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The entrance to Harrah's Reno on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, hours before Nevada's casinos shut their doors following orders from the governor in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Imagine, if you might, that I airdrop you into downtown Tonopah and command you to lead me to Reno and Las Vegas simultaneously. What would you do? 

Okay, what would you do if ignoring me was not an option? 

No, killing me is also not an option. Stop rules lawyering. This was supposed to be a simple metaphor, not a trolley problem. Why are you making this so complicated? Why must you make everything so complicated? Why? 

Why?

That, I suspect, is a question Gov. Sisolak finds himself asking more and more these days, his office faced with two diametrically opposed missions. Somehow, he must keep a virulent pandemic that spreads most effectively in indoor, air-conditioned environments under control while simultaneously keeping the state’s economy, of which roughly a third is oriented around entertaining tourists in indoor, air-conditioned environments, from collapsing because of falling demand caused by the virulent pandemic. 

Succeeding at both missions is obviously both logically and logistically impossible.

The tension between those two opposing missions most recently manifested itself when Sisolak had the temerity — the gall! the nerve! — to eat at a restaurant in which live music was being performed. Technically, as both Gov. Sisolak and the restaurant pointed out, this was perfectly legal. Yes, it’s true Section 22 of Phase Two prohibits public attendance of live musical performances, but that doesn’t mean live musical performances are banned outright, even in public. In fact, as long as the public is attending something else — like, say, a restaurant or a casino — then live musical performances and the public can even share the same indoor space. The public just can’t attend the live musical performances, that’s all. 

If that sounds like an excessively clever bit of rules lawyering to you, you’re not alone. I’ve seen so-called “sovereign citizens” take fewer liberties with the letter of the law in violation of the spirit of it, and several of them believe Ohio isn’t really a state. Unsurprisingly more than a few business owners in Clark County have been struggling with this distinction for weeks; in Reno, meanwhile, the distinction didn’t even exist until last Thursday

Epidemiologically, the distinction makes absolutely no sense. COVID-19 is a virus. The virus doesn’t care if a potential victim has paid a cover charge or not, nor does it care whether audiences are paying attention to the music or not. What it cares about, inasmuch as viruses can be said to “care” about anything at all, is whether there is an infected person exhaling viral particles into an infectable population and, if so, how many particles are said person exhaling, how far are they traveling, and how many people are within range. Singing in particular, it turns out, is especially effective for spreading COVID-19 because singing requires forcefully inhaling and exhaling large volumes of air. 

Economically, on the other hand, it makes slightly more sense, inasmuch as this distinction can be said to make any sense at all. Under a common sense interpretation of the Phase Two restrictions against live performances, most musicians would be unemployable, at least as musicians, for the duration of the pandemic. Additionally, eating and gambling to a recorded music playlist brings the guest experience one step closer to what a visitor could create for themselves at home, and for a lot less money than a half-full venue must charge to pay the rent. A legalistic interpretation of the existing regulations solves, to a point, both problems, though it understandably raises questions about the necessity of the prohibition in the first place. 

Politically, however, Gov. Sisolak is increasingly getting squeezed in both directions. Nevada’s unemployment rate remains the highest in the nation, but our per capita COVID-19 case rate is higher than all of our neighbors except for Utah. It hasn’t escaped notice that the very activities we still encourage tourists to do — have drinks, go to parties, socialize in resorts — are all the same activities health officials throughout the state are trying to encourage Nevadans to avoid. During Gov. Sisolak’s press conference last Thursday, he stressed that, if Nevada didn’t control COVID-19 effectively, other states might issue travel restrictions (as New York and Connecticut did a month ago) or even outright bans against traveling to Nevada. In the same week, meanwhile, MGM Resorts announced it was permanently laying off 18,000 employees and Wynn Las Vegas announced it was indefinitely closing its buffet

During times of major uncertainty, in the absence of strong convictions or certain information, people naturally seek out leadership to guide them. Leadership, in turn, demonstrates consistent and repeated commitment to a course of action through words and deeds. That consistency, unfortunately, is something that is missing throughout the state. In Reno, police are actively patrolling neighborhoods for unauthorized house parties while the city is simultaneously holding an outdoor drinking and dining event. Meanwhile, the governor himself is carefully parsing his own directives to find loopholes for people to work through. 

That’s not leadership. Leaders are role models, not rules lawyers. 

Nevada residents and visitors need certainty. I’m not asking Nevada’s leadership to push the state in the direction of my personal lifestyle — I have the privilege of being able to work from home, a child who’s old enough to benefit from online distance learning, plenty of masks, and a secure enough income to comfortably pay delivery charges if I need to. Not everyone has those privileges, especially those providing me with the services which make it possible for me to avoid spreading (or catching) much of anything. 

Besides, as India is learning the hard way, ham-handedly shutting down the economy, especially with no notice, not only spreads misery but also paradoxically spreads contagion as workers move to places where they can earn a living. As it is, given our highest in the nation unemployment rate, overheated housing market, and backlog of temporarily delayed evictions, it’s only a matter of time before Nevada’s workers behave similarly — and spread whatever they’re carrying to wherever they move to.

Meanwhile, there is a very loud and very confident group of individuals in this state who remain convinced COVID-19 is, more or less, a hoax. Say what you might about these people, they stubbornly demonstrate consistent and repeated commitment to their preferred course of action through both words and deeds. That, in the absence of any better examples, looks an awful lot like leadership to people desperately seeking some in their uncertain lives. 

If we don’t want these people to drive Nevada’s medical and economic health off of a cliff, we as individuals must exhibit leadership ourselves and demand our elected leaders take leadership as well. We need to be open and honest with ourselves and each other about how much epidemiological and economic risk we’re willing to assume with each choice we make to manage the pandemic. We won’t be successful, however, if we let the ones making the choices on our behalf tell us one thing (like that live musical performances in front of an audience are banned) and then quietly redefine what an audience is once the cameras are off. 

David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].

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