how the state can spend the roughly $2.9 billion allocated through the recently passed federal American Recovery Act.

But without guidance soon, legislators say it's almost a guarantee that a summer special session will be needed to make a decision on how to dole out the one-time federal windfall.

“Every day from this day forward, we're running out of time,” Senate Finance Committee Chair Chris Brooks said. “(If) that happens at a certain point ... the only way we can do it is to close the budget, and then fill it back in at a later date, just because we'll run out of time.”

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Chief of Staff Michelle White echoed those comments, saying that the governor’s office didn’t want to recommend allocating general fund dollars to needs that may later be met by an influx of federal funds — even on topics that might attract bipartisan support, such as funding a replacement unemployment insurance system, a broad expansion of preschool and more. Beyond the flexible $2.9 billion, other pots of federal funding with more specific earmarks are also expected.

“The governor wants to make sure that that's a process that can go through the appropriate budgetary process, and with the Legislature having full input,” she said. “We hope that's the case.”

Outside of the budget, legislators are beginning their typical ritual of rolling out ambitious bills in the waning days of the session, including a state-based public health insurance option, fixes to the oft-criticized unemployment insurance system, and a major transmission and electric vehicle omnibus bill. They’re also making progress on behind-the-scenes negotiations, including on a much-publicized effort to raise mining taxes and implementing a wholesale change to the decades-old K-12 funding formula.

But hopes in early May can often turn to tears by June, with many landmines and potential pitfalls awaiting lawmakers and major pending legislation. Here’s a look at the state of play for some of the biggest proposals on tap for the last month of the session.

A gold pour
Molten gold poured into ingot molds at a mine in northern Nevada. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Mining taxes

The question of a potential mining tax hike has simmered in the background through the first three months of session. There’s been little public movement from lawmakers, but three proposed constitutional amendments raising the industry’s constitutional rate cap are playing the role of Chekov’s gun.

Though progressive advocates are clamoring for lawmakers to move forward on AJR1 — striking what they call the mining industry’s sweetheart deal in the Constitution and imposing a 7.75 percent tax on the gross proceeds of mining companies — discussions are ongoing about a potential deal that would lead to lawmakers dropping the proposed amendments in favor of a more immediate tax change.

Democratic legislators appear wary of sending a mining tax resolution to the 2022 midterm ballot and stirring up rural angst at a time when Gov. Steve Sisolak and other high-profile Democrats are up for re-election. The mining industry may also be wary of a ballot measure — voters in 2014 narrowly defeated a ballot question removing the language in the Constitution capping mining taxation, but that victory for the industry came during a midterm election that favored Republicans and had particularly low turnout (though many expect the 2022 midterms to be difficult for Democrats as well, given that the party controlling the White House historically does poorly in midterm elections).

“I said even last special session that if we can find common ground and some compromise that would avoid us having an expensive … exercise on the ballot, that we will certainly be open to that, and we still are,” Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) said on Monday.

Negotiations are still fluid — meaning things could easily collapse between now and the end of session. But lawmakers, including Senate Finance Chair Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), say that some sort of immediate mining tax increase may be the “best and only option” to raise revenue this session.

“I would prefer to see a collaborative approach between the industry and the Legislature to come up with a change in the current [taxation] structure that they have,” he said. “That would be a sustainable way to put money into our budgets in the short term, and not many years from now. I'm supportive of that approach.”

But any struck deal will lead to a math problem — lawmakers need at least a handful of Republican votes in the Assembly and Senate to clear the needed two-thirds threshold for a tax increase. 

One of Republicans’ most prominent concerns when the proposed constitutional amendments emerged over the summer was that the mining industry was surprised by them; this time around, the industry is at the table for discussions. Republican leaders in both chambers have not completely closed the door on a tax increase, but said they want more input in the process and would want any revenue hike be narrowly tailored and go to specific programs or functions amenable to both parties.

“I think that all tax bills should have been discussed from the get-go,” Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) said in an interview. “I don't think it's proper to bring anything with 30 days left and say, ‘Oh, here you go. We made the deal, and now we want you to vote for it.’ Why not have a discussion with us?”

Hospital beds for infants as seen during a tour of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Sunrise Hospital on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

State-based public option

One of the most heavily lobbied issues over the last month of the session will be the effort to implement a state public health insurance option — requiring insurers that bid to provide coverage to the state’s Medicaid population to also apply to offer a state-backed public option plan. 

SB420 was introduced in the Senate on Wednesday and sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) and has already been scheduled for a hearing Tuesday.

The legislation — dubbed “CannizzaroCare” — comes from public option efforts in past sessions, including a 2017 effort to allow Nevadans to buy into the state’s Medicaid program, (which the Legislature approved but that was vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval), and a 2019 study lawmakers approved to look into the possibility of allowing Nevadans to buy into the state’s Public Employee Benefits Program (PEBP) health plan.

The legislation is backed by a cadre of public health groups (including health districts in Washoe and Clark counties) and progressive organizations, but has attracted an organized opposition effort from doctors, hospitals and health insurance panning the legislation as an “unaffordable new government-controlled health insurance system.” 

Death with dignity

The latest in a long line of efforts to legalize a process allowing terminally ill patients to self-administer life-ending medication prescribed by a physician hasn’t made much movement since it was referred without recommendation out of committee by the first committee deadline in early April

The bill, AB351, was referred to the Assembly Ways and Means Committee shortly after, where it’s sat ever since. But bill sponsor Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) said he was confident about the bill’s chances — adding that he expected it to come up for a hearing and likely vote at some point once the budget committee finishes processing more straightforward agency bills.

“Eventually we'll have an opportunity to have a hearing there, and then hopefully get it to the floor,” he said. “And I'm confident that that's where it's at now. Obviously, things may change, but I think that's where we're at now.”

Flores said he had also spoken with the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, and believed the agency would take its fiscal note (estimated cost to implement) off the bill.

The concept has divided lawmakers, and not always along strict party lines. Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus (R-Wellington) said she had struggled with the bill; her libertarian side supported giving patients those rights, but thought that many of the concepts including limiting a coroner’s investigation and timelines in the bill were improper. 

“I have real issues with those things, apart from my struggle with does a person have a right to decide how they end their life,” she said.

The Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City, Nevada
The Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City, Nev., is seen on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Death penalty

Members of the Assembly recently voted along party lines to abolish the death penalty, pushing the proposal as far as it’s ever been in Nevada after fits and starts in recent sessions. But the bill hasn’t been touched in the Senate, where both the committee chair responsible for processing it and the Senate majority leader are prosecutors whose boss — Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson — has been vocal in favor of keeping capital punishment.

Gov. Steve Sisolak has at times expressed unqualified opposition to the death penalty, and on other occasions said he would support it for extreme cases, such as the Oct. 1 mass shooting. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Melanie Scheible has said that the bill could move forward if the sponsor can come with an amendment that is acceptable to the governor, but bill presenter Assemblyman Steve Yeager — while acknowledging he wants to make progress — says he’s not sure whether he and abolition supporters would accept a watered down version of the bill.

Others, including leaders of the Nevada State Democratic Party, say the onus is on senators to at least give the bill the courtesy of a hearing. In a video not widely circulated before this week, Scheible affirmed unequivocally at the Battle Born Progress Progressive Summit in January that she supported the quest to end the death penalty.

Offices of the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation in Las Vegas. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

DETR bill

Republicans have latched on to one of the most prominent failings of the executive branch — massive backlogs in an inundated unemployment claims system — as one of their top priorities this session. Lawmakers of both parties often mention the emails they have received from claimants desperate for stalled benefits.

Senate Republicans have met with claimants in the glitchy Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and hinted for weeks that they would introduce legislation to address issues identified in a lawsuit brought by PUA claimants, such as the lack of communication between a regular unemployment and PUA computer system. They also have been publicly critical that the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation loan policy bill, SB75, makes technical changes to the regular unemployment program but does not speak to some of claimants’ marquee complaints.

Though Republicans’ bill, SB419, dropped last week, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chris Brooks described it as a “stunt” and likely dead on arrival because it proposes spending $40 million from the strained general fund on a multi-year modernization project.

Brooks said the ambitious project should wait until the latest round of federal funding comes through. Democrats have listed a modernization project as a top priority in a framework on how to spend the money, and say they expect the federal guidance will allow such a use.

White said Democrats are in agreement with recommendations made by a governor-appointed unemployment strike force led by former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley.

“We have to make sure that anything that we've identified last year that could be better, that we're making all efforts to change now that funding … will be available, pending eligibility,” White said.

DETR officials have said it could take up to a year to design a request for proposals laying out exactly what the state wants out of the IT overhaul. In the meantime, the governor’s budget proposes a modest $1 million over the biennium for contractors to help resolve close to 2,000 technical issues of various sizes within the benefits system.

Students stand in line at Wengert Elementary School for the first day of in-person learning on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Education

Release of the long-awaited report from the statutorily-created Commission on School Funding last week laid bare what many lawmakers and public education advocates have long suspected — moving Nevada to the national average in per-pupil school funding will cost more than $2 billion over a decade and hundreds of million of dollars in additional revenue every year.

The report recommended that lawmakers implement major changes to the current sales and property tax systems, but those general proposals have largely fallen flat. On property tax changes, Brooks said he “absolutely” agrees changes are needed but “I don't think now's the time to do it” as the state continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Frierson in a previous statement panned the sales tax as regressive but signaled support for restructuring the mining tax and bringing in revenue from short-term rental companies such as Airbnb. 

"With regards to other revenue structures, many take time and robust stakeholder outreach and that has not been something we have had during this session," Frierson said.

Still, lawmakers are moving forward with plans to accelerate a shift to the new “Pupil-Centered Funding Formula,” an update to the dated past funding formula initially approved by legislators in 2019. Many of those budget details, including promises to implement various hold harmless protections to avoid massive overnight funding losses for rural school districts, are still in the works.

Some Republicans have expressed openness to increase funding for education if it has direct ties to student outcomes and is allocated in a transparent manner; they fear that it could otherwise be swept up into collective bargaining agreements. They also have bristled at the shift toward the new funding formula, which has reshuffled the deck on some of their party’s most significant legislative accomplishments — a series of “categorical” programs targeted toward specific student groups with special needs that flourished under unified Republican control of the governor’s office and Legislature in 2015.

Settelmeyer cautioned that Republicans would only be likely to support tax increases directly tied to targeted education spending (the so-called “categoricals,” which include programs such as Read by Grade 3, and Zoom and Victory schools). He said the odds of starting a discussion on a “bipartisan way of how to get there” didn’t bode well at this late stage in the session.

“That's nothing new. Education has always wanted more money,” he said. “Republicans have shown consistently, if it goes to a purpose, we'll have a discussion. You want it to just go to the same system? I think we tend to be a little bit less likely to agree.”

Priscilla Vilchis, CEO of Premium Produce, inspects a cannabis bud at her grow facility in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018. (Jeff Scheid-Nevada Independent)

Cannabis 

A bill to authorize cannabis consumption lounges seeks to resolve a longstanding conundrum in the state — that using cannabis is legal, but consuming it anywhere outside a private home is illegal. It stands at odds with an assumption that drove much investment in the Nevada marijuana industry — that tourist consumption would make the Silver State’s cannabis industry punch above its weight.

The measure, AB341, is described — even by the director of the Cannabis Compliance Board — as the most promising vehicle for diversifying an industry with upper ranks that skew white and male. “Social equity” elements of the bill would give a competitive advantage to lounge operators who have been adversely affected by the War on Drugs, bringing new players into an industry characterized by extremely high barriers to entry and fierce competition for a limited number of licenses.

A similar consumption lounge concept failed late in the 2019 session, but that was before the Cannabis Compliance Board had formally assumed regulatory oversight of the industry. Proponents are optimistic that with a focused regulatory body in place, the state is now ready to take a step toward lounges.

The bill has been parked in the Ways and Means Committee because of the estimated $3 million the Cannabis Compliance Board would have to spend to support the projected 30 new positions needed to regulate scores of consumption lounges. Marijuana regulation is generally self-supported by licensing fees, although the board has not yet estimated how much revenue the lounges would bring in to balance out the ledger.

“I'm hopeful it's gonna move,” said Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), the bill’s sponsor, adding that it would likely be one of the last things finished in the session. “I just think it's gonna sit there for a while, because we have to close sort of everything else … before we can really have a discussion about what might be available to satisfy that fiscal note.”

Another potential wrench in the wheels is that the bill requires a two-thirds majority vote, which means it’s possible Republican-raised concerns about people driving after consuming marijuana could sideline the bill.

Asked about the possible reemergence of a policy allowing coveted dispensary licenses for applicants who did not win them in a contentious 2018 licensing round, Gilles said the governor’s office is not committing to any policies on that front, citing many moving parts, including ongoing litigation.

“I will be happy to engage in any conversations with folks if there's a proposal that's worth ... being worked through the Legislature that's going to resolve everybody's issues and everybody's concerns,” he said. “I don't know that that's possible.”

Tesla Model X with doors up
A Tesla Model X as seen during an NV Energy and NDOT Electric Vehicle Guest Drive Event at Bruce Trent Park in Las Vegas on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Energy policy

One of the biggest remaining policy-focused bills yet to drop is Sen. Chris Brooks’ forthcoming major energy policy bill, which is expected to be introduced sometime this week.

Brooks has described the provisions of the bill in past interviews — it will require a $100 million investment by NV Energy to facilitate greatly expanded electric vehicle charging infrastructure, while doubling down on transmission infrastructure — aimed at finishing NV Energy’s proposed Greenlink transmission project, which utility regulators partially approved in March

On Friday, Brooks said that those portions and others previously described — including adoption of “tenant solar,” allowing utility-scale battery storage projects to access renewable energy tax abatement programs, and moving the state to a larger wholesale electric market would all be included in the legislation.

Brooks reiterated that there were no surprises in the forthcoming bill, and he said the goal was to start the state on major transmission projects as soon as possible — saying that while the Public Utilities Commission made the right choice in the most recent transmission case, lawmakers needed to sign off on any major policy push toward greater transmission infrastructure. 

“It’s not the PUC’s job to encourage economic development in the state of Nevada, it's the PUC’s job to keep the lights on,” he said. “And so the argument that we need transmission, so that we can become a regional hub for transmission in the West, and so that we can attract economic activity to our state, is not necessarily the regulator's job... it's the policymakers and legislator’s jobs and the governor's job to give that message.”

Enrique, who was recently evicted from his home, poses for a photograph in a Las Vegas neighborhood on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Housing and rental assistance

Gov. Steve Sisolak has said that the state extension of the eviction moratorium, which runs through May at the state level but is backed up by a federal moratorium that lasts through June, will be the final one. But lawmakers are working on a bill that creates a “glide path” from the eviction ban into normalcy, and ushers out the hundreds of millions of dollars the state has received in rental assistance but has struggled to get out to people quickly.

