Thursday, July 29, 2021 | 2 a.m.
From coast-to-coast, travelers are being urged to exercise caution in visiting Las Vegas, as the delta variant of the coronavirus is causing cases here to surge.
That advice, in part, is behind recent efforts locally and on a statewide basis to stem the surge.
Those efforts include the Clark County Commission’s directive last week that all workers at businesses open to the public must wear face masks. This week, Gov. Steve Sisolak upped the ante and ordered that, beginning Friday, everyone in indoor places open to the public must wear masks.
Dr. Felix Fermin of the Southern Nevada Health District has an easy fix for those tired of the newly reinstituted mask mandates.
“The solution for this problem is really having most people who are still unvaccinated receiving that shot,” he said earlier this month.
A related concern of Sisolak, county commissioners, local health officials and others is to present Las Vegas as a safe destination for the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit weekly.
With the recent surge in COVID-19 cases here, that distinction has taken several hits.
After a spike in cases last week in Hawaii, Kaua’i County Mayor Derek Kawakami instructed residents there to delay travels to one the country’s hard-hit areas for the highly contagious delta variant: Las Vegas, a destination so popular it’s affectionately called the “Ninth Island.”
Clark County is labeled as a “sustained hotpot” for coronavirus transmission, according to the White House’s Community Profile Report.
“The biggest hotspot for bringing COVID home to Kaua’i? Las Vegas,” Kawakami said in a statement. “Visitors usually stay indoors for a long time. They mingle with others from all over the country, including from states where COVID and the delta variant are spreading rapidly. Masks are not required indoors in Las Vegas, and the result is the spread of COVID-19.”
The combination of unvaccinated people and the delta strain has led to COVID-19 surges in most states, and in Nevada health officials reported 1,124 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday — the most new daily cases reported since Feb. 8.
Even worse, the number of residents hospitalized because of the virus rose to 1,143, which is four less than the peak of hospitalizations last summer before the vaccine rollouts. In Nevada, 81% of COVID-19 cases analyzed by the state public health lab over the last two weeks were the delta variant.
The surge has led to officials in other parts of the country to also advise against traveling here, including Northern California’s Contra Costa County, where county health officer Dr. Chris Farnitano warned, “It’s really important to remember that, as far as COVID goes, what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas.”
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors also advised Southern Californians against traveling here. Same for the Chicago Department of Public Health.
“You don’t want to hear people saying, ‘I don’t want to travel to Las Vegas because they are having a flare-up of the pandemic,’ ” said Brian Labus, the UNLV epidemiologist and an expert on communicable disease surveillance.
With the health and economic crises brought on by the pandemic still being felt throughout town, the possibility of another slowdown because visitors are being told to avoid Las Vegas has many state and local officials on guard.
Sisolak reimposed the mask mandate effective 12:01 a.m. Friday. That’s in line with guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which on Tuesday recommended that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the country where the delta variant is bringing a surge in infections.
In a letter to employees, MGM Resorts International CEO Bill Hornbuckle said that returning to masks is a step backwards when the focus should be on recovering from the pandemic. And the step backwards might just be the beginning, he warned.
“I fear that progressively more restrictive measures, including a return to social distancing and capacity restrictions, could be around the corner if we continue on this path,” he wrote. “This would be a significant blow to our community, industry and economy.”
The mask mandate follows direction July 20 from Clark County, which mandated masks for employees — regardless of vaccination status — at work in indoor places open to the public, including casinos, grocery stores, malls and large-event venues.
In approving the measure, commissioners stressed that the economic health of the region depended on government intervention to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
“We have already been through a shutdown and a startup, and we cannot afford to have major conventions decide to go elsewhere,” said Commissioner Jim Gibson, who also sits on the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority board.
“At the end of the day, there is a reality, and the major shows who come to Las Vegas and provide the midweek occupancy that really sustains this economy are now questioning what we’re doing because of what they’re seeing. It is highly published, and the world knows what’s happening in Las Vegas.”
But strengthening mask regulations is only one step to limit the virus spread and keep the local economy’s forward momentum.
As of Monday, a total of 1.36 million Nevadans were reported to be fully vaccinated, either with single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine or the two-dose vaccines manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna. Another 9% of the state’s population, or about 290,000 people, had been partially vaccinated with one of the required two doses.
The numbers rank Nevada in the mid-30s among the 50 states for vaccine rates. Nationwide, the rate for those fully vaccinated stands around 49%.
“Is it surprising? No. Is it disappointing? Yes,” Labus said of the poor vaccination rate of Nevadans. “We’ve always struggled with vaccination in Nevada. You see it in the flu shot and the vaccination rate of children.”
But with the lack of fully vaccinated residents, Nevada is heading back in the wrong direction with nearly 1,000 new COVID-19 cases daily and hospital trauma and ICU wards packed with patients positive for the virus.
And that could — if it already hasn’t — put a dent in the economy.
“The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has told us they have received direct questions from some, including the largest, of our conventions wanting to know what we’re doing to try and blunt the growth in the positivity rate,” Gibson said at last week’s commission meeting.
Yet, there's an easy fix to the problem.
“We have the tools to end this once and for all,” Hornbuckle wrote. “But those tools are only effective if we all do our part to make use of them. Please, be part of the solution and get vaccinated as soon as possible.”
The Sun’s Bryan Horwath and Hillary Davis contributed to this story.