The Gaming Control Board said casinos and other gaming establishments are included in the mask mandate approved Tuesday by the Clark County Commission that requires all employees to wear a face covering while working in a public space.
In a statement Wednesday, Control Board Chairman Brin Gibson said the agency would seek disciplinary action against licensees if they violate the mask mandate.
Gibson said the order goes into effect on Thursday at midnight and covers all gaming properties on the Strip, downtown and throughout Clark County.
Gibson said any emergency issues concerning the pandemic are under the control of local county governments acting “in the best interests of their constituents.”
Last week, after the Southern Nevada Health District recommended both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals wear masks in crowded indoor public places, several casino operators implemented various mitigation measures, including the requirement that employees all wear masks while on the job, regardless of vaccination status.
Nevada Resort Association President Virginia Valentine said Monday she expected the gaming industry would support an employee mask mandate.
The new mask mandate, which members of the Clark County Commission approved unanimously during an emergency meeting on Tuesday, will apply to all businesses in incorporated cities and unincorporated parts of the county.
“The Board is fully supportive of the Southern Nevada Health District and the Clark County Commission in its mask mandate for employees in Clark County,” Gibson said. “The Board will ensure compliance with this requirement in Clark County within the Board’s areas of jurisdiction.”
In June, Mohegan Sun Casino at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas paid a $60,000 fine after several reality television celebrities – who were paid to promote the casino’s March 25 opening – were photographed not wearing masks or facial coverings, as required at the time.
Last year, The Grand Sierra Resort in Reno and the Sahara Las Vegas, which are both owned by Los Angeles-based Meruelo Group, paid a combined $75,000 fine last September for multiple violations of the state’s COVID-19 health and safety guidelines.
Employees of businesses across Clark County will be required to wear masks while working in indoor public spaces as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rapidly rise across the Las Vegas Valley.
The new mask mandate, which members of the Clark County Commission approved during an emergency meeting on Tuesday, will apply to all businesses in incorporated cities and unincorporated parts of the county and takes effect at the stroke of midnight on Thursday. Commissioners framed the decision, which they approved unanimously, as a way to buy time as health officials work to boost low vaccination rates in the county and hospitals continue to fill up with COVID-19 patients.
“We have to do something because we can't afford to allow hospitals to become [even worse] in terms of their crowding,” Commissioner Jim Gibson said.
Employees will be allowed to remove their masks while working alone in their office or another enclosed space but must wear one when entering and exiting those spaces. The mask mandate will remain in place at least through August 17, when county commissioners will evaluate what steps to take next.
The decision to reimpose a mask mandate, even just for employees, represents the most concrete action taken by local officials to respond to climbing case numbers in the county, after Southern Nevada Health District officials on Friday recommended — not required — all vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals wear masks in crowded indoor public spaces. As of Tuesday, Clark County’s seven-day average case rate had climbed to 727, a number the county hasn’t seen since early February.
Gov. Steve Sisolak, in a statement on Tuesday, lauded Clark County’s decision.
“I support the Clark County Commission for using their local authority to issue this mitigation measure amid significant community transmission in Southern Nevada and as we continue our joint effort to increase access and confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines,” Sisolak said. “The State remains completely committed to provide every resource and support available to all of our counties as we see a rise in cases among the unvaccinated, driven by the Delta variant.”
Though the commission was united in its decision, some commissioners voiced skepticism about whether a narrow mask mandate on employees would be enough to stem the rising tide of cases. Across the border in Los Angeles County, where case numbers are less than half of what is being seen in Clark County, residents are being required to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.
“I don't have a problem with this concept of moving forward today with requiring employees to be masked, but I don't pretend that I think that it's going to have much of an effect ... on transmission of the virus,” Commissioner Justin Jones said. “If the headline from this meeting is that we imposed a mandate on employees, then we will have failed.”
In an hour-long public comment period before the commission’s discussion, dozens of people berated the commission and promoted debunked conspiracy theories about masks, vaccines and the pandemic. Some, however, also shared emotional stories of the toll the last year has taken as they have lost jobs or businesses as a result of the pandemic-related shutdown last year.
Small business owner Ben Cucio pleaded with commissioners not to close businesses again.
“People are not going to make any money and they’re not going to make any semblance of a reality having to face another shutdown,” Cucio said. “My business survived, but barely.”
Commissioners, in response, made clear they have no desire to close businesses.
“I don't think that anybody up here, including the health district, wants to shut down anything because that was hard for everybody,” Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick said. “We're trying to figure out what are some things that we can do short term to slow it down.”
While cases are rising in many counties across the state, Clark County has borne the brunt of this recent surge, which experts attribute to its high population density and low vaccination rate as the highly transmissible Delta variant continues to spread. As of Tuesday, only 38 percent of Clark County residents have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, compared to nearly 50 percent in Carson City, which leads the state in percentage of fully vaccinated residents.
Commissioners also voted on Tuesday to require businesses to post signage letting customers know about the health district’s indoor mask recommendation, though Commissioner Ross Miller said the county will have to take further action if people don’t start taking the recommendation seriously.
“We don't want to move towards reduction in capacity or face the consequences of other jurisdictions imposing restrictions on Las Vegas and see our economy shut down,” Miller said. “The public should have a very clear understanding that if they're not getting vaccinated, if they're not wearing masks — even though it's voluntary now, if they’re out in grocery stores and the places that the health district has identified — if the public is not inviting by those voluntary recommendations, this will have consequences.”
Beyond the mask mandate, the county commission voted to require large businesses, including casinos, malls and grocery stores, to submit plans to the county’s business department by Monday detailing how they plan to protect employees and customers. The decision comes against a backdrop of rising concern among those in the gaming industry that conventions may cancel if they believe not enough is being done to address the spread of cases in the county and as officials in some other states, including those in Los Angeles County, have advised against travel to Nevada.
Nevada Resort Association President Virginia Valentine voiced support for the indoor employee mask mandate during the public comment portion of the Tuesday meeting.
“Whatever you decide today, we ask that you provide written guidance and time to operationalize and communicate the requirements so that we can fully prepare and fully comply,” Valentine said.
The Vegas Chamber also voiced support for the mask mandate, with David Dazlich, government affairs director for the chamber, calling masks the “second most effective tool next to vaccinations” in stopping the spread of COVID-19.
“We support a mask mandate to help curb transmission rates until we can up our vaccination rates throughout Clark County and finally relegate COVID-19 to the pages of medical history books next to preventable illnesses like smallpox and polio,” Dazlich said.
Clark County commissioners will meet in an emergency session on Tuesday afternoon to discuss putting in place new pandemic mitigation measures as COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the region.
The emergency meeting, which was announced on Monday, comes just four days after the Southern Nevada Health District recommended both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals wear masks in crowded indoor public places, including grocery stores, malls, large events and casinos. Southern Nevada District Health Officer Fermin Leguen told reporters on Friday that any further action, including a mask mandate, would be up to local authorities, including city and county governments.
Sources with knowledge of the situation confirmed that county commissioners are expected to consider a mask mandate, though just for employees of businesses within the county, during their Tuesday meeting.
State and local health officials have been urging residents to get vaccinated to stem the rising tide of COVID-19 cases, though the county’s decision to call the emergency meeting signals that vaccination alone may no longer be enough to halt the advance of the Delta variant.
Nevada Resort Association President Virginia Valentine said Monday she expected the gaming industry would support an employee mask mandate. She noted several casino operators had already implemented various mitigation measures, both in response to the health district’s recommendation, but also as positive cases began to appear.
“We’re going to comply with it,” said Valentine, who leads the association made up of large casino resorts. “We think it’s an important step.”
The Gaming Control Board would be responsible for enforcing the county’s mask mandate at casinos and other gaming establishments. Several gaming company spokespeople said Monday their resorts would comply with any mask mandate for workers if directed by state gaming regulators.
Las Vegas Sands spokesman Keith Salwoski said in an email Monday that all employees of the Venetian, Palazzo, and Sands Expo — vaccinated or not — are required to “wear company-issued face masks while working in indoor public spaces, and in indoor areas where people congregate.”
He said the properties have revised signage at public entrances to share the new health district recommendation and will provide complimentary face masks to guests.
Valentine noted that other casino properties had taken different steps. The Westgate Las Vegas now requires all employees to wear masks, while Resorts World Las Vegas has begun separating vaccinated employees from non-vaccinated employees in team member dining rooms.
Employees of the county government, meanwhile, will be required to wear masks in common and public areas effective Tuesday, according to an email from County Manager Yolanda King obtained by The Nevada Independent.
The emergency meeting comes as the Delta variant continues to rapidly spread across Clark County, which hit a seven-day case average of 708 on Monday. The county hasn’t seen numbers that high since early February. Hospitalizations, meanwhile, continue to also creep upward, with 840 people hospitalized in the county with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 as of Sunday.
Other counties, including Washoe, have started to see small increases in their case numbers as well, but Clark County is almost entirely responsible for the state’s rapidly worsening COVID-19 metrics.
As of Monday, Nevada had the fifth most COVID-19 cases per capita reported over the last seven days in the nation, behind Arkansas, Missouri, Florida and Louisiana.
The vehicles streamed into the pickup lines on a recent Monday, some with popped trunks awaiting cargo.
In a North Las Vegas parking lot, they inched toward a white tent, where workers loaded brown boxes and white plastic bags filled with food into cars, trucks and SUVs. The assembly line-like operation outside the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas popped up in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 shutdown to help thousands of furloughed workers put food on the table.
A year later, it hasn’t stopped. Instead, the Culinary Academy expanded and began allowing all community members to access the roughly 40-pound batch of fruits, vegetables, grains and meat — complete with recipe cards — designed to feed families.
As of early March, the food assistance program had donated 11.5 million pounds of groceries, or the equivalent of about 35 million meals. On any given week about 6,000 to 8,000 vehicles roll through the drive-through-style line, and that figure doesn’t include deliveries made directly to those in need who cannot leave their homes or food distributed at smaller pop-up sties.
“I can tell you that the lines aren’t getting any shorter at all,” said Mark Scott, chief executive officer of the Culinary Academy. “...This past year is really a hole fairly wide and fairly deep for people, and it’s going to be a long time before people are able to dig out.”
But across town another pickup line was seeing equal, if not greater, activity — the passenger pickup area at McCarran International Airport. Hordes of flight-weary travelers, some donning face masks, scanned the line of cars as horns honked and doors opened and shut.