“As we're coming up to the end of the moratorium, we need to figure out a way to even further ... perfect the way in which we get those dollars into the hands of landlords,” said Scott Gilles of the governor’s office. 

Gilles said the governor’s office doesn’t think they can get around a federal government restriction that prevents payments directly to a landlord — with no tenant involvement — but the legislation aims “to ensure that a tenant who wants to engage and take advantage of the rental assistance dollars will ultimately have that opportunity.”

Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) said discussions include how “we can slow the eviction process enough so that the monies that are there get used” and whether there are other pots of less-restricted money that could help tenants who don’t qualify under newer, stricter federal rules setting income limits or landlords who are having trouble securing the required tenant cooperation.

It’s still unclear whether the bill would have provisions that prevent landlords from immediately evicting a tenant after receiving overdue back rent through the assistance program. 

“We're looking at … whatever options are there to keep people in their homes and if there's some enticement for a landlord to be paid these dollars or ... have some sort of agreement going forward through the mediation program,” Gilles said. “Obviously that's the intended result.”

AFSCME workers prepare to unionize
Ken Edmonds, a developmental support tech at Desert Regional Center, reads a statement before filing for recognition as AFSCME with the Government Employee Management Relations Board in Las Vegas on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

State worker collective bargaining

Another potential hurdle in the rush to finish the session will come in the novel process of approving collective bargaining agreements for state workers — the first-ever undertaking since lawmakers expanded bargaining rights to state employees in 2019.

In theory, the bargaining units (representing a swath of state workers) are supposed to come to a tentative agreement with the state’s Department of Administration, go for approval to the state’s Board of Examiners (composed of the governor and other statewide elected officials), and is then transmitted to the Legislature as a budget amendment, prior to the end of session.

However, a spokeswoman for the Department of Administration said Friday that only one agreement (with the Nevada State Law Enforcement Officers Association) out of the seven recognized bargaining units is ready to go before the Board of Examiners. 

The agency said it does not “currently have a timeline” for bringing forward agreements with bargaining units represented by AFSCME (which represents four) and is still negotiating tentative agreements with two other units — the Battle Born Fire Fighters Association and Nevada Police Union.

The 2019 legislation authorizing state workers to collectively bargain also contains provisions giving the governor the final say on wages or other monetary compensation despite any approved collective bargaining agreement.

White said that the main focus right now was timing, and getting budget amendments over to lawmakers with enough time to spare before the end of session.

“Anyone could look at it right now with 30 days left and say that's a tight timeline, and it is a tight timeline but, we feel confident in our partnership throughout this process to negotiate in good faith and get everything done that we can possibly get done in these negotiations and agreements,” she said.

Mirage guest room attendant Perla Padilla, defending champion in the Housekeeping Olympics bed making event, cleans a room on Monday, Oct. 8. (Jeff Scheid-Nevada Independent)

Right to Return

A bill presented by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) that guarantees hospitality workers the right to return to the job they lost during the pandemic has not advanced since it had a public hearing in early April. But the measure, SB386, has a waiver that exempts it from legislative deadlines, and parties have been negotiating to address stark disagreements between union and business interests.

“Our whole goal is making sure people can get back on the job and so it's something we're monitoring. I think there are some real, real challenges that people are trying to work through. And that's kind of the last update I've had on it,” White said on Saturday. “So I think we'll see. I think it's something that folks want to find a resolution on.”

Nevada lawmakers discuss abolishing death penalty for first time since ill-fated 2017 effort

The Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City, Nevada

Four years after a proposal to abolish the death penalty in Nevada had its first and last hearing in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, a similar bill — with similarly uncertain prospects — came before the same committee Wednesday for a lengthy and emotional discussion.

Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) presented AB395, which would abolish the death penalty in Nevada and convert all existing death sentences to life in prison without parole. Before speakers gave at-times graphic accounts of crimes committed by people sentenced to death, he urged lawmakers to weigh the drier aspects of the debate: how much the process costs, the likelihood of errors, and whether the law is applied unevenly across regions.

“This is going to be an emotional, difficult hearing. You may be brought to tears by some of the testimony,” Yeager said. “But even in the midst of sharing that pain, we need to come together as Nevadans to evaluate whether the death penalty is working, and whether it should remain as part of Nevada's justice system.”

New dynamics

Nevada is one of 24 states that have the death penalty — 23 states have abolished it and another three have governor-imposed moratoriums, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Last week, Virginia became the latest state to end the practice.

Two major variables for the bill’s future are whether a death penalty ban can survive in the Senate, where two prosecutors hold key leadership positions at the head of the entire Senate and the Senate Judiciary Committee and have the power to kill the bill, and whether Gov. Steve Sisolak would sign such a bill if it makes it to his desk.

“There are a lot of differing opinions on that. Personally, it’s something that I’m open [to] hearing and having a discussion,” Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), who is a prosecutor, recently told The Associated Press.

Sisolak has previously expressed opposition to the death penalty, but during his 2018 campaign, clarified that he would support it for extreme cases. Sisolak spokeswoman Meghin Delaney was noncommittal when asked about his position on the issue in early February.

“As is the case with all other bills or bill drafts going through the legislative process, the governor will review and evaluate any legislation that may come before him,” she said.

Since Nevada last had an open hearing on the issue in 2017 and that bill died in committee, the state came close to putting to death an inmate — Scott Dozier — but the execution was called off amid a legal battle over whether the state could use certain execution drugs. Dozier died by suicide in early 2019.

Although a 2017 poll showed most Nevadans firmly oppose the death penalty, a new poll released this year by anti-death penalty activists, which phrased its questions differently, showed Nevadans narrowly oppose the death penalty by a split within the margin of error. 

Another death row inmate is now heading toward a possible execution. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported last week that Clark County prosecutors are planning to seek a warrant of execution in coming weeks for Zane Floyd, who was convicted of killing four people and injuring a fifth in a Las Vegas grocery store in 1999.

While Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said the development, just as lawmakers are mulling the issue, is “coincidental,” he added that “I think the timing is good.” 

“Our legislative leaders should recognize that there are some people who commit such heinous acts, whether it be the particular type of murder or the number of people killed, that this community has long felt should receive the death penalty,” he said, according to the newspaper.

Some critics have said the timing suggests prosecutors are using Floyd's life as part of a political play. Yeager said he doesn’t think the case playing out in the background will change the discussion in a meaningful way.

“It doesn't affect, sort of, my perspective on things … it's a policy decision, apart from any cases that might be out there, apart from any ongoing litigation,” he said. “Can't really control what else is going on.”

The death penalty debate

One of proponents’ main arguments is that in spite of the costs of pursuing the death penalty and following through with appeals that can span decades, the state rarely enacts the punishment. The most recent execution was 15 years ago, in 2006.

There have been 161 people sentenced to death in Nevada since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and only 12 executions — 11 of which were “volunteers” who chose to forego appeal rights.

“The point is, we don't execute anybody, even when a death sentence is imposed,” said Scott Coffee, a public defender. “But the money is spent.”

Tom Viloria, a Reno criminal defense attorney who was formerly a prosecutor, testified that he switched from supporting to opposing capital punishment after seeing how much knowledge of a case and decision-making power is concentrated in an individual lead prosecutor. He said decisions to seek the death penalty can be arbitrary and motivated by a prosecutor’s desire for “notoriety, or just a general reputation of being a hard-nosed, bulldog prosecutor as they advanced through their career.”

Family members affected by capital punishment also weighed in to support abolition, including Cynthia Portaro, whose son Brandon Hill was killed in 2011 in Las Vegas. She argued that the drawn-on proceedings of a death penalty case is “just too much on a family to have to handle,” and that families experience the same void and lack of closure whether the penalty is execution or life imprisonment.

But prosecutors held the line on keeping the death penalty an option. Wolfson said his stance has been reinforced by mass shootings, including the October 1 shooting in Las Vegas, in which the shooter killed himself shortly after firing on a concert and left 60 people dead.

"If the appropriate punishment for a single murder is life without parole, how do you punish a person who commits multiple murders?” he said. “Should we punish someone who kills one person the same as someone who kills two, 10, or 60? I say no."

Lawmakers also heard from Jennifer Otremba, who described the murder of her 15-year-old daughter Alyssa in 2011 near her Las Vegas home. Javier Righetti, who was 19 at the time of the killing, was given a death sentence in 2017.

“He did not consider Alyssa’s life. Why should his life be considered?” Jennifer Otremba said. “I waited five and a half years for justice for my daughter, and if I have to continue to fight politicians for the rest of my life to ensure that justice is served, then I will do that.”

Another death penalty abolition bill, Democratic Sen. James Ohrenschall’s SB228, takes a more moderate approach by banning capital punishment for crimes committed in the future, but letting previous death sentences stand. It has not yet had a hearing.

Above all, proponents are urging lawmakers to do away with an “eye for an eye” mentality. Jodi Hocking, founder of a group called Return Strong for families of people who are incarcerated, said she’s been more convinced that executions need to end because of conversations she has each Sunday with inmates who are waiting to be put to death. She quoted Sister Helen Prejean, and anti-death penalty advocate, in her testimony.

“If we believe that murder is wrong and not admissible in our society, then it has to be wrong for everyone, not just for individuals, but for governments as well,” she said.

Wednesday’s was the first hearing for the bill. The committee did not vote on the measure.

Bill would overhaul marijuana DUI law, considered ‘unscientific’ predictor of whether driver is impaired

Legislators are looking to update Nevada laws that could lead to people being convicted of driving under the influence of marijuana even if they were stopped by police long after they last consumed.

Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) on Monday presented AB400, which would remove from the law specific “per se” limits for cannabis metabolites that can be in a person’s blood to trigger a DUI. Proponents of the bill say such thresholds are a poor reflection of how impaired a person is because of how cannabis is metabolized by the body differently than alcohol, and argue they were set at a time when no amount of marijuana was acceptable.

“These limits have nothing to do with either science accurately determining impairment or promoting public safety,” Paul Armentano, the deputy director of marijuana legalization advocacy group NORML, told members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. “These arbitrary limits were enacted at a time when Nevada imposed blanket prohibition on the possession and use of cannabis for any purpose. This is not the case any longer. Hasn't been for some time.”

While alcohol can be completely eliminated from the body in a matter of hours, THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — remains detectable for days after a person last consumes, even if the person is no longer high.

Armentano, who was co-presenter with Yeager, said he believes the thresholds came about because they were the “lowest levels of quantification” at the time the law was enacted — in other words, the smallest amount of THC that technology at the time could detect with precision that would be acceptable by a court. He compared the levels to a blood alcohol content of 0.01 percent, which would be detectable in a blood test but well below the legal driving limit.

But the bill faced significant opposition from police, prosecutors and employers worried about the implications for workman’s compensation insurance, who said it would make it more difficult to hold people accountable for being under the influence of marijuana.

Las Vegas Police Detective Dwaine McCuistion, who investigates fatal traffic accidents, gave the example of a woman who drove her Camaro 100 miles per hour into a school zone, striking a car and killing the children inside. When she was taken to the hospital and her blood was drawn, the test showed cannabis in her system.

“If we were to remove the per se that we have right now, there would be no way for me to prosecute this case. What would I tell the family members at that point?” he said. “I'm sorry I can't prosecute the person who killed your family members. I'm sorry that Nevada law prevents me from bringing you justice.”

John Jones of the Nevada District Attorneys Association said that in serious crashes, police often don’t have a chance to conduct a field sobriety test or observe the driver’s behavior because they have been disoriented or are being rushed to the hospital.

“This bill as currently written would really hinder our DUI marijuana prosecutions,” Jones said. “We don't have the ability to make all the physical observations and perform all the physical tests to prove a DUI beyond a reasonable doubt in the absence of blood results.”

Yeager countered that in the Camaro example, the driver could be prosecuted for other crimes during the incident, such as excessive speed. And he said that toxicology results could still be used in a case, although they could not be the sole piece of evidence on which someone is convicted of DUI.

Opponents also raised concerns about how removing the per se limits from law might make it difficult for an employer to prove that a worker was impaired by marijuana when an accident happened on the job. That means the employer could be on the hook in a worker’s compensation claim even if the worker was at fault for consuming cannabis.

“Many of these workers are operating heavy machinery and conducting hazardous jobs and endanger the safety [of their coworkers] by being under the influence,” said Shaun Meng of the Nevada Self Insurers Association.

Yeager said that he was open to working on the portion of the bill that dealt with workman’s compensation. That portion is connected with the DUI statute in Nevada law, something Yeager said was likely an effort to ensure laws on impairment were consistent with the latest science.

Another criticism came from trucking interests, who say that taking the thresholds out of law could put Nevada out of compliance with regulations that prohibit commercial truckers from using marijuana. If Nevada cannot revoke a commercial driver’s license if someone is found to have used marijuana — which is still considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance at the federal level — the state might lose federal grant money, several people testified. 

Lt. Don Plowman, manager of the Nevada Highway Patrol’s Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program, suggested the bill exclude commercial drivers, who are held to a higher standard than regular drivers because their vehicles are generally larger and more potentially lethal. 

Armentano said he didn’t understand the concern because most states do not have per se limits in their law for marijuana DUIs and do not seem to have problems issuing commercial driver’s licenses.

Yeager, who chaired an interim committee studying marijuana DUIs that did not finish its work because of the pandemic, pointed out that even Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson has publicly acknowledged Nevada law is murky around marijuana intoxication and needs to be reviewed. Wolfson’s employee, Jones, testified against the bill and wanted the interim committee to do more work before changing the law.

“Impaired driving will continue to remain illegal in our state, doesn't matter what the substance is,” Yeager said. “My main concern with this bill is to make sure that drivers aren't being unfairly convicted of impaired driving when they're not actually impaired.”

The hearing was the first major step for the bill. The committee did not vote on the measure.

Behind the Bar: Lawsuit to open building hits roadblock. Plus: tiny house regulations, opt-out organ donation, state ERA advances and tribal burial site changes

Behind the Bar is The Nevada Independent’s newsletter devoted to comprehensive and accessible coverage of the 2021 Legislature. 

In this edition: Where the lawsuit seeking to open the Legislative building to the public stands after a 9th Circuit Court dismissal. Plus, details on a bill allowing tiny house development, an icy reception for the organ donation opt-out bill, advancing a state-based Equal Rights Amendment, and changes to tribal burial site laws. Carson City Restaurant Spotlight returns.

Check this link to manage your newsletter subscriptions. The newsletter is published on Mondays and Thursdays.

I want to hear from you! Questions, comments, observations, jokes, what you think we should be covering or paying attention to. Email me at rsnyder@thenvindy.com.


The legal effort to open the halls of the Legislature to the public isn’t going so well.

