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Sisolak promises details on state’s reopening plan next week; more testing needed

Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels
Riley Snyder
Riley Snyder
CoronavirusState Government

Gov. Steve Sisolak says he expects to know much more next week about whether conditions are right to either end or extend directives that have shut down much of the state, but cautioned that he had no “benchmark date” in place and that any easing of restrictions would likely be gradual.

At a press conference in Carson City on Thursday alongside state health lab director Mark Pandori, Sisolak fielded repeated questions about the timing of a reopening. It comes as President Donald Trump released broad principles for the decision about when to ease business restrictions and just two weeks before Sisolak’s school and business shutdown orders are set to end.

“I cannot take the chance of overwhelming our health care system, and not having a way back out of it,” he said, adding that there may be opportunities to relax restrictions “and then we'll see how it works after a little while, if we don't have an enormous spike in positives or emergency room usage.”

The governor declined to name concrete milestones, if any, that he needs to see before lifting emergency directives that have ground public life in the state to a halt. But he mentioned broad-strokes metrics he’s monitoring, including modeling and projections, health risk assessments, testing capacity, hospital bed capacity and the ability of hospitals to deal with future surges. 

The ability to conduct dramatically more tests will become even more important as restrictions are lifted, Pandori said, not for the reason of diagnosing sick people but for “gathering intelligence,” including understanding when the virus is carried asymptomatically and how fatal it actually is.

“This is about finding out where the enemy is, how much of it,” he said, “and finding out that number for two reasons — how much risk is there out there as we start to come out of this and try to reenter normalcy? But also to ask, ‘hey, when the smoke clears, how many people were infected and are infected', because we still don't know that denominator.”

While Sisolak said he “will give as much notice as humanly possible” on whether directives would be lifted because he recognized entities such as schools would not be ready to ramp up with 24 hours’ notice, he warned that relaxation of restrictions would be done in a “very gradual manner.”

“It's not going to be just flip on the light switch and everything goes back to normal because that's not how we're doing things,” he said, adding that “it would be unfair for me to just guess a date. I won’t do that.”

Criticism from elected officials

Sisolak also pushed back on a growing chorus of elected officials — including, most notably, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman — who have chafed at the ongoing shutdown as “insanity” and economically devastating. Goodman said Wednesday that “being closed is killing us already, that "the death toll represented less than half a percentage point of the population” and that there was no rationale for the shutdown to begin with.

“I don't know who she's relying on for her experts, because none of my experts have given me anywhere near that information,” he said. 

Sisolak said that “some people are more concerned with the business side of this than the human toll that this virus is taking” and added that “I will put the safety of our folks ahead of any profits.” He also questioned the utility of opening certain businesses right away when the world is still confronting the pandemic.

“People who think you can just say ‘We're open back up,’ and suddenly these hotels are going to be filled, don't understand how the hotel industry works,” he said.

Asked about an agenda item for a White Pine County Commission meeting next week that seeks an exemption for the small rural county from any shutdown orders beyond April 30, Sisolak argued that rural areas were not immune to the disease. He pointed to Humboldt County, which has a per capita case rate that rivals more densely populated Clark and Washoe counties.

“As governor of the state of Nevada, I'm responsible for 17 counties. They have the responsibility of White Pine County, that’s what they’re elected to do,” he said. “I will take the action that I feel is most appropriate for the state of Nevada.”

He said his plan for a gradual reopening of the economy was intended to allow certain industries to restart earlier than others, rather than allow certain counties to reopen earlier than others, although he said he would be willing to look at areas of the state that haven’t had significant COVID-19 caseloads.

But “it will not be just everything back to normal even in those areas,” he said.

Election by mail and unemployment complaints

Sisolak said he had yet to read a lawsuit from the Nevada State Democratic Party, filed Thursday, that challenges Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s plan to conduct the June primary election virtually all by mail. Cegavske said her plan is aimed at reducing the risk of coronavirus spread from in-person voting, but critics — including a raft of prominent Nevada Democrats — say it could disenfranchise people not accustomed to mail-in ballots.

Sisolak, a Wisconsin native, pointed to a widely panned primary election that was held two weeks ago in spite of fears that it would speed the spread of the disease.

“What happened in Milwaukee, Wisconsin was atrocious. People were standing in long lines, you know, not social distancing. That is something that I certainly could not tolerate in Nevada,” he said. “I believe that everyone has a right to vote. I know the secretary of state put a lot of time in on this, in consultation with the various registrars in the 17 counties, and we'll have to wait and see, but I have not weighed in on the lawsuit.”

On the subject of the state’s overwhelmed unemployment insurance system, Sisolak said it was too early to tell whether the addition Wednesday of a call center to handle general inquiries was helping the situation. Claimants have said the operators, who are contractors and do not have access to the unemployment system, have not made a difference in their ability to unlock payments that are held up over technical issues.

“I'm hoping it will. We've got a reduced number of password resets, which is clearly a positive for us. I think we're getting to people quicker,” he said. “My staff is working with [the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation] to explore every option we have available to hook people up with the benefits, and we’ll continue to do that. It’s a big priority for me.”

Asked whether there were workarounds on the requirement that supporting documentation be faxed to the state, Sisolak said “it's just the way it is. I mean, it's unfortunate.”

“I understand people are frustrated, they’re impatient...they want action now,” he said. “I've got a team in the state here that is working so hard. Nobody has ever faced anything of this magnitude, and it's easy to sit back and criticize. And it's easy to throw stones and it's easy to say do this or do that. I will stand up for the group that I've got working for the State of Nevada.”


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