A year ago, this was not the case. The normal hustle and bustle of a busy airport had been swiftly replaced by an eerie quiet.
Now, the two pickup lines — separated by miles and purpose — nod to the region’s hopeful but challenged circumstances.
Nevada is, once again, healing, just as it did after the tourism industry was rocked by 9/11, the Great Recession and 1 October. Vaccination numbers are climbing, case numbers and hospitalizations remain relatively low and spring has brought forth not just tourists but an increasing sense of optimism about the future.
But the truth is Nevada’s healing has only ever been surface deep, its wounds still raw beneath and ready to break open at even the slightest injury.
Amid all the talk of economic diversification over the last decade, experts say Nevada has failed to invest in the necessary level of change to build a more stable economy. The memories of past economic devastation often quickly fade as Nevada once again returns to boom times and trusts the glittering lights of the Las Vegas Strip to save it.
Some would say Nevada’s close relationship with business is what gives the state an edge. When Nevada struggled to secure necessary supplies for hospitals in the early days of the pandemic, for instance, gaming and mining companies donated millions of pieces of personal protective equipment, money and other resources through the governor’s private-sector COVID task force.
But Nevada’s reliance on industry to save the day has also time and time again left the state dependent and vulnerable. At first it was mining, an industry so valuable, and powerful, that it was granted a special, favorable taxation structure when the state’s Constitution was written in 1864.
Then it was the casinos, who have so wholeheartedly opposed industry-specific taxes that they have gone so far as to support a widespread tax increase that would equally affect all larger businesses in Nevada. There was Tesla, Faraday Future, the Raiders and, now, Blockchains, all enterprises touted as the state’s next economic cure-all.
In its nearly 157-year history, Nevada has been unable to shrug off being a company town. This time, it’s put the state in the impossible position of choosing between saving its residents from COVID or financial devastation.
Now, the question is whether, as the lights on the Las Vegas Strip grow brighter, Nevada will once again be drawn like a moth to flame or whether it will truly diversify its economy while fixing a long-ailing unemployment system. The question is what the future holds for Nevada’s workers — many of them workers of color — who are the lifeblood of the economy and the first ones to suffer when good times turn bad.
The question is whether history will once again repeat itself.
The shutdown was swift.
Six hours after Gov. Steve Sisolak announced on March 17 that nonessential businesses would be required to shut their doors to halt COVID-19’s advance on the state, all gambling activity statewide ceased. It was the first time Nevada’s lucrative gaming industry had been prohibited from operating since gambling was legalized statewide in 1931.
Other quintessential Nevada businesses, including strip clubs and brothels, and other everyday establishments, such as salons, gyms and malls, were given an extra 12 hours to wind down their businesses.
The decision hadn’t come as a shock to gaming establishments, many of which had been on multiple calls with the governor leading up to the decision and some of which had already been making plans to shutter operations in light of canceled bookings and an increasingly bleak future for the tourism industry. Billy Vassiliadis, longtime Las Vegas adman, estimated there was 80 to 90 percent agreement among the resorts by the time the governor made his decision that the shutdown had to happen.
Plus, some casino operators saw what was happening half a world away and started preparing. Casinos in Macao shut down for 15 days in February last year.
“I think we could see that it was going to be a very serious matter and definitely going to affect operations based on what we had seen happen in Macao,” said Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association. “But I don't think anyone knew just how big an impact there was going to be or that there would be extended closures.”
More than six months earlier, the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) had carried out “economic cycle planning,” preparations that recognized a 10-year streak of economic growth would inevitably come to an end and unemployment would grow. But the domino of casino closure announcements was ominous for then-director Tiffany Tyler-Garner.
“Over time, there's this growing concern of ‘oh my gosh, yet another employer is indicating that they're putting folks on leave’ … and that all those tens or hundreds, or whatever size those businesses were, were headed our way,” she said.
The prospect of shutting down the gaming industry was more complex than it perhaps appeared from the outside. For starters, some casinos scrambled to find padlocks to secure their entryways. Locks, as it turns out, were not a standard feature in the 24-hour establishments.
Casinos also had to quickly devise plans for counting and safely storing cash, either on site or transferring via armored trucks to banks. Sandra Douglass Morgan, former chair of the Gaming Control Board, said regulators were fielding call after call from casino operators who wanted to ensure they were in compliance with all the logistical and accounting matters. At the same time, gaming properties were handling people-centric problems, such as notifying and accommodating hotel guests and standing up employee assistance programs for the wave of people facing sudden furloughs.
“If we had to do it all over again, obviously we would have said, ‘Okay, you have a week to close,’ to make sure all that information was put into place, but we didn’t at the time,” Morgan said. “But everyone was very understanding.”
State officials within the Department of Business and Industry, meanwhile, scrambled to help other businesses figure out whether they were considered essential and, therefore, whether they were required to shut down. The initial list of essential businesses Sisolak announced could remain open was specific, if incomplete: Grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, hardware stores, truck stops, daycares, gas stations and health facilities.
That left the rest of the non-casino businesses in somewhat of a grey area. Workers at the Tesla Gigafactory, Allegiant Stadium and several marijuana dispensaries reported for work as usual on March 18, unclear whether their employers would be sending them home at noon.
Clarification came that afternoon — an hour after businesses were supposed to close — in the form of a “Risk Mitigation Initiative” document, which outlined 20 essential services and sectors. Among them were ones the governor hadn’t mentioned the previous night, including veterinarian services and pet stores, laundromats and dry cleaners, and auto repair services. Construction and mining businesses were, separately, granted permission to remain open as well.
But, at the time, there was little to no federal guidance about how essential businesses ought to remain open safely to protect themselves, their workers and their customers. So, state officials hurried to come up with their own guidelines. Terry Reynolds, director of the Department of Business and Industry, said the state ended up being about two or three weeks ahead of the federal Department of Labor in the guidance it released for Nevada businesses and employees.
“Businesses can’t wait three weeks,” Reynolds said. “They need to know what they need to know quickly.”
Some of the issues state officials grappled with included how to keep small banks, which were legally required to stay open during the shutdown, running when their employees fell ill, and how to help restaurants safely pivot to a takeout model as dine-in operations closed. Reynolds said some restaurants were able to successfully shift their operations.
“Others did not shift very well,” he added. “It was very unfortunate because I think a lot of those may not come back at all.”
Echo & Rig, a popular steakhouse near Summerlin, saw a massive uptick in customers visiting its on-site butcher shop during the initial shutdown period when only takeout was allowed, chef and owner Sam Marvin said. But that alone didn’t spare the restaurant from feeling the sting of no in-person dining.
At least half the Las Vegas restaurant’s employees were furloughed, and Marvin said a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, which was established early on in the pandemic to help small businesses make payroll, “made the difference in us surviving or not surviving.”
The restaurateur doesn’t hold a grudge against state officials. Compared with California, where he operates two restaurants, Nevada gave a much earlier green light to some in-person dining when the state started to reopen. Because of all the uncertainty surrounding the virus initially, Marvin said he didn’t disagree with the shutdown, though he acknowledges his opinion may differ from others in the restaurant industry who couldn’t hang on financially.
“How can you disagree if you don’t know better?” he said. “Better safe than sorry.”
Echo & Rig’s furloughed employees were just a small slice of the hundreds of thousands of employees who lost their jobs almost overnight, pushing Nevada unemployment to levels worse than those seen during the Great Depression. In April, more than 28 percent of Nevadans were unemployed, up from 3.6 percent in February.
Those hundreds of thousands of newly jobless Nevadans quickly overwhelmed the state’s unemployment system, which was accustomed to handling about 2,500 initial claims a week but received more than 92,000 as the shutdown began. In the past year, half a million Nevadans have collected at least one week of unemployment benefits out of a workforce of 1.5 million, and the agency has received nearly two million initial applications for benefits.
“We were in response mode, without knowing exactly what the floor or ceiling would be,” Tyler-Garner said.
DETR’s problems were numerous, including a staff that had atrophied over the past decade as the federal government drew down funding. Issues as small as a vacation payout to a claimant would trigger “adjudication,” or an analytical review, but Tyler-Garner estimates only about seven people in the agency were qualified to manage that step when the crisis hit, for example.
Early on, the federal government answered pleas to support gig workers ineligible for traditional unemployment by creating the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, but Nevada officials feared that adding PUA programming into the brittle system processing traditional claims would crash it and cut off claimants already receiving benefits. They bought a separate software product to administer PUA in the name of speed and IT stability, but it created a bifurcated system that bedevils claimants to this day.
Mike Powers, a guitarist who worked for a talent agency that dispatches musicians for gigs ranging from conventions to sidewalk entertainment, is one of them. From the first day he applied to PUA, the system flagged his Social Security number as tied to another existing claim, and he believes he’s stuck in limbo a year later because someone in California filed a fraudulent application in his name.
Every day is a financial emergency, he says, but he holds out hope that he’ll someday emerge from the Byzantine system and claim the tens of thousands of dollars he believes he’s owed.
“I would hate to think that I was so close to solving the riddle and then, you know, it did not happen,” he said.
Much of the messaging from Sisolak early on was about the public health crisis at hand and flattening the curve of what was at the time an unknown and deadly virus. But to the quarter of Nevadans who were unemployed and struggling to wend their way through the bureaucratic nightmare that was the state’s unemployment system, it often felt like they were being left behind.
Joshua Meltzer, 29, worked as a singing gondolier at the Venetian and switched to the business side of live entertainment just before the pandemic hit. But a year later, he hasn’t been paid unemployment, and after months of trying to make it with the help of friends, he left the state for Minnesota and is working a clerical job to make ends meet.
He described the last year as a financial, emotional, philosophical and spiritual crisis all rolled into one. He’s always seen government as a force for great good, but its inability to help him has challenged that belief.
“I feel betrayed, in a way, by Nevada, which has been a place of … rejuvenation,” he said. “If that community doesn't take care of its own in crisis, I don't know if that can be my long term home anymore.”
Claimants have also criticized elected officials’ handling of the situation, from the governor failing to mention the unemployed in certain press conferences to formulaic responses when claimants poured out their hearts in desperate emails to their congressional representatives.
“The best thing you can do is just listen better and realize that there are people that are truly hurting,” Powers said.