On Wednesday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied a motion by an attorney for the group of four conservative lobbyists who sued to open the building in mid-February.

The order was brief — just five lines — and echoed what defendants in the case have said all along: the appeal was inappropriate because it was focused on a non-appealable interlocutory order, which is legal jargon for the procedural order issued by the federal District Court judge in the case. 

The appeal in this case focused on Judge Miranda Du’s order setting a normal and non-emergency briefing schedule in the case — a decision made because the plaintiffs (the four lobbyists) didn’t check all of the boxes needed to qualify for an emergency briefing. 

A filing submitted by Deputy Solicitor General Craig Newby to the 9th Circuit outlines where the initial lawsuit fell short in providing information typically required for an emergency, expedited briefing. It also seeks to have Gov. Steve Sisolak and Attorney General Aaron Ford — named defendants in the lawsuit — dismissed from the case, because, well, the executive and legislative are separate branches of government (the response helpfully links to a Schoolhouse Rock video in a footnote).

“Unlike other cases brought by Plaintiffs’ counsel, there is no emergency directive issued by the Governor mandating that the Legislature close (or open) the Legislative Building,” Newby wrote in a separate filing submitted to the district court. “The Governor understands the risks of COVID-19 spread in our community, resulting in difficult decisions he has had to make. Here however, the difficult decisions for keeping the Legislative Building open or closed lie with the Legislature, not him.”

I’m not an attorney, but I would guess that barring some kind of Hail Mary appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case will fall back to the original District Court.

But even then, the lawsuit still has issues. 

In a filing submitted on Tuesday, Legislative Counsel Bureau General Counsel Kevin Powers told the court that the plaintiffs had “ failed to serve the Legislative Defendants, or an agent designated by them to receive service of process, with the summons and complaint.”

“In the absence of such service, the Legislative Defendants have not officially become parties to this action, and this Court cannot exercise personal jurisdiction over the Legislative Defendants for any matters, including, without limitation, the emergency motion for preliminary injunction,” Powers wrote in the motion, which asked the court to pause all briefings in light of the then-pending appeal with the 9th Circuit Court.

(It should probably be noted that the attorney for the plaintiffs, Sigal Chattah, is running for attorney general in 2022.)

If you made it through all that legalese and are still reading, 1) congratulations, 2) now you know what it’s like to live in my brain and 3) you’re probably wondering where exactly this leaves the lawsuit and potential of a judicial-ordered reopening of the legislative building.

Again, not a lawyer, but I think there’s certainly a case to be made that an expedited briefing is appropriate in this case — we’re already a third of the way into the 120-day legislative session.

But that ticking clock also works against the litigation — legislators and staff got their first COVID vaccine shot last month, and legislative leadership are still targeting mid-April for a tentative, limited reopening date. 

As that tentative date gets closer, I think it makes it less likely that a judge would feel inclined to issue an emergency injunction to open the building, especially if the limited reopening is just a few weeks away.

But I’ll continue to follow the court case regardless; if there’s one lesson I’ve learned, it’s that making predictions in this business should be left to the supremely confident or foolhardy

— Riley Snyder


More options for tiny houses in Nevada

Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) is the latest supporter of a housing movement that began when Henry David Thoreau rejected society and moved into a 150-square foot cabin near Walden Pond outside of Concord, Massachusetts.

Though Harris has not committed to a solitary existence in a small cabin near a pond, nor the modern-day option of applying for the popular television series Tiny House Nation, she did say that allowing more tiny homes to be built in Nevada could help address the state’s housing shortage.

"This is something I personally would choose to live in and maybe build as a permanent residence because of who I am and my own personal tastes," Harris said during a Senate Government Affairs committee hearing on the bill SB150 on Monday. "What I'm looking to do here is to allow those who like to build one ... or who would like to put it in their backyard, I would like to give them the option." 

Under Harris' proposed bill, municipalities in counties with more than 800,000 people would have to create zoning laws for tiny houses no more than 400 square feet in size that would: 

  • allow homeowners to build tiny houses as an addition to a property
  • recognize tiny homes as single-family dwelling units
  • set aside space for tiny house parks similar to mobile home parks. 

Counties with 100,000 residents or less would follow through with at least one of the three options, Harris said.

The bill addresses a need for specificity around zoning for tiny houses which are often a smaller square footage than what is normally permitted for single-family residences and sets up a regulatory structure for the housing type, supporters said.

But one skeptic of the bill, Sen. Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas), worried tiny homes might depreciate housing values or exacerbate zoning disparities.

"I'm not a fan of tiny houses, mainly because I don't want it to go into poor areas. And I don't want it to go into poor areas that I want redevelopment to occur and actually have sustainable homes, good homes ... the American Dream home " she said.

Harris chalked up Neal's comments to a difference in philosophies. She said the legislation would provide an alternative for people who may not be able to find or afford a larger home and a way to increase density in more established communities.

"I also see [tiny homes] as a stepping stone to larger home ownership in that American Dream sense," Harris said.

— Tabitha Mueller


Proposed opt-out organ donation system gets icy reception

Critics of a new bill that would make Nevada the first state with an opt-out organ donation system are concerned that the new method would infringe on personal liberties and might even reduce the state’s donor pool.

The bill, SB134, would adjust the current opt-in system by making Nevadans who update or apply for a new driver's license or state ID card organ donors by default. If the bill is passed, someone filling out a DMV application would have to opt out of becoming an organ donor instead of opting in.

“I'm afraid that Nevada Donor Network has a very deep concern that an opt-out system is likely to have unintended negative consequences that would actually result in decreasing the availability of organs and tissues,” said lobbyist Dan Musgrove, a representative for the non-profit organ procurement organization, during a Monday hearing of the bill.

Musgrove explained that the opt-out system could create conflict with the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, which sets a regulatory framework for organ donation across different states. And he said the system could pose a problem by creating a group of people who decide to not be organ donors and remove themselves from the donor pool.

The main presenter of the bill, Ashley Biehl, a 30-year-old who had a heart transplant in 2017, pointed to the thousands of Americans who die each year waiting for a transplant, as well as Nevada’s “abysmal” rate of organ donor registration, which at 41 percent sits below the national average of 49 percent.

“Senate Bill 134 seeks to help alleviate that burden and reduce the number of unnecessary deaths by making more organs eligible for donation,” Biehl said.

Those who opposed the bill during the meeting, as well as some of the lawmakers on the Senate Growth and Infrastructure Committee, expressed concerns that a change to the organ donation system could infringe on individual rights.

“The general consensus has been over the years that government can't make choices over our bodies, over our personal opinions. And yet, this would seem to do violence to that concept,” Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) said during the hearing. 

Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas) also said the change to an opt-out system could potentially confuse people. Hammond said that someone could miss the change to the system and become an organ donor, even though they do not actually want to be one.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas), said during the meeting that he would continue to work with stakeholders to address concerns about the bill language.

“Certainly the intent of this bill is to make a bold statement that Nevada would be the first opt-out state in the nation,” Ohrenschall said. “There is no intent to replace anyone's conscious decision as to whether they want to participate or not.”

— Sean Golonka


Nevada Equal Rights Amendment moving on to the next round

The Nevada Equal Rights Amendment is one step closer to the 2022 ballot, after the resolution passed out of committee with a 4-1 vote on Tuesday. 

The Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee passed the resolution, SJR8, that would amend the Nevada Constitution to include that rights shall not be denied or abridged “on account of race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, disability, ancestry or national origin.” It echoes language from the federal Equal Rights Amendment, which Nevada ratified (35 years after the fact) in 2017.

Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Las Vegas) was the sole vote opposing the resolution. She argued that the bill is “redundant” as it lays out equality and protection to multiple groups that the federal and state constitutions already protect. She also said the resolution’s list of specific groups of citizens is “bound to miss some.” 

“I believe in the rights of all people… I embrace those voices and the narratives behind those who have said ‘enough is enough,’ they are equal and I am equal with them,” Buck said. “I just cannot in good conscience support a bill that has the potential to harm, exclude or potentially forget a subgroup of people who were left off the list.” 

This is the proposed constitutional amendment’s second round of approval after being passed during the 2019 legislative session. If approved by the full Legislature, the resolution goes to a statewide vote in 2022. 

The committee vote comes after a setback for a national movement to add the ERA to the U.S. Constitution. A judge ruled last week that the effort could not advance, even though Nevada and two other states recently ratified the proposed amendment, because a 1982 deadline set by Congress has passed.

Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford said he is exploring further legal options, and Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) said she would continue the fight.

“There have been a long list of people who have been fighting for this, hoping for this, and praying for this,” said Spearman, who led the charge to have Nevada ratify the national amendment. “We are the hope. We are an answered prayer. We are the continuation of their work. We will not stop until the work is finished, and it will not be finished until the Equal Rights Amendment becomes the 28th amendment in our U.S. Constitution.” 

— Jannelle Calderon


Bill amends law that protects Native American burial sites

It’s illegal in Nevada to knowingly excavate an Indian burial site, which has been the case since 2017. 

But the current law exempts entities engaged in lawful activity, such as construction, mining and ranching, from obtaining permits from the State Museum so long as the purpose of the activity is exclusive from excavating a burial site. 

Nevada lawmakers are looking to clear up any ambiguities in the law through AB103, which seeks to clarify that the activity in question can only occur on the portion of the private land that does not contain the known burial site. 

“It got interpreted that there was an exemption,” said Marla McDade Williams of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony during the bill’s presentation in the Assembly Natural Resources committee on Monday. “So this legislation in front of you simply makes that clarification to say that as long as the activity occurs only on a portion of the private land that does not contain the known site, then they don't have to get the permit.” 

Although the bill doesn’t significantly change the scope of the existing law, it brought an important conversation to the Legislature regarding the presence of Native American peoples who lived, died and were buried throughout the state before other populations settled here. 

“The core theme of AB103 is to ensure protection of our ancestors' final resting place where they were originally buried, and to ensure Nevada tribes are part of the discussions and decisions made affecting the management, treatment and disposition of Native American ancestral human remains,” said Michon Eben, manager for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony cultural resource program. 

Eben said that just as any other human remains are respected as they lay within cemeteries, so too do Native American remains throughout the state need to be respected and remain undisturbed. 

“Native American remains and sacred objects were desecrated by early pioneers and settlers, but what remains buried throughout the state is still important to contemporary Native society,” Eben said. 

While many areas are not necessarily marked as burial sites, the law holds that landowners who find remains (called “inadvertent findings”) must notify the State Historic Preservation Office, which then catalogs the findings into a database of known findings. The database is not publicly accessible. 

Eben also clarified that while the law currently protects Native American remains, it does not protect Native American cultural items or objects found across the state, adding that this is something “we’d like to change in the future.” 

— Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez


Carson City Restaurant Spotlight: Antojitos la Jefa

I thought it was a pretty good sign when the woman answering the phone to take my order at Antojitos la Jefa did so in Spanish.

And it was another good sign (although a little nerve-wracking for this half-vaccinated restaurant critic) that this cozy joint on Carson Street was positively hopping on a Friday night.

Antojitos la Jefa is one of the newest restaurants in town, replacing what used to be a sushi joint sandwiched between the FISH thrift store and O’Reilly Auto Parts. Loosely translated, the name is “Snacks from the Girl Boss.”

I ordered a gordita with asada and all the fixins and a “pambazo” al pastor — an item I’d never heard of but that entailed a guajillo sauce-treated sandwich roll filled with all the tasty pork taco fixings you’d otherwise find on a tortilla. It was all quite delicious, particularly after watching the tortillas made by hand just behind the counter.

If you miss Tacos El Gordo in Vegas, this place can fill the void in your heart. And at less than $20 out the door for two entrees plus beans, rice and a few chips, it won’t leave much of a void in your wallet.

Antojitos la Jefa is located at 1701 North Carson Street. Open until 9 p.m. Order your takeout in English or Spanish at (775) 461-0771.

Have a restaurant suggestion for the Spotlight? Tell me at michelle@thenvindy.com. FYI: We’re not accepting free food in order to preserve the integrity of the reviews.

A soon to be devoured gordita and “pambazo” al pastor from Antojitos la Jefa in Carson City on March 5, 2021. (Michelle Rindels/The Nevada Independent)

What we’re reading:

Daniel Rothberg and Joey Lovato’s must-read interview with Blockchains CEO Jeff Berns, who wants to build a 36,000-person, self-governing, blockchain-run “Innovation Zone.” (Berns: “I don’t know yet how we’re going to raise money.”)

The Guinn Center does its best Dina Titus impression and finds that Nevada is still on the bottom of the good list of states that receive the most federal grants.

Jannelle Calderon reports on the bill from Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) to ban racially discriminatory language or imagery in school “identifiers.”

A state of play on where state worker collective bargaining contracts stand.

We also report on Sen. Chris Brook’s big energy policy plans for the 2021 session; $100 million for electric vehicle charging stations, potentially moving the state to a wholesale electric market, expanding renewable energy tax credits, calling for more transmission infrastructure build-out, and prison sentences for Hummer owners after 2025 (one of those may not be true).

Unions and labor groups contributed more than $1 million to legislative candidates in the 2020 election cycle, Jacob Solis reports

A provision in the recently-passed federal defense bill could shine more light on company transparency — and possibly affect the millions of dollars in registration fees that Nevada makes on being a haven for “shell” companies. (Reno Gazette-Journal)

Another look at the opt-out organ donation bill. (Nevada Current)

A bipartisan group of 17 female lawmakers are sponsoring a bill to focus the state’s Maternal Mortality Review Committee to focus on “disparities among persons of color, geographic region and age.” (Nevada Current)

Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Melanie Tobiasson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing the state’s judicial commission of conspiring to ruin her reputation after she criticized officials including Sheriff Joe Lombardo and Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson. (Nevada Current)

A lawsuit over MGM Resort’s use of resort fees. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Sisolak lays down the marker and tells the AP that Nevada will be “the safest place to have a convention or to come and visit.” (Associated Press)

UPCOMING DEADLINES

Days to take action on Initiative Petitions before they go to the 2022 ballot: 1 (March 12, 2021)

Days Until Legislator Bill Introduction Deadline: 4 (March 15, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 81 (May 31, 2021)

Coronavirus Live Blog: Washoe County announces first COVID-19 death

With the number of coronavirus cases in the Silver State on the rise, The Nevada Independent will be keeping you up to date on the latest here, both through regular live blog updates and updates to our infographic tracking cases around Nevada. The most recent updates will be posted at the top.

To see previous developments, you can visit our week one live blog here and our week two live blog here. You can also see our live blog tracking economic developments from first week here.

Resources:

Note: Deaths are recorded in this spreadsheet separately from previously announced cases; health district officials have not provided specific enough details to be able to match deaths with specific cases.

