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Disabled slot machines inside the Tropicana Casino and Resort as seen on the Las Vegas Strip on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, after gaming operations were ordered closed by Governor Steve Sisolak. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Las Vegas, famous for flouting convention, now finds it must follow new rules or retreat deeper into the coronavirus pandemic’s shadows.

Will it happen? I’m not optimistic — but not for the reasons you might think.

Facing the rise of deadly COVID-19, Gov. Steve Sisolak put lives ahead of profits when he issued nonessential business closures and stay-at-home instructions. The decision to follow the advice of medical science over political expediency caused very real pain for a lot of small businesses and paycheck-to-paycheck Nevadans. The state’s crushing unemployment rate and miles-long food lines are but two signs of the real strife playing out each day.

As of Saturday, Nevada began to emerge from its burrow as Sisolak loosened some restrictions on businesses and reopened some parks. It was an act of cautious optimism the administration calls Phase 1 with a return to partial action in the state’s economically essential casinos tentatively set for Memorial Day weekend. Lots of rules, but a few less restrictions.

I’d like to think we’ll get there on the way to an even more open society, but that’s not the way I’m betting. Why?

It’s not just because of the news out of California, perennially our most reliable visitor base, that the state faces a $54.3 billion budget deficit and a projected unemployment rate of 18 percent. No one will blame Californians if they want to wait for better times before coming to Las Vegas to play.

Nor is it the ongoing crisis in the airline industry, where traveler volume has plummeted and gas mask-wearing passengers look like characters out of a Philip K. Dick novel. The Las Vegas we knew can’t return until the skies are friendly and safe again.

That’s not what worries me most.

Call it the yahoo factor. In short, there are too many of them for my comfort. The state has too many medical science deniers, too many internet prevaricators and bug-eyed provocateurs. Ground Control to Wayne Allyn Root, are you listening?

For heaven’s sake, we have too many people who believe not wearing a mask at the grocery store is making some kind of Trumpian political statement. And they’re all pulling in the wrong direction in the name of the Trump agenda and the GOP’s next Nevada dream ticket.

Today’s Nevada Republican Party resembles nothing so much as the far-right Independent American Party writ large. It has embraced in fact or in spirit most of the IAP’s long-time positions while making unwavering fealty to President Trump the ultimate litmus test.

In that light, the recent series of glorified pro-Trump, anti-Sisolak rallies flying under the breathless banner of “Reopen Nevada” are easier to understand. “Recall Sisolak” efforts are underway only because it’s too early to trot out Adam Laxalt, 2.0. But thinly veiled political rallies aren’t the issue.

The increasing presence of heavily armed protesters and members and associates of the Proud Boys neo-fascist network sends a more troubling message. This isn’t a display of liberty, but thuggery and intimidation masquerading as a constitutional lesson. But that’s grist for another column.

It’s the crowds. Almost no masks, or social distancing. They may choose to believe in survival of the fittest, the divine inspiration of the Constitution, or that Jesus is their vaccine, but the lack of respect for the apolitical medical science courts calamity.

If basic statistics were of any real use, debunking the Trumpian patriots’ argument about COVID-19 being “just like the flu” would be a simple matter. By the numbers, of the millions who contracted the flu in 2018-2019 in the United States, 490,600 were hospitalized and at least 34,200 died, according to the estimates of the Centers for Disease Control. COVID-19 has killed far more in a fraction of the time.

Faced with a rising death toll and revelations of incompetent response to the crisis, the Trump administration is doing what it always does — disregarding the experts, changing the subject, shirking responsibility, and calling to “liberate” states (with Democratic governors). And Trump has plenty of true believers, yahoos who simply choose not to believe medical science.

On Saturday, a Trump rally hand-wringing as a freedom demonstration was scheduled for Las Vegas City Hall, where anti-Sisolak protesters have several allies on the City Council and in the mayor’s office. During Wednesday’s council meeting, Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who continues to downplay the pandemic, read letters from desperate unemployed residents and reportedly received a standing ovation from a group of her boosters. She also again called for the reopening of Las Vegas despite the fact the governor’s gradual rollout was already being scheduled.

Like Sisolak, Goodman also finds herself facing a recall effort.

At this point, it may be all they have in common.

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 Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

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