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Nevada is reopening, ready or not

Orrin J. H. Johnson
Orrin J. H. Johnson

Nevada is reopening, ready or not

Last week, I wrote that it seemed increasingly apparent that Gov. Steve Sisolak had no plan for leading Nevada out of the coronavirus crisis. On Tuesday, he removed any doubt. In doing so, he relinquished his responsibility and duty to keep us balanced between public health and economic recovery, although he may be the last person in Nevada to realize it.

This is a terrible thing that we will all suffer for. Because Nevada is already opening back up, whether we are ready for it or not. 

This was always going to be the case. These shutdowns were always meant to be temporary, emergency measures, like a donut spare tire you can only use until you get to the shop. It was to give us time to expand our hospital capacity, which we’ve done, and to spread out the infections so we didn’t overwhelm the medical system. It was to give us time to get more data, and to plan, and to act. 

But it could not last. Humans aren’t built to be isolated from one another for this long, and we all recognize that life must still go on. We have to feed ourselves, pay for our homes and utilities, preserve our livelihoods for the future, and do all the things that make life worth living. Americans in particular don’t put up with boredom or confinement well, and we definitely don’t like being bossed around, at least not quite so overtly, and certainly not so arbitrarily. Under the best of leaders, where we knew what “victory” over this virus meant and where goalposts weren’t being moved, maybe we’d stay hunkered down for another month if clearly necessary, but even then it wouldn’t have lasted. And we don’t have that best-case leadership scenario. 

After the governor’s disastrous Tuesday night press conference, where he looked at the work of others in the federal government and declared we’d try that too on some unknown day, he decided what he needed to do was go on a PR blitz. His political allies flooded social media with pro-Sisolak ads. And the governor himself spent his (and our) precious time yakking it up on cable news shows and mocking the mayor of Las Vegas. (Mocking a mayor who offered up her city as an infectious disease study control group is all well and good, but it’s such low hanging fruit that it was easily recognized as the procrastination from his real job that it was.)

It’s downright Trumpian, except the President is better at it, and is actually finding time to craft plans and guidelines for recovery in between obnoxious tweets and gratuitous political rival bashing. 

Friday’s Q&A with the governor here in the Independent revealed that a week later, he still doesn’t have a plan. He doesn’t even have a plan to have a plan. It’s maddening.


Part of the problem is the experts. Not the experts themselves, of course – it is critical our leaders listen to them and use their expertise to craft policy. But experts are people, too. They are frequently wrong, at odds with other authorities in their field, and suffer from all of the human biases and blind spots the rest of us do. Being smart in one area doesn’t make you smart in all areas, and the more specialized one’s knowledge, the tougher it can be to see a bigger, more holistic picture.

If you’ve ever served on a jury, you’ve probably seen this dynamic in action. One side has an expert witness testify about something, and the other side hires their own expert to explain how the first expert was full of hot air. Twelve people must then make a judgment about which one is more credible, and millions of dollars, or a person’s very life, may depend on that judgment. In every case, the judge specifically admonishes the jurors not to simply swallow what any witness – even an expert – tells them, but to think critically about what they heard and weigh the information according to common sense and reason. This is true even where there are no competing experts – just because someone doesn’t tell you you’re wrong doesn’t mean you’re right.

Gov. Sisolak would make a terrible juror.

Set aside the medical stuff for a moment, and take his inability to make a decision or take any action on the ticking plague-bomb that are our prisons and jails. The Nevada Department of Corrections claims that no inmates have tested positive, even though several prison employees have. Unless COVID-19 is nowhere near as contagious as we’ve been led to believe, that sounds incredibly unlikely. NDOC insists they have “enough” tests to confidently deal with the virus, but refuses to publicly disclose how many “enough” is or how many prisoners are being tested. You don’t need to be a specialist in prison administration or public health to know that this supposed data point is… likely unreliable.

Sisolak claimed when pressed that he can’t take any action on this issue because “I’ve got no recommendation from the Sentencing Commission,” which he’s paralyzed without because, “they're there for a reason.” But the Sentencing Commission is only three years old, and consists largely of politicians and other folks with differing agendas and constituencies who consistently disagree with each other. (This was by design, by the way, so that different stakeholders with different needs had their voices heard.) 

Somehow, previous governors have made decisions concerning prisons without that commission, and presumably, even resolved differences of opinion or indecision among their various advisors. Somehow, previous governors, and current governors of other states, have made decisions even without enough data (because there is never enough). 

Experts cannot be a crutch to avoid making imperfect choices, which will lead to imperfect outcomes. Any decision the governor makes will be “wrong” and the product of less-then-optimal information — but in the end, the worst outcomes always come from indecision and delay.


When people begin to understand that their leaders aren’t leading any more, they will either find other people to follow, or just go off and do their own thing. Political power is not only taken away at the ballot box, it’s also taken away when people just stop listening to you, which they will do when it becomes apparent you have nothing to say. And if someone else does have something to say, well, your power bleeds away that much faster.

These days, everyone has a plan – casino CEOs, Republican politicians, and community leaders of all stripes. I’ve seen half a dozen Facebook groups pop up seeking to brainstorm ideas and solutions for opening back up. They range from totally bonkers to smart and sober, but they all have plenty of activity, and some share some really fantastic (high school graduations and other public events at drive-in movie theaters!) and frankly common sense ideas.

Individually, people are already making their own plans, and are slowly but surely executing them. They aren’t going to wait indefinitely for an as-yet-undetermined amount of testing to take place – they can’t afford to. Every day we’re seeing more traffic on the roads. Every day we see more people in the stores still allowed to be open. The protests will get bigger, and will expand far beyond a few cranks and conspiracy theorists. People will start hosting their own parties, with more and more people caring less and less about social distancing. Desperate small business owners will begin operating again, legal or not – what threat is a fine when you lose ten times that amount every day your doors are closed? The legal marijuana industry is struggling because a well-used black market was already in place – how long will it be before passwords to speakeasy barber shops (or hell, actual speakeasies) start floating around, or illicit home deliveries or services become the norm? 

When other states open before we do (which they will because they all are actively planning for it and we’re still just planning to plan until more numbers come in), how many people will drive across a border to spend their money, leaving Nevada businesses and Nevada workers in the cold longer than necessary? COVID-19’s impact on our state will be The Worst without additional self-inflicted wounds.

And once these seals are broken without everyone suddenly dropping dead in the streets, are people really going to listen when the next “second wave” shutdown order is issued? By then, local governments will be operating skeleton crews due to dried up budgets – who will be left to arrest people or write them citations? As a guy who thinks we need to be actively working to open back up while still respecting the very real and very deadly nature of COVID-19, this is what scared me the most about the governor’s increasingly feckless leadership.

This is not necessarily to advocate for all of this civil disobedience, but it’s all already happening, and cannot be stopped now. 

The only thing governments can do is to ensure the opening back up is as orderly and safe as possible. As with anything else, our public officials need their credibility as leaders intact. Otherwise, the openings will be haphazard and without adequate safeguards in place. People will get sick and die who didn’t need to. 

What Governor Sisolak needs to realize now is that he’s not “in charge” of the whole state. No American governor is. In the long run, he cannot achieve the necessary balance between liberty (economic and otherwise) and public safety without the vast majority of our citizenry’s active and voluntary buy-in. This he has largely lost, and he loses more every day. To get it back, he must demonstrate – by action, not words – that he has a real, concrete, workable, and immediate plan to lead us along the shortest possible path to maximum economic recovery. Otherwise, the rest of the state is just going to go ahead and get started without him.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected].


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