Tesla Gigafactory worker tests positive for coronavirus

A worker at the Tesla Gigafactory near Reno-Sparks has tested positive for the coronavirus, according to an email sent to Panasonic employees Sunday. The positive test marks the first such case of the virus at the sprawling Tahoe-Reno Industrial Complex, which has temporarily shuttered some operations as the coronavirus continues to spread throughout Nevada. 

The story was first reported Sunday night by KRNV News 4 in Reno.  

According to KRNV, the email sent by Panasonic — which operates the sprawling gigafactory alongside Tesla — said the worker spent one hour at the factory before heading home sick, and has not returned since. 

The email goes on to say that Tesla has initiated a “safety protocol” as a result, including a 14-day quarantine for certain employees and new cleaning measures. 

A request for comment emailed to Tesla was not immediately returned, but a Panasonic spokesperson confirmed to The Nevada Independent that as of Sunday, no Panasonic employee has tested positive for coronavirus. 

Panasonic had already pulled its 3,500 workers from the gigafactory earlier this month over coronavirus concerns, while Tesla announced this week it would reduce its own workforce there by 75 percent.  

Jacob Solis, 3/29/20 at 7:15 p.m.

Nevada COVID-19 cases rise to 920, up 182 from day earlier

The number of positive COVID-19 cases in Nevada has jumped to 920, up nearly 200 from the 738 cases reported a day earlier.

The state reported Sunday afternoon that 11,000 people have been tested. (Update at 3:42 p.m.: A query by The Nevada Independent revealed that the state's total is a rounded number. There have been 920 positive tests and 9,614 negative tests for a total of 10,534 tests administered.)

It comes as the death toll of the disease in Nevada has risen to 15, with a first fatality reported in Washoe County.

— Michelle Rindels, 3/29/20, 3:05 p.m.

Ely officials report first coronavirus case in White Pine County

An Ely resident has been diagnosed with COVID-19, marking the first case in rural White Pine County, officials announced Sunday.

Ely Mayor Nathan Robertson said the positive test result came back Sunday morning. The patient, who is self-isolating at home, was tested at the William Bee Ririe Critical Access Hospital and Rural Health Clinic in Ely, he said. No other information was released to protect the person’s privacy.

Robertson advised community members to continue heeding social distancing and hygiene recommendations given by local health authorities, Gov. Steve Sisolak and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He said they should ask themselves “rational questions first” rather than panicking based off rumors.

Overall, though, the mayor said he has been pleased with the community’s response to the situation.

“By and large, our community has really been doing that,” he said, referring to following health advice. “They’ve done a great job.”

Ely, a remote mining town, sits about 240 miles north of Las Vegas and has a population of roughly 4,000 people. 

— Jackie Valley, 3/29/2020 at 1:02 p.m.

Health officials announce first COVID-19 death in Washoe County

Washoe County has confirmed its first death from COVID-19 — a man in his 40s who had traveled to New York City and been hospitalized since his diagnosis on March 23.

The news came Sunday, as the health district also announced 18 additional cases of the illness and a new total of 111 cases. Health officials said it’s unknown whether the man had any underlying health conditions.

“We’re devastated to learn that a Washoe County resident has died due to COVID-19,” said Kevin Dick, district health officer for Washoe County. “Our thoughts are with the family at this time.”

The death marked the 15th reported fatality from COVID-19 in Nevada. 

At a press briefing Sunday afternoon, Dick called coronavirus “a very real threat to our community" and said the region had not flattened the upward curve of virus cases. He also said he was “disturbed” to learn from investigators that some people who had the illness were out and about shopping, and that some employers were requiring workers to stay on the job in spite of being sick.

"This is also a huge threat to the public health of our community ... and their entire workforce."

He said 14 people remained hospitalized with the illness, but that areas hospitals had not yet tapped into overflow facilities for lack of bed space.

Washoe County also noted that a Reno police officer had tested positive for the virus after first showing symptoms on March 21. The patrol officer has been quarantined at home, and the agency said it learned Saturday evening that the officer tested positive.

Information about people who may have come into contact with the officer has been provided to the county health district.

Reno Police Chief Jason Soto said the department will continue screening employees for symptoms and have them work remotely if possible. 

The officer is one of several recent cases of COVID-19 among law enforcement. They include a Washoe County sheriff’s deputy, an employee of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and a correctional officer at High Desert State Prison.

— Michelle Rindels, 3/29/20, initially posted at 12:16 p.m.; updated at 7:20 p.m.

With 117 additional cases reported, statewide coronavirus cases surpass 700

Seven-hundred and thirty-eight people have now tested positive for coronavirus in Nevada with the number of tests performed hitting about 11,000 on 9,150 people, the Department of Health and Human Services reported Saturday. 

The 738 cases reported by the state Saturday evening marks a 117-case increase since the state data was last reported Friday. 

Earlier in the day, the Southern Nevada Health District reported four new deaths, bringing the number of deaths statewide to 14.

— Daniel Rothberg, 3/28/20 at 8:22 p.m.

Southern Nevada State Veterans Home resident dies of coronavirus

Southern Nevada State Veterans Home announced Saturday evening that one of its residents died of complications related to coronavirus. 

The Korean War veteran was 86-years old and died Saturday after he was admitted to a hospital and tested positive for the virus.

“Our hearts are extremely heavy,” Katherine Miller, director of the Nevada Department of Veterans Services, said in a statement. “We mourn the passing of this Navy Korean War veteran who served our nation with honor and dignity in its hour of need.  He was also a beloved member of our Veterans Home community and will be deeply missed."

The Southern Nevada Health District reported that the Clark County death toll from the coronavirus had risen to 14 as of Saturday morning. 

– Daniel Rothberg, 3/28/20 at 6:07 p.m.

Washoe County Sheriff Deputy tests positive, health district reports 18 additional cases

A Washoe County Sheriff's Deputy tested positive for coronavirus, the sheriff's office learned Saturday morning, as the number of cases in the county rose to 93.

According to a press release sent Saturday afternoon, the sheriff's deputy had returned to work on Thursday after a week off. She was tested after having coronavirus symptoms and sent home. Washoe County Health District officials are reviewing all contacts that the deputy had "during the short time she was in the office," according to the news release.

Washoe County Sheriff Darin Balaam is immediately moving staff to single-point entry and instituting screening measures for all visitors and staff. According to the release, measures include temperature checks and "basic screening questions before admittance."

In a daily update, the health district reported 18 additional positive coronavirus cases, bringing the total case number for the county to 93 and the statewide total to 637 cases.

Eighty-three cases remain active in Washoe County. Seven residents in Washoe County have recovered from coronavirus. The health district reported Saturday that two residents have been released from self-isolation. 

— Daniel Rothberg, 3/28/20 at 5:37 p.m.

Las Vegas, Clark County to temporarily use Cashman Center as homeless shelter

The City of Las Vegas and Clark County announced on Saturday that the Cashman Center will be used as a temporary homeless shelter with capacity for about 500 people after the Catholic Charities emergency men’s shelter was shuttered last week due to a positive COVID-19 test.

The two municipalities said the temporary shelter would be located on the upper parking lot of the facility, and will run between now and April 3, at which point the previous shelter is expected to reopen.

The shelter at Cashman will operate from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m., and will be for individuals able to walk to the site from the Homeless Courtyard, which will remain open to serve individuals with fragile health or mobility problems.

Earlier this week, Catholic Charities announced it would temporarily close its emergency men’s night shelter after the Southern Nevada Health District announced that a man who used several homeless facilities in Las Vegas — including Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada and the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center operated by the city — had tested positive for COVID-19.

— Riley Snyder, 3/28/20 at 2:16p.m.

Clark County reports four more deaths, 85 more positive COVID-19 cases

The COVID-19 death total in Nevada has risen to 14, including 10 individuals with preexisting health conditions, and is up to 528 cases in populous Clark County as of Saturday morning, according to a dashboard maintained by the Southern Nevada Health District.

The latest update shows 85 additional cases in Clark County as compared to the county’s total on Friday; the number of statewide cases is now sitting at 621. About 17 percent of cases in Clark County (92) have required hospitalization, with another 21 individuals requiring care in an Intensive Care Unit.

Of the 14 deaths, 11 of the individuals were in an ICU unit, and most had an underlying health condition — 5 had diabetes, four had hypertension and two had a chronic kidney disease.

The district also provided an age breakdown of Clark County individuals who have tested positive for the virus, including one person under the age of four, four individuals between the ages of five and 17 and 30 cases in individuals between the ages of 18 to 24.

The largest chunk of positive cases (41 percent, or 218 people) were individuals between the ages of 25 and 49, with another 155 people between the ages of 50 and 64 testing positive and 120 people testing positive over the age of 65.

— Riley Snyder, 3/28/20 at 10:42 a.m.

New COVID-19 cases reported in Carson City, Douglas County

Carson City health district officials announced two new positive COVID-19 cases in Carson City and Douglas County on Saturday morning, bringing the total count of confirmed cases up to five in each jurisdiction.

The new cases involve a female Carson City resident in her 30s and a male Douglas County resident in his 30s, both with recent travel history. Both people were described as stable and self-isolating at home.

The Carson City Health and Human Services Department, which is overseeing coronavirus response in the “Quad County” region — Carson City, Douglas, Lyon and Storey counties — is now reporting 11 cases throughout its jurisdiction.

— Riley Snyder, 3/28/20 at 9:20 a.m.

Coronavirus cases increase by 86, bringing statewide tally to 621

Just under 90 additional people have tested positive for coronavirus in Nevada in the past day, bringing the statewide total up to 621, the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services reported late Friday.

The previous statewide tally was 535 cases, meaning 86 more people have tested positive in the last day. But 1,826 more people were tested compared to a day ago.

The number of deaths has remained the same at 10.

A total of 8,522 people have been tested for COVID-19 in Nevada. About 7 percent of those tested have received positive results.

— Michelle Rindels, 3/27/20, 9:25 p.m.

3 residents at state-run Boulder City nursing home for veterans test positive for COVID-19

Three residents at a state-run nursing home for veterans in Boulder City have tested positive for coronavirus.

The Nevada Department of Veterans Services announced Friday evening that it had tested 19 residents of the Southern Nevada State Veterans Home on Wednesday who were currently or recently showing cold or flu-like symptoms. It learned of the three positive cases on Thursday.

The agency said it took “immediate and aggressive measures” upon learning the results, including restricting all visitors from the facility except for health care personnel.

The three patients are in isolation and staff is following “established infection disease prevention protocol.”

“We are committed to doing everything in our power to protect our residents and staff from the spread of this virus and will remain vigilant in our efforts to do so,” said Kat Miller, director of the state veterans agency. “We are passionate in our commitment to ensure our residents receive exceptional care; it is our duty to care for and protect Nevada’s heroes.” 

The veterans home is a skilled nursing facility that has capacity for 180 people. It houses veterans, their spouses and Gold Star parents.

— Michelle Rindels, 3/27/20, 7:25 p.m.

Southern Nevada Health District releases underlying medical conditions for hospitalized cases

Of the 80 non-fatal hospitalized coronavirus cases in Southern Nevada, at least 36.25 percent of patients were found to have underlying medical conditions. Twenty percent of those patients have been in the intensive care unit and 13.75 percent have needed intubation.

The more detailed case information was added Friday to the Southern Nevada Health District’s report on the virus. There are 443 confirmed coronavirus cases in Clark County.

The most common underlying medical condition in non-fatal hospitalized patients has been hypertension, reported in 17 cases, followed by diabetes, reported in 14 cases. Another patient was immunocompromised, one had chronic kidney disease and a third had chronic pulmonary disease. The health district reported that four patients had “other” underlying conditions. 

In the 10 fatal cases reported in Clark County, eight patients were found to have an underlying medical condition. Four patients had diabetes, three patients had heart disease and one patient was immunocompromised. Eight of the 10 fatal cases were in the intensive care unit and seven of the 10 patients who died from coronavirus were intubated, the health district reported. 

— Daniel Rothberg, 3/27/20 at 5:52 p.m.

Washoe County logs eight new cases for total of 75

Washoe County has announced eight additional positive cases of COVID-19, bringing the county total to date to 75.

The county also said that a fifth person who had been diagnosed with the illness had recovered and was released from self-isolation.

Washoe County is keeping tabs on its cases, including with more granular information about the age and gender of patients, on a new county-specific dashboard

As of its last update Thursday night, the state has had 535 positive cases. 

— Michelle Rindels, 3/27/20, 5:10 p.m.

Metro Police employee tests positive for coronavirus

A Metro Police employee who recently visited a city heavily affected by COVID-19 has tested positive for the virus, officials said Friday.

The employee, however, never returned to work after his vacation and before developing symptoms, authorities said. No workplace contamination occurred. 

A primary care physician determined the Metro employee had COVID-19, officials said.

Metro officials said 31 employees have been tested for the virus and 14 of those tests have been negative. The department is awaiting the results of the other pending tests.

— Jackie Valley, 3/27/2020 at 4:02 p.m.

Regulators require utilities to start tracking COVID-19 response costs 

Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission approved an emergency order on Friday requiring all utilities in the state — such as NV Energy and Southwest Gas — to start tracking costs associated with deferring shutoffs and other responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Members of the commission met briefly Friday to approve the emergency order, which comes after many utilities in the state including electric, gas, water and telecommunication companies announced they would defer shutoffs in cases of nonpayment amid mass layoffs and ordered shuttering of nonessential businesses.

The order requires utility companies regulated by the commission to begin tracking “the costs of maintaining service to customers affected by COVID-19 whose service would have been terminated, discontinued, and/or disconnected under normally-applicable terms of service.”

Those costs will be tracked in regulatory asset accounts in a way that will allow regulators to readily identify costs — essentially ensuring that utility businesses are accurately tracking the data in the case they seek to recover costs through future rate cases.

Commissioners, including PUC Chair Hayley Williams, lauded the “proactive” efforts by utility companies to defer service shutoffs. 

— Riley Snyder, 3/27/20 at 2:56 p.m.

Email: Tesla expects to reduce Gigafactory staff by more than 75 percent

Tesla expects to reduce its Gigafactory workforce by more than 75 percent, according to an email sent to employees and Storey County officials on Wednesday. 

In the March 25 email, a Tesla executive told employees that it was pausing non-essential operations and asking employees to work from home. The Gigafactory employs thousands of employees and is one of the major employers in the Reno-Sparks area. 

"By next week, as we complete further ramp down of non-essential functions in a safe and orderly manner, we expect our total headcount on-site will decrease by more than 75 [percent] from our normal number of employees," wrote Chris Lister, vice president of operations. 

According to the email obtained through Storey County, essential employees will be required to take measures, including temperature checks and social distancing, aimed at preventing coronavirus spread. Essential employees include security, maintenance and "limited critical production" staff.

The Nevada Independent has reached out to Tesla for further comment.