Reflecting back on his public communications to unemployed Nevadans, Sisolak said he “tried to speak to their plight.” He also said he wishes the state had an “army of people” to quickly work through the hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims that poured in, noting it can take up to an hour for a state worker to process some of the more complex claims.
But, mostly, he blamed yearslong underfunding and neglect of the state’s unemployment system. During a period of record low unemployment in 2019, DETR told lawmakers that after years of successive budget cuts, it was struggling to handle its call volume and expected to be able to handle only 2,800 phone calls a week in 2020.
During the pandemic, a single claimant from Dayton reported calling DETR 2,200 times during a two-week period in April, and many others reported placing hundreds of fruitless calls a day.
“You've got a system that was basically ignored session after session after session,” Sisolak said. “Then when suddenly you're hit with a pandemic that you get claims that are 20, 25 times what you are normally getting, no system is going to work under that situation.”
To make matters worse, state officials were also tasked with sifting fraudulent claims from the legitimate ones. While DETR hasn’t quantified how many illegitimate claims were approved and how much the state paid out on those claims, they estimate they prevented billions of dollars of fraudulent payouts through blocking payment on hundreds of thousands of claims on which they couldn’t verify identity.
As of March 4, DETR reported there were 306,632 claims with pending identity issues that are suspected to be fraudulent. At least another 437,000 PUA claims were denied over identity verification issues in two rounds of mass disqualifications last year.
“The amount of fraud that was happening was unconscionable,” Sisolak said.
But a focus on fraud has had unintended consequences for claimants. Amber Hansen, an administrator of a popular Facebook group for PUA claimants, said it casts a stigma on PUA applicants “that we’re fraudulent … some of us are inherently bad.”
“We still do have people that have eligible claims, and that need to be helped,” she said. “We have to kind of move off that issue.”
Jason Guinasso, a Reno attorney who studied DETR’s backlog as a court-appointed special master last year, said the unemployment agency has erred too much on the side of trying to control fraud, and is making policy “based on the exception, not the rule.” He compared it to a department store assuming all its customers showed up to steal.
“Imagine if they ran their store based on trying to stop shrinkage, and that's all they cared about,” he said. “Your experience going to Macy's to buy a dress would be a lot different than it would be if they were running their store to cater to the majority of people [who] are not there to steal.”
The governor praised the staff at DETR, which increased the number of people working on unemployment issues threefold by January and had many staffers working overtime to process unemployment claims under immense pressure, scrutiny and even threats, including to the director of the department. But he also acknowledged the state’s shortcomings.
“Could we have done a better job? Certainly we could have done a better job,” Sisolak said.
As spring pushed toward summer and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 started to decline, the number of people unemployed because of COVID-19 creeped higher. Pressure mounted on Sisolak to start reopening the state’s economy. Leaders in some local jurisdictions signaled they weren’t going to wait for the governor’s lead, touting their own plans for reopening.
At the end of April, Sisolak announced the state would begin an “active transition” toward reopening that would start with some of the safest businesses, including indoor retail spaces, before progressing to the riskier establishments, such as casinos. At the time, he credited Nevadans’ “incredible discipline” in halting the spread of the virus.
The casinos had a model for reopening: Macao. Casinos in the special administrative region in China had already opened their doors again. But when they did, it was with significant capacity limits, social distancing at table games and slot machines, temperature checks and face masks. Resorts in Las Vegas could essentially take the Macao playbook, make a few adjustments for scale, and put it into practice.
Casino floors — known for their winding paths that keep gamblers wandering and shoving money into slot machines — would have considerably more elbow room. The Gaming Control Board issued a policy document in May spelling out some of the new rules of the trade.
Table games now have player limits: six people for craps, three for blackjack, four at roulette and poker tables. Some slot machines, meanwhile, were placed in an extended hibernation to make way for social distancing. Conversations also occurred around how to disinfect gaming chips without compromising their integrity.
And then there was the human aspect.
The Culinary Union lobbied hard for the approval of SB4 during a special legislative session last summer. The bill, which passed and was signed into law by the governor, shields many Nevada businesses from frivolous lawsuits related to COVID-19 — but only if the companies adhere to the strict, government-imposed health and safety protocols that prevent spread of the virus. Union officials pushed for the measure in honor of Adolfo Fernandez, a utility porter at Caesars Palace who died in June after falling ill with COVID-19.
Despite the bill’s passage, the union wants to see more done to protect hospitality workers, many of them on the front line interacting with people who have traveled to Las Vegas. D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, the parent organization of the Culinary Union, said he was unhappy that food service and hospitality workers weren’t prioritized higher up in the state’s vaccination schedule. Casino workers in Clark County did not become eligible for vaccines until Thursday.
He framed it as both a safety and equity issue.
“Who are workers on the frontlines?” he said, referring to the union’s membership. “They’re predominantly female and people of color.”
For Las Vegas, as a tourist destination, the focus was not only on safety but how to effectively communicate to tourists how seriously the industry was taking precautions. This wasn’t the first time the city had to pivot its branding strategy. In the years after 9/11, the “What happens here, stays here” slogan was born. In the wake of 1 October, it was, “#VegasStrong” and a message of resilience.
But the city had never had to market itself in the middle of an ongoing public health crisis. In the weeks before casinos reopened, cases had been fluctuating. In early June, right around when casinos opened, cases started to climb.
"This one, you didn't know where we were going,” said Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners, the ad agency for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “It was like we were in this abyss, making decisions and consulting with folks with daily information that was fuzzy at best.”
The message Las Vegas ended up adopting was one that balanced safety with freedom. A weekend in Las Vegas, even with masks and social distancing, was still a lot more fun than a weekend stuck at home ordering DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats.
“We didn't need to have the old Las Vegas for them to feel free,” Vassiliadis said. “They just needed more freedom than the restrictions they had been living under for the previous three months.”
There was just one catch: Sisolak didn’t announce a statewide mask mandate until 20 days after casinos reopened. While employees were wearing masks, it was up to casino patrons whether to don that extra layer of protection. In mid-June, the Gaming Control Board issued an industry notice that required patrons to wear face masks at table games if there was no barrier or shield separating the players and dealers.
Even Caesar himself — the statue version, that is — wore a giant mask in a bid to encourage others to follow suit. By the second week casinos were open, Morgan, then the state’s chief gaming regulator, said it was clear many people weren’t heeding that advice.
“It was harder for casino staff to tell people to wear masks if it wasn't mandated,” she said.
The governor’s order, issued on June 24, turned the option into a requirement. But controversy surrounding the decision spilled into gaming properties where some security officers suffered injuries after upset guests lashed out when told to wear a mask, Morgan said.
“No one should have bodily harm being threatened because you’re just doing your job telling people to comply with the mask mandate,” she said.
Pre-opening visitor surveys showed it was a “much younger and more rambunctious crowd” that was eager to return to Las Vegas, Vassiliadis said. And those surveys were borne out in reality: The crowd that first returned to Las Vegas was made up of younger, healthier people who were less concerned about contracting the virus and more concerned about busting loose after months of quarantine, and low room rates meant that some of Las Vegas’s top properties were now affordable for younger people, particularly if they stayed two or three to a room.
In the wake of its reopening, Las Vegas saw fights, shootings and stabbings on the Las Vegas Strip. In response, resorts stepped up their security and the Las Vegas Metro Police Department increased its police patrols.
“Underscoring that's not tolerated here to a lot of those visitors, I think, changed the situation rather quickly,” Vassiliadis said. “I don't think we suffered any kind of reputational long-term hit. I know we haven’t.”
At the state level, the governor’s office sought to convey to surrounding Western states the tightrope Nevada was walking by trying to balance the state’s economic and public health needs. In some ways, Nevada needed the buy-in of surrounding states so that they would keep sending their residents to Las Vegas and not blacklist the state through a travel advisory.
Michelle White, Sisolak’s chief of staff, recalled having “candid, open conversations” with other members of the Western States Pact, a compact established early on in the pandemic between Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, about Nevada’s difficult situation.
“We have states around us who I think were exceptional in understanding the situation that we were in … and genuinely were rooting for us to be OK,” White said. “Being able to explain that to folks and talk through that I think was really, really helpful in our efforts.”
Still, at one point in early December, California — which is home to 1 in 5 visitors to Las Vegas — issued a travel advisory encouraging residents to avoid nonessential travel to other states; it was a little less a month after Sisolak had encouraged visitors to continue traveling to the state even as cases surged in Nevada.
“If there were times where [Western states] said, ‘You know, we're concerned for our residents in a surge and so we're going to require quarantine,’ that’s an acceptable, reasonable thing to do for other leaders who are concerned about their residents. The way it was discussed, at least, was never about in response to Nevada directly,” White said. “It was more of, ‘This is a step we're going to take, this is another mitigation measure we're going to take to try to slow the spread and the surge.’”
For other businesses, reopening would bring with it a host of questions: Would employees have to wear masks? Could they hold meetings in person? What happens if an employee tests positive for COVID-19? There were also industry-specific considerations. How should salons disinfect their equipment? Could movie theaters open their snack bars? Would vehicles need to be sanitized at car dealerships between test drives?
To answer those questions and more, the state authored a series of reopening guidelines. Reynolds, director of the Department of Business and Industry, said the state got feedback on reopening plans from a number of different industries, from the Retail Association of Nevada to the REALTORS.
“In most cases, they were extremely helpful in terms of giving us perspective on what to look at and what can be done to keep things going and what we needed to do, how we need to approach things in concert with the medical advice that we got,” Reynolds said.
But businesses had to make adjustments beyond those required by the state to stay financially afloat as they reopened under strict capacity limits. Echo & Rig, for instance, added more seating in a second patio area that had previously been largely unused and trimmed its menu — from 60 to 42 items — as a cost-containment measure.
Some menu items went up in price as well to balance the ripple-effect felt throughout the supply chain. Restaurants are still dealing with changes in where they’re able to source certain food items, he said. Some of their beloved vendors went out of business.
Marvin, the restaurant's owner, was pleasantly surprised by the number of people willing to venture out and dine at Echo & Rig once it opened its doors. He’s hopeful that customers, at his restaurant and other eateries, will continue to offer them patience — knowing that things will still look and feel a bit different because of safety protocols and other changes designed to keep the businesses viable.
Once businesses reopened their doors, the next challenge was enforcement. Reynolds said state officials took a “one, two, three” approach, giving businesses guidance on how to come into compliance on their first two visits before issuing citations on the third visit.
