Updated September 3, 2020 - 6:05 pm
CARSON CITY — Mandatory bar closures in four Nevada counties will remain in effect for another two weeks following action by the state’s COVID mitigation task force Thursday.
The interagency panel did loosen restrictions to allow countertop dining to resume in Clark County next week, subject to written guidelines and in compliance with social distancing directives. The change applies to dining areas such as sushi bars and diner counters and is slated to go into effect Wednesday.
Clark County Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick led the county contingent asking the task force to lift the countertop ban.
“We are impacting tons of people because of the countertops that are not open,” Kirkpatrick said. “Hopefully this committee could discuss what that means, because if a sushi bar can’t open their countertop, I want to understand what is the science behind that.”
The task force meets weekly to assess COVID-19 outbreak conditions across the state, flagging counties deemed at higher risk of contagion according to per capita daily testing and case rates and a moving two-week average rate of positive results. Exceeding criteria in two of three categories puts a county in the elevated risk category.
Seven counties are in the high-risk group, unchanged from last week: Churchill, Clark, Elko, Lander, Lyon, Nye and Washoe. Bars are closed in all of Clark, Elko and Washoe; they are open in Nye except in the city of Pahrump.
Divided on bars
For the first time since the task force began weekly assessments last month, differences of opinion showed among the members as they reviewed mitigation and management plans high-risk counties must submit. Some members aligned with county representatives seeking to have bar closures rescinded in light of improving COVID statistics, compliance reporting and enforcement efforts.
In the end , the task force held firm to its existing risk criteria, among them, a 7 percent maximum positive test rate. Five of the counties on the elevated risk list continue to show positivity rates at or well above 10 percent, with Elko the highest at 17.9 percent.
“I don’t think waiving methodology in order to achieve a goal to open the bars is probably in the best interest of the public’s health right now,” said task force member Richard Whitley, the state Health and Human Services Department director.
Caleb Cage, the state’s COVID response director, framed the overall discussion in a regional and national context, noting that 46 states have closed bars or restricted service or capacity, including bordering states. Nevada has the fourth-highest positive test rate in the country, at 10.9 percent. The average of other states in the region is 5.9 percent, and the national average is 5.4 percent, he said.
Of the four counties where bars remain closed, Clark, Elko and Nye sought changes to those mandates on Thursday. Cage said mitigation plans submitted by the counties did not show “the level of sophistication and planning on both mitigation and enforcement” or better testing and case numbers that would merit “reversal of these restrictions right now.”
Nye, which received approval two weeks ago to reopen bars and taverns outside of Pahrump, sought to reopen them there as well. Both Elko and Clark sought lifts on countywide bans. All three requests were rebuffed, with the task force, as has been its standard practice, scheduling a review in two weeks.
Noting the three- to four-week lag between implementing safeguards and seeing results from those measures, Cage said the task force is in “a very tenuous spot with Clark County, and as Clark County goes, so goes the rest of the state.”