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Protesters rally in front of the Treasure Island casino at the Black Lives Matter Protest at the Las Vegas Strip on Friday, May 29, 2020. (Savanna Strott/The Nevada Independent)

With the coronavirus pandemic death toll topping 100,000 nationwide and Nevada’s economy a shambles, Gov. Steve Sisolak has announced Phase 2 of the reeling state’s reopening plan. Casinos are scheduled to get back to business starting June 4.

It’s hard to know exactly how to feel about it. As a native son and a sentimentalist at heart, I would have preferred to write a rah-rah speech, but I don’t think I have one in me.

It would be pretty to think that the worst is over. Nevada’s coronavirus cases have been flattening for weeks. Perhaps what the state really needs is for its chief executive to do his best Franklin D. Roosevelt impersonation and remind us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. If only it were that simple.

It would be a Vegas marketer’s dream to turn June 4 into a night of fireworks, flowing champagne and cacophonous crowds. At this point I’d settle for a typical Thursday in Las Vegas.

Even that may be wishful thinking in the short run.

It’s been said before, but bears repeating. Our problem is that the pandemic isn’t simply a Nevada crisis. The nation’s unemployment rate, at 14.7 percent, is the highest since the Depression era. The shorthand meaning: Nevada’s massive casino customer base is reeling, too.

Nevada’s unemployment rate is almost surreal: 28.2 percent and the worst in the nation. In previous generations, that percentage of Nevadans out of work meant a borrasca in the silver fields or a collapse in the price of copper. It meant a boomtown was going to become a ghost town.

It’s little secret that the wide-open, in-your-friendly-face service economy of Las Vegas was particularly susceptible to a viral pandemic. A heavy dependence on visitor volume from gaming entertainment and large conventions makes us the third most exposed economy in the country, according to analysts at WalletHub, but you don’t need an MBA to see that. Nor is it likely that masses of jobless Americans have been squirreling away a Vegas cash stash while pining for the Strip to reopen. The climb will take time.

I am left wondering whether we’ll learn from this historic moment.

The urge to turn the reopening into a scene from the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 is great. No one who reads the state’s detailed Directive 21 can doubt that a lot of thought and planning has gone into the decision to slow-roll a reopening of public pools, bowling alleys and other venues where people gather. But as hard as Sisolak and other responsible elected officials have tried to remind everyone about the importance of masks, clean hands and social distancing, the magic thinkers and political morons have done much damage to the science-based messaging.

And yet here we are, stepping across the threshold into a new era. A new normal, as the cliché goes.

With educated projections of a return to pre-pandemic employment rates and job growth from 18 months to three years away, the real work is just beginning as the economy sputters back to life. 

As the principal economist and consultant at Las Vegas-based RCG Economics, John Restrepo has studied the Southern Nevada market for years. He thinks we need to use this time wisely and consider new economic models that lead to diversification.

“It’s not about ‘recovery,’” Restrepo says. “It’s about focusing on the core values needed by Southern Nevada to create a resilient economy. In fact, the virus has provided the region an opportunity to restructure itself.”

A community battered by unprecedented job loss may be excused for not initially warming up to Restrepo’s vision. For too many, the threats of hunger and homelessness are very real these days. Even as it wanes the pandemic continues to threaten lives and livelihoods and, for some, hope itself.

But that near-term challenge, Restrepo believes, presents a long-term opportunity – if we have the collective courage to pursue it.

It’s an opportunity that leads to economic diversification not only through the usual come-ons of low-tax and laissez-faire, but of defending efforts to improve and expand our investments in education at all levels. That’s hard to do with tanked revenues and increasing talk of retracting government services. Restrepo gets that, but adds that the smartest way forward is in embracing changing technology and taking a “deep dive” into altering our tax structure with good-faith participation by the public and private sectors.

And it starts with, as he says, “the recognition that there’s going to be a different world moving forward.”

That means a different Las Vegas where not as many service jobs will be needed for many months. Some may never return. It’s useless to dwell on the deficiency, but important to embrace the fast-approaching changes in technology and automation.

“It’s hard to think about the future when you’re going through all the problems that we’re experiencing today,” he says. “Change gets complicated, and it requires a lot of time, talent, treasure and political will.”

Restrepo’s sentiments come at a tough time, but they also echo thoughtful long-term proposals made by the Sandoval administration and strategies presented by Brookings Mountain West and other analysts and experts. Fact is, Southern Nevada’s economic diversity, as measured by the Hachman Index, has improved gradually in the new century, but it still trails other metro areas in the region. The smart way forward is through continued structural improvements that invite economic diversification in the long term.

“If we think we can go back to December 2019, that’s unrealistic and unlikely to happen,” Restrepo says. “The question is, do we take advantage of this crisis and make an opportunity out of this thing?”

“The answer is, ‘I don’t know.’”

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal— “Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

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