LAS VEGAS — Elected officials in tourism-dependent Las Vegas worried Tuesday about public health and the economic effects of a spike COVID-19 cases — particularly the highly contagious delta variant.
But they decided not to impose a full mask mandate for everyone strolling the Strip and gathering in crowded spaces and casinos.
The Clark County Commission instead voted to make employers require workers to wear masks in indoor public spaces like stores, malls and clubs, and post signs citing local health district advice that everyone — vaccinated or not — should wear face coverings.
“We’ve got to do something,” Commissioner Jim Gibson said as he raised the specter of crowded hospitals and canceled trade shows. The tourism world, he said, was watching what the elected body with jurisdiction over the Las Vegas Strip would do.
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“We have already been through a shutdown and a start-up,” Gibson said. “We cannot afford to have major conventions choose to go elsewhere.”
A hastily called and sometimes contentious emergency meeting drew a big audience and about 50 speakers — almost all opposed to mask requirements, vaccinations and business closures and distancing.
“Any decision a person takes involves risks. Vaccines should be up to us,” declared speaker Katrin Ivanoff, who was later removed by security officers after a vocal outburst from her seat.
Nevada Resort Association and Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce representatives said they favored a mask mandate and asked for written guidance about enforcement.
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The commission unanimously decided venues where more than 250 people gather should submit by next Monday plans about possible next steps to stem the spread of coronavirus.
The vote made the mask rule effective at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, to be reviewed Aug. 17.
‘Coronavius fatigue’ takes its toll
Some said they simply won’t comply.
“It will fail to be enforced,” speaker Monica Ursua predicted. “We the people say, ‘No more.’”
The seven-member commission, all Democrats, acknowledged “coronavirus fatigue” 16 months after Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak mandated masks in March 2020, closed casinos and nonessential businesses, and implemented distancing and other measures.
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On May 13, the governor, a Democrat, following CDC guidelines, dropped the requirement for vaccinated people to wear face coverings in Nevada. Unvaccinated people were still advised to wear masks.
How the delta variant ‘changed the game’
In the two months since then, the delta variant has gripped Nevada. The variant was first detected in India but has spread around the world.
It was identified in 76% of samples collected and sequenced from Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County, according to data posted Friday by the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine.
“The delta variant has changed the game,” said Brian Labus, a longtime Southern Nevada Health District epidemiologist who now teaches public health at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He said in an interview the debate about masks re-emerged “because we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.”
“We know masks reduce your risk, and the risk of spreading the virus to others,” Labus said. “We don’t want to go back to closures and restrictions in capacity and social distancing.”
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Labus has advised the governor on pandemic issues and has called for people to get vaccinated. He acknowledged data shows that most people now contracting the virus are not vaccinated.
COVID-19 cases climbing in Las Vegas
The number of new cases of COVID-19 reported Tuesday in Nevada continued to climb, to 1,004, but no new deaths. Nevada has counted 5,761 lives lost in the state to COVID-19 since March 2020. Nationally, nearly 607,000 people have died.
Meanwhile, state vaccination rates have stalled in recent weeks.
Health officials report that 55.4% of Nevada residents 12 years and older have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. About 46.6% are fully vaccinated.
Nationally, the CDC says more than 68% of adults have received at least one dose of vaccine. Labus noted the state tracks Nevada residents, not tourists and visitors.
Balancing tourism and safety
The balance between tourism and health safety is “tricky” for public officials, said Amanda Belarmino, an assistant professor at the William F. Harrah College of Hospitality at UNLV.
“You don’t want to alienate customers,” she said. “It’s hard to tell people again they’re going back to restrictions. But I think most people would rather wear a mask than not be able to leave home.”
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Test positivity, a benchmark measure of the percentage of people tested and found to be infected, has tripled in Nevada from a low of 3.4% in mid-May. The World Health Organization goal is 5% or less to relax restrictions.
The figure reached 12.4% statewide on Tuesday and 13.5% in the Las Vegas area, home to 2.3 million people and host to tens of millions of visitors per year. The figure peaked at 21.2% on Jan. 12, when some Las Vegas hospitals were pushed to capacity and one issued a disaster declaration.
The CDC now rates community virus transmission “high” in and around Las Vegas, along with the rural Nevada counties of Nye, Esmeralda, Mineral and Elko. Almost 80% of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Nevada have been in Clark County.
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Staff Video, USA TODAY