By Megan Messerly and Daniel Rothberg
Gov. Steve Sisolak announced last week that there would be something “uniquely Nevadan” about the state’s reopening plan: It would empower local governments to execute it.
Sisolak, who before becoming governor chaired the Clark County Commission, lauded county governments as the “experts in their communities” and said that they are in the “best position” to implement a gradual reopening of the state’s economy. He said that the move would return the state to the “normal structure of governmental decision making,” a nod to the outsize role that local governments play in politics in Nevada compared to the one they often hold in other states.
“I come from the counties. I am the only governor in the United States who most recently served as a county commissioner before becoming governor,” Sisolak said. “I get it. I know where you’re at. I uniquely understand that counties know how to get the work done and they know what is best for their residents and what their businesses and residents need and how they operate. I have not and will not forget that.”
However, as the dust has settled from the governor’s reopening announcement, county managers and commissioners across the state have been left scratching their heads as to exactly what power they have been given.
Pershing County Commission Chair Carol Shank said that her impression from a call between the counties and the governor was that “as long as we met the Phase 1 criteria, he was going to allow the counties autonomy.”
“And next thing we get is that evening, he comes on a newscast and what I heard is all counties or none,” Shank said.
Sisolak, in his announcement, said that the restrictions counties put in place must meet or exceed the standards he will set in a new emergency directive he will issue prior to the state entering Phase 1 of its reopening plan, which the state is focused on doing on or before May 15.
However, the details of what exactly Phase 1 will look like are unclear.
Sisolak’s “Roadmap to Recovery” plan only says that some outdoor spaces, small businesses and “select retail” may open under “strict social distancing measures, hygiene, and occupancy controls.” The governor laid out more guidelines verbally at his press conference: Dine-in restaurants may be able to open, while bars, nightclubs, malls and large sporting events are a no.
But when asked whether those restrictions on large venues will be binding in Phase 1, the governor’s office released a memo saying that the governor “must issue a new emergency directive outlining statewide standards that all counties and businesses will be required to adhere to” and that the work of the governor’s Local Empowerment Advisory Panel (LEAP) would inform his final decision.
Some counties, in the absence of a clear direction from the governor, have started to fill in the blanks on their own. Churchill County, for instance, passed on Friday a four-phase reopening plan with their own guidance about which businesses will be able to open during which phases. Clark County has developed a business reopening guide filled with caveats and advising businesses to consult the governor’s office for further guidance.
Others, like Lander County, have decided to wait and see what emergency directive the governor ultimately issues before proceeding, not wanting to draft a plan only to have to scrap it if the governor’s plan conflicts with it.
“I have had discussions with some of my staff about opening plans, and it was decided we didn’t want to go out and say Business X we want an opening plan … and for them to put time and effort into an opening plan when the governor might say, ‘This is what we want,’ and we could be totally off and then they’re just going to have to do it all over again,” said Lander County Manager Keith Westengard.
At the same time, the counties have been submitting “Evaluation of Readiness for Phase 1” county surveys to LEAP, which has been tasked with advising the counties as they work to reopen. The panel is made up of Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick, Eureka County Commission Chair J.J. Goicoechea, Department of Business and Industry Director Michael Brown and representatives of the Nevada Association of Counties and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
Those reports show varying amounts of readiness to enter Phase 1. White Pine, for instance, has no active confirmed cases of COVID-19. Humboldt County, which has the most cases of COVID-19 per capita in the state, has had 18 of its 58 cases announced in the last week, though officials there argue those cases have largely been linked to private family gatherings and that opening up businesses with the proper precautions would still be safe.
Counties have also expressed varying degrees of frustration that the decision to reopen the state will be made by the governor, instead of leaving it up to each individual county to decide when to reopen.
“There are a couple of us that could open, those counties that are in a good position,” said White Pine County Commissioner Laurie Carson. “I just felt like we could at least get the ball rolling for Nevada, so we could at least start generating an economy of any kind.”
Below, The Nevada Independent explores how ready Nevada’s counties are to reopen businesses and what they are doing to prepare to allow citizens to go out in public again.
Humboldt County (34.6 cases per 10,000)
Humboldt County, with a population of about 17,000, has been hit harder than any other county in the state by the novel coronavirus. As of Wednesday, the county had 58 confirmed cases, more per capita than any other county in the state, with three deaths.