“A lot of businesses basically just needed a little bit of training on how to do things,” Reynolds said.
To date, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has conducted about 13,000 first visits to businesses. Compliance with the state’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols is about 92 percent in Northern Nevada and 90 percent in Southern Nevada, though Reynolds noted that compliance on first visits has been 100 percent most weeks since January.
Reynolds said that of the businesses found to be not in compliance with the state’s rules, he estimates only less than 10 percent were truly thumbing their nose at the state’s requirements.
“We were tough on the front end on a lot of these businesses, but I think now we’re seeing for the last six, seven weeks good compliance overall,” he said.
And some businesses that initially seemed uninterested in complying with the state’s guidelines eventually came around, Reynolds said. About $60,000 in health and safety-related fines were issued to Walmart before it came into compliance.
“All of a sudden, corporate culture came in and started working on it very strongly,” Reynolds said. “It just took time. Once they did, it grabbed hold and they’ve done well.”
Even as businesses began to heal, Nevada workers continued to struggle.
When nonessential businesses started opening in May and the 78-day casino shutdown lifted on June 4, it didn’t have the same lightswitch effect with unemployment. There were still 285,610 people seeking Nevada unemployment benefits the first week of March — nearly one in five people in the state’s labor force.
A report by the Anderson Economic Group, which has been following the economic effects of COVID-19, described the December jobs numbers as a “continued trend of lethargic recovery.” Between November and December, the leisure and hospitality industry lost 2,000 jobs in Nevada, though gains in other industries offset that.
Only about 50 percent of the members of the Culinary Union, which represents roughly 60,000 resort employees across the state, including guest room attendants, cooks and porters, have returned to work since last year, though their work hours may not be the same. At the height of the shutdown, 98 percent of the union’s members were furloughed.
“Our industry — the hospitality industry overall — has been the hardest hit,” said Taylor, UNITE HERE’s president, said. “Now, we always see signs of life coming back in certain areas, which is great, but until people feel very safe travelling, until they feel safe with indoor dining and staying indoors, it will be challenging.”
Mary Ann Bautista is among those who haven’t been called back to their union jobs. Before the pandemic, she spent 14 years as a buffet food server at The Strat.
As a single mother with several teenagers still living in the house, she said it has been difficult to make ends meet on unemployment benefits alone. Bautista has leaned on the Culinary Academy’s food assistance program for help over the past year. She longs for the day when she can resume her job.
“This is not our fault. We didn’t do this,” she said. “This is a pandemic. We didn’t ask for this. We work hard.”
DETR Director Elisa Cafferata said when she arrived at the agency in August, there were nonstop calls from constituents needing help and a major backlog. To this day, she said the applications haven’t tapered off as much as she expected.
“We've definitely made a lot of progress. There's still a lot of hard work to do,” she said. “The thing I'm most focused on is how do we sort of pivot and help people start thinking about going back to work.”
But the employment figures also highlight a troubling trend, said Brian Peterson, director of public policy and economic analysis with the Anderson Economic Group. In Nevada, nearly 74,000 people dropped out of the labor force completely between February and December of last year. These are people who have reported not actively looking for a job in the past four weeks.
“The big question is, what are those 74,000 people doing?” he said. “Have they become discouraged? Are they planning on waiting out the pandemic? My guess is that at least some of those 74,000 folks want to have a job, but they just haven't been able to find anything.”
There is a certain optimism within the resort industry about Las Vegas’s ability to once again come roaring back as a tourist destination.
Las Vegas has already, essentially, been at the capacity allowed under the state’s emergency directives for some of the recent three- and four-day weekends, Vassiliadis said. World of Concrete is slated to be the first major convention to return to Las Vegas in June, and Cirque du Soleil is hoping to bring back its aquatic acrobatics show “O” at the Bellagio by July.
Tourism officials say the old notion of Las Vegas — a great escape in the desert where fun and freedom trump judgment — could be the very reason it will bounce back more quickly than other destinations. Sure, it might currently lack some of the traditional offerings. Nightclubs, for instance, aren’t jam-packed with partygoers on the dance floor. But the sunshine, warm weather, dining and gambling options might be enough to lure travel-hungry guests, even if other entertainment options are somewhat limited.
“People want to see family and then they want to get away, and when they want to get away, Vegas tops that list,” said Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Of course, this all boils down to people’s willingness to travel. Vaccine deployment will play a crucial role boosting that confidence level, state leaders say. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t exactly given would-be tourists its blessing. The nation’s top health authority recently issued guidance discouraging travel among fully vaccinated people — a point that has received pushback from some within the travel and health industries.
Plus, it’s unclear whether COVID-19 cases will remain at their current plateau or see a springtime surge as a result of the increasing spread of variants and loosening restrictions. In Las Vegas, tourism outpaced projections when casinos initially reopened last summer but then took a nosedive toward the end of the year as coronavirus cases multiplied again.
“I'm pretty optimistic about the direction we're headed in now,” Hill said. “But we didn't anticipate the extreme nature of the spikes that we saw around Thanksgiving and Christmas and how much damage that did to the economy here.”
Another variable: the return of business meetings and conventions, which boost the economy during off-peak travel seasons. There’s even hope that some conventions might return to Las Vegas in the second half of 2021 and then return during their normally scheduled time in early 2022.
The Las Vegas they return to, however, will likely look a little different. Resorts have more eagerly embraced new technologies, such as remote check-in and keyless hotel room entry. In the case of MGM Resorts, a partnership with Clorox as the resorts’ “official guest disinfectant and hand sanitizer brand” is now a selling point.
Jim Murren, former CEO of MGM Resorts, envisions Las Vegas marketing itself as the “preeminent health safety tourist destination in America” — even beyond what resorts are already doing.
“When you do that ... we rip conferences and conventions away from Atlanta and Miami and New York and Chicago and Dallas and LA,” Murren said. “If they have a choice of listening to Lady Gaga in LA versus Vegas, and we can market that it’s safer to do it here, they’re going to come here.”
There is, however, less optimism about the future beyond the Las Vegas Strip. It’s not that state officials don’t believe Nevada’s economic situation will improve across the state — they do — but they worry about the small businesses and workers getting left behind.
Lawmakers have taken steps to help, including authorizing $100 million for the Pandemic Emergency Technical Support (PETS) grant. They hope $10,000 or $20,000 cash infusions backed by federal dollars will keep thousands of small businesses alive.
“It's always easier to keep what you've got … You're so much better off doing that and trying to spur new startups,” said Bob Potts, deputy director with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “The recovery side of things — that has to be paramount.”
Sisolak is hopeful he will be able to work with the Legislature to fix the longstanding problems with the state’s unemployment system. A computer modernization project that could cost up to $50 million is on tap for the next few years pending availability of funding, and a “strike force” led by former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley made extensive recommendations for how DETR could be better prepared to scale up staffing if another crisis hits as suddenly as COVID.
“Prepare for war in times of peace,” Tyler-Garner advised. “I couldn't underscore more the need to ensure that we're always planning to strengthen our systems, because we never know what the demand might be in the future.”
But there’s also an acknowledgement among many in the state that Nevada’s problems run deeper, and that recovery cannot begin and end with Nevada’s tourism industry, or even with fixing the state’s unemployment system. The goal, they believe, has to be a long-term fundamental shift in thinking about the state’s economy. Murren, who became the CEO of MGM Resorts during the Great Recession, recalled seeing the “economic, social, mental, physical devastation of our community” because of Nevada’s reliance on one industry for a significant chunk of its tax revenue.
“Here we are again, and what did we learn? It seems very little,” Murren said. “Whenever things are doing well here in our state, there seems to be this expectation that they'll always be that way and that we should just not rock the boat.”
Tyler-Garner said before the pandemic, she had been working on how DETR would respond to problems that lurked just below the surface of the state’s illustrious unemployment rate: Wage stagnation. Jobs without adequate benefits. Dramatically higher unemployment in subgroups such as the formerly incarcerated.
“Some of the families that were already working two or three low wage jobs ... I shudder to think of what is happening to those families right now,” she said. “Those segments of our community were invisible.”
For Buckley, who runs Legal Aid of Southern Nevada as her day job and has seen the agency deal with a record of nearly 163,000 clients in 2020 in a region of a little more than 2 million, the pandemic has highlighted the need to invest further in the safety net and — deeper than that — Nevada schools.
“I think that key leadership throughout our state do recognize our shortcomings and are working on plans to change our over reliance on gaming and hospitality,” she said. “But as many have pointed out, it means more of an investment is needed in education and in our schools, to allow us to compete.”
That’s, in part, why the governor’s private-sector COVID-19 task force, which has in the last year helped the state secure personal protective equipment, ramp up testing, build out a contact tracing app and bridge the digital divide for students, plans to focus next on workforce recovery. Nevada was also one of nine states awarded up to $100,000 in grant funding through the National Governors Association to help states prepare for a post-COVID economy.
But Murren, who chairs the task force, believes economic diversification will only happen in Nevada if and when the state chooses to make a significant investment into the quality of life of its residents, including supporting education, health and safety, the elderly and homeless individuals. And he believes it will take the support of everyday Nevadans, too.
“What makes me incredibly angry is that so many people move to our state to avail themselves to our lifestyle, to our weather, to our natural beauty, to our entertainment, to what is great about Nevada, but they don’t contribute to it,” Murren said. “The will of the people seems to be that we don’t want taxes, or little taxes, or we don’t want to raise any revenue, any form of proper investment. Then, you get what you get in Carson City as well.”
Nevada’s budget was already slim to begin with, and it became even slimmer when lawmakers cut nearly a billion dollars from the state’s budget over the summer. That included hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on health care and education. Though Nevada received nearly $25 billion in federal aid in the last year, state officials felt like they were constantly worrying about how to pay for needed services.
“Nevada doesn’t have a huge safety net to provide on the best of days, and that’s the reality of it,” said White, the governor’s chief of staff. “That’s the hard reality of it.”
That reality is visible in places like the Culinary Academy’s parking lot. Its food distribution operation is called Helping Hand, and Scott, the organization’s CEO, said it’s not time to let go yet. The Culinary Academy anticipates providing food assistance to needy families through the end of the year in some form.
Scott knows community members remain appreciative.
It’s not uncommon, he said, to find notes of gratitude waiting in the vehicles’ trunks.
