By Riley Snyder and Michelle Rindels
Amid an uptick in people testing positive for COVID-19 nearly two weeks after Nevada reopened casinos, Gov. Steve Sisolak said the state is not yet ready to enter into “Phase 3” of business reopenings.
The governor, speaking Monday at a press conference in Carson City, also said he will call lawmakers to the capital sometime this month to address a sizable state budget hole, and he declined to rule out asking for a tax increase to help fill a budget gap estimated at close to $900 million just for the fiscal year that concludes at the end of June.
Sisolak said that while the amount of coronavirus testing in the state has increased greatly over the last weeks, the state’s rolling seven-day average of positive cases as well as the number of COVID-19 related hospitalizations had continued to increase.
“We had the expectation that as a result of reopening and an increase in testing, our positive cases were likely to increase,” he said. “We have seen an increase in positive cases, but that has yet to negatively impact the capacity of our hospitals. We’re taking this seriously. As we have all along, we’ll allow our medical experts the time to monitor and make assessments.”
In recent weeks, the state’s confirmed and suspected hospitalizations associated with COVID-19 had plateaued or began to tick upwards, with Monday seeing 14 additional hospitalizations.
He said efforts to identify people who came into contact with people who test positive will help the state better understand what may be driving the uptick and help dictate a targeted response.
“We are not ready to go into Phase 3,” he added. “The timeline will be dictated by the virus.”
In late May, Sisolak gave the state the go-ahead to enter a Phase 2 of business reopenings, which included most of the state’s businesses with limits on capacity and requirements that employees wear face coverings. The state’s casino industry followed suit in early June.
Sisolak previously said he would want to wait two to three weeks before making a decision on moving to a “Phase 3” of reopenings. According to the state’s initial “Roadmap to Recovery” guidance, that phase will continue easing restrictions on public and mass gatherings, allowing for more non-essential travel and still requesting that vulnerable populations stay at home.
Though videos and photos have shown many patrons of the state’s casino industry not wearing masks, Sisolak said he was hesitant to mandate individuals visiting gaming properties to wear facial coverings, even though the state is “right dead smack in the middle” of the pandemic.
“I don’t want to go there if we don’t have to,” he said.
Sisolak also said that an expected special legislative session to address an expected $812 million state budget shortfall would be held sometime this month before the fiscal year ends. An interim legislative committee last Friday voted to approve initial steps of Sisolak’s plan to address the budget crisis, which included $88 million in initial cuts and using up the state’s $401 million Rainy Day Fund.
The governor, who previously told the Las Vegas Chamber that taxes were not the answer to the state’s budget woes, declined to rule out a tax hike in the special session and said it would be up to the Legislature.
“I don’t know what appetite there is there,” he said. “I know it’s difficult for me to even think about raising taxes when I’ve got families that are still unemployed, they’re still waiting to get back to work and don’t want to impact those at all, but it’s going to depend on what the Legislature comes up with.”
In addition to the current fiscal year’s shortfall, the state expects a whopping $1.3 billion shortfall in expected revenue for the upcoming fiscal year, a major chunk of an annual budget that is about $4.5 billion. Sisolak reiterated his previously announced plan to address that shortfall, including fewer than 50 layoffs, one-day-a-month furloughs for state employees and a freeze on merit pay, saying his office “did the best we could” under the circumstances.
Nevada’s moratorium on eviction coincides with the state of emergency and is effective through June 30, but Sisolak didn’t say whether it would be extended beyond that.
“We’re looking at that, we’re analyzing that,” he said. “We will have another announcement before June 30 as it relates to the directive.”
CARES Act to municipalities
North Las Vegas Councilwoman Pamela Goynes-Brown brought concerns to lawmakers on Friday that the city did not receive a dedicated allotment of financial aid from the congressionally authorized CARES Act. Clark County and the City of Las Vegas received direct grants, and the state divided a chunk among 16 smaller counties and state agencies, but several Southern Nevada cities were excluded.
Asked about communities that felt left out, Sisolak said he didn’t want to weigh in on whether the plan was fair.
“The federal government came up with this plan. This was not a state plan,” he said. “They will get reimbursement — my understanding — of some of the expenses they made.”
He said the task of dividing up money among the other cities in Clark County is the responsibility of other elected officials.
“I know they’re talking, and I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to come up with something … that satisfies everybody,” he said.
Early release of inmates
Sisolak chairs the Board of Pardons Commissioners, which is meeting on Wednesday to discuss — among other things — a modest recommendation from the Nevada Sentencing Commission that could allow a handful of older inmates to leave prison early. Civil rights groups have called for something much broader to reduce the population and the risk of COVID-19 spreading.
Asked if he was bringing any broader proposals to the table, Sisolak said he was the one who brought forth the discussion item but noted he’s the only non-lawyer on the board.
“I’m anxious to see what the pardons board feels about this … they know the law,” he said. “I would like to get vulnerable people into a safer environment if I had my way. Now how we can do that and how quickly we can do that, I don’t know, but it’s definitely something we’ll have discussion on.”
Metro response to protesters
Las Vegas police faced criticism for their response to Black Lives Matter protests over the weekend, including the arrest of a public defender who was serving as a legal observer and wearing a T-shirt identifying himself as such.
Sisolak issued a statement highlighting the importance of legal observers and calling for an investigation.
“Any reports of police action against legal observers should be fully investigated and reviewed so a full understanding of what happened can be determined,” Sisolak said in a statement issued Sunday. “That information should be used to develop long-term solutions to avoid a similar re-occurrence in the future.”
Metro said Monday afternoon that people who don’t clear the area after a dispersal order are subject to arrest and that it was reviewing the actions of protesters and police.
Asked whether he trusted Metro to self-police, Sisolak said he was particularly familiar with the agency after a decade on the Clark County Commission, which oversees the organization.
“I’m troubled by what some of the reports were,” he said. “Hopefully Metro will come up with something and then if people aren’t satisfied with what happens I guess we could look at other alternatives.”
He said having an outside agency investigate brings other issues, such as deciding who should conduct the probe and how long it would take. But there should be plenty of body camera footage to determine what happened, he said.
The governor added that while he supports individual rights to protest, he was troubled to see images from protests in the state with individuals not wearing masks and following social distancing orders, and that the state’s new contact tracing system would work to determine if any COVID-19 outbreaks were related to the protests.
“It troubles me when I don’t see people wearing masks,” he said. “I know it’s hard to protest with everybody six feet apart, that that’s not a realistic expectation. But I would certainly hope that they would distance themselves as much as possible, and without a doubt wear face coverings.”