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Enforcing coronavirus-safety guidelines in reopened Nevada businesses hazy

Updated May 18, 2020 - 4:57 pm

This much is clear: Nevada business owners must enforce a rigid set of rules inside their establishments if they want to reopen — or stay reopened — under the governor’s Phase One pandemic economic recovery plan.

As deemed by Gov. Steve Sisolak, a business must have employees and customers practice social distancing, operate at a maximum of half capacity and require employees to wear face coverings.

“While the majority of our businesses are doing a great job,” Sisolak said at a Friday news conference, “we know that there are some that are not in compliance right now. Unfortunately, their negligence puts Nevadans at risk, and so there will be repercussions.”

But what isn’t clear is how those repercussions are playing out.

The Phase One reopening directive left enforcement to a variety of agencies as they see fit. But no two agencies are enforcing compliance the same way, leading to different penalties for the same infraction and different ways of keeping tabs on businesses.

Inspectors with the city of Las Vegas and the cosmetology board are visiting businesses daily to check for compliance. Meanwhile, OSHA and the city of North Las Vegas are waiting for complaints or referrals to come to their attention before dispatching inspectors.

North Las Vegas spokesman Patrick Walker said this approach is in response to businesses thus far being “very compliant” with the directive. The city had received just two complaints as of Thursday.

There would “probably” be more complaints if people knew where to complain, though people’s first instinct is often to call the police, who would have to pass the information along to the appropriate agency, said William Sousa, the director of UNLV’s Center for Crime and Justice Policy.

‘Nobody told me’

Nevada’s businesses generally understand what’s expected of them and that people and competitors can snitch on them if they’re breaking the rules, said Randi Thompson, the state director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

Henderson business owner Michele Walker said she assumes she could be on the receiving end of a complaint if a customer catches her without a face mask or disobeying another part of the directive.

But Walker said Thursday she didn’t know what specific penalties her business, Imaginations Unlimited, 19 S. Water St., could face.

“Nobody told me anything” about penalties, and she said she assumed the authorities would simply close her shop.

In practice, penalties vary by agency.

Based on interviews and information from multiple enforcement agencies, the most common response to a business not following the rules appears to be a verbal warning or some form of education.

North Las Vegas violators can face fines of up to $1,000 a day, license revocation or even misdemeanor charges that could land someone in jail for up to six months, Walker, the city spokesman, said.

OSHA can levy a fine up to a hefty $13,494 if a business doesn’t follow the governor’s directive or OSHA’s conjunctive COVID-19 rules, an OSHA spokeswoman said.

For Las Vegas, penalties are determined on a case-by-case basis, Las Vegas spokesman Jace Radke said.

The city typically first reminds a business owner of the rules and asks them to address the violation. If problems persist, Radke said, the city may fine a business or suspend its license.

It’s unclear if any business has yet received a fine or license suspension for flouting the reopening rules. It’s also unclear how long it might take for a business to be reprimanded.

Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick, who sits on an advisory panel tasked with helping businesses reopen, said Friday that enforcement has been “effective.”

“All agencies agreed that our first method would be to educate folks,” she said. “Nobody is trying to go out and fine everybody first. That’s the last thing we’re trying to do. We’re trying to help them.”

The difference in penalties are to to be expected across different jurisdictions, she said.

Complaints

Henderson and the Nevada Board of Cosmetology each indicated some salons have struggled with the social distancing requirements. Noncompliant salon owners in Henderson didn’t understand customers couldn’t wait in the lobbies and couldn’t take walk-ins, city spokeswoman Kathleen Richards said.

She said compliance issues are limited, though the city isn’t closely tracking data, in part because some complaints are doubled up, secondhand or reported via different channels.

“I think most businesses, once they’ve been visited by us, have been very understanding,” Richards said.

Of 24 complaints from May 9 to Thursday received by the cosmetology board, at least two of those were meritless and nine were addressed through education, compliance coordinator Leah Easter said.

Las Vegas received 28 complaints between May 8 and Tuesday, Radke said. The city has received several calls about salons, smoking lounges and employees not wearing masks, he said.

In Clark County, officials had received 40 complaints as of Tuesday about businesses not following the governor’s directive, spokesman Dan Kulin said.

Also through Tuesday, the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration had received 10 noncompliance complaints under Phase One. Eight of those were from Southern Nevada. Spokeswoman Teri Williams said further details about those complaints were confidential.

Bodies

Sisolak said Friday the “vast majority” of businesses are complying with the reopening guidelines.

But, an agency can’t address a specific violation it doesn’t know exists, said UNLV’s Sousa. Licensing boards and governments rely on complaints, tips or proactive checks to find such a problem, he said.

“Are there going to be some that don’t come to the attention (of an agency)? Sure, but the most serious ones are most likely” to draw complaints, Sousa said.

On some level, Sousa said, it’s up to the businesses to police themselves.

Part of that stems from the fact there are far fewer inspectors than there are businesses, Sousa said. Accordingly, cities and regulation boards must be choosy with their enforcement efforts.

As a police officer patrols known crime “hot spots” rather than random neighborhoods or streets, Sousa analogized, an inspector visits the businesses that could be highest at risk for a violation.

“Very rarely is it this random, ‘Let’s check this business out of the hell of it,’” Sousa said.

Contact Mike Shoro at mshoro@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5290. Follow @mike_shoro on Twitter.

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