RENO (AP) — Officials from several rural Nevada counties told a state coronavirus task force Thursday they’re ready to relax restrictions and reopen businesses May 1 — well ahead of a June 1 date set by the governor, and despite a recent uptick in measurements of COVID-19 cases.
Clark County also intends to meet the June 1 goal to fully reopen, commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick said Wednesday in Las Vegas, although a plan it is finalizing for the COVID-19 Response Task Force details 50% capacity limits for most places where people gather.
Washoe County officials postponed plans to present their blueprint to the task force Thursday while commissioners and health experts work out disagreements about the path forward.
The chief county health officer, Kevin Dick, said he fears full reopening will accelerate a recent rise in COVID-19 cases in the Reno-Sparks area. But he said he understands the need to balance safety with economic factors.
“It’s the balance between keeping things locked-down forever and getting back to more normalcy with our economy and our society,” he said.
Gov. Steve Sisolak announced Tuesday that while masks will remain mandatory, he’s dropping social distancing requirements May 1 and expects statewide reopenings June 1 under new local control.
The statewide positivity rate rose to 5.5% Wednesday from a low of 4.2% on April 1. The World Health Organization recommends 5% or lower for two weeks with widespread testing before fully reopening.
Experts have said the recent uptick in the two-week measure of the percentage of people tested and found to have COVID-19 could be due to less demand among vaccinated people, as well as people seeking tests once they already have flu-like symptoms.
Washoe County’s positivity rate has climbed from a low of 5% in mid-March to 7.2%, Dick said Thursday, the highest rate since 7.3% on Feb. 21. Clark County has gone from 4% on March 31 to 5.3% as of Wednesday.
The rise comes a month after Sisolak raised maximum capacity levels to 50% at most businesses.
“It’s not really unexpected,” Dick told reporters. “Now and the next couple of weeks is exactly when we would expect to see increases in cases resulting from higher capacity.”
Dick said the June 1 reopening should be a “call to action to everybody to make their best effort to get vaccinations as soon as possible.”
Two sparsely populated rural counties, White Pine bordering Utah and Pershing in north-central Nevada, were the first to go before the task force Thursday.
“We’re going to try to open the county 100%,” said Brett North, emergency manager in White Pine County, where the positivity rate has remained below 5% since mid-January and now stands at less than 1%.
Pershing County’s positivity rate is now 4.2% and has been below 5% since March 5. The county had gone nearly a month with no new cases until six new cases were reported last week.
“Basically our numbers are still really down,” Pershing County Commissioner Carol Shank told the task force.
Lander County, with a 1% positivity rate, sent a protest letter that pointed to a unanimous vote by commissioners on Feb. 25 to declare its fewer than 6,000 residents no longer covered by the state of emergency that Sisolak declared in March 2020.
The letter from a high-profile Nevada law firm declared it “not a prudent use of county resources” to prepare a reopening plan, but added an attachment saying the county proposed no local measures.
The letter credited former Republican President Donald Trump with pushing for vaccines and accused the governor, a Democrat, of being “quick to shut down the state” in March 2020 but “slow to take into consideration” differences between rural parts of the state and the Las Vegas and Reno-Carson City urban areas.
“It’s safe to say they are basically removing all restrictions (and) going to 100% open,” Caleb Cage, the task force chairman, said of the document.
Clark County has a 33-page plan covering the Las Vegas Strip and businesses ranging from nightclubs and day clubs to self-service buffets, and events including youth sports and church gatherings. It is due for presentation to the county commission next Tuesday.
The plan would let most public places, including hot tubs, spas, strip clubs, tattoo parlors, gyms and yoga studios, reopen at 50% capacity. Restaurants could increase from six to 10 the number of people allowed at a table. Buffet stations will have to be supervised, with hand sanitizer offered to patrons and service utensils changed every hour.