Updated July 22, 2020 - 9:02 pm
A leading doctor on the White House coronavirus task force reportedly warned state and local officials Wednesday that Las Vegas, among other U.S. cities, should take “aggressive” steps to address a rising number of cases.
Dr. Deborah Birx cautioned officials during a private phone call, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit newsroom. Birx named 10 other major U.S. cities whose increases in percentage of tests returning positive should compel them to act, including Baltimore, Miami and New Orleans.
On the same day of the warning, Las Vegas announced plans to increase testing and step up the city’s monitoring of businesses to ensure compliance with public health rules over fears that a worsening coronavirus situation in Clark County could lead to another shutdown.
In response to the report, city spokesman Jace Radke said the phone call was part of a bimonthly national briefing on COVID-19 by the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and hardly “private.”
“I just want to make it clear that this is a regular call that hundreds of jurisdictions are on,” he said.
With top city officials attending a City Council meeting, Radke said that city lobbyist Vicki Cram instead listened in on the call. Radke said it was his understanding that Birx had reiterated concerns over states in the coronavirus “red zone.”
In audio from the call posted by the Center for Public Integrity, however, Birx said that cities such as Las Vegas were “lagging behind” in lowering test positivity and that it was critical those cities be “aggressive” about mitigation efforts, including contact tracing.
Enforcement, testing increase
City Manager Scott Adams on Wednesday told the City Council of planned measures to get in front of the virus. He said it was in response to a request from the state made to all regional jurisdictions.
City officials are finishing a plan that would see Cashman Center used as an indoor walk-in testing facility through the end of 2020, according to Adams. But county spokesman Erik Pappa said that it would be a county-run operation and that the city was only providing the site.
Adams said the city also committed to several “pop-up” locations in all six city wards. It previously set aside $1 million from federal relief funding for testing.
And the city will send 100 employees to check that businesses are following public health guidelines that employees and customers wear face masks and maintain a 6-foot separation.
Adams said employees, working in teams of two, will first visit areas with high infection rates, with the goal to hit every street-facing business over the next 30 days.
“It is wonderful to be pre-emptive on this and make sure that everybody is in compliance,” said Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who previously has underplayed the seriousness of the virus and championed business and worker rights to stay open.
Nevada in ‘red zone’
The renewed strategy on testing and business enforcement comes in the wake of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s request for heightened action plans from local governments in response to Nevada’s recent inclusion as a coronavirus “red zone” in an internal White House report.
The report, which listed 17 other states, defined the “red zone” determination by number of new cases and positive tests. In particular, it is based on Nevada reporting more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people two weeks ago and having more than 10 percent of diagnostic tests returned positive, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
The Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise metropolitan area and Clark County were named as being in the “red zone,” the only metropolitan area and county in the state to receive the designation, which comes with recommendations to revert to more stringent control measures, some of which the state already has imposed.
On Wednesday, Nevada reported more than 1,100 new cases of coronavirus and 28 deaths, which tied Tuesday’s official count for the largest increase of daily reported fatalities since the pandemic began.
Helping good actors
In briefing city lawmakers on the city’s response, Adams tried to cast the increased scrutiny on businesses as a positive, suggesting that it would only hurt the businesses that are not following the rules while benefiting the ones in compliance by staving off more stringent safety measures from the state.
“We would rather deal with a few bad apples, so to speak, and deal with them, rather than see entire business groupings or industry segments close down through another mandate by the governor,” Adams said.
He also underscored that the mask mandate, ordered by the governor on June 24, did not offer much leeway unlike the prior state order that shut down “nonessential businesses.”
“They’re very specific, they’re black and white,” Adams said about the public health guidelines. “There is no gray area on these new rules.”
But Councilman Stavros Anthony said he worried that ratcheting up scrutiny could potentially harm mom-and-pop operations with few employees to ensure that rules were followed.
“We need to balance enforcing the mask mandate with working with these small businesses that only have a limited number of resources to do the best that they can, and we don’t come down with hammers on these folks,” Anthony said.
City ‘ambassadors’ assist effort
In a statement Wednesday, the city said the employees, referred to as “ambassadors,” will educate and provide resources to establishments. They will not enforce the rules, however, but they can report violations to city business license officers.
Those officers have been educating businesses on Sisolak’s mask mandate throughout July, according to the city. The city has issued 28 notices of correction and three civil penalties over the course of more than 1,400 business visits, it said.
Sports fields a problem area
There is one area where noncompliance has been particularly noticed: sports fields. Adams said the city has witnessed crowds of parents without face masks clustered around youth sports practices, which he noted must be free of spectators, according to the state.
“The adults are creating problems for the kids and that’s not fair to the kids who really want to train and continue their youth sports,” he said.
He added that noncompliance could result in groups no longer being allowed to use city-owned fields. He credited the Nevada Youth Soccer Association for self-policing after it took away fields from four of its teams.
The issue is not so cut and dried, however, with parents afraid to simply drop off their children and leave the field area, according to Goodman. Adams suggested a “workaround,” where parents stayed close without hovering around the field and violating no-spectator rules.
A previous version of this story misidentified the city lobbyist on the briefing call with Dr. Deborah Birx.