The good news, County Manager Dave Mendiola said, is that about 90 percent of the county’s cases have been contained to a couple of family gatherings. The bad news is that those cases have been overwhelmingly clustered in the county’s large Latino community, where the county has struggled to get the word out about the importance of social distancing.
“It is the Hispanic community that is the primary victims of this, and it’s unfortunate. These are my neighbors. I love them,” Mendiola said. “You can’t tell somebody else what to do in their life, but at this point in time we’re begging them to do the right thing. It wouldn’t take much.”
The county has ramped up its outreach to the Latino community by identifying several unofficial ambassadors, including a Catholic priest. But Mendiola said that the county has continued to see cases pop up even as the death toll has climbed.
“We’re trying to reach out and go literally person to person via phone calls and other ways to dig down deeper to get to each individual,” Mendiola said. “It’s been pretty devastating on that front.”
Even though the number of cases continues to grow, the county still believes it is ready to reopen, in part because contact tracing efforts have shown that the virus is not being transmitted in public settings but rather private ones.
A note on one page of the survey the county submitted to LEAP sums up the county’s position: “On the surface, it does not appear that Humboldt County is trending in a way that would encourage re-opening. However, what contact tracing has now proven is that the overwhelming majority of viral infections have occurred in non-managed (private) settings and not in managed environments.”
However, Humboldt County General Hospital CEO Karen Cole, in a letter included in the survey, noted that the number of new cases in the county has been “sporadic” and attributed irregularities to “variability in the lab test result turnaround time.”
Those factors, in addition to the availability of new testing, have made it “difficult to predict a trend of new cases with accuracy,” Cole said. Cole also wrote that while the hospital appears to have a “downward trend” in COVID-19 hospitalizations, the total number of hospitalized cases has been small, making a trend difficult to determine “with accuracy.”
The report also details how the county plans to continue its contact tracing efforts through an eight-member “Fast Team.” County health officer Dr. Charles Stringham, in another letter included in the survey, said that the county struggled to get its residents to comply with isolation orders prior to the creation of the Fast Team and now has seen “dramatic improvement.”
Stringham also said that while it is “logical” to assume that reopening businesses will lead to new COVID-19 cases, data collected by the Fast Team suggests that is not the case.
“What we are learning through the observations of our team refutes this commonly held but erroneous notion,” Stringham said. “In fact, Fast Team data shows that if non-essential businesses are well managed, that no increase in new COVID-19 cases is expected after re-openings.”
In the report, Humboldt County’s emergency manager and the hospital report being in the “green” level for personal protective equipment, meaning they have at least a 14-day supply of equipment, another criteria the state is looking at for reopening.
With all that in mind, the county is moving ahead with preparations for reopening, including sending out forms to businesses detailing what procedures they must put in place and asking them how they plan to implement them. Mendiola said that the county is hoping to collect those forms this week.
“We want to have those available so that the governor’s office or whoever is going to make that final decision will at least be able to look at those and say, ‘They have plans in place,’” Mendiola said.
However, Mendiola noted that the county will still be engaging in a robust monitoring effort even as it begins to open and could shut businesses down if they identify a cluster of cases coming from a public establishment.
“The good news is if we do have a positive case and we determine it’s come from a public facility that was reopened we can jump on top of that,” Mendiola said.
Lander County (25.1 cases per 10,000)
To the east of Humboldt County is the county with the second-highest per capita cases: Lander.
While other counties push ahead with their own reopening plans, County Manager Keith Westengard said that Lander County is waiting on the state for further direction.
“We’re doing a lot, but we need to get the written direction — not rumors or what somebody may feel is the best way to open. I just don’t want to waste time putting something together and then the governor says he wants this and ours is 180 degrees off,” Westengard said. “Once he gives direction, we will be on it real quick, and we will meet his direction and follow it for sure.”
Lander County had 14 confirmed cases as of Wednesday, the second-highest per capita rate in the state. Unlike in Humboldt, Westengard said that it’s unclear where those cases are coming from.
“It’s a little scattered,” Westengard said. “It’s not like one particular business or one particular area that they’re coming from with the people they’re coming from.”
While Westengard said there is some concern among residents about the cases, it isn’t “overwhelming.” People are, however, eager to get businesses open and running again, he said; he has even received some unsolicited reopening plans from local businesses.
