Despite improving metrics on the spread of the coronavirus, members of the state COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force rejected requests to reopen bars and taverns that are still closed in Clark, Washoe, Nye and Elko counties, while approving the reopening of non-bar countertops in Clark County starting next week.
Members of the task force on Thursday approved a request by Clark County to open up non-bar countertops by Sept. 9, subject to social distance guidelines, but agreed to continue with bar, tavern, winery and brewery closures in four of the state’s largest counties with a promise to revisit the closures in two weeks. Bars in the state's largest counties have been closed since early July as the state tried to stop a spike in cases, but the countertop provision was framed as a way to help a subset of businesses swept up with liquor establishments.
“We are impacting tons of people because of the countertops that are not open,” said Clark County Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick. “If a sushi bar can’t open their countertop, I want to understand what is the science behind that? If there is an establishment that has Plexiglass at their countertop in between different partition eaters, I'd like to know why is that any different than sitting across from somebody at lunch.”
Nevada’s COVID-19 Response Director Caleb Cage, who chairs the task force, said that metrics measuring spread of the novel coronavirus improved across the board over the month of August, but that he did not want to risk reversing the progress made thus far and return to dangerously high levels of infection. He also noted that the White House still considers the state to be in a “red zone.”
“All those states in the country are watching the outbreak in Nevada to determine whether or not they're going to impact our economy by allowing visitors here or not,” he said. “We have an economy that is based on visitors. And the reality is visitors will not come here, if we are seen as a hotspot nationally.”
Members of the task force praised Clark County for “drastic” improvement in health metrics since July, but noted that the test positivity rate — while down from more than 17 percent in July, is still about 12.6 percent, which is about twice the recommended level.
They did not take action on another of Kirkpatrick’s requests — that playgrounds and parks be reopened and youth sports restarted — because they said it was outside the scope of their authority. But Kirkpatrick, and Health and Human Services Director Richard Whitley, said it was part of a focus on addressing the social and emotional fallout of the pandemic.
“I think that Commissioner Kirkpatrick has been leading efforts to address perhaps a second epidemic which will be a mental health crisis related to isolation,” Whitley said. “I think there's a concept here of, opening something can also be a mitigation for spread of disease.”
The task force was created early in August as a replacement for the previous statewide “phases” of business and other restrictions. It’s composed of members of several state health and business agencies, Nevada Hospital Association, the Nevada Association of Counties, the Nevada League of Cities and the Nevada State Public Health Lab.
The task force’s more targeted approach looks at cases, tests and test positivity rates in each of the state’s 17 counties to determine individual risk level. Those metrics include:
- The average number of tests per day per 100,000, calculated over a 14-day period. If this number is less than 150, a county could be considered at risk.
- The case rate per 100,000, calculated by taking the number of cases diagnosed and reported over a 30-day period. If this number is greater than 200, a county could be considered at risk.
- The case rate per 100,000 and the test positivity rate, calculated over a 14-day period with a seven-day lag. If the case rate is greater than 50 and the test positivity rate is greater than 7.0 percent, a county could be considered at risk.
Counties that exceed one or more of those criteria thresholds are required to work with the task force to implement additional steps or mitigation efforts to help push their disease transmission statistics down.
Cage said that the task force’s structure under Gov. Steve Sisolak’s orders were clear; if a county exceeds those thresholds for three or more weeks, they should begin implementing increased mitigation measures and other restrictions — not request a loosing of existing restrictions, such as opening bars.
“I don't think any one of us want to arbitrarily force mitigation levels on counties, and so that sort of working together with the local governments is critical for us to get on the same page,” he said during the meeting. “And instead of seeing increased mitigation measures or ways of dealing with this, what we're seeing right now is requests for loosening of restrictions, which is the exact opposite of the plan.”
But several bar owners in Las Vegas and Reno called in during the meeting to complain that the restrictions on bars were overly selective given that restaurants and other businesses were allowed to continue operating. Jeff Carter, owner of The Glass Die board game bar in Reno, said his establishment loses about $10,000 a month while being closed and that he expected to go bankrupt in January if bars continued to stay closed.
“It's not fair; we can operate safely,” he said. “Every weekend is a 5 percent higher likelihood of closing.”
Cage said he wanted to see a higher level of “sophistication and planning” on mitigation efforts and enforcement mechanisms from county officials in Elko and Nye counties before moving forward with plans to open bars and taverns.
While praising Clark County’s plan as “excellent,” Cage noted that the county is in a “tenuous” spot and could easily lose its gains if it opens too quickly.
"We said we would close down quickly and we would reopen slowly," he said.
As of Thursday, Elko County is the only county to exceed the threshold in all three categories. Six additional counties exceed two of the three categories, including Churchill, Clark, Lander, Lyon, Nye and Washoe.
The task force approved enhanced mitigation plans for all seven of those counties on Thursday, while denying requests to re-open bars.
In past meetings, the task force rejected requests from Clark, Washoe and Elko counties to reopen bars and taverns that do not serve food, expressing skepticism that such a step would help control or lower spread of COVID-19. It did allow bars and taverns in Nye County outside of Pahrump (home to 85 percent of the county population) to open last month, though.
Members of the task force acknowledged that all counties are showing general improvement among the tracked metrics; Clark County’s case rate over a rolling 30-day period fell from 650.8 people per 100,000 to 573.6 per 100,000 in just a week.
Overall, the state’s cumulative test positivity rate has stabilized or slowly increased through the month of August, and hospitalizations have decreased continually since Aug. 3.
“We are seeing improvement across all counties,” state biostatistician Kyra Morgan said during the meeting. “And even though some of them are still being flagged as elevated, they're definitely moving in the right direction.”