As Nevada grappled with the effects of the pandemic, the gaming industry’s revenue dropped to $18.3 billion in the 2020 fiscal year, down 25.2 percent from $24.5 billion in the previous year, according to a new report from the Gaming Control Board.
The 179-page Nevada Gaming Abstract, which was released Friday, included data on the revenue made from gaming, rooms, food and beverage, and other sources by the 267 casinos that earned more than $1 million in gaming revenue during the fiscal year ending in June 2020. The number of businesses represented in the 2020 report — 267 licensees — marked a decline from the 290 included in the previous year’s report.
“The 2020 Nevada Gaming Abstract reinforces what we’ve known all along – that Nevada’s economic engine and largest taxpayer and employment sector has been devastated by the continuing impacts of the pandemic,” said Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association, in a statement provided to The Nevada Independent.
With statewide revenue down $6.2 billion from the previous year, the gaming industry also significantly cut expenses.
Across all categories listed, payroll costs in the 2020 fiscal year decreased by approximately $215 million over the previous year. The decrease in payroll was matched by a significant loss in jobs during that same period, as the average number of employees in all departments dropped from 162,066 to 135,926.
A lightened payroll also brought the statewide general and administrative expenses down from $10.1 billion in the 2019 fiscal year to just $5.5 billion the following year. With expenses down significantly, the industry’s profit as a whole increased from $2.1 billion to $2.9 billion year over year.
Michael Lawton, a senior research analyst for the Gaming Control Board, said in an email that the increase in profit also came because of several large real estate sales recorded in the Las Vegas Strip area.
The revenue from those sales, including the sale of the MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay properties by MGM Resorts International to the Blackstone Group Inc. in a $4.6 billion deal, helped counteract the significant losses in gaming revenue.
The report also showed the significant effect that the pandemic shutdown had on the revenue made from rooms. In April 2020, only 2.4 percent of available rooms were filled at the casinos in the report, a massive drop from April 2019, when 87.2 percent of rooms were filled. With far fewer rooms occupied during the second quarter of 2020, the revenue from rooms dropped by 26.8 percent from the 2019 to 2020 fiscal year.
Casino earnings from food and beverage sales dropped similarly. Across the state, revenue from food sales was down 25.8 percent, and revenue from beverage sales was down 28.7 percent, from the previous year.
The casinos on the Las Vegas Strip were more affected than casinos in any other part of the state, as they had the largest decrease in revenue by percent from the 2019 to 2020 fiscal year, dropping 26.7 percent. However, with extra money coming in from real estate transactions, the Las Vegas Strip was also the area with the largest percentage increase in profit, with an increase of 162.1 percent compared to the previous year.
Because of that large increase and the number of major casinos in the area, the Las Vegas Strip accounted for $2.7 billion of the statewide industry’s $2.9 billion profit. In the previous fiscal year, the Las Vegas Strip accounted for $1 billion of the statewide $2.1 billion in profit.
Even as other areas remained profitable, the gaming industry in the rest of the state fared much worse, as casinos in downtown Las Vegas, Laughlin, Washoe County and Elko County all saw significant drops in profit from the 2019 to 2020 fiscal year.
The pandemic has affected the current fiscal year in a variety of ways, from the cancellation of events to capacity limits at venues to reduced travel. The next annual financial report on the gaming industry could paint a similar picture of decreased gaming revenues and low room occupancy rates.
But some are hopeful that a desire for travel and entertainment will help with the industry’s recovery this year. At last week’s Preview Las Vegas 2021, CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority Steve Hill said he thinks people will likely feel more comfortable with traveling by the second quarter of 2021. Valentine also noted the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
“A critical component of our recovery depends on the distribution and acceptance of the vaccine,” Valentine said. “The sooner hospitality employees, which represent roughly one in every four Nevada jobs, can be vaccinated, the swifter we can restore our tourism-based economy, welcome back large events and trade shows, reopen dormant businesses and bring more Nevadans back to work.”
As Nevada lawmakers publicly debate cutting $1.2 billion from the state’s budget, the business community, progressive activists and unions are behind the scenes pressing lawmakers to consider a host of proposals from criminal justice reform to liability protection during a second special session.
Although lobbyists and members of the public have been barred from the physical legislative building, a host of interest groups are making their demands known and pushing for their priorities to be included in the proclamation that will establish the parameters of what lawmakers can consider in their second special session. Gov. Steve Sisolak is expected to call the next session once lawmakers finish finalizing cuts to the state budget during the first special session, which started Wednesday.
In announcing the first special session, Sisolak said that he planned to issue a subsequent proclamation to “consider policy items that rise to the extraordinary occasion of a special session.”
Although Sisolak and top legislative Democrats have previously expressed interest in taking up topics related to police misconduct and criminal justice reform, a host of other potential special session topics have bubbled to the surface, including efforts by some of the state’s top businesses and casinos to include liability protection for businesses against COVID-19 related lawsuits. Other possible topics include election reform and worker protections.
Here’s a look at proposals that are being pushed for behind the scenes.
COVID liability protection
A consortium of powerful business groups — including the Nevada Resort Association, Vegas Chamber of Commerce, Nevada Builders and Retail Association of Nevada and others — launched the hashtag #ProtectNVJobs on Saturday to promote adding liability protections for businesses against COVID-19 related lawsuits.
But the effort to bring the topic of COVID-19 related liability to the special session has been in the works since before Saturday.
Backers of the now-public effort — which is also mirrored on a federal law — say it’s necessary to protect against frivolous lawsuits aimed at businesses struggling to reopen their doors and attract customers amid the state’s new health and safety requirements during the reopening process.
“Businesses have been financially hit hard by this pandemic. We need to make it easier - not harder - for them to recover and preserve jobs,” Vegas Chamber president and CEO Mary Beth Sewald said in an email. “The Vegas Chamber is urging the Governor and legislators to pass this legislation as soon as possible as a major step forward in rebuilding our fragile economy,"
Legislators in both political parties have said they’re open to the concept. Democratic Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson said on a call with members of the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce prior to the legislative session that many lawmakers had a “comfortable level with ensuring that we have language in the law so that employers are protected,” while keeping in place gross negligence standards.
Republican Sen. Heidi Gansert, who sent out a campaign email prior to the start of the special session last week listing “COVID19 liability reform” as a pressing topic, said Monday that “the longer businesses are open without protection, the greater the threat.”
She added that she had heard radio advertisements for potential lawsuits against long-term care facilities related to their COVID-19 response, and wanted to avoid the issue by nipping it in the bud.
“If there's an opportunity, we're anticipating that the lawsuits will follow,” she said.
The Nevada Resort Association, the politically powerful trade group representing many large casino gaming properties, has also publicly backed the concept of liability protections related to the coronavirus.
The group’s president, Virginia Valentine, sent a letter to Sisolak last Wednesday asking the governor to take up liability protections during the upcoming legislative special session, writing that the “risk of frivolous litigation that mounts each day threatens the Resort Industry’s continued operations.”
“We ask you to consider enacting a targeted and limited safe harbor from liability for companies that implement strict public health guidelines related to the transmission of COVID-19,” she wrote in the letter. “Nevada businesses cannot wait any longer for purported federal action.”
In a statement sent Monday, she said that the resort association was concerned with the “threat of opportunistic lawsuits that would derail our ability to bounce back from the economic crisis and further threaten Nevada jobs.”
“Given the importance of this issue and the need for immediate action, we’ve asked the Governor and legislative leaders to bring liability protections up for discussion during a special session,” she wrote in an email. “Without liability protections, large and small businesses face a daunting choice of closing or staying closed and risking bankruptcy or reopening and risking a business-crippling lawsuit – any of which will only further damage Nevada’s already fragile economy.”
But the Nevada Justice Association, a trade group composed of trial attorneys, sent a separate letter to Sisolak on Friday urging the governor to not “incentivize unsafe practices,” and to avoid rewarding “those businesses who engage in unsafe practices and penalize Nevada workers, consumers and tourists who contract COVID-19 because of those unsafe practices.”
The letter stated that the association wants to find common ground with the state’s business community on the issue, and included several proposals including:
A heightened fraud-level pleading standard, which would require lawsuits be pled with “particularity,” with the intent of allowing frivolous lawsuits to be more easily and summarily dismissed
Creating a “rebuttable presumption” standard, meaning that any business following the rules is presumed to have no liability, and thus immune from negligence lawsuits
Allowing workers who return to work and contract COVID-19 to have a rebuttable presumption that they obtained the virus from their workplace. The group said that would ensure contracting COVID-19 is covered under the state’s worker’s compensation law, and that it “will provide comfort in knowing they will be cared for were they to become sick upon returning to work.”
Attorney Matthew Sharp, who serves as a board member on the group, said the state’s current laws around negligence were adequate to cover any potential lawsuits related to the pandemic, and that the state had bigger issues to face during the current pandemic.
“You're searching for a problem that already has a solution,” he said. “That's why I don't think a special session is necessary; the law already provides the solution.”
Several left-leaning groups also panned the proposal, saying that legislators should focus on protections for workers and not cover for businesses that do not take proper precautionary and safety steps. Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada Executive Director Laura Martin said her organization was staunchly opposed to the proposal, instead saying legislators should take up topics such as police reform, vote-by-mail, ballot collection for tribes and evictions.
“Protections for unfounded liability already exist and it’s up to the courts to decide whether or not a lawsuit is warranted, not for-profit businesses,” she said in an email. “Nevadans are dying and the only thing these corporations care about are being shielded from lawsuits. What a shame.”
A spokeswoman for Sisolak did not return an email asking whether the governor planned to include that item on a special session proclamation.
Adolfo Fernandez bill
Casino workers, however, are pushing their own bill headed into the second special session.
The Culinary Union, which represents 60,000 workers in Las Vegas and Reno, has proposed legislation that would require enhanced cleaning procedures, mandatory social distancing, free testing for all workers before going back to work or after being exposed to someone with COVID-19, temperature checks for workers, detailed plans for how to respond when a worker contracts the virus or is exposed to someone who has it and additional safety training for all employees.
The union has nicknamed the legislation the Adolfo Fernandez Bill after the 51-year-old utility porter at Caesars Palace who passed away last month after contracting COVID-19. His daughter, Irma Fernandez, shared in a statement the concerns her father had about returning to work amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“My father would tell me every day ‘I’m gonna get sick - the company is not keeping us safe.’ He would constantly tell me how stressed out he was,” she said. “He would call me on his break all the time to tell me about what was going on and how he was feeling. He would say that he didn’t want to go back to work, but he had to because he needed to financially support his family.”