“They are very anxious to get back to work,” Westengard said.
At the time Lander submitted its report to LEAP, there were nine cases in the county with a “negative trajectory of cases” over the past 14 days. Since then, the county has, however, seen five more cases reported. The report also notes that one resident has been hospitalized at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno.
The report also outlines the personal protective equipment Lander has on hand through its hospital, Battle Mountain General, and its emergency services, though it doesn’t say how long that equipment is expected to last. (Westengard said the county is “sitting pretty good” on PPE at the moment, though that could change if an outbreak cropped up.)
As far as the county’s contact tracing, the report notes the state Division of Public and Behavioral Health is currently responsible for the county’s contact tracing efforts, though Lander County is prepared to have its county health nurse, community health assistant and two employees from the local hospital start contact tracing, should the need arise, with the sheriff’s office also available to provide support.
Washoe County (21.9 cases per 10,000)
Kate Thomas, the assistant county manager, said that Washoe County, was able to “check all the boxes” in submitting its risk assessment to begin the Phase 1 reopening. This comes despite continuing to report new cases, which the county is attributing to increased testing capacity.
Thomas said that Washoe County has a plan to scale testing, isolate vulnerable populations and increase contact tracing in coordination with the cities of Reno and Sparks.
“Whatever we’ve put out will be consistent across the county,” she said.
For the most part, she said the county would follow the state’s lead once a decision is made about what can open in Phase 1, though she said the county was providing input.
According to an assessment the county provided to the LEAP team and the governor’s office, the county pointed to Nevada Hospital Association data showing a slight decrease of COVID-19 hospitalizations on a rolling seven-day average. The data also shows a steadier decrease of suspected hospitalizations. But the number of confirmed cases continued to increase at the end of April.
“Additional testing capacity has been rolled out in Washoe County over the past week, and so, it is expected that the total number of cases will rise at a higher rate,” the county reported.
The county also reported, based on hospital association data, that it had enough personal protective equipment to last 14 days, the longest period in which supplies are tracked.
The report also sheds light on personnel needs for contact tracing. The county said that the Washoe County Healthy District currently staffs about 49 individuals to conduct contact tracing, working between and 12 to 60 hours per week, but would need about 35 full-time employees, as most of the current staffers work in other health district jobs or serve in the National Guard.
The report said its staffing predictions are based on the assumption that the health district confirms an average of 20 additional coronavirus cases each day of the week. The county, the report said, is also “working to provide housing and infrastructure to sustainably support the [Washoe County Health District] with long term contact tracing.”
Once LEAP and the state have determined Phase 1, Thomas said that she predicts that the county will release its own document with enforcement information and protocols that are specific to industries, from furniture showrooms to restaurants.
Thomas said she does not envision it to be “an end-all, be-all document.”
The county, she said, would seek feedback from businesses and consider updates. The County Commission is expected to discuss reopening at their meeting Thursday morning.
Clark County (20 cases per 10,000)
Home to more than 75 percent of the state’s population, Clark County wasted no time this week in considering a draft business reopening plan to help establishments prepare for reopening in anticipation of a formal announcement from the governor.
The six-page draft plan, presented at a County Commission meeting Tuesday, includes a lengthy series of questions for businesses to consider as they decide whether they may reopen. The first, for instance, asks, “Has the Governor’s office authorized your business type and/or sector to reopen?” If they are unsure, they are directed to visit the state’s Nevada Health Response website and read the state’s phased reopening plan.
“This governor has identified that the state will reopen in phases, and so we want our businesses to recognize those phases and make sure that they fall within those guidelines,” Shani Coleman, the county’s director of community and economic development, told the commission.
The plan additionally asks businesses whether they can open in phases, adjust their store hours to minimize the risk of exposure for vulnerable populations, implement touchless payment options, allow employees to work from home, and develop a cleaning and sanitation plan, among other suggestions.
But the plan is peppered with caveats, advising businesses at multiple points to check for any additional guidance the governor may provide in his emergency declarations. Coleman described the guide as a “living, breathing document” that can be continually updated as the governor updates his recovery plan.
The document also directs businesses to guidance from the Southern Nevada Health District about how to safely open. The health district has written a series of guides including a general guide for reopening, a plan for reopening food establishments, and a body art establishment guidance document.