The email was shared with Storey County officials Wednesday evening. Storey County Manager Austin Osborne announced the reductions on the county website Thursday. 

The move comes one week after Panasonic said it planned to cease production at the Gigafactory to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

Last week, Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered all non-essential businesses to close their operations to blunt the spread of the coronavirus. Although manufacturing and infrastructure operations were allowed to continue, some businesses have reduced their operations or suspended them.

Osborne said other companies operating at the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, where the Gigafactory is located, are taking measures "to adhere to the established guidelines while maintaining essential operations." 

— Daniel Rothberg, 3/27/20 at 12:50 p.m.

Humboldt County reports first COVID-19 case, virus now in eight counties

Rural Humboldt County is reporting its first positive cases of the novel coronavirus, making it the eighth county in Nevada to report a case of the virus.

Humboldt General Hospital announced the positive case in a blog post on Thursday, saying it had received a positive test result after a patient was tested earlier this week. The hospital said the patient has been in self-quarantine since the test, and county health officials are working to trace the patient’s close contacts.

“I think the hospital really did a great job in this case,” Humboldt County Health Officer Charles Stringham said in a statement. “The practitioner who saw this patient did exactly what he should to ensure both the patient’s health and the community’s safety.”

The hospital has also enacted a no-visitors policy as of Thursday, excluding only pediatric patients, obstetric patients and those receiving end-of-life care. The county had an estimated population of 16,831 as of 2019.

Although most of Nevada’s positive COVID-19 cases have been centered in populous Clark and Washoe counties, positive cases of the virus have also been detected in Elko, Nye, Carson City, Douglas and Lyon counties.

— Riley Snyder, 3/27/20 at 12:50 p.m.

Southern Nevada Health District: Only 119 coronavirus test kits left

Officials with the Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD) said federal coronavirus test kit shortages and spotty re-supplies have left them with just 119 test kits.

District officials say they have been conducting roughly 40 tests per-day. 

Those numbers do not include capacity at the state testing lab or private labs, but officials said a backlog in tests at those private labs could extend the time it takes to receive a test result — normally about a two-day wait — to anywhere from five to seven days. 

During a teleconference with reporters Friday, Misty Robinson, a senior public health preparedness planner with SNHD, said the health district has received “very limited” supplies from the federal stockpile, including personal protective equipment (PPE). Robinson added that when shipments do arrive, they are “very spotty” and supplies must be prioritized for hospitals over individual clinics. 

As of Thursday, the governor’s office said the state had issued four requests for more testing kits, but had so far received no new federal aid. 

The health district also said it expects to release additional data on hospitalized coronavirus patients, including more information on existing underlying conditions. Hospitalizations in Clark County have decreased slightly over the last few days, a marginally hopeful sign as the number of confirmed cases in Nevada has continued to climb by the hundreds.  

But Dr. Michael Johnson, director of the District’s Community Health Division, said it was “too soon to tell” whether hospitalization data marks a trend and that a clearer picture should emerge as time goes on. 

Jacob Solis, 3/27/20 at 11:50 a.m.

Elko County confirms third positive COVID-19 case

Elio County announced a third positive case of the novel coronavirus Friday. The individual with the virus is not hospitalized and is self-isolating at home, according to a news release from the county.  

The county did not provide any additional information, but officials are conducting an investigation of close contacts to contain the spread of the virus. 

— Daniel Rothberg, 3/27/20 at 11:37 a.m.

More than 90 new coronavirus cases in Clark County pushes total to 443

Southern Nevada health officials announced 93 new confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, putting the total caseload for Clark County to 443, up from 350 cases Thursday. Statewide totals were not updated as of 9:30 a.m. on Friday, leaving the total confirmed cases at 535. 

Another case was also reported in Douglas County Friday morning - a woman in her 70s with a recent travel history who is now self-isolating at home. It increased Douglas county’s total caseload to four and pushed the total reported cases in the Carson City-Douglas-Lyon-Storey County region to nine. 

Hospitalizations from the virus have steadily decreased in Clark County, however, with 21 such hospitalizations reported on Wednesday, nine on Thursday and just six on Friday. Whether that decrease continues remains to be seen, as some cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have rapidly worsened in the second week after symptoms appeared. 

So far, county data show 70 individuals remained hospitalized. 

Health officials reported no new deaths, leaving the total killed by the virus at 10, all in Clark County. With the new data from Southern Nevada Friday, the statewide mortality rate dipped slightly to 1.8 percent, down from 2.4 percent Thursday. 

Statewide, nearly 6,700 people have been tested, with roughly 8.2 percent of those results coming back positive. 

Jacob Solis, 8/27/20 at 9:30 a.m.

Coronavirus cases increase by 107, bringing statewide tally to 535

More than 100 additional people have tested positive for coronavirus in Nevada, bringing the statewide total up to 535, according to the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services.

The previous statewide tally was 428 cases, meaning 107 more people have tested positive.

The number of deaths has remained the same at 10.

6,696 people have been tested for COVID-19 in Nevada. About 8 percent of those tested have received positive results.

— Jackie Valley, 3/26/20 at 9:15 p.m.

State pandemic report shows ventilator use increased over the last week

About 40 percent of Nevada’s ventilators are in use, which is up 9 percent since March 17, according to the state’s latest pandemic situation report.

The statewide hospital capability information included in the report comes from the Nevada Hospital Association. The percentage of intensive care unit rooms occupied during that period dipped slightly — 72 percent as of Thursday compared with 76 percent on March 17.

The percentage of airborne infection isolation rooms occupied, however, notched an increase, from 42 percent on March 17 to 51 percent now, according to the report.

Statewide, 5,117 people have been tested for the coronavirus.

— Jackie Valley, 3/26/20 at 6:55 p.m.

Washoe County reports 10 more cases, moving statewide count to 428

Ten more people have tested positive for coronavirus in Washoe County, officials announced Thursday evening, inching the statewide total up to 428.

Washoe County now has 67 confirmed cases, and four of those people have fully recovered.

Officials from the Washoe County Health District also released a message explaining why it cannot test everyone for COVID-19.

“Widespread community testing is not realistic because we currently do not have the capacity or supplies to collect samples from, or perform a COVID-19 test on, everyone in Washoe County,” authorities wrote. “In addition, a negative COVID-19 test result does not prevent you from contracting the disease later on.”

Health authorities went on to encourage prevention methods such as staying home, washing hands with soap and water and avoiding touching your face and mouth.

— Jackie Valley, 3/26/20 at 5:28 p.m.

Nevada Department of Corrections announces first coronavirus case

An employee at High Desert State Prison has tested positive for COVID-19, leading to inmates being isolated in their cells, the Nevada Department of Corrections announced Thursday.

Prison officials said the employee is self-isolating at home. No other information was given about the patient or how much interaction the person had with inmates. It's the first confirmed case of the coronavirus in the state prison system.

Staff will continue observing inmates and employees for signs of the virus, such as coughing, fever and shortness of breath, officials said. A surface sanitation team, meanwhile, is using a “10% bleach concentration solution” to disinfect surfaces at the facility, which sits north of Las Vegas.

“Our top priority is the health of staff and inmates at our facilities,” prison system Director Charles Daniels said in a statement. “Our preparation and response is deliberate and in accordance with agency contingency plans and protocols. Now that we have a confirmed case, our next goal is mitigating and ultimately preventing the sustained spread of COVID-19.”

Prison officials said they’re monitoring the situation and consulting with local and state public health leaders.

— Jackie Valley, 3/26/20 at 4:27 p.m.

Las Vegas mulls options for temporarily homelessness housing, including Cashman Field

The City of Las Vegas is mulling options on how to best house up to 1,000 homeless people after a positive COVID-19 case led to the sudden closure of Catholic Charities’ temporary men’s shelter on Wednesday.

City Manager Scott Adams told the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Wednesday that the city was considering three options for housing temporary homeless individuals, including construction of separated areas at Cashman Field, placing tents in the parking lot or renting out a vacant building.

City spokesman Jace Radke said in an email that “plans are still being discussed at this time,” and that the city’s Courtyard Homeless Resource Center remains open and had 565 people use the facility last night. 

Catholic Charities announced it would temporarily close its emergency men’s night shelter after the Southern Nevada Health District announced that a man who used several homeless facilities in Las Vegas — including Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada and the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center operated by the city — had tested positive for COVID-19.

— Riley Snyder, 3/26/20 at 2:56 p.m.

Las Vegas restaurants can offer curbside alcohol with meals under new city permit

The City of Las Vegas announced Thursday that it will immediately begin issuing 30-day permits that will allow restaurants with both alcohol and food service licenses to offer curbside pickup of alcoholic beverages with takeout meal orders.

In a statement, city officials said that restaurants will only be able to sell the kinds of alcohol for which they are currently licensed, meaning restaurants licensed to sell beer and wine will only be allowed to offer beer and wine for takeout with meals. City officials added that alcohol must be in the manufacturer’s sealed container.

The city is planning to waive daily fees and only charge a processing fee of $100 per permit. The new “alcohol time-limited permits,” which will be renewable depending on how long the coronavirus pandemic lasts, can be applied for through businesses’ online licenses accounts. Permits are expected to be processed in one to two business days.

Under Gov. Steve Sisolak’s emergency directive, liquor stores, pubs, wineries and breweries are all considered non-essential businesses and have been shuttered in light of the ongoing pandemic. 

— Megan Messerly, 3/26/20 at 10:55 a.m.

Las Vegas backs off aggressive park cleaning regimen

Two days after announcing a new cleaning and disinfecting protocol for its 70 city parks, the City of Las Vegas is rolling back the enhanced cleaning schedule because of a nationwide shortage of protective equipment and disinfectant.

The city announced Thursday morning that it would cancel an aggressive cleaning schedule — including dispatching 12 crews of five to 10 people to clean and disinfect all city parks twice a day, seven days a week — because of a “community shortage” of protective gear and disinfectant, which the city said will be conserved for “first responders and for other more vital needs.”

Restrooms in city parks will remain open, but city officials are “discouraging the use of high-touch areas (playgrounds) and park equipment” and plan to post signs stressing the importance of six-foot social distancing and an admonition to avoid congregating in groups of 10 or more people.

Keeping park facilities open sits in contrast to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s directive on Tuesday prohibiting members of the public from gathering in groups of 10 or more in any indoor or outdoor area. 

Specifically, the state directed that local governments “shall limit the Nevada general public’s use of recreational equipment, including without limitation, playground equipment, basketball courts, volleyball courts, baseball fields, beaches, or football fields, in a manner that causes the congregation of ten or more persons in a manner contrary to best COVID-19 disease mitigation social distancing practices.”

The directive also authorizes all local, city and county governments to enforce the ban on large public gatherings.

— Riley Snyder, 3/26/20 at 10:08 a.m.

More than 93,000 Nevadans filed for unemployment last week; 40 times the number for first week of March

Nevada logged 93,036 initial claims for unemployment in the week ending March 21 — a 40-fold increase from the number of claims filed in the first week of the month and a 14-fold increase from the week earlier.

The figure comes in a report released Thursday by the Department of Labor that logged about 2.9 million initial unemployment claims last week — a figure that is not seasonally adjusted. Nationally, the seasonally adjusted number of initial unemployment claims filed last week is the highest on record and nearly five times the previous peak, which was logged in 1982.

It is the first data released about unemployment that reflects Gov. Steve Sisolak’s March 17 directive that all “nonessential” businesses, including casinos, close for 30 days.

The state office handling “unprecedented volumes” of demand for unemployment insurance says it continues to add resources daily to try and meet the need.

The Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation on Tuesday acknowledged that some people are struggling to get through to staff by phone — a problem “due to the volume of people attempting contact.”

“We are aware of the issue and we are adding resources each week to address the access issue,” said spokeswoman Rosa Mendez. “Additionally, we are researching other alternative solutions and hope to provide updates out as soon as possible.”

The state received $5 million from a bill Congress passed last week to ramp up technology and staffing of unemployment offices. 

The agency said it is taking advantage of all possible flexibilities on eligibility for unemployment insurance. In addition to Sisolak waiving the requirement that people actively search for work while receiving benefits and a seven-day waiting period for a check, the Department of Labor authorized states to pay out benefits to people not working because their employer ceased operations, they’re in quarantine, they fear infection or are caring for a family member.  

“Nevada is taking advantage of the flexibilities provided by the Department of Labor guidance on the interpretation of all definitions,” Mendez said. 

The department said it doesn’t yet have updated projections on how unemployment insurance claims or the unemployment rate will go up because of mass business closures. The firm Applied Analysis has warned that Nevada’s tourism-dependent economy could see unemployment rates of more than 30 percent.

— Michelle Rindels, 3/26/20 at 9:18 a.m.

Confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Nevada reach 420; death total remains at 10

Nevada now has 420 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus statewide, including 350 in Clark County, according to updates provided by state and local health officials Thursday morning.

Southern Nevada Health District officials also announced that four deaths reported by the state late Wednesday evening were all in Clark County. They include four men, three with underlying medical conditions in their 60s, 80s and 30s and one with no underlying medical conditions in his 60s.

Ten people have died statewide from the novel coronavirus, all of them in Clark County. The death of the man in his 30s marks the first death in the state of someone under the age of 50.

The 350 cases in Clark County additionally include 74 individuals who have been hospitalized, or 21.1 percent of the county’s total positive cases. That number is up nine from 65 when the county last provided a case update on Tuesday.

Carson County Health and Human Services also announced two more cases Thursday morning, a female Carson City resident in her 60s who had close contact to a confirmed California case and a male Carson City resident in his 40s with travel history. Both are self-isolating in their homes and "doing well," according to a city spokeswoman. The total number of cases in Carson City is now four.

Statewide, about 8.2 percent of people who have been tested for the novel coronavirus have gotten positive results, and of those who have tested positive 2.4 percent have died.

— Megan Messerly, 3/26/20 at 8:40 a.m., updated at 9:16 a.m.

Statewide coronavirus cases jump to 405 positive tests, deaths increase to 10

Numbers from the state Department of Health and Human Services COVID-19 tracking website show confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus spiked to 405 Wednesday night, up from 321 cases as of Tuesday evening. 

Those numbers include an additional four deaths, bringing the state’s total deaths from the novel coronavirus to 10 and the overall mortality rate to just under 2.5 percent. 

Combined with 15 cases reported in the morning, Wednesday’s 99 new cases mark the largest single-day increase seen so far in Nevada. 

The new positive cases come after nearly 300 new tests were administered by the state. To date, health officials had tested 4,862 people, with a little more than 8 percent testing positive for the virus. That’s a slight jump from Tuesday’s figures, when roughly 7 percent had tested positive. 

Jacob Solis, 3/25/20 at 9:00 p.m.

