Masked and unmasked citizenry at the Clark County Commission meeting Tuesday. (Photo: Dana Gentry)
With a “dramatic” increase in cases of COVID-19 threatening hospitals, according to health officials, and the recovery of Southern Nevada’s economy on the line, Clark County Commissioners voted Tuesday to mandate that all workers wear masks while in public spaces.
But the mandate, which goes into effect Wednesday night at midnight, does not apply to customers. Last week the Southern Nevada Health District recommended that everyone wear masks while in “crowded indoor public places.”
“My job as a doctor in public health is to do whatever I can to protect the public health from these diseases,” SNHD Chief Medical Officer Dr. Cortland Lohff told commissioners. “I would recommend this mask mandate be implemented if the board chooses to do this.”
But the Commission chose to impose the mandate only on employees, not customers.
“If the headline from this meeting is that we imposed a mandate on employees, we have all failed,” Commissioner Justin Jones said. He ultimately joined his colleagues and voted in support of limiting the mandate to workers.
“The LVCVA (Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority) has received direct questions, including the largest of our conventions,” Commissioner Jim Gibson said of concern among trade show and convention organizers about COVID mitigation measures.
“We cannot do something that creates chaos,” Gibson said, adding “we’ve seen a bit of it today.”
The meeting was punctuated by outbursts from members of the public who attended to voice their opposition to further constraints related to COVID-19.
“You’re not going to force us to mask our kids because it’s child abuse,” said Las Vegan Lorena Cardenas. “We’re not buying it anymore. This is still America so we get to decide what’s best for our children.”
“We just had California enforce this mandate because they’re silly,” said Stephanie Kansley. “Why are you choosing to ignore science?”
Some members of the public quoted Thomas Jefferson. Another dubbed himself ‘the Ghost Patriot.’
“Your political theatre must stop,” said Nate Arrrowdell. “Masks don’t work. We have the right to breathe freely.”
Cases of COVID have almost tripled since June, Lohff told commissioners, while vaccinations have hit a plateau at 4,000 a day. SNHD’s website says another 160,000 Southern Nevadans must be vaccinated to reach so-called herd immunity, the level at which the virus will be snuffed out for lack of unvaccinated hosts.
The Delta virus, which has proved highly contagious, accounts for 80 percent of cases in Southern Nevada, according to Lohff.
SNHD is working to identify hot spots for COVID infection and make the vaccine accessible to young people and individuals in the Black community.
“Our data here in Southern Nevada and across the country indicate the vast majority of people in the hospital with COVID are unvaccinated.”
Commissioner Ross Miller asked Lohff if he foresees the need to recommend more stringent mitigation measures, such as a reduction in business capacity.
“I think it’s premature for me to talk about those here,” Lohff said.
Commissioner Tick Segerblom asked about having employers require employees be vaccinated.
Lohff said without full approval of COVID vaccines, such a requirement “presents a challenge” currently, adding once the FDA gives full approval, “it’s going to be a different story.”
“If you’re not vaccinated you shouldn’t be coming to work,” said Segerblom. “UMC hospital had like a third of their employees vaccinated. That’s not acceptable.”
“Obviously, there were employees who got vaccinated believing they’d be able to go without a mask,” noted Miller. “What’s the public health benefit to mandating everyone wear masks across the board?”
Lohff said it’s simply easier than attempting to verify who has been vaccinated.
Commissioners stressed mounting concern from the tourism industry and the potential economic fallout.
“We cannot afford to have major conventions decide to go elsewhere,” Gibson said. “At the end of the day there is a reality and the major shows that come to Las Vegas and provide the midweek occupancy that sustains this economy is questioning” the safety of events in Southern Nevada.
“I don’t think anybody up here wants to shut down anything, because that was hard for everyone,” said Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick.
Commissioners agreed that mandating masks for employees will not end the pandemic.
“You don’t let the crisis linger while you come up with a perfect solution,” said Gibson.
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