By Megan Messerly and Jackie Valley
Gov. Steve Sisolak announced on Sunday that he is lowering occupancy limits and once again reducing the size of allowed gatherings as COVID-19 continues to spread like wildfire across the state, setting records day after day for new reported cases.
Occupancy in restaurants, bars, gyms, casino gaming floors and a host of other gathering spots such as libraries, museums, bowling alleys and aquariums will be limited to 25 percent of capacity — half of the limit most establishments have been operating under for the past several months.
Other retail establishments, including indoor malls, will be allowed to continue to operate at 50 percent capacity, though big-box stores will be required to have an employee stationed at the entrance to count customers.
Public gatherings will once again be limited to 50 people or 25 percent of fire code occupancy, whichever is less, effectively undoing the change Sisolak made just two months ago that raised the state’s limit on gatherings from 50 to 250 people. The new requirement applies to places of worship — in addition to other venues including indoor movie theaters, live theater performances, casino showrooms, weddings, funerals and more — but does not apply to in-person learning in K-12 schools.
Private gatherings, meanwhile, will be limited to 10 people, with attendance restricted to a maximum of two households.
Additionally, the state’s mask mandate will now require all Nevadans and visitors to wear a mask at all times when around someone who is not part of their immediate household, whether indoors or outdoors and whether at a public gathering or a private one. The governor also strengthened the mask mandate in gyms or fitness centers, noting that if the activity is “too strenuous to be done while wearing a mask properly, you must seek an alternative exercise.”
Sisolak urged Nevadans to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and spend Thanksgiving only with members of their immediate household. However, he said people who do choose to gather with those outside their household for the holiday must wear masks.
The governor, at a press conference Sunday afternoon, described the mitigation measures as part of a “statewide pause” — not a shutdown. The restrictions will take effect on Tuesday, just after midnight, and last at least three weeks.
He framed the steps as necessary to relieve pressure on the state’s public health infrastructure and hospitals, which he said are “quickly becoming overwhelmed.”
“Let me explain this quickly. Whether you believe in the science of COVID or not, the reality is this: It’s simple. COVID is filling up our hospital beds and that threatens all Nevadans,” Sisolak said. “If hospital beds continue filling at this rate and staffing shortages continue to increase as they are now, that means all Nevadans will have limited access to the care they may need.”
The restrictions also specify that indoor dining establishments, including fast food restaurants, must require reservations, and mandate that no more than four people be seated at a table together. Sisolak urged people who choose to still dine indoors to keep their masks on as much as possible and encouraged restaurants and bars to expand outdoor seating options.
Though some restaurants have previously said they wouldn’t be able to keep their doors open at 25 percent capacity, Sisolak said he was hopeful that they would be able to continue to operate between customers ordering takeout and delivery. He also noted that small businesses can apply for grant funds through the Pandemic Emergency Technical Support Program (PETS).
“This is a three-week pause, and we’re hopeful that the community will support the businesses through other methods, be that delivery or takeout, but the capacity will be 25 percent,” Sisolak said. “It’s up to them to decide if they want to open at 25 percent.”
Adult and youth sports tournaments will also be put on hold during the three-week period.
Other businesses such as hair salons, barbershops, nail salons, spas, body piercing establishments and community recreation centers will remain at 50 percent capacity limits. Brothels, night clubs and day clubs will remain closed, as they have been since March.
The new restrictions come just a little less than two weeks after Sisolak had pleaded with Nevadans to voluntarily limit their non-essential activities to prevent the spread of the virus under what he called “Stay at Home 2.0,” though counties across the state have continued to set, and then quickly break, records for the number of new COVID-19 cases reported each day.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been nearly 135,000 confirmed cases of the virus across the Silver State, meaning that one in 23 Nevadans has fallen ill with the virus, and 2,022 have died. Sisolak himself tested positive for the virus last week and remains under a 10-day quarantine, though he has reported mild head congestion as his only symptom.
Nevada also continues to see high numbers of hospitalizations in excess of those reported this summer during the last peak in COVID-19 cases. However, the number of people hospitalized with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 has actually decreased the last two days, with 1,273 patients hospitalized as of Friday.
The Nevada Hospital Association, in its most recent daily report, wrote that while the state is seeing some “encouraging signs” that Nevadans have taken “Stay at Home 2.0” seriously, it is “still too early to determine with any degree of certainty” whether the two-day downward trend will hold.
Sisolak’s announcement also comes as other Western states have taken steps in recent days and weeks to address their surges of COVID-19.
California, for instance, imposed an overnight curfew last week to control the spread of the virus. Idaho has limited public and private gatherings to no more than 10 people, with exceptions for religious and political expressions, while Utah has required its residents to limit their social gatherings to only those within their households, though that rule expires Monday in advance of the Thanksgiving holiday.
Sisolak, in his announcement Sunday afternoon, said that if the coronavirus numbers do not improve, the state may face further restrictions including a ban on indoor dining service at restaurants and bars, closure of gyms and fitness facilities and “severe” restrictions on gathering sizes.
The governor’s latest set of restrictions avoids another shutdown of casinos, the state’s bread-and-butter industry, which is still reeling from the pandemic. In September, visitor volume to Las Vegas was down 51 percent compared with one year ago, according to data from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Gross casino gaming revenue, meanwhile, fell 30 percent in Clark County and 39 percent on the Las Vegas Strip during that same period.
The governor also addressed schools without specifically announcing any restrictions forcing them to close. The new capacity limits do not apply to schools.
“Let’s be honest: Our casinos, hotels, restaurants, and bars are open with strict restrictions so that we can protect our economy,” he said. “Meanwhile, the majority of our school buildings across our state are closed and our kids are suffering as a result. Our education system and our economy are not mutually exclusive — they are tied together.”
But even before Sisolak’s announcement on Sunday, school districts in Clark and Washoe counties made moves in response to the rising coronavirus cases. Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara announced that remote learning and staff telecommuting would continue through the end of the first semester. The Clark County School Board is expected to revisit a transition plan to in-person learning in early January.
Up north, the Washoe County School District — which began the school year with operating models featuring in-person learning — appears on a path back to virtual instruction. Washoe County Superintendent Kristen McNeill is recommending the district move to distance education starting Dec. 7 and lasting until Jan. 19. The Washoe County School Board will consider that action during a meeting on Tuesday.
Sisolak declined to say whether the Washoe County School Board should heed McNeill’s recommendation and shift students to remote learning. Instead, he said the school district should consult with state Superintendent Jhone Ebert.
But he called on the community to band together and fix the “devastating” situation by pitching in to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“Help us out. Wear the masks. Socially distance. Limit the group size gatherings,” he said. “Those are the kind of things we need to do to get our economy back going, to get our businesses back open, to protect our vulnerable and to get our kids back into classrooms where they need to be.”
This story was updated to include more information from the virtual press conference.