“We have provided that information, again, all with the understanding that a business still should be mindful of the phases that the governor’s office is putting forth and use that as direction of whether or not they should be open,” Coleman said.
Like other counties, Clark was required to submit a report to LEAP detailing how they are meeting the state’s criteria for reopening in advance of the governor making a decision about whether to enter into Phase 1. However, neither the county, the Southern Nevada Health District, the Nevada Association of Counties nor the state was able to provide that document to The Nevada Independent on Thursday.
However, some of the data points in that report, including positive cases, hospitalization and contact tracing capacity, can be extrapolated from other data sources and information previously reported.
For instance, data maintained by The Nevada Independent show that the number of new cases in the county is trending slightly downward: The county reported 1,255 new cases in the last 14 days, down from 1,340 in the 14 days before that. Hospitalizations in Southern Nevada also appear to be decreasing, according to a report from the Nevada Hospital Association.
As far as contact tracing goes, Southern Nevada Health District officials have said that they have 54 case investigators but are seeking 54 more.
Lincoln County (1.92 cases per 10,000)
Lincoln County, population about 5,200, has only had one positive case, on April 13, in an individual who was tested outside of the county. More than three weeks have since passed since that case was confirmed, meaning the county automatically meets the criteria for a downward trajectory in both positive cases and hospitalizations over the last 14 days.
The county’s report to LEAP notes that it has about 7,000 N-95 masks on hand, 1,000 isolation masks, 250 face shields, and 34,000 gloves on hand and that it checks its inventory of personal protective equipment two to three times a week, with purchase agreements set up to help with restocking.
According to the report, the state Division of Public and Behavioral Health provides contact tracing for Lincoln County, though the county has one contact tracer staffed by its local hospital, Grover C. Dils Medical Center, and two others available if the need arises.
Mineral County (8.9 cases per 10,000)
Mineral County, as of Wednesday, had only four confirmed COVID-19 cases, all of whom have recovered, including one patient who had been hospitalized. The last case was diagnosed on April 20.
The report the county submitted to LEAP outlines the amount of personal protective equipment the county has on hand, noting that the county’s office of emergency management is monitoring its daily PPE counts and burn rates and has plans in place to request additional supplies if needed. It does not, however, say how long the current supply of PPE will last.
As far as contact tracing, Mineral County had two staff dedicated to contact tracing before the pandemic, and those two individuals are continuing in that capacity. The report notes, however, that based on the county’s population, which is about 4,500, and the state’s requirement that all cases and their contacts be traced within 24 hours, the county actually only requires one contact tracer.
In the event that the county needs additional help with contact tracing, the county health officer plans to train a deputy registrar to assist with the role.
Nye County (8.6 cases per 10,000)
Like many counties, leaders in Nye County acknowledge the “pressure” to reopen quickly.
“There are very few who want to stay closed and very many who want to re-open,” said County Manager Tim Sutton, describing the sentiment in Nevada’s largest county by land mass.
Despite raising some issues around the procurement of personal protective equipment in its assessment, Sutton said the county is ready to begin a phased re-opening. He expects the county commission will begin discussing a reopening plan once the state provides more direction on what Phase 1 will look like.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a long-term decline,” he said, adding that he thought the county, which has reported 42 cases, mostly in the town of Pahrump, was past its “big spike.”
The assessment noted, however, that the county’s emergency management department “has not received all requested PPE” and “has been unable to fully supply all of the organizations and agencies that have submitted resource requests.” Sutton, in an interview Wednesday, said that the issue has “improved” and requests that were backlogged are now being fulfilled.
The report says the burn rate for Nye County’s first responders is about 100 N-95 and surgical masks every week, meaning its current supplies will last for about one week to 10 days.
“We anticipate an increase in burn rates as we open our economy and further potential exposures increase,” the county reported to the governor’s office.
As a result, the report said that the county will continue placing orders for PPE and soliciting donations. The county has received PPE from FEMA, the state and county supplies. It has also received protective equipment from corporate and citizen donations.
According to the report, Nye County had not conducted contact tracing before the pandemic, but county officials wrote that the jurisdiction “has embraced a proactive approach to testing.”
The county’s contact tracing capacity has grown to eight tracers, according to the report. Two tracers came from Nye County and six from the Division of Public and Behavioral Health.