Nineteen Culinary Union workers and members of their family have died after contracting COVID-19, according to the union. In advance of the special session, Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the union’s secretary-treasurer, sent Gov. Steve Sisolak a draft of the bill and a letter urging him to place it on the agenda for consideration.
“In these uncertain times, it is imperative that we protect Nevada’s workers, tourists, and economy,” Argüello-Kline said “Another economic shutdown could have disastrous effects on our economy which would make recovery even harder. We believe that the measures in the Adolfo Fernandez Bill would put Nevada on the path towards a full economic recovery.”
The finer details of the bill, however, are not yet clear. Neither the Culinary Union nor the governor’s office responded on Monday to The Nevada Independent’s request for the union’s draft language of the bill.
Advocates working on expanded voting access want to see legislators adopt policies that vastly expand mail-in voting and send a postage-paid ballot to all active voters and potentially inactive registered voters, too.
While Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske ordered the mostly mail approach for the June primary, the setup of November’s election remains undetermined. Clark County Registrar Joe Gloria is open to repeating the mostly mail election, but advocates don’t want the policy enshrined only in emergency directives or at the discretion of individual clerks.
“Then it kind of gives everybody room for interpretation,” said Emily Zamora of Silver State Voices, a voter rights advocacy group.
Zamora said advocates are also interested in expanding the number of ballot drop-off sites for voters who are uncomfortable dropping their mail-in ballot in a mailbox. Voters had the option of dropping off their ballots at in-person early voting and Election Day sites, but Zamora said the drop-off box plan wouldn’t necessarily align with the early voting sites.
Another ask — her group is hoping for policies that would allow people to turn in ballots for people beyond just themselves and their immediate family. Rules against “ballot harvesting” prevent that, but Zamora said it adversely affects people who live in remote areas including Indian reservations, which have been in lockdown for some of the pandemic.
She said she’s received positive cues from multiple legislators that there’s an appetite to take up election reform during a special session.
“I think folks overall did walk away from the primary election really with the understanding that we can do better for the general,” she said.
Criminal justice reform
Republican Assemblyman Tom Roberts, a former Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department assistant sheriff, said he hasn’t seen language of any proposals from Democratic leadership as of Monday, but said he believed draft language of a proposal existed and was being worked on.
Nonetheless, Roberts said that there were a litany of possible changes that could garner bipartisan buy-in, including:
Adding more community members to various law enforcement advisory boards in the state
Changes to the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training agency to add citizen participation and review misconduct
Changes to use-of-force policies, including limits on vascular neck restraints and requiring training on “duty to intervene.”
Roberts said that the truncated nature of special sessions made it hard to delve into complex policy issues in a limited time. Additional pressure to not draw out a second special session comes from the lack of input from the public owing to limits on entering the physical legislative building, as well as the recent COVID-19 positive test of a legislator.
“There might be some things that you might be able to know right away from feedback that you got from stakeholders on both sides of the issue, that you might be able to find some middle ground and make some changes now, and then come back for some more substantial discussion about some of the more complex issues,” he said on Monday. But, you know, I think there could be room for some, but really some of the really more complex things, we probably should or could wait.”
Holly Welborn, policy director at ACLU of Nevada, said the reforms her organization is seeking to get passed during the special session don’t even scratch the surface of criminal justice reform needed in Nevada. But she said it would be “more than a disappointment” if legislators did not pass something in the wake of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
“The community is demanding action, and if there isn’t action at a time when this group of legislators is convened, that is going to be a failure for the community,” she said.
One of the most discussed potential reforms is a repeal of provisions in SB242 — a bill sponsored by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro in the 2019 session that, among other things, bars comments police officers make during an internal investigation from discovery in any civil litigation stemming from misconduct. With officers seldom facing criminal charges when people die at the hands of police, removing the provision would make it easier to hold officers accountable civilly.
“They’re definitely open to discussing the problems with the bill,” she said about legislative leaders.
ACLU leaders are also calling for a ban on chokeholds, mandatory collection of data on police activity in Nevada by demographics, and legislation that would mandate independent, rather than internal, investigations into police misconduct.
While the ACLU has signed on in support of a call for repealing the death penalty, Welborn acknowledged that the request was a “heavier lift” and something like banning chokeholds or addressing SB242 is more “low-hanging fruit.”
The Nevada Resort Association has filed to intervene and oppose a federal lawsuit seeking more time to collect petition signatures for an independent redistricting commission ballot question.
The politically powerful trade association of the state’s largest casino resort companies filed to intervene in the lawsuit last week, along with a politically connected Las Vegas pastor who is actively suing over the ballot question’s language in state court.
The motion to intervene doesn’t challenge the merits of the ballot question supported by Fair Maps Nevada, which seeks to adopt a constitutional amendment moving the responsibility for Nevada’s once-a-decade redistricting process from the Legislature to an independent, bipartisan commission.
Instead, the group is asking to intervene in the lawsuit because it opposes allowing electronic signatures and an extension of the signature-collecting deadline; two things that it says would harm its ability to challenge other proposed initiatives — including one seeking to raise the gaming tax — and disregard protections in state law.
“The NRA and its members will be directly and adversely affected if an initiative petition is permitted to qualify for the ballot, despite the fact that it does not comply with Nevada law because, for example, signatures are turned in late, or it contains fraudulent signatures,” Nevada Resorts Association head Virginia Valentine said in court documents. “The NRA and its members would be harmed because they would have to expend resources in a campaign that, if the law were followed, would never have occurred.”
The proposed ballot question was first introduced in November 2019, when the League of Women Voters of Nevada and the Brennan Center for Justice filed initial paperwork with the secretary of state’s office. Approval of the initiative would create a seven-member redistricting commission with the power to draw legislative and congressional maps, but wouldn’t come online until 2023.
That’s because Nevada law requires any constitutional amendment to be passed by voters in two subsequent elections, meaning the soonest the amendment and new commission could get to work would be in 2023 — two years after the Legislature is scheduled to approve new electoral maps following results of the 2020 federal Census.
But the measure was almost immediately challenged by a politically connected Las Vegas pastor, Rev. Leonard Jackson, who soon after filed a lawsuit challenging the “Description of Effect” listed on all petition signing forms. That matter is still pending before the Nevada Supreme Court.
Earlier this month, Fair Maps Nevada filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking both the ability to collect signatures electronically and pushing back the deadline to turn in signatures, stating that emergency shutdown orders made in light of the COVID-19 pandemic should afford them more flexibility in signature gathering efforts. In order to qualify, backers of the measure need to collect at least 97,598 signatures by June 24.
In their motion to intervene in the federal case, attorneys for the resort association and Jackson wrote that allowing electronic signature collection or an extended deadline to gather signatures “would effectively gut the safeguards in Nevada law” protecting against fraud.
“If the Plaintiffs are permitted to electronically gather signatures, this would directly contravene clear requirements of Nevada law,” they wrote in the filing. “It would open the door to exactly the kind of ‘massive fraud’ that the statutes were intended to prevent.”
The resort association filed a lawsuit in February challenging the language used in a proposed initiative by the Clark County Education Association to raise the state’s gaming tax to help fund K-12 education. That lawsuit is also still pending in the Nevada Supreme Court.
In a response filed on Tuesday, attorneys for Fair Maps Nevada said the court should reject the motion to intervene for both parties, saying it would result in “additional and unnecessary parties reiterating arguments made by the named defendants.”
For the resort association, the attorneys wrote that the group did not have standing to intervene because it was opposing a statutory, as opposed to constitutional, initiative in state court, which operate on different timeframes.
“There will be two years between submission of the Gaming Tax Initiative for verification and the general election in connection with which it will appear on the ballot,” they wrote. “Therefore, even if there is a protectable interest in litigating a verification challenge to completion, that interest will not be subject to any shortened time period for resolution.”
A telephonic hearing has been set for Thursday at 10 a.m. in Judge Miranda Du’s courtroom.
A contentious $30 million, 10-year marketing deal between the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Las Vegas Raiders is still on the table after two months of delay, but several members of an advisory panel that was tasked to review the agreement have raised questions about how cost-effective it is.
The deal — a multi-year contract for digital and physical advertising and other outreach perks involving Raiders branding and team members — was discussed Wednesday during a two-hour presentation on the agency’s conservation efforts to date. Business and conservation voices on the Integrated Resource Planning Advisory Committee brought up several concerns about the contract, including its target audience and unpredictable outcomes in customer behavior.
“Looking at where that advertising is happening … Is it the people in the Las Vegas Valley who need to hear it or is it a stadium full of people from out of state?” asked Andy Maggi, a committee member and executive director of the Nevada Conservation League. “I think differentiating where the targeting is happening, with that amount of money, is very important.”
Two committee members, Nevada Resort Association chief Virginia Valentine and economist John Restrepo, agreed that the proposed outreach and marketing efforts do not guarantee that customers will conserve more water.
“I don’t know how you tease out, with the Raiders sponsorship, enhanced compliance,” Valentine said. “If enhanced compliance means getting people to not water on Sunday, and all the stuff in the campaign is geared toward the [Vegas Golden] Knights or Raiders telling you not to water on Sunday, it seems like a really difficult thing to measure.”
Valentine also expressed concern about the length of the contract, saying that changes in technology might provide more efficient conservation means that would have more predictable returns on investment than the Raiders outreach effort might have.
Officials have said that the marketing campaign would allow the water authority to reach an estimated 169 million impressions and would yield an annual average estimated water savings of 900 million gallons.
General Manager John Entsminger said that outreach efforts cannot be quantified in terms of gallons per capita per day (GPCD) customers use, but that outreach efforts provide a needed boost to achieve the water authority’s 105 GPCD benchmark goal. In 2018, the GPCD was hovering around that, at 113.
The contract, which the water authority board and the Raiders have been negotiating since July, had not been presented to the committee for consideration prior to Wednesday’s meeting, according to water authority public services senior manager Scott Huntley. It was initially scheduled for approval during the November meeting of the full SNWA board, but was re-scheduled for the advisory board’s meeting in January.
Huntley said the decision on the Raiders deal, which was presented to the advisory committee as part of the conservation package presented on Wednesday, was deferred so that the board could “take the temperature” of the committee before proceeding.
