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A statue is adorned with a gold face mask in front of Caesars Palace Las Vegas Hotel & Casino on Thursday, June 4, 2020. The property opened its doors to the public at 10 a.m. after the COVID-19 pandemic which prompted the temporary shutdown. (Mikayla Whitmore/The Nevada Independent)

The long fly ball to left field landed well up in the bleachers and hit the grinning fan squarely in the neck. Hey, that’s gonna leave a mark.

Remarkably, the guy didn’t spill a drop of beer. The sap didn’t even stop smiling. 

It probably helped that he was made of cardboard.

It took one inning, but I’d seen enough. With the fake crowd noise blasting and broadcasters oozing faux enthusiasm from the television, the big-leaguer on the screen circled the bases in the empty ballpark. My curiosity about how the 2020 baseball season would proceed during a pandemic was officially rained out.

When a few days later half the roster of the Miami Marlins tested positive for COVID-19 after a night out in Atlanta, I concluded only the obvious: that continuing the season during a deadly pandemic that’s taken more than 150,000 American lives in a matter of months is the height of absurdity.

Consider it a metaphor for what Las Vegans are enduring.

The city that lives for the actual crowds and noise continues to suffer mightily with rising COVID-19 cases, high unemployment, and a new wave of evictions and bankruptcies only now beginning to crash. The crowds aren’t coming. The gaming industry’s giants are reeling, and there’s little relief in sight.

Even this past week’s Las Vegas Perspective 2020, a perennial cheerleader competition for Southern Nevada business, couldn’t slap a happy face on the economic devastation. There’s something about losing 280,000 jobs in two months – a decade’s worth of employment growth – that takes the wind out of even the most intrepid pitchmen.

Not even Applied Analysis principal numbers guru Jeremy Aguero, who can pluck rays of sunshine from a Category 5 hurricane, was able to deliver anything approaching an optimistic forecast. He lamented over Zoom, “The public health crisis has rapidly transitioned into an economic crisis. Our economy is in recession, let’s have no doubts about that whatsoever.” His prediction: An economic recovery could take up to three years. Cardboard cutouts of tourists are not an option.

We live in a field of nightmares. We have built it, but they’re not coming.

You probably thought that was the bad news.

The game was rigged from the start, thanks to the decision in April by the Trump administration to abdicate its responsibility for a national strategy to fight the spread of coronavirus. Instead, he left the battle up to the country’s governors: Because we all know pandemics respect state borders and sovereignty. Trump’s abject failure ensured the crippling of air travel, without which Las Vegas goes from big-league destination to bush league sideshow.

Although Trump did his best to graffiti the credibility of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), its medical analysts have managed to forecast up to 175,000 COVID-19 deaths by Aug. 15. Nevada is on the CDC’s list of nine states with the “greatest likelihood” of infection surges. And when the CDC says “Nevada,” it really means Las Vegas, home to more than 90 percent of the state’s infections and some of Trump’s most generous donors.

But when White House Coronavirus Task Force response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said in a private phone call to public officials that Las Vegas was among 11 cities that needed to take “aggressive” steps to combat surging infection rates, it was supposed to remain confidential. Thanks to reporters from the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, the troubling truth came out. We’ve been warned.

At a time we might be asking ourselves whether to roll back to Phase 1 restrictions, which flattened the infection rate before being lifted in late May, instead we’re preparing for a hybrid Aug. 10 reopening of the state’s schools as COVID-19 cases keep rising. Forgive understandably nervous teachers and students if they suggest substituting themselves for cardboard likenesses in this strangest of school seasons.

Faced with no good answers and inconsistent safety compliance, Gov. Steve Sisolak has chosen to increase penalties for mask and social distancing scofflaws and shut down repeat offenders. Clark County in the past two weeks has issued “Notices of Violation” to supermarkets, casinos, and a variety of other businesses that ought to better appreciate what’s at stake. “Our business community must be vigilant,” County Commission Chairman Marilyn Kirkpatrick chided. “If we fail to limit the spread of the virus our cases and hospitalizations will continue to rise, which could force us to roll back some of the openings and overwhelm our health care system.”

Yes, all true, but there’s little political interest in rolling back a staggering economy. State health officials say the data suggests a slowing in growth rates of new cases and hospitalizations, but the school bell hasn’t rung yet.

It makes Trump’s dangerous lack of leadership all the more craven. It took 150,000 deaths before he stopped making fun of masks and social distancing. His own party is riddled with anti-mask protesters, who yammer about their freedom while not giving a damn about their neighbor’s health. When Trump’s not pimping for hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19, he’s retweeting asinine conspiracy theories that accuse national hero Dr. Anthony Fauci of creating the coronavirus.

Trump has unleashed the jackals of his administration, party, and media to further malign Fauci and muddy the waters of medical best practices. Sinclair Broadcasting Group is his most willing and powerful stooge with 294 television stations in 89 markets, including Las Vegas. Hard-working local reporters who have spent their careers doing the right thing must cringe as the parent company promotes Trumpian conspiracy theories.

Like the old ballgame, it’s become too full of cardboard cutouts and fake crowd noise to watch. These are the dog days, indeed.

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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