Nye County plans to conduct contact tracing “for the next nine months” and could need an additional five tracers. Sutton said that the county’s interagency COVID-19 task force plans to continue meeting every day. The task force includes Sutton, the county emergency manager, the county commission chair, the health officer and representatives from law enforcement.
Despite the pressure for a quick opening, Sutton said the county needs to be “very careful.” He said the county commission plans to discuss guidelines that are “smart and effective.”
“We maintain a close eye on the situation,” he said.
Quad Counties (6.7 cases per 10,000)
Lyon County Manager Jeff Page says his residents are frustrated.
“The political view in Lyon County and, I would imagine most of rural Nevada, is open everything up,” Page said. “That is not a reality, and I recognize that.”
Carson City Mayor Bob Crowell says his residents also want businesses to open up again but are on the whole being “pretty careful.”
“We get some people who are very concerned about business. We all get that and certainly I understand that. I’ve been in that position before where your business gets shut down,” Crowell said. “But other than that, there are a whole lot of people who want to do the right thing.”
Lyon County and Carson City, along with Douglas and Storey counties, make up what are known for emergency response purposes as the Quad Counties. The counties pool their resources into one joint emergency operations center run out of Carson City, which is currently coordinating the counties’ pandemic response.
And Page believes that the Quad Counties are ready for a cautious entry into Phase 1.
“We have a very small number of cases comparatively speaking per capita,” Page said. “We’ve had one fatality in this whole event.”
A report compiled by Carson City Health and Human Services, Douglas County Emergency Management and the Lyon County manager’s office to submit to the LEAP committee on behalf of the Quad Counties shows fewer COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks in Lyon, Douglas and Carson City compared to the two weeks before that, one of two metrics that must be met to reopen. (Storey County still has no confirmed cases.)
The counties don’t, however, appear to meet the other metric — declining hospitalizations over the last 14 days — though the report notes that the Division of Public and Behavioral Health released an expanded symptom list on April 21 that appears to have caused an increase in “suspected COVID” patients, while the number of confirmed cases has not increased. Changes to the symptom list have made the numbers apples and oranges, making analysis difficult.
The report also details the Quad Counties’ capacity for contact tracing, another criteria the state is monitoring for reopening. According to the report, the Quad Counties employed 1.5 contact tracers before the pandemic and now have four, staffed by one of the contact tracers who held the job previously, two nurses from Carson City Health and Human Services who have been temporarily reassigned from the public health clinic and one community health nurse from Douglas County.
However, the report estimates the Quad Counties will need 10 to 15 contact tracers throughout the COVID-19 recovery efforts in the next nine to 12 months, though that number could increase and decrease as case spikes occur. To that end, Carson City Health and Human Services is working with county and emergency managers in Douglas, Lyon and Storey counties and Carson City to create a pool of contact tracers who can be called upon.
The counties are working to secure those additional contact tracers through several avenues including the Western Nevada Medical Reserve Corps, the Battle Born Medical Corps, the Nevada Nurses Association, school nurses, Carson City Health and Human Services case managers and county staff from each of the four counties. Volunteers and staff will be asked to serve one-month deployments.
The report also lays out how the county monitors its supply of personal protective equipment and its plan to acquire additional supplies, noting that public safety entities within each of the counties report a two-week or greater supply of PPE, putting them in the “green” category.
In the meantime, counties are figuring out what exactly reopening might look like for them, though they are still waiting on further guidance from the state.
Page plans to present to the Lyon County Commission at its Thursday meeting a draft plan for consideration that would establish a framework for reopening businesses. Without more details from the governor yet about exactly which businesses will be allowed to open and which will be required to remain closed, Page said that he had to make some assumptions in the plan, including that all businesses other than bars and casinos will be allowed to open.
In putting together the draft plan, Page said that he drew from the governor’s “Roadmap to Recovery” plan, the White House’s guidance and what other counties in other states are doing.
“I took a little bit from them, took a little bit from the governor’s thing, and put it in a document that meets the spirit of what the governor is speaking, what he said he wants to see done,” Page said.