Client of closed emergency shelter reports crowded Courtyard, poor planning

After Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada announced on Wednesday that it was temporarily closing its 524-bed emergency shelter to ensure the health of staff, volunteers and clients, one client reported to The Nevada Independent that he and others were directed by police officers to go across the street to the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center. 

The emergency shelter’s closure came after Southern Nevada health officials confirmed that a man who tested positive for COVID-19 had used facilities at Catholic Charities and at the Courtyard while he was symptomatic.  

“If the governor wants social distancing, this is not happening here at the Courtyard … this is poorly planned” said John in an email on Wednesday, who asked that his last name not be used, for fear of repercussions. 

The closure of the Las Vegas emergency shelter comes after an emergency directive issued by the governor Tuesday night, to limit indoor and outdoor gatherings to no more than 10 people. The governor said that the directive “does not apply to our state’s homeless population.”

City of Las Vegas spokesman Jace Radke told The Nevada Independent last week that staff would begin screening people entering the city-run Courtyard this week by taking their temperatures before they entered. The Courtyard is a 0.6-acre, open-air facility, which city officials say has a sleeping capacity of 450 people. 

John said he spoke with several officers and paramedics who were on the scene, and deduced from those conversations that “nobody’s been tested.”  

He added that he heard the announcement from three Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Officers that Catholic Charities would be closed for the night, when he and other clients were already lined up for the daily 6:00 p.m. intake. When he attempted to find shelter at the Las Vegas Rescue Mission and at the Salvation Army, he said that it was past check-in time and that the shelters "wouldn't let anyone in or out.”

He said that officers have told unsheltered clients that they may sleep on the sidewalk so long as they do not erect a tent. 

Dan Kulin, spokesman for Clark County, said in an email on Wednesday evening that the county was working with the city and the Southern Nevada Health District to expand the Courtyard’s service area into the adjacent street, Foremaster Lane, to provide space for approximately 750 people to sleep on Wednesday night.

Shannon Miller, 3/25/20 at 8:45 p.m.

Pharmacy Board clarifies emergency order restricting prescriptions of malaria drugs praised by Trump as as-yet untested COVID-19 treatment

The Nevada State Board of Pharmacy released a statement Wednesday that sought to clarify an order from Gov. Steve Sisolak that restricted new prescriptions of two malaria drugs that President Donald Trump touted as effective treatments for the coronavirus — even as little testing has been done to prove the president’s claims. 

In a release, the board said that the emergency order, adopted Tuesday, prohibited the prescription of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine for any new diagnoses. It added that these restrictions do not apply to inpatients at hospitals or other “institutional settings,” meaning patients being treated for COVID-19 at state hospitals will keep receiving those drugs as treatment. 

The board also said that the emergency order does not apply to any existing diagnoses made before March 24, but that prescriptions made under those diagnoses are capped at 30 days and must come with a so-called “ICD-10 code,” or a code used by the World Health Organization to classify different diseases, illnesses or symptoms. 

The clarification comes after a flurry of online criticism from the president’s defenders, many of whom charged that Sisolak, a Democrat, would deprive COVID-19 patients of experimental drugs as a political ploy to spite the president. 

That includes Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who said in a tweet that Sisolak’s order was tantamount to “practicing medicine without a license.”

Sisolak later fired back in a tweet-thread of his own, which in part called on Cruz to “forget the partisan politics.”

Jacob Solis, 3/25/20 at 8:12 p.m.

Washoe County announces seven new coronavirus cases

The Washoe County Health District confirmed seven additional coronavirus cases Wednesday afternoon, bringing the county's total to 57. 

The health district did not release any additional personal or demographic information about the cases. The health district reported that the total number of recoveries stayed at four.

The state has reported 321 cases of the novel coronavirus.

Daniel Rothberg, 3/25/20 at 4:56 p.m.

Construction worker at Allegiant Stadium site tests positive for coronavirus

A worker at the Allegiant Stadium construction site near the Las Vegas Strip tested positive for COVID-19 Wednesday, the latest positive case to hit the essential industries that have remained open during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Today’s case follows an announcement from this week that a worker at the Resorts World project on the Strip also tested positive for the virus. 

In a statement released by Mortensen and McCarthy, the two companies spearheading stadium construction, officials say the worker stayed home after feeling ill last week and has not been back to work since. He is now remaining in self-isolation and will not return to work until being cleared. 

The statement also said the employee had not come into close contact with other workers, and his work area and the surrounding vicinity have since been closed and sanitized. 

Major construction projects have continued progress as “essential industries” under an emergency order issued by Gov. Steve Sisolak earlier this month. 

But concerns have mounted nationwide this week as workers for those industries, especially delivery drivers, have protested poor sanitation guidelines and the possible increased exposure to the virus inherent to those jobs. 

Jacob Solis, 3/25/20 at 4:40 p.m.

State extends Medicaid, SNAP benefits for at least two months

The Nevada Division of Welfare and Supportive Services announced Wednesday an extension in Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, to address increased assistance caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a press release, the division announced that "re-determinations have been extended for at least two months" in all cases set to close on April 1 or May 1.

Steve Fisher, the division's administrator, said in a statement that the agency was "confident that this extension will provide some breathing room for the people we serve."

Because of measures aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19, welfare services are currently only available online and over the phone. 

— Daniel Rothberg, 3/25/20 at 4:00 p.m.

Man using homeless services in Las Vegas tests positive for COVID-19

Southern Nevada health officials announced Wednesday that a man who had utilized several homeless facilities in Las Vegas — including Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada and the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center operated by the city — had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. 

In a release, officials said the man visited those facilities while he was symptomatic, though he is now asymptomatic and no longer considered to be at risk of exposing others to the virus. 

As a result, Catholic Charities announced it will temporarily close its emergency men’s night shelter while it works with city officials to relocate shelter services. 

The positive test comes as concerns have mounted over how the deadly coronavirus may impact vulnerable homeless populations across the country, which largely lack the ability to socially distance as a means of avoiding catching or spreading the virus. 

Jacob Solis, 3/25/20 at 3:50 p.m.

Nevada colleges, universities will stick to online learning through spring semester, must prepare ‘virtual’ graduation ceremonies

Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly said the state’s colleges and universities will need to continue online “remote instruction” through the rest of the spring semester and prepare to hold “virtual” graduation ceremonies in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

In a memorandum published Wednesday afternoon, Reilly said that all NSHE institutions will need to continue online learning through the end of the semester, save limited case-by-case courses where remote learning isn’t possible, such as health care clinicals or career and technical education labs. Reilly said continuing remote learning into summer or fall semesters would be revisited at a later time.

Colleges and universities are also required to find an alternative to in-person graduation ceremonies at the end of the semester or reschedule them for later dates.

Reilly also says in the memorandum that he will ask the system’s Board of Regents to temporarily suspend a requirement prohibiting students with delinquent or overdue accounts to receive a transcript, diploma, a certificate or report of semester grades.

“The temporary suspension of this provision will allow students facing financial hardship to register for summer and fall courses and obtain transcripts and other academic records,” he wrote.

It also states that faculty will not receive extra compensation for moving to remote learning.

— Riley Snyder, 3/25/20 at 3:07 p.m.

Dispensary association backs nonessential business shutdown, supports delivery-only cannabis sales

The top trade group for legal marijuana dispensaries in the state says it backs Gov. Steve Sisolak’s nonessential business shutdown order — which allows dispensaries to continue operating by delivery only — and said it will kick out any member that fails to follow the guidelines.

In an open letter published by Nevada Dispensary Association head Riana Durrett on Wednesday, the association said the group and its members “are committed” to following the nonessential business shutdown, and commended the state for “quickly implementing a virtual vehicle inspection to help dispensaries quickly obtain certification for delivery vehicles.”

“While it is anticipated that all NDA members are following, and will continue to follow, the Governor’s Executive Order issued March 21, 2020, any NDA member found in violation of the order will be terminated as a member,” Durrett wrote in the letter.

Open Letter Re Following Executive Order by Riley Snyder on Scribd

— Riley Snyder, 3/25/20 at 1:50 p.m.

Two UNLV employees test positive for COVID-19

Two employees at UNLV have tested positive for COVID-19, the university announced Wednesday afternoon.

The two confirmed cases include an employee who tested positive for the virus in another state, has been working remotely for an extended period of time and was last on campus on March 10, and did not indicate contact with anyone on campus.

The other positive test was an employee who traveled out of state for university business earlier this month and was last on campus on March 11. UNLV said that the individual is self-isolating, and that individuals who came into contact with the employee have been notified.

“We knew this day would come as the number of cases continues to grow in Nevada and across the nation,” UNLV acting president Marta Meana said in a statement.

UNLV announced weeks ago that it will transition to online-only, remote instruction beginning this week to avoid risking further spread of the virus. 

— Riley Snyder, 3/25/20 at 1:20 p.m.

Poll: Nevadans support school closures, Sisolak’s handling of COVID-19 pandemic

A new poll by the Retail Association of Nevada shows a majority of Nevadans approve of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, and decisions to close schools and other public places and events to limit spread of the virus.

The consumer opinion poll also found a majority of Nevadans are extremely concerned about the coronavirus, have had some difficulty in finding products at local stores and expect to work fewer hours in the weeks ahead.

“While Nevadans are very concerned of COVID-19, they are generally supportive of how it has been handled to date, giving high marks to the local retailers who have worked tirelessly to keep grocery stores open and as many products available as possible,” Retail Association of Nevada executive Bryan Wachter said in a statement.

Poll respondents were asked how Sisolak “has handled the coronavirus outbreak in Nevada” and responded positively — 64 percent said “very well” or “well,” compared to just 18 percent who said “poorly” or “very poorly.” 

President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak fared somewhat worse but was still overall positive — 50 percent of respondents said the president was handling the situation “very well” or “well,” with 41 percent calling his response “poor” or “very poor.”

The poll also found a majority of Nevadans — 53 percent — to be extremely concerned with the virus on a scale of 1 to 9, with “9” being the most concerned. Nearly half of respondents (49 percent) said they were already working fewer hours, with another 35 percent expecting fewer hours worked over the next four weeks.

Strong majorities of poll respondents said they favored steps taken by the state to mitigate spread of the virus, including:

  • Closing public spaces and events (82 percent support or strongly support, 8 percent oppose or strongly oppose)
  • Closing college campuses and converting to online learning (82 percent support or strongly support, 7 percent oppose or strongly oppose)
  • Closing all K-12 schools (82 percent support or strongly support, 7 percent oppose or strongly oppose)

The poll was conducted by Amplify Relations on March 23 of 385 Nevada residents who reported being employed full or part-time as of March 1, with a margin of error of 5 percent. 

— Riley Snyder, 3/25/20 at 12:15 p.m.

RAN COVID Survey Results (2) by Riley Snyder on Scribd

Las Vegas police: Some inmates released for COVID-19 testing, crime statistics largely unchanged

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Sheriff Joe Lombardo said there have been no confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 cases among the agency’s nearly 6,000 employees or among inmates at the Clark County Detention Center, though several dozen police employees are self-quarantined and at least three inmates have been released for testing.

Lombardo, who spoke at a press conference Wednesday morning along with Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, said police agencies in Southern Nevada are taking proactive steps to address and prepare for mass business closures and limits on public gathering ordered by Gov. Steve Sisolak to mitigate spread of the virus.

Lombardo said there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Clark County Detention Center, but that police had released three individuals who showed symptoms of the virus. He said one of the inmates had tested positive for a coronavirus and is recovering, but did not know what strain of the virus he had tested positive for. Lombardo said the inmate was in the detention center for 11 days before he started exhibiting symptoms.

He added that 28 employees of the police agency are self-quarantined at home because of potential exposure, symptoms or travel history.

Lombardo also said that Metro had begun placing officers at food distribution sites and grocery stores, and that his office was prepared to enforce Sisolak’s directives prohibiting large in-person gatherings and nonessential business operations.

“We have to marshal our resources, per se, to ensure that we’re covering all calls for service on what we do on a daily basis, and address those secondary,” he said. “I think criminal acts will take priority to that, and then we’ll do everything within our resources to continue to address people in violation of the governor’s directives.”

He added that most crime statistics had not substantially changed since Sisolak ordered the nonessential business shutdown, noting that overall volumes of calls for service had decreased by five percent. He also said domestic violence calls had not substantially increased but that reports of aggravated assaults had slightly risen over the last week, but that the “data is still too fresh to make a determination.”

Wolfson said that the district attorney’s office was operating with a “skeleton crew” and had been forced to re-prioritize its workload because of courtroom closures, but that the office was still dedicated to filing charges in less serious cases (such as property crimes).

“The public should know that just because we may not file a case in the usual course, it doesn’t mean that we won’t ultimately file the case, because we are still going to be processing cases in the criminal justice system,” he said.

— Riley Snyder, 3/25/20 at 11:29 a.m.

COVID-19 cases now in seven counties as new cases reported in Lyon, Douglas county

Carson City health officials are reporting two new positive cases of the COVID-19 virus in rural Lyon and Douglas counties, with the virus now confirmed in seven of the state’s 17 counties.

The health district, which is coordinating the response to the virus for Carson City, Lyon County, Douglas County and Storey County, reported the two cases in a press release on Wednesday. 

The additional patients include a male Lyon County resident in his 60s with recent travel to the Bay Area in California, and a female Douglas County resident in her 60s with no recent travel history. It’s the first confirmed cases of the virus in Lyon County, and the third in Douglas County.

The health district said that both cases, as well as four others reported in the region, are self-isolating in their homes and are currently in stable condition.

— Riley Snyder, 3/25/20 at 9:11 a.m.

Nevada now reporting 321 cases of the novel coronavirus, up 15 from prior day

The state of Nevada is now reporting a total of 321 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus statewide, up 15 from Tuesday evening.

According to the state’s COVID-19 tracking website, the state has now tested a total of 4,572 people for the novel coronavirus. A little more than 7 percent of the total number of people tested have been positive for the virus, up from about 6.6 percent the previous day.

— Megan Messerly, 3/25/20 at 7:32 a.m.

UNR moves commencement online, announces all classes will remain online even if stay-at-home order lifted

The University of Nevada, Reno is canceling its in-person spring commencement and moving all ceremonial activities online in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The university, in a statement late Tuesday afternoon, said that its scheduled May commencement will occur in a virtual fashion and that more details will be announced. 

School officials also announced that all for-credit courses will be delivered remotely for the rest of the spring 2020 semester, even if Gov. Steve Sisolak lifts his stay-at-home-order on April 16, when it is currently set to end. Sisolak said at a news conference on Tuesday that any decisions to lift restrictions on Nevadans’ everyday lives would be made in consultation with medical professionals.

The university has yet to make any decisions about its summer and fall courses.

— Megan Messerly, 3/24/20 at 6:15 p.m.