The advisory committee is expected to produce a recommendation report on all conservation strategies proposed to the committee by March. Depending on those recommendations, the board may choose to act on the Raiders deal as a separate item, or group the multi-million dollar contract in with the larger conservation package that was presented to the committee on Wednesday — similar to marketing deals between the authority and the Vegas Golden Knights and the Aviators minor league baseball team.
Disclosure: Managing Editor Elizabeth Thompson's media consulting firm, E Thompson Media, helps produce "the Stat Pack" and "Fact Pack," a business and economic website and newsletter co-published by John Restrepo.
When Anthony Marnell III initially sought to be majority owner of a Nevada medical marijuana company in 2014, he came with an impressive résumé — he was the CEO of the billion-dollar M Resort, his family had built and run the Rio for its illustrious first decade and his father’s construction company had a hand in some of the most iconic casinos on the Strip, including the Wynn, Bellagio and Mirage.
But the Nevada Gaming Control Board put the kibosh on his plan on May 6, 2014, issuing an edict that gaming licensees must have no investment or involvement in the nascent cannabis industry. It was somewhat puzzling for executives in Nevada’s largest industry, who argued that they live and breathe compliance measures to retain the privilege of working in gaming — an industry that has overcome its unsavory past and moved to the respected mainstream in large part because of the rigor of state regulation.
Casinos must ensure minors and card cheats stay out and report any suspected money laundering to the federal government. Prospective licensees go through a vetting process that might best be described as invasive — it includes online and in-person background checks, meetings with gaming regulators in other jurisdictions and a review of all investments, bankruptcies, real estate and even flight logs.
“There is nobody that I can think of that is more qualified to operate what I see as a very highly regulated industry other than a gaming licensee,” Marnell told the Nevada Gaming Commission in 2014. “We are the most investigated, vetted people in the state of Nevada. I have held several security clearances at the federal level … and none of them were as strenuous or as difficult or as thorough as the Nevada Gaming Control Board's process.”
In the end, Marnell withdrew his marijuana plans to stay in gaming, and regulators have not budged on their bright line. But the casino sector has still left its mark on the cannabis industry — its veterans are filling out the leadership teams of marijuana companies, and its regulatory regime is the model that the state hopes to emulate for cannabis.
State records released this spring through SB32 show several former casino executives, casino developers and restaurateurs with a presence inside of casinos as marijuana company owners and board members, along with some who appear to be currently employed by gaming companies. It speaks to the cash and business acumen required to succeed in the marijuana world, where the lack of traditional banking infrastructure has limited access into the industry, and the appeal of a new industry to entrepreneurs and risk-takers who want to get in on the ground floor.
“It has all kinds of upward possibilities. Gaming has become very white shoe,” said Tisha Black, an attorney and president of the Nevada Dispensary Association whose father, developer and former casino executive Randy Black, took over at the Clear River marijuana company when Marnell stepped back.
But the presence of gaming-affiliated players is also indicative of their success in staying on the good side of a strict regulatory structure.
In 2014, when Gov. Steve Sisolak was making zoning and licensing decisions as then-chair of the Clark County Commission, he said he “put a silver star on every one of the people applying for medical marijuana license who have a Nevada gaming license because they have been vetted.”
Relative to out-of-state applicants, he said, those in the Nevada gaming business are less likely to be fly-by-night characters or flight risks should trouble arise. Black agrees.
“Where you see those guys that were pillars of the community — in my mind it makes sense that they were some of the original licenses, because they’re a known commodity, they have roots here,” she said.
Veterans of gaming are also attractive additions to ownership teams because of their experience in a more mature industry.
“You see the people who used to be in gaming bring their influence, and pretty much when they say this is how you do it in gaming, everyone listens,” said Riana Durrett, executive director of the Nevada Dispensary Association. “If they were previously in gaming or they had gaming clients, that’s very influential.”
The Las Vegas Strip as seen Monday, April 10, 2017 while traffic travels near Interstate 15 and Russell Road. Photo by Jeff Scheid.
The great divide
Since the 2014 edict, there have been little more than baby steps in allowing overlap between gaming interests and pot.
Early on, regulators cracked down on people who straddle both industries, blocking slot route operator Nevada Gaming Partners from serving a restaurant in 2014 because the wife of the owner had a minority stake in a medical marijuana company GB Sciences. Regulators said that even if the couple’s businesses were separate enough to satisfy legal requirements, it wasn’t enough to satisfy "the spirit of the notice."
“When the notice was sent out to the industry in 2014 that said you can’t play in both sandboxes, most everyone took that to heart,” said Jennifer Roberts, former associate director of UNLV’s International Center for Gaming Regulation and a lawyer for Nevada Gaming Partners at the time.
Other gaming licensees acknowledged that they needed to choose between one industry or the other.
Troy Herbst had a 10 percent stake in The Clinic, a marijuana company, and was also a partner in slot route operator JETT gaming. The slot route was a gaming venture for Jerry Herbst, who had already grown the gas station empire Terrible Herbst. Troy’s brother, Tim Herbst, told gaming regulators in 2014 that he would divest from gaming if he won a license, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “We’re not going to do anything to disappoint this commission,” Tim Herbst said. Troy Herbst does not have a stake in the industry as of August 2019.
Brian Greenspun, publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, gave up his interests in Greenspun Gaming LLC and G.C. Investments — which are partial owners of casinos — to family members as he took an ownership role in Integral Associates, the parent company of Essence dispensaries. He has also recently withdrawn from the marijuana industry and is no longer listed as an owner.
The bright line between the two industries was reinforced through the work of the Nevada Gaming Policy Committee, a group that included then-Gov. Brian Sandoval. The panel’s 2017 workshop on the topic outlined myriad reasons why casinos can’t be landlords for cannabis businesses, accept marijuana money, or in any way be affiliated with the substance.
Because marijuana is still considered a Schedule I controlled substance by the federal government, even basic actions by a financial institution — a category that includes casinos — can run afoul of federal law. Potential crimes include possessing any kind of equipment needed to produce or sell marijuana, using a phone or email to facilitate any operation of a marijuana business, leasing or otherwise controlling the property where marijuana is cultivated or sold; reinvesting the proceeds of a marijuana business into any other business, and any financial transaction at all that involves more than $10,000 in proceeds from a marijuana business.
Interacting with an illegal industry could mean steep fines, asset forfeiture and prison sentences. Those risks have kept casinos out of cannabis, and regulators holding a line.
“I think that gaming, because they’re now big corporate companies — they can’t. It’s brackish water for them,” Black said. “I understand the state’s concerns and its desires to protect gaming because that’s billions of dollars for the state, not only in jobs but in taxes.”
Gaming provides about three quarters of a billion dollars in tax revenue to Nevada’s general fund each year, about ten times the amount that cannabis does. The tourism industry overall — including direct, indirect and induced jobs — is responsible for about 450,000 jobs in the state.
Multinational casinos must get national and international funding that runs through the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, Black said, so dabbling in the marijuana world “could put me in direct opposition with the regulators who regulate me and the institutions that capitalize me.”
Regulators have made some efforts to clear up ambiguities. In 2018, they moved to allow the development of a tavern on property owned by a landlord who also had contracts with players in the marijuana industry. In 2017, they approved plans for an applicant who is a card-carrying medical marijuana user to expand a gaming business, and members have called for a “balanced approach” as new areas of conflict emerge.
“A regulatory framework that balances the myriad interests by carefully examining whether and to what degree gaming regulatory policy objectives are actually implicated would inure to the benefit of all involved,” Gaming Control Board member Terry Johnson wrote last fall in Nevada Gaming Lawyer magazine. “And protecting the crucial role of gaming to the Nevada economy while respecting the expressed will of Nevada voters need not be mutually exclusive.”
But gray areas persist. A review of state records by The Nevada Independent shows at least four people newly listed as owners and board members of marijuana companies as of August who appear to be current employees of gaming companies or married to licensees, but the Gaming Control Board declined to comment on whether those people are running afoul of the bright line.
“As Nevada statutes and circumstances regarding marijuana change and evolve, the Board often engages in discussions with licensees to identify solutions that will ensure they are in compliance with our gaming laws and regulations and those would be confidential under NRS 463.120,” the board said in a statement.
Another argument regulators made against mixing gaming and cannabis is that it would reflect discredit on the industry. But even five years ago, lawyers were calling that idea outdated, pointing to polls that showed a vast swath of the public in favor of at least medical marijuana if not recreational (that number is now 91 percent, according to the Pew Research Center).
“All of what we are seeing now is the public opinion is pretty clearly in favor of medical marijuana,” Reno attorney Matthew Woodhead, who was listed as a minority owner on Clear River’s original medical marijuana application, told regulators in 2014. “So the concept of reflecting discredit, to the extent it does involve public opinion, seems public opinion is on our side.”
Hundreds of people line up to purchase recreational marijuana in Nevada at Reef Dispensaries on Saturday, July 1, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.
In spite of growing public support for marijuana, Nevada is arguably becoming even more conservative in separating marijuana and gaming. This legislative session, lawmakers passed a law banning marijuana dispensaries within 1,500 feet of a gaming establishment — a buffer larger than the one voters approved between schools and dispensaries.
It was an outgrowth of a dispensary ban the Las Vegas Strip resort corridor already had, and the number mirrors the distance that Clark County escort and outcall entertainment services must be from homes, schools and places of worship. The distance also reflects the separation that pawn shops must have from the resort corridor.
In testimony to lawmakers this May, casino companies with locations in outlying areas separate from the Las Vegas Strip argued for the same buffer on the basis that it “would level the playing field, and would protect Nevada's largest industry.”
“It exacerbates guest and employee issues that we have,” Erin McMullen, a lobbyist for Boyd Gaming, said about dispensaries and casinos being in close proximity. “We have children at a number of our properties. A lot of our properties have movie theaters, bowling alleys, and we host many student sporting events.”
It had the support of the Nevada Resort Association, the influential lobbying group representing many of the largest casinos.
“We supported the 1,500 foot buffer because it separates an incompatible land use to nonrestricted [gaming licensees],” said Virginia Valentine, head of the association. “It gives us the protection we need to comply with the federal law.”
The advent of the policy has forced at least one marijuana company — Essence, coincidentally owned by former casino executives — to stand down, scrap plans to build on a lot they had already purchased across from the Peppermill casino in Reno and look for property elsewhere.
Although the approval of the buffer seemed to suggest that the marijuana industry got pushed around by its older brother gaming, Durrett notes that her association wasn’t fighting the measure, and nor were schools or other classes of buildings fighting for a larger buffer than they already had.