The plan will include criteria for different businesses to meet as they reopen, such as requiring restaurants to implement social distancing requirements and utilize open air seating and ensuring that salons and ensuring barber shops don’t have lines of people waiting for services but rather schedule people by appointment. Page said the county is also considering what public facilities will be open; he said that parks will likely be open, though playground equipment will not.
As of Monday, Page was seeking input on that plan from county staff, chambers of commerce and the county’s two cities, Fernley and Yerington, before bringing it to the county commission on Thursday. But he said that whatever the commission passes on Thursday is only a “recommended plan” to the governor, who may “choose to ignore all of it or implement some of it.”
“We’re trying very hard to work within the parameters of what the governor has identified and as he comes out with more criteria, we’re willing to work with him to get things open,” Page said. “We’re not here to slam the governor. We’re here to support the state and get things open as quickly as we can but safely. That’s the approach that we’ve taken.”
Page said that the county’s plan will be amended as additional information becomes available and as more details emerge about what Phase 2 and 3 will look like.
Once Lyon County enters Phase 1, the challenge will be enforcement. Page noted that he only has one code enforcement officer, which means that the county will be relying on businesses to implement the county and state plans to the best of their ability.
“We have neither the capacity nor the skillset or staffing to go out and enforce a bunch of regulations,” Page said. “We’re more than willing to provide them with assistance and information, but we’re not going to go out and beat on their door and tell them they’re in violation of some rule that we may not have any authority to enforce.”
Carson City’s Board of Supervisors, meanwhile, will discuss reopening plans at its Thursday meeting as well, though Crowell said that he expects more of a general discussion on the topic rather than the formalization of a specific plan.
“It’s mostly a chance for our board to get together, virtually, and talk through some of these things,” Crowell said. “That’s what we’re going to be doing.”
However, like Lyon, Crowell said that the city is still waiting on the governor’s office for guidance about what exactly will be allowed to open in Phase 1.
“We could draft up regulations about who wears masks, when what businesses can open, but at the end of the day, the type of businesses that can be open isn’t going to be up to us,” Crowell said. “It’s going to be a governor call.”
For his part, Crowell said that he’s a little “gun shy” about opening up.
“I’d really like to see the numbers start declining over some period of time,” Crowell said. “I am concerned, but I’ll say if the governor says, ‘Open up,’ we’re going to follow the governor’s orders.”
White Pine County (3.2 cases per 10,000)
White Pine County has only had three cases of COVID-19, all within one family and all of whom have since recovered, and no one in the county has been hospitalized with the virus.
County Commissioner Laurie Carson said White Pine doesn’t want to put anyone in jeopardy. But it’s hard to make the case for businesses remaining closed when there are no confirmed cases active in the county.
“This is hurting everybody, small businesses, our bottom line, budget wise. I mean, I don’t know anybody it’s not,” Carson said. “You want to move forward. You want to be cautious, I think that the rurals have the ability.”
The report the county sent to LEAP does appear to show White Pine in a much better place than many of the other counties to reopen.
In addition to noting that there are no active cases and have been no hospitalizations, the county reports that it now has three contact tracers — the county health officer and two infectious control nurses at the hospital — up from two before the pandemic. The county says it has no need for additional contact tracing staff, though it still plans to increase its pool of contact tracers all the same.
The report also enumerates the personal protective equipment that the local hospital, William Bee Ririe, has on hand, though it doesn’t say specifically how long that supply will last. It also shows that White Pine emergency services has a 120-day supply of PPE available, based on current service levels.
The County Commission and the Board of Health will meet jointly Thursday evening to discuss and draft a plan to reopen businesses in the county “contingent on Governor Sisolak granting individual regions authority to implement reopening plans consistent with the] Public Health Officer’s opinion,” according to the meeting’s agenda.
But Carson said it’s a waiting game until the governor announces the counties can move forward.
“We’re waiting. We’re waiting,” Carson said. “Nobody wants to be in a direct conflict with the governor, but at the same time it would be nice if he did recognize that those rural counties are in a good position to help Nevada start moving forward economically.”
Elko County (2.8 cases per 10,000)
Last week, the Elko County Commission passed a declaration saying it “is in compliance with requirements of Phase 1 Re-Opening Guidelines as outlined by Federal And State Covid-19 Economic Recovery Plans and that Elko County businesses are prepared to meet ongoing social distance, sanitation and best practices to protect public health.”