Two more Nevadans die after contracting coronavirus, bringing death total to six; cases reach 306 statewide

Two more Nevadans have died after contracting the novel coronavirus, bringing the total deaths in both Clark County and statewide to six, the Southern Nevada Health District announced late Tuesday afternoon.

The two people who died included a man in his 70s with underlying medical conditions and a woman in her 50s with underlying conditions.

The Southern Nevada Health District also announced 37 new cases of the novel coronavirus in Clark County, bringing the countywide total to 249. Of the patients who have tested positive in Clark County, 65 are hospitalized, or 26.1 percent.

Washoe County Health District also announced six additional coronavirus cases Tuesday evening. Collectively, the new cases in Clark and Washoe counties bring the statewide totals to 306.

— Megan Messerly, 3/24/20 at 5:05 p.m., updated at 5:36 p.m.

Nevada ranks high for effective social distancing via location data

Nevada ranked third, right behind Washington, D.C. and Alaska, for effectively social distancing based on data from March 20.

The Washington Post posted a piece Tuesday afternoon citing information from Unacast, a company that took GPS data from smartphones and analyzed it to create a social distancing scoreboard.

Places that reduced overall movement by 40 percent or more received an A and places that reduced by 10 percent or less were awarded an F. Reduction of movement was calculated using their data that showed a decrease in the average distance traveled.

The United States as a whole received a B with 32 percent reduction in movement on March 20. On March 21 the country dropped to 40 percent reduction in movement while Nevada dropped from 48 percent to 51 percent.

The counties in Nevada in order from best to worst social distancing are Clark at 61 percent reduction, Carson City at 52 percent, Douglas at 50 percent, Washoe at 34 percent and Churchill at 20 percent. There was another story published by The New York Times earlier in the week that showed Nevada at number 10, based on information collected from a data collection company called Descartes Labs, a geospatial data company. The data was gathered between March 6 and March 20.

— Joey Lovato, 3/24/20 at 4:20 p.m.

Tribal nations declare state of emergency during coronavirus outbreak

The Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, Inc. issued a resolution Tuesday supporting the Tribal Nations’ declaration of a state of emergency amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The resolution requests immediate access to COVID-19 tests as well as assistance from the Indian Health Service (IHS), emergency health teams, state welfare teams, food security teams. It also requests access to game and fish, protection of and distribution of medicines, traditional medicine support and safe drinking water.

“As the world experiences these unprecedented times due to the coronavirus, our organization stands ready to help the first people of this land,” ITCN Executive Director Deserea Quintana said in a statement. “We thank our Tribal leadership and cooperating jurisdictions for working together to keep our communities safe, and to protect our elders and those who are most at risk.”

ITCN leaders say the resolution supports the 27 tribal governments’ authority as federally recognized member nations.

On Tuesday, the Nevada Indian Commission also announced it was postponing the grand opening of the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum in Carson City. It also canceled the 2020 Stewart Indian School Father’s Day Powwow.

“During these uncertain times, we cannot risk the wellbeing of our elders, nor any participant or spectators,” Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, said in a statement. “Our grand opening can wait, and even though since 2002, Native American dancers, singers, artists and on-lookers have helped build our annual powwow to be one of the most popular cultural gatherings in Northern Nevada, because of COVID-19, we must cancel.”

Prepaid vendors will receive full refunds.

— Jackie Valley, 3/24/20 at 3:30 p.m.

Sisolak restricts prescriptions of malaria drugs touted by Trump, but unproven as COVID-19 treatment

Gov. Steve Sisolak has signed an emergency regulation aimed at preventing people from “hoarding” two malaria drugs that are unproven as a treatment to COVID-19 but were promoted as a “game changer” in a tweet by President Donald Trump.

The regulation, which was promulgated by the Nevada State Board of Pharmacy, prevents the prescribing and dispensing of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine for a COVID-19 diagnosis. It also limits prescriptions to a 30-day supply.

“This emergency regulation protects Nevadans who needs these drugs for legitimate medical purposes. At this point in time, there is no known cure for COVID-19 and we must not withhold these drugs from those who need them,” Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a statement. “The best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to stay home for Nevada, not to stockpile these drugs.”

Dr. Ishan Azzam, the chief medical officer for the state Division of Public and Behavioral Health, noted that studies are underway about the effectiveness of the two drugs in treating COVID-19 but said “we must deal with facts, not fiction.”

Trump touted hydroxychloroquine last week in a televised news conference. Some experts said it appears doctors may be prescribing themselves or their families the drug to have on hand just in case, and an Arizona man died after hearing Trump on TV and ingesting a version of the chemical that is used to clean fish tanks.

Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis patients, who use the drug to control symptoms, have reported problems refilling their prescriptions because pharmacies have run out.

“Preserving these drugs for those who need it is the right decision,” Azzam said.

— Michelle Rindels, 3/24/20 at 3:25 p.m.

Former Nevada governors team up with Sisolak on video urging residents to stay home

Four former Nevada governors and Gov. Steve Sisolak have teamed up to produce a public service announcement urging residents to stay home and slow the spread of coronavirus.

Republicans Robert List and Brian Sandoval, along with Democrats Bob Miller, Richard Bryan and Sisolak, appear in the 30-second PSA released on Tuesday.

The script is:

"My fellow Nevadans, please follow Gov. Sisolak’s direction. As Nevadans we must all work together to care for one another and act with compassion. By staying home, we can protect our loved ones and our neighbors. And never forget, that as Nevadans, we’re all in this together.

Thank you governors for your lifetime love and support for the Silver State. If home means Nevada to you, stay home for Nevada.”

See the video here:

— Michelle Rindels, 3/24/20 at 11:45 a.m.

Las Vegas law firm files lawsuit against China, accusing country of allowing coronavirus spread

A Las Vegas law firm says it’s filing a class action lawsuit against China, alleging the country engaged in a cover-up after learning about the virus that allowed it to spread and wreak havoc in the U.S.

The complaint was filed late Monday in federal court in Nevada on behalf of small businesses. Law firm Eglet Adams said the country’s actions when it learned of the dangers of the virus in the fall contributed to its spread around the world and to hundreds of billions of dollars of economic losses in the U.S., including in Nevada.

“Instead of disclosing this evidence, the PRC and the other Defendants engaged in a campaign of misinformation and lies,” the complaint said. “Upon information and belief, they engaged in a campaign of intimidating and arresting any Chinese doctors, scientists, attorneys and/or reporters who tried to alert the public about this dangerous ‘new’ coronavirus.”

Nevada-based plaintiffs include restaurant proprietor Bella Vista LLC, floral company Greenfield & Company Inc., Life Real Estate LLC and Mobile Medic CPR.

Robert Eglet, whose firm is handling the case, is known for major lawsuits including an ongoing one against opioid manufacturers on behalf of the state and political subdivisions, as well as one against pharmaceutical companies after a hepatitis C outbreak in Southern Nevada colonoscopy clinics a more than a decade ago.

— Michelle Rindels, 3/24/20 at 10:00 a.m.

Nevada lawmaker-led task force issues coronavirus response recommendations by Latinos, for Latinos 

A task force formed by the Nevada Hispanic Legislative Caucus is recommending that Gov. Steve Sisolak create a health plan for undocumented Nevadans, drive-thru testing for COVID-19 and providing more information — including about where to find food — in Spanish. 

The group formed last week includes legal, political and medical experts focused on addressing the effects of coronavirus on the state’s Latino community, which they say is particularly vulnerable to the crisis because some are undocumented and many struggle to keep up on critical developments because of a language barrier. Democratic Assemblywoman Selena Torres, who leads the task force, said food security is the biggest concern she hears from constituents.

“I think a lot of people are scared. They recently lost their jobs. They’re not sure how they're gonna pay their bills at the end of the month, their rent, their mortgage, their car payments,” she said in an interview. “And so people are really scared that they're not going to have food, and that they might not already have food cause they're trying to figure out how they can use the money that they have to pay the spectrum of bills.”

While she said the school district’s food distribution program is helping, she said the gap she sees is among people who do not have school-aged children or when the need is among the adults in the family, not the kids.

She’s also concerned that the virus could disproportionately harm undocumented Nevadans who face more barriers to getting health insurance and care. Nevada has a higher rate of undocumented people as a share of its population than any other state.

“We know that our undocumented community is … vulnerable to not getting treatment and not seeking treatment,” Torres said. “And we know that that's going to continue to make this illness and this virus significantly worse in our communities. So we need to do our part and ensure that anybody that believes that they might have COVID-19 can get tested, that they can get treatment.”

The task force is in addition to task forces that the governor has convened around the issue. Torres said the lawmakers are able to tailor their recommendations based on what they’re hearing on the ground, and can serve to connect people to resources because of the name recognition they have in the community.

Sisolak’s office has acknowledged receipt of the recommendations but has not yet responded at length to them, Torres said. For now, the task force is fielding inquiries from the public and trying to compile resources on its bilingual website, AyudaNevada.com.

It also announced an education subcommittee focused on eliminating inequities in internet access, headed by UNLV law professor Sylvia Lazos. Concerns that some households do not have internet or computer access has been a roadblock for the Clark County School District to resume school in a distance-learning format.

Nevada’s senators also brought up that “digital divide” in a letter to a Senate colleague Tuesday, asking that Congress approve at least $2 billion in “E-rate” funds through the Federal Communications Commission to buy Wi-Fi hotspots or similar devices that students can borrow. 

Torres didn’t rule out the possibility of a special session to address the budgetary impact of the crisis and make changes to enact some of the task force’s recommendations.

“I don't think that's off the table, but right now we're just focusing on what we can do outside of special session,” she said.

Michelle Rindels & Luz Gray, 3/24/20 at 9:00 a.m.

Feds grant Nevada authority to approve products for COVID-19 testing, rather than wait for FDA

Nevada has been granted authority to give final approval on the safety and efficacy of testing products, rather than having to get that sign-off from the federal government — a change that state officials say “should increase testing capacity considerably.”

The state announced on Tuesday that it was one of only a handful of jurisdictions with the new authority. Previously, test kits and components had to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration before use.

“This means that when labs in Nevada do validation studies on products to determine whether they are effective prior to launching testing, they can submit their findings to the state, not the FDA, for approval,” Dr. Mark Pandori, head of the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory, said in a statement. “This is a much faster process.”

Pandori said data on certain new products that will expand the number of tests should be in by the end of next week. 

While authorities say the change won’t open the door for all Nevadans to get tested, it will allow more people in priority categories — such health care workers in contact with COVID-19 patients — to check their status.

Other jurisdictions with similar authority include Washington State, New York State and Maryland.

— Michelle Rindels, 3/24/20 at 8:43 a.m.

Nevada up to 278 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 15 more cases reported statewide

Nevada is reporting 15 more cases of the novel coronavirus statewide Tuesday morning, bringing the total number of cases in the state to 278.

According to the state’s COVID-19 tracking website, a total of 4,232 people have been tested across four main labs — the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory, the Southern Nevada Public Health Laboratory, Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp — with a smaller number of tests being performed at Clinical Pathology Laboratories, Quality Laboratory Services and other labs.

— Megan Messerly, 3/24/20 at 7:36 a.m.

UNLV Medicine to begin curbside coronavirus testing on Tuesday

The clinical arm of UNLV’s medical school is launching curbside coronavirus testing — by appointment only — starting on Tuesday.

Only people who meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for testing will be given appointments. People who have been in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case or who are exhibiting symptoms defined by the CDC can call 702-583-4408 between 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday to book an appointment.

“All callers will be asked a series of questions to determine if they meet the CDC criteria and will be screened again upon arrival,” officials said in a news release.

The nasal swab testing will occur in the parking lot of UNLV Medicine, 1125 Shadow Lane in Las Vegas. When patients arrive for their appointment time, they’ll be directed to a drive-up site, where the testing will occur without them needing to leave their vehicles.

The tests will be provided at no cost to the patients, who will receive their results in five to seven days. Test results also will be reported to the Southern Nevada Health District. 

UNLV Medicine officials said the testing will occur for the next two weeks or until the current supply of test kits is depleted.

— Jackie Valley, 3/23/20 at 7:25 p.m.

Washoe County reports 19 new cases, increasing statewide count to 263

Washoe County health officials announced Monday that 19 more people have tested positive for COVID-19, while one more person has fully recovered.

That brings the Washoe County case total to 44 and the statewide count to 263. Washoe County Health District authorities say three people total have recovered in their region.

The 19 new cases come after more than two days’ worth of tests were submitted to the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory, officials said. The health district is not providing any more information because of the influx of cases.

Health authorities also said the COVID-19 Incident Management Team is accepting “sterile, unopened Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) from businesses,” including masks (N95, surgical or dust), gloves, gowns, face shields and protective eyewear.

Businesses with those items available to donate should call 3-1-1 or email donationsmanagement2020@yahoo.com.

— Jackie Valley, 3/23/20 at 6:38 p.m.

Las Vegas police issue warning letters, citations against ‘nonessential’ businesses defying shutdown order

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department has issued 36 warning letters, seven suspensions and four citations against ‘nonessential’ businesses that have continued to operate in spite of a mandatory shutdown directive from Gov. Steve Sisolak.

The police department said in a press release on Monday evening that it had conducted 113 “compliance checks” of businesses along with Clark County business license officials, resulting in the correctional action including seven “forced shutdowns of businesses that would not voluntarily close.” 

The agency said it would begin the compliance checks on Saturday, following Sisolak’s directive on Friday requiring all nonessential businesses in the state to temporarily cease operations for 30 days to avoid further spread of COVID-19.

— Riley Snyder, 3/23/20 at 5:57 p.m.

Clark County COVID-19 positive cases jumps to 212

The Southern Nevada Health District reported 61 new positive cases of the COVID-19 virus on Monday evening, raising the total number of confirmed cases in the state’s most populous county to 212, with at least 245 cases statewide.

In total, 245 people in the state have tested positive for the virus, and 4 individuals — all in Clark County — have died, including two on Monday. The health district also updated a demographic breakdown of the positive cases, including the fact that 44 of the individuals who tested positive for the disease are currently hospitalized.

So far, three people in the county under the age of 17 have tested positive for the virus, as well as 12 people between the age 18 to 24, 97 people between the ages of 25 to 49, 59 people between the ages of 50 to 64 and 41 people over the age of 65.

Confirmed cases in the state have been found in at least six counties, including Clark, Washoe, Douglas, Elko, Nye and Carson City.

— Riley Snyder, 3/23/20 at 5:16 p.m.

Nevada taps into state stockpile, small federal government shipment to supply hospitals with masks, gowns

Nevada has tapped into its stockpiles and a small, preliminary shipment from the federal government to supply hospitals with thousands of masks, gowns and gloves to protect medical personnel on the frontlines of treating the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, the state has disbursed a little more than 1,100 cases of N95 masks, at anywhere from 160 to 200 masks per case, nearly 7,000 gowns, and about 150 boxes of gloves from its inventory, which includes both existing supplies from the state’s public health preparedness warehouse and those sent to Nevada by the federal government. However, the state received less than 25 percent of what it had requested from the federal government in its first order and is waiting on additional supplies it has asked for through a second request.

