John Locher / AP
Published Friday, July 16, 2021 | 9:09 a.m.
Updated Friday, July 16, 2021 | 8:03 p.m.
With the number of COVID-19 cases rising, the Southern Nevada Health District is recommending vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear masks in crowded indoor spaces, including casinos and grocery stores.
“Using masks correctly has proven to be effective in helping to prevent people from getting and spreading COVID-19. With the rise in cases and slowing vaccine rates in Clark County, the Health District’s recommendation to wear masks in crowded public settings, including grocery stores, malls, large events, and casinos, is a step to fully utilize the tools we have available to stop the pandemic,” the district said in a statement.
The Health District’s health officer, Dr. Fermin Leguen, said the agency does not have the authority to implement a mask mandate. That would be up the the county, he said.
Clark County spokesman Erik Pappa said local leaders were discussing the Health District’s recommendation.
Many casinos and other places have implemented rules advising unvaccinated people to wear masks, but the rules are virtually unenforceable and based on the honor system. A vast majority of people in casinos are not wearing masks, even though only about half of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated.
Michael Lawton, a spokesman for the Nevada Gaming Control Board, said the agency did not have any comment on the matter.
In response to the new guidance, Las Vegas Sands, which operates the Venetian and Palazzo on the Strip, said it would require all employees to wear masks indoors.
It stopped short, however, of requiring masks for casino and hotel guests. The company said it revised signs at entrances to reflect the new recommendation and would make complimentary masks available.
The Westgate also said employees, but not guests, would be required to wear masks.
An official with the union representing 60,000 Nevada casino employees issued a statement noting the risks posed to workers by people who are not vaccinated.
Culinary Union official Geoconda Argüello-Kline pointed to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing more than 97% of people who have been hospitalized recently with COVID-19 have not received a vaccine.
Leguen said the mask advisory is to protect everybody, especially the unvaccinated, who account for over 95% of recent hospital admissions locally for COVID-19.
Leguen said the district has been expanding vaccine access, but “that's not enough today if we want to completely decrease the recent surge in the number of cases that we are experiencing here in Clark County.”
The Nevada Hospital Association said in its weekly update that the state’s general population “appears desensitized to the threat” of the virus.
“Individuals are not following CDC guidelines related to mask wearing for unvaccinated persons or maintaining social distancing in crowded indoor locations,” the association said.
On Thursday, Nevada reported 15 new deaths from COVID-19, the highest single-day death toll since mid-February and equal to the number of fatalities reported on July 15, 2020, according to state health department data.
As of today, Nevada was averaging 539 new cases over a 14-day period, 729 people were hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 cases and 11.3% of tests were returning positive.
On June 1, when Nevada dropped its pandemic restrictions, the state was averaging 135 new cases a day, had 186 confirmed hospitalizations and a test positivity rate of 3.7%.
The difference between now and then is the presence of the more contagious delta variant, UNLV epidemiologist Brian Labus said. A month and a half ago, the variant was rare. Now it’s the dominant strain.
“We’re seeing breakthrough cases in people who have been fully vaccinated,” Labus said. Masks provide “extra protection against that.”
Masks should be worn until the virus is under control and enough people have been vaccinated to establish stronger herd immunity, he said.
The dramatic rise in cases prompted Dr. Muntu Davis, the Los Angeles County health officer, to recommend that unvaccinated people not travel to Nevada and other states with accelerating COVID-19 spread.
The COVID-19 vaccine is the most important and effective step people can take to protect themselves and others from the virus, Health District officials said.
State health officials said Thursday they're seeing signs of improvement in the effort to get more Nevadans vaccinated. But nearly half of the state's eligible residents haven't been fully vaccinated and at the current rate, it will take until December to reach the goal of 70% statewide.
The Health District today also recommended people who are sick stay home and get tested if they have COVID symptoms.
People who are unvaccinated and have taken part in activities that put them at higher risk for COVID-19, such as traveling or attending mass gatherings, should also get tested, health officials said.
Las Vegas visitors Marissa and Jonathan Mendoza were a couple steps ahead of the Health Department's recommendation on masks this morning as they wore masks at The Park, an outdoor plaza on the Strip. The newlyweds, in town for the weekend from San Antonio, Texas, for a mini honeymoon, had already planned to keep the masks on indoors, too.
“I don’t want to get it again,” said Jonathan, 28. He contracted COVID-19 in December, when masks were more common but vaccines weren’t yet widely available. He has also since been vaccinated.
Marissa, 25, admitted they had been relaxing on mask use, but “once we saw numbers rising again, especially in the past week... face masks (got) put back on."
“The SNHD guidance is an important reminder that masks are effective in reducing spread,” said Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resorts Association. “Vaccination remains our best defense, and Nevada businesses including the resorts are working very hard to get their employees vaccinated. The resort industry will continue to comply with CDC guidance and all the state and local health and safety regulations.”
Las Vegas Sun reporters Hillary Davis and Bryan Horwath, along with the the Associated Press contributed to this report.