It said the state “must reopen Elko County businesses or face a grassroots rebellion.”
On Wednesday, the County Commission passed a motion to “support” businesses that stayed open, despite the governor’s order in March that nonessential business should remain closed.
“We passed a motion to support the businesses in any way that we can that are having to open up in order to survive,” Commission Chair Demar Dahl said in an interview after the meeting. “There are a number of them that say if we don’t open now we are not going to be able to.”
He stressed that Elko County was not telling businesses to “open,” but it was saying it would “support” their decision to do so. In Elko, the Chamber of Commerce has distributed placards for businesses to display that say whether or not the business is in compliance with Phase 1 COVID-19 mitigation measures. Enforcement would be largely through the honor system.
“Let’s just recognize that people in Elko County don’t lie. And if they are saying they are in compliance, we will say ‘fine this is your sticker,’” he said, adding that they would have to answer to their customers if they were, in fact, not abiding by proper COVID-19 protocols.
Elko County has confirmed 15 coronavirus cases and one death.
When asked about the “grassroots rebellion” language, Dahl said that was a reference to the fact that businesses were going to open up, at some point, no matter what the state decided.
“It is an act of civil disobedience, you would have to say,” he said.
At the commission meeting on Wednesday, Dahl read a sharply worded letter from Elko Mayor Reece Keener into the record. The letter, to Gov. Steve Sisolak, expressed frustration with the shutdown, particularly the difficulties constituents had receiving unemployment benefits.
“As you extend your unconstitutional urban-designed stay-at-home orders and non-essential business shutdowns, please remember that you are accountable for your actions,” Keener wrote. “Emergencies usually have timetables, but you [seem] satisfied to extend your shutdown indefinitely while Nevadans and non-essential workers and business continue to hemorrhage.”
Churchill County (1.2 cases per 10,000)
A little more than 12 hours after Sisolak announced his statewide reopening plan, Churchill County approved a county-specific plan at an emergency commission meeting designating all businesses as “essential” under Phase 1. It would not come into effect until an order from the governor.
“The City of Fallon and Churchill County deem all businesses essential to the economic vitality of our community and, as such, essential to the health and welfare of our citizens.” the report said, but it noted that businesses must meet certain criteria to reopen.
The five parameters include encouraging remote working, returning employees to work in phases and providing training, closing common areas and maintaining social distancing, restricting non-essential travel and making accommodations for employees in vulnerable groups.
The plan goes on to list the White House recommendations for specific businesses, including bars, which are to remain closed, and other businesses where additional protocols are needed. Those businesses include nursing homes, gyms, schools and large public-facing venues.
The county, which has seen a total of three confirmed cases, argued in its report that it is prepared to handle potential future coronavirus cases, having expanded its hospital’s capacity by 150 percent and working to test about one percent of its population every week.
“What we’re presenting here today is at a time that we would choose to reopen the county, this would be the guidelines by which we would be operating that opening,” County Manager Jim Barbee said on Friday.
Pershing County (0 cases per 10,000)
Pershing County is in the small minority of jurisdictions that have reported no coronavirus cases. Yet most businesses have continued to abide by statewide closures to reduce transmission of the virus, Commission Chair Carol Shank said in an interview Wednesday afternoon.
“We are ready to reopen for Phase 1,” Shank said. “We have everything that we need.”
But if there are cases, Shank said the county has a plan.
In its report submitted to the governor’s office, the county provided 20 pages of documentation outlining its readiness, saying it had enough PPE to last about 30 to 45 days. Pershing County has a population of about 6,725, including 1,500 inmates in the Lovelock Correctional Center.
Although mining has continued operations, Shank said she would like to see nonessential businesses be allowed to open with the proper social distancing and mitigation measures. She said the mom-and-pop businesses in Lovelock are especially prepared to do so.
Shank said she understood the challenges facing the governor, but would like to see a decision soon as to how counties, especially smaller, rural counties with few cases, could move forward.
“Frankly, I’m a little disappointed,” Shank said. “We got all this information [submitted] right away. It was due Monday. And we haven’t heard anything. Now it’s Wednesday.”
Shank is worried about the long-term impacts to her county from the loss in revenue. Some projections suggest that the state could see a $1 to $2 billion shortfall in the next fiscal year. She worries that the state will pass along “unfunded mandates” to the counties.