Richard Whitley, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said in an email that the state has prioritized disbursing supplies to all hospitals and first responders through health districts, as well as direct deployment of supplies to rural health facilities.

“In our current situation, due to the high demand for all types of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), Nevada was immediately overwhelmed and asked our federal partners for help in the form of a detailed resource request for PPE,” Whitley said.

He noted that emergency responses in Nevada start at the local level and escalate up to the state and federal levels. So, if local jurisdictions are overwhelmed or scarce on resources, they ask the county, neighboring counties and then the state Division of Emergency Management for assistance. If the state doesn’t have enough resources, they call on other states for assistance — difficult at this point in time, because all states are under resourced — or the federal government, through its strategic national stockpile, or SNS.

“The problem is that with COVID-19, all states are asking for the SNS and there is not enough SNS to go around to fulfill every PPE request nationwide,” Whitley said.

Tribes requesting resources are allowed to send their requests directly to the county, state or federal governments.

— Megan Messerly, 3/23/20 at 3:45 p.m.

Nonprofits, companies launch system to deliver meals to homebound Southern Nevada residents during pandemic

Clark County officials and private philanthropists are teaming up to create a system to deliver meals to low-income, homebound people who fear leaving their homes because of coronavirus.

The program, called Delivering with Dignity, made its inaugural deliveries of 800 meals to 100 different families on Monday. The focus is elderly and medically fragile residents who may not be able to get out to grocery stores or food distribution sites, and can’t afford restaurant takeout or delivery.

“If you’re at home, and you don’t think anybody knows about you … we intend to identify you, work with you … so we can find a way to deliver wholesome meals to you,” said Julie Murray, president of The Moonridge Foundation and co-founder of food bank supplier Three-Square, in a press conference on Monday.

The initiative is a partnership between Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkptraick, groups including the Elaine P. Wynn and Family Foundation and Intermountain Healthcare, and Copia, a for-profit technology company that redistributes leftover food from businesses and nonprofits to those in need.

Meals delivered Monday — which included enough food for two meals for a family of four — were prepared by chefs at Las Vegas restaurant Honey Salt and delivered by seven volunteer drivers to families identified by the nonprofit organization Foster Kinship. The recipients were largely seniors raising their grandchildren, who may be at risk by taking their grandchildren to sites such as schools where free meals are distributed during food closures.

Financial donations to Delivering with Dignity can be made at moonridgefoundation.org. The United Way of Southern Nevada is fielding inquiries about volunteering and service requests and can be reached at (702) 892-2300.

— Michelle Rindels, 3/23/20 at 2:45 p.m.

Regulators approve more than 100 marijuana delivery vehicles over weekend as dispensaries quickly switch to delivery-only

Officials with the Nevada Department of Taxation worked through the weekend to help dispensaries quickly shut their doors and move to delivery-only, notching a 50 percent increase in the number of stores that can legally deliver.

Tyler Klimas, executive director of the Cannabis Compliance Board, said that 127 requests for delivery vehicle inspections came in just over the weekend, and 101 of those have been approved so far.

Nineteen additional dispensaries now have approved delivery vehicles, up from 38 previously. There are about 70 dispensaries regulated by the state.

On Friday, the state announced that storefront dispensaries — which had previously remained open to foot traffic on the basis that they were essential businesses providing a medicinal product — were directed to close and only offer products delivered directly to consumers. Curbside pickup is also banned to avoid customers congregating on dispensary property.

Taxation officials replaced their normal process of an in-person vehicle inspection with a virtual procedure that involves submitting photos and video of a car so regulators can verify compliance with delivery vehicle regulations, which include having a secure lockbox.

Klimas said he’s aware of people stocking up on marijuana as coronavirus has spread, but said he has no indication there are issues with the cannabis supply chain.

Michelle Rindels, 3/23/20, 2:10 p.m.

Clark County closing park playgrounds and bathrooms; Lake Mead and state parks cut services to curb virus spread

Clark County is closing playgrounds and park restroom facilities “out of an abundance of caution to help reduce the possibility of community spread of the [coronavirus].”

The county announced Monday that it would be encircling playgrounds with yellow caution tape and posting signs, in addition to locking bathrooms, to try to keep people from congregating. Trails and open outdoor park spaces remain open, but visitors are strongly urged to maintain social distance with others.

Maintenance staff will be doing daily checks to ensure the caution tape and signs remain intact.

The county operates 100 public parks. A complete list is available here

The closures come as campgrounds and facilities such as visitor centers in Nevada state parks were shuttered last week. The parks are open for day use only.

Lake Mead National Recreational Area is also closing many facilities on the Nevada side of the park in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. That includes parking areas, restrooms, beaches and campgrounds.

Officials with Lake Mead said that they had 40,000 people visit on Saturday, which is twice the normal level of visitation for this time of year.

— Michelle Rindels, 3/23/20, 1:41 p.m.

Confirmed coronavirus cases in Nevada total 245, up 55 from prior day; two more deaths in Clark County

There are now 245 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus across the state of Nevada, up 55 from the previous day, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The Southern Nevada Health District also announced two more deaths — a woman in her 70s and a man in his 60s, both with underlying medical conditions — bringing the countywide and statewide death totals to four.

“We are saddened to report that two more people with coronavirus disease have died in our community,” said Dr. Fermin Leguen, the district's acting chief health officer.

The health district is also reporting a total of 151 cases of COVID-19 as of Sunday, up 25 from the prior day, with another case update expected for later in the day on Monday.

Individual county totals are currently lagging the state’s reported total, 245, but there have been confirmed cases in Clark, Washoe, Douglas, Elko and Nye counties, as well as Carson City. Clark County has, by far, the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases — 126 as of Saturday.

Carson City Health and Human Services reported Douglas County’s second case of COVID-19 on Monday morning, a woman in her 70s with no underlying health conditions who became symptomatic after having an out-of-state visitor. She is self-isolating at home.

— Megan Messerly, 3/23/20 at 12:48 p.m.

All school districts except Clark approved to begin, continue distance learning

Sixteen of Nevada’s seventeen school districts and all charter schools in the state have been approved to continue or start distance education as their brick-and-mortar facilities remain shut as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Steve Sisolak announced Monday morning.

The only school district that had not submitted a proposal for distance education or an extended school year by Sunday evening was the Clark County School District. The governor’s office said in a statement that while the state worked with the attorney general’s office to ensure that emergency plans could be approved, Clark County School District elected to consult its board.

The Clark County School District is holding a board meeting Monday morning, where distance learning will be discussed.

The 16 school districts and charter schools that have had their plans approved to engage in distance education as of Monday. Approval of the plans, which follows an emergency directive signed by Sisolak on Friday, means that schools will continue to receive payments from the state’s K-12 education fund, known as the Distributive School Account, and will not have to adjust their school calendars to make up missed time.

Sisolak, in a statement, expressed his “strong appreciation” for the school districts and charter schools who “stepped up in good faith” to submit their distance learning plans. The emergency directive requires districts and charter schools to begin offering distance learning no later than Monday, or the next regularly scheduled school session today.

“We are all operating under challenging circumstances, and I am proud of our educators for coming together to find creative solutions to ensure students can continue learning despite school closures,” Sisolak said.

The emergency directive additionally bars schools from reopening any earlier than April 16 in an attempt to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and suspends state testing requirements. It also suspends all statutory and regulatory requirements related to distance learning applications and expands the term to include paper correspondence, to allow kids to learn even if they don’t have access to a computer at home.

— Megan Messerly, 3/23/20 at 8:25 a.m.

State grants pardon to Jon Ponder, founder of Hope for Prisoners re-entry program

The Nevada Board of Pardons granted a partial pardon on Wednesday to Jon Ponder, who leads the post-prison re-entry organization Hope for Prisoners and hosted President Donald Trump at a program graduation event less than two weeks ago.

The state-level pardon, which addresses the repercussions of a handful of domestic violence incidents from 1994 to 2001, restores rights lost as a result of convictions but not Ponder’s right to bear arms. Gov. Steve Sisolak, a board member who began his speech by saying he didn’t want Ponder treated differently because of his “celebrity,” conditioned the pardon because “all domestic violence cases are major to me.” 

“If the rest of the board wants to go ahead and approve the Second Amendment — I cannot support that,” Sisolak said. “I just feel very, very strongly about this.”

Ponder’s lawyer, Kristina Wildeveld, had argued for a full pardon in part because it would allow Ponder’s wife to own a gun at her home if she wanted to. She also noted that two of Ponder’s brothers, who were the victims in some of the cases, testified in his favor.

Ponder gave an at-times tearful testimony to the board about how he was “atrociously addicted to everything known to man” and that it was “humiliating and embarrassing” to revisit his past actions. He said he has been clean and sober for 16 years.

“I want to first let Gov. Sisolak know that I heard him loud and clear. When he says that he hates domestic violence and it should not be tolerated, I feel the absolute same,” he said. “My actions actually break my heart, every morning when I look at my daughters and just to think that they would be subjected to that.”

Ponder’s wife of 10 years and brothers testified that he has turned his life around, and Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson submitted a letter of support. Wolfson and Ponder have collaborated on a new “pre-entry” program in which participants plead guilty to charges but enroll in wraparound services as a condition of their probation instead of going to prison.

Ponder’s organization, which offers mentorship and life skills training and partners with a long list of businesses and community organizations for jobs and job training, has gained national attention and hosted high-ranking elected officials. On Feb. 20, Trump delivered a speech at a Hope for Prisoners graduation ceremony and hinted at a pardon for Ponder, who in addition to the state-level convictions also served time in federal prison.

Presidents have the authority to issue pardons for federal offenses, such as the robberies Ponder pleaded guilty to in 2005.

“We are giving him absolute consideration and I have a feeling he is going to get the full pardon,” Trump said.

After the speech, Ponder said he was surprised by the president’s comment.

“It feels very surreal because I had never really thought about getting a presidential pardon,” he said. “I have no words.”

New 'pre-entry' program spares certain felony offenders from serving prison time

Deanna Page’s lightbulb moment occurred inside the Clark County Detention Center when she was staring down six to 15 years in prison, possibly longer.

Her story features plot points that likely aren’t all that different from her fellow inmates — an addiction, a bad decision and, ultimately, an arrest. In her case, the drug was heroin and the crime was serving as a getaway driver during robberies.

Then came the handcuffs. It was her first arrest.

“I’m screwed,” Page thought while sitting in jail. “That’s it. My life’s over.”

Even so, Page said she decided not to shirk responsibility. She took full accountability for her role, not realizing that combination of honesty and sincerity would spare her from prison. The mother of two young boys simply knew it was time to change.

“I knew at that point, like, whatever I was doing wasn’t working, and I just was so done with everything and I didn’t want to get myself into more trouble by trying to lie,” she said. “And I knew that I wouldn’t do a good job at it anyway. I’m a horrible liar.”

But what Page, now 27, didn’t know is that Clark County’s top prosecutor and a former inmate-turned-reentry specialist were developing a new program to prevent certain offenders from entering prison. In 2009, Jon Ponder founded Hope for Prisoners, a nonprofit program focused on helping formerly incarcerated people successfully reintegrate into society upon their release. The 18-month reentry program involves job training, mentorship and counseling and, since its debut, has served more than 3,100 men and women.

Now, a similar program called Hope for Second Chances has emerged focusing on pre-entry. Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said watching Hope for Prisoners blossom into “the best reentry program in the country” got him thinking: Why not provide those same services before people go to prison?

“I went to Jon and I said, ‘How about this program?’” he said. “We came up with the fancy name — Hope for Second Chances — and Jon said, ‘Let's do it.’ So it's been up and running about a year now and we're in the process of educating the defense bar and the judges.”

Deanna Page, a Hope for a Second Chances participant, works as an administrative assistant at Civil Werx. The program is a partnership between the Clark County District Attorney's Office and Hope for Prisoners. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The program has enrolled about 30 people, including Page, who faced yearslong prison sentences for severe offenses such as armed robberies. Unlike Clark County’s Specialty Court programs, which enlist non-violent offenders, Wolfson said Hope for Second Chances targets certain violent offenders, roughly between the ages of 18 and 30, deemed likely to succeed in the pre-entry program. He calls it “smart justice.”

Hope for Second Chances involves an application and interview process, with Ponder and Wolfson evaluating a person’s sincerity and a genuine desire to change. Generally, the selected participants plead guilty to their charges and enroll as a condition of probation.

It’s still serving a very small fraction of offenders. Wolfson said his office processes roughly 30,000 felony cases each year and, of those, a few thousand cases involve guns. The district attorney’s office has five lawyers assigned to a team that handles prosecutions for gun crimes alone. 

Hope for Second Chances hasn’t hit its cap yet, although Ponder and Wolfson said they’re still experimenting to find the right enrollment balance. The programs will be under the national spotlight this week as President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr attend a Hope for Prisoners graduation ceremony on Thursday.

The pre-entry program relies on wraparound services, such as substance-abuse treatment, to rehabilitate participants whose underlying issues often led to the crime.

“We could send that person to prison and if it was drugs and/or alcohol and they don’t have an opportunity to get those things addressed, well, they’re going to come home three years later and the pendulum is going to swing back the other way,” Ponder said. “And we’re right back into that it is that got you there in the first place.”

After her acceptance into Hope for Second Chances and release from jail, Page immediately entered drug treatment at WestCare for three months. These days you can find her behind the front desk at Civil Werx, a general engineering contractor, where she works as an administrative assistant.

She’s one of three Hope participants that her boss, Donnie Gibson, president of Civil Werx, has hired. The other two employees, including one who served 22 years in prison, came via the Hope for Prisoners program.

Gibson said he has watched his Hope employees take accountability and thrive as a result. It’s a lesson he believes applies to everyone, regardless of any criminal history.

“Whether it’s the Second Chances (program) or whether it’s someone out of 20 years of incarceration, the only way you’re going to move forward in life is to take that accountability,” he said. “If you don’t take accountability for what you’ve done, chances are you’re not going to change.”

Prior to this, Page never held a steady job aside from stints working in retail and as a dancer. She admits there has been a learning curve. Gibson, who’s running for Assembly District 4, might be talking about politics one minute and heavy construction equipment the other — leaving Page typing words or phrases into Google after their conversations.

Slowly, her confidence is building.

“I’m taking the initiative to learn and just to know, like, I can be in this position and be comfortable with it,” she said.

An added bonus: Page can not only attend her older son’s sporting events but buy him the needed shoes and equipment as well. As she eyes the future, she imagines moving up in Civil Werx.

“It is a blessing,” she said.