“We had no position on it because it impacted members differently,” she said.
The measure potentially foiled the plans of those who wanted to move closer to casinos or sell their license to a company that did, but those who were grandfathered into the zone or would be unable to move may have been happy to keep the competition out of that zone.
“I don’t think there should be a mass migration anywhere, whether it’s the gaming corridor or not," Durrett said.
But questions remain about the rationale for the buffer. Longtime Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani , who served on Sisolak’s advisory panel for the future Cannabis Compliance Board, contended there hasn’t been enough explanation for it.
“There may be some very legitimate reasons,” she said. “Let’s have that discussion out in the open. What was it tied to?”
She suspects that future business considerations are at play. If federal prohibitions on marijuana go away, casinos could eventually house dispensaries, and it would be problematic to have competition too close.
“In politics, for people that say they’re free enterprise individual, it’s always about how to stop your competition,” she said. “I’ve never found an ordinance or regulation or state law that hasn’t been advanced in order to accomplish that.”
Customers play baccarat at the Lucky Dragon hotel-casino on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. The 203-room, Asian-themed property opened last November. Photo by Jeff Scheid.
The marijuana industry is continuing to take cues from the gaming industry, which faced the same specter of a federal crackdown decades ago before building what it calls the “gold standard” of gaming regulation.
“We were under threat of federal government basically raiding our casinos and shutting them down because of organized crimes. We had to take regulation to prevent that,” Roberts said.
The state is specifically modeling its forthcoming Cannabis Compliance Board off the Gaming Control Board. Dispensaries also hope to implement some of gaming's best practices.
One of the things cannabis companies want to emulate is a policy called “minimum internal control standards.” That’s an effort to standardize certain staffing levels for accountants, recordkeeping software and other procedures to make it easier for auditors and inspectors to spot deficiencies.
“I think from the beginning it was always viewed as an aspirational goal,” Durrett said. “Not everything is analogous and comparable between the industry so some things you can’t follow the gaming model, but anywhere you can … It’s the best way to avoid federal interference.”
In spite of the divides on the books, observers say it’s also time to be honest about the fact that with marijuana use legal in Nevada, there's undoubtedly overlap such as tourists partaking in casinos. Giunchigliani said that for the safety of consumers, and to prepare for the future, there should be open conversation about how the two industries should coexist.
“I think everybody is playing a big game if they think that people are not smoking in their hotel rooms,” she said. “It’s legal, it’s not going away, they’re not going away, so how do you make it work for the customer as well as for their concerns in regard to the feds.”
Pedestrians pass Essence Cannabis Dispensary on Las Vegas Blvd. on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)
The list of owners and board members in Nevada’s marijuana industry is checkered with the names of former casino executives and others in the hospitality and entertainment sector, including strip club owners and restaurateurs. Below are some of the most notable.
Armen Yemenidjian is the co-owner of Integral Associates, widely known as Essence Cannabis Dispensary. He gave up his gaming license and roles as a former executive at the Tropicana casino in Las Vegas when he decided to transition into the cannabis market.
Beyond the three open dispensaries it has in Nevada, Essence had the highest-scoring application in all eight of the competitive jurisdictions to which it applied in 2018, winning eight additional dispensary licenses. The company’s sale to multistate operator Green Thumb Industries for $290 million closed this year.
Arguably one of the most successful players in the Nevada cannabis industry, Armen was joined by his father Alejandro “Alex” Yemenidjian, who served as president of MGM Resorts from 1995 to 1999, CEO of the company from 1999 to 2005, and CEO of the Tropicana from 2009 to 2015. He joined the Green Thumb Industries board this summer.
Tony Marnell II owns the Marnell Companies that did construction on some of the biggest resort properties in Las Vegas, and he also served as CEO of the Rio casino for its first few years. He and his son, Tony Marnell III, initially appeared on medical marijuana license applications in 2014 as owners but then dropped off.
Strip club owners have a presence in the form of Jamal Keshmiri, whose Reno-area strip club empire included the flagship Wild Orchid Gentleman’s Club that’s been a target for the city. Keshmirialso owns Ben’s Fine Wine and Spirits, which has six liquor store locations in Reno and Carson City, and is an owner with HSH Lyon LLC and High Sierra Holistics LLC. He has coached track at Reno High School and was a former track star himself.
In Southern Nevada, Peter Feinstein, a partner at Sapphire Las Vegas strip club,was a board member at Nevada Group Wellness for purposes of an unsuccessful license application. Feinstein said he thinks he was sought out to be on the board because, as holder of a privileged license for the strip club and alcohol permits, “I have a long history of being in a regulated industry.”
Several members of the bar and culinary industry are marijuana company owners. Howard Starr, an owner at Las Vegas Natural Caregivers LLC, is has been a co-owner of the Numb bar and frozen cocktail lounges at Caesars Palace and Harrah’s casino, as well as Chil’m at the Tropicana casino. He said he has since left the industry.
Michael Frey is an owner with BBMC LLC and Naturex LLC, but has owned cigar venues including Casa Fuente at The Forum Shops of Caesars Palace, the Montecristo Cigar Bar and a kiosk store at New York New York casino. He is the stepson of Las Vegas developer Irwin Molasky.
His brother, Robert Frey, is an owner at Caliente Development Company, BBMC LLC, and Naturex. He was CEO and co-founder or Pure Management Group, which at one time owned a large portfolio of nightclubs including the famous but since-closed Pure and the Pussycat Dolls Lounge at Caesars Palace, as well as Coyote Ugly in New York-New York. Earlier this year, the Frey brothers sued their partners in the marijuana business for $125 million, alleging they filed applications for dispensary licenses without them and ended up winning 11 licenses — more than any other applicant.
Restaurateurs Michael Morton and Jenna Morton is an owner with Acres cannabis, but is also the co-founder of Morton Group, which operates La Cave Wine & Food Hideaway inside Wynn Las Vegas, CRUSH inside MGM Grand and La Comida in Downtown Las Vegas.
Robert “Randy” Black, the real estate developer and owner of Black Gaming,is an owner with Clear River LLC. He divested his gaming interests, which included three resorts in Mesquite, after they were hard-hit by the recession. His daughter, Tisha Black, is the president of the Nevada Dispensary Association.
Steven Nightingale, an owner at WSCC Inc., is a former operator of the Cal-Nevada Club in Reno and also an author and philanthropist. He told the Reno Gazette-Journal he went into the marijuana business because his late friend Joe Crowley, former president of UNR, was so persuasive.
Gary Primm is an owner at Deep Roots Medical but made his fortune from the Prima Donna Resorts, which was sold to MGM Grand Inc. in 1998 for $612 million. His stepbrother Roger Primm is also involved in the same marijuana company, which has at least one dispensary open in Nevada already and won five additional licenses in 2018.
Former president of Grand Sierra Resort Steven Rosen is an owner at THC Nevada LLC and THC Productions LLC.
“I was a casino executive for over thirty-five years, which is a highly regulated industry,” he told members of the Nevada Tax Commission in January 2018. “I appreciate regulations and I understand they are there to protect the industry.”
The Southern Nevada Water Authority is delaying action until at least next year on a proposed decade-long, $30 million advertising contract that would see the public agency become a major advertiser at the future Las Vegas Raiders’s Allegiant Stadium.
Scott Huntley, an executive with the water authority, said Monday that the SNWA’s executive team had decided to move the proposed contract from the authority’s Thursday meeting and instead kick it to a January meeting of a citizen’s advisory board.
The initial version of the proposed contract would have seen the water authority pay an annual $2.5 million (with an annual 4 percent increase) to the still-under-construction Allegiant Stadium, which will house the National Football League’s Raiders franchise beginning in 2020. The construction cost of the stadium is partially financed by a 0.88 percent hotel room tax that funds a $750 million chunk of an estimated $1.9 billion cost, approved by lawmakers in a 2017 special session of the Legislature.
The contract would have made the water authority a “founding partner” with exclusive physical, television and radio advertising privileges in the new stadium, but would have marked a major expansion of the agency’s marketing and advertising budget. The water authority’s overall marketing budget for water compliance and conservation is roughly $4.9 million a year, and a spokesman for the authority said in an earlier interview that it spent only about $500,000 total in other advertising arrangements with sports teams at UNLV, minor league baseball team Las Vegas Aviators, Las Vegas Lights FC and the National Hockey League’s Golden Knights.
Huntley said the authority’s leadership had decided to take input from a recently re-formed advisory committee — composed of business and labor leaders, conservation advocates and economists — before making a decision on the contract.
“They would like to have them consider and make a recommendation regarding moving forward in this way to the board, and then consider it after the advisory committee gets a chance to make that recommendation,” Huntley said.
The board that will take the contract under advisement is called the Integrated Resource Planning Advisory Committee, which held its first meeting under its current membership in October and will include discussion on the proposed contract during its meeting in January, where it will discuss water conservation issues. The 11 members of the committee include:
Ken Evans of the Urban Chamber of Commerce
Peter Guzman of the Latin Chamber of Commerce
Boulder City resident Carol Jefferies
Nevada Conservation League Executive Director Andy Maggi
Paul Moradkhan of the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce
Tom Morley of Laborers Union Local 872
Bob Murnane of GC Wallace Engineering, on behalf of the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association
Jonas Peterson, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance
Phil Ralston of American Nevada Company
John Restrepo of RCG Economics
Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resorts Association
The proposed contract would have given the water authority wide advertising and marketing privileges — digital and physical advertising space on TV, radio and social media in both English and Spanish, sponsorship of a two-minute warning, broadcast rights for the football team’s final non-nationally televised preseason game as well as exclusive advertising rights throughout the stadium’s bathrooms. Huntley estimated that the contract would bring an estimated 169 million impressions yearly and help the water authority bring its conservation message to a larger and more diverse audience than a traditional marketing campaign.
But news of the contract attracted opposition from a variety of groups, from the libertarian-leaning Nevada Policy Research Institute to dyed-in-the-wool Democratic Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, who made his concerns with the deal known on Twitter.
“The simplest way to conserve water is to charge more and make the rates more progressive - subsidizing rates with sales tax revenue and then spending $ on advertising to encourage conservation seems counterintuitive,” he tweeted on Saturday.
Updated at 4:37 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22 to reflect that Bob Murnane is representing the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association.