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Clark County health agency urges face masks for all in public spaces

Updated July 16, 2021 - 6:18 pm

The mask is back.

The Southern Nevada Health District on Friday recommended that everyone — including those vaccinated against COVID-19 — again wear face masks in crowded indoor public settings such as grocery stores, malls and casinos.

The health district’s recommendation comes as COVID-19 test positivity rates, case counts and hospitalizations continue to increase in Southern Nevada, which has been designated as a “sustained hotspot” for the disease by the federal government.

“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 health district stated in a news release.

At a media briefing Friday afternoon, district health officer Dr. Fermin Leguen said, “At this point, we are making this a strong recommendation to the public and our business community.”

Mandate to come?

In mid-May, Gov. Steve Sisolak dropped the mask mandate for those who were vaccinated, following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The mask requirement remained for unvaccinated people in most public indoor settings, but was largely unenforced and often ignored.

Whether the health district ultimately calls for a mask mandate will depend on the community’s response over the next few days, Leguen said. He noted that the public health agency does not have the authority to impose a mandate and that state or local government would need to implement such a rule.

A regional policy group is discussing the district’s recommendation, said Erik Pappa, a representative of Clark County government.

Although the CDC has yet to recommend that vaccinated people again don masks, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top medical adviser to the White House, told the Review-Journal on Thursday that it might be appropriate for local authorities in areas with higher case rates and lower vaccination rates to consider new restrictions.

Leguen said the main group the district’s recommendation aims to protect is unvaccinated people, a group accounting for the vast majority of new cases and hospital admissions.

But Brian Labus, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at UNLV, noted that vaccinated people would be more protected, as well.

‘Extra protection’

“It’s something we can do to provide extra protection, given that the delta variant is infecting people who have been vaccinated,” he said, referencing the more-infectious strain of the coronavirus that is dominant in Nevada. He stopped short, however, of recommending a mandate.

“There’s a lot of things that go into that discussion about what’s mandated in our community,” said Labus, who has advised Sisolak on medical issues related to the pandemic. “Ultimately, what we want to do is get everyone vaccinated so we don’t even have to have these discussions.”

State officials noted Thursday that efforts to improve vaccination rates, such as a state raffle with cash and tuition prizes, are paying off, with the number of new vaccinations now outpacing the national average.

However, a significant portion of the population still hasn’t gotten a shot. In Clark County, 64.5 percent of the adult population has gotten at least one dose of vaccine, compared with the national average of 68 percent. (That does not include 12- to 17-year-olds, who are included in state vaccination data.)

Meanwhile, the health district in Northern Nevada’s most populous county said it would not, at this point, recommend that vaccinated people mask up in indoor settings.

“COVID-19 case rates and hospitalizations in Washoe County are much lower per capita than Clark County, so the Washoe County Health District does not have plans for such an announcement at this time,” said Kevin Dick, Washoe’s district health officer.

‘An economic issue’

The recommendation drew some initial support from Las Vegas business and labor organizations.

A representative of the Vegas Chamber said that the business organization next week would begin requiring all individuals at its events and in its offices to wear masks.

“In addition to a public health issue this is an economic issue, which is why as an organization we are going to require full masks at our events and place of business,” said Cara Clarke, the chamber’s vice president of communications. “And we’re encouraging other businesses to do the same because we want to keep Las Vegas open.”

The health district’s recommendation came a day after Los Angeles County announced it would be requiring everyone to again wear masks in all indoor settings. It also follows a recommendation by the county’s top health official that residents reconsider traveling to Nevada and other states where COVID-19 rates are increasingly high, particularly if they are unvaccinated.

The Nevada AFL-CIO also endorsed the health district’s recommendation.

“All working Nevadans deserve to feel safe and respected in their workplaces, and that includes protection from COVID-19 and its variants,” said Nevada AFL-CIO Executive Secretary-Treasurer Rusty McAllister in a statement.

“The livelihoods of many working Nevadans rely on keeping our many resorts, hotels and casinos open for business — and that can only happen if we all do our part,” he said.

A ‘bitter pill’

The recommendation wasn’t immediately widely embraced by members of the public, many of whom had yet to hear of it.

On the Strip, crowds were thin and masks were scarce in the early afternoon. While playing in the Treasure Island casino, most with masks chose to wear them below the chin or hang them from the ear.

“I’ve been vaccinated so it’s kind of a bitter pill to throw on a mask now,” said Greg Allen Ross of Canton, Georgia, who was walking on the Strip near Treasure Island with family members, all without masks.

Ross said the family would likely not mask up unless it was mandated.

“I’ll do whatever Dr. Fauci and the state of Nevada tells me to do,” Ross said.

While taking photographs outside The Venetian, Edgar Gonzalez from San Diego learned of the recommendations, which he called “useless.” Gonzalez, who contracted COVID-19 last year and is vaccinated, hopes that governments do not revert to mandating the mask.

“It’s really unnecessary at this point, and it’s not good to create all this fear,” Gonzalez said.

At Smith’s Food and Drug on West Flamingo and South Fort Apache roads, only about a third of customers wore masks as they trickled in and out. The grocery store, owned by Kroger, updated its policy May 20 to no longer require masks for fully vaccinated customers and associates.

Audrey Hawthorne, who had just finished loading her shopping bags into the car, said the new recommendation wouldn’t affect her. Despite being vaccinated, Hawthorne continues to wear a mask when out in public. She has no plans to stop.

“We’ve been doing it for over a year now, so you get so used to it,” said Hawthorne, shrugging her shoulders. “I guess it’s a habit now.”

Related: L.A. County health official: Reconsider travel to Nevada

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter. Follow mathewjmiranda on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Mathew Miranda contributed to this report.

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