Updated September 16, 2020 - 6:55 pm
CARSON CITY — Douglas County might have to pay the state back $8.9 million in federal coronavirus pandemic aid it received after it opted to allow President Donald Trump to hold a gathering at Minden-Tahoe Airport on Saturday in violation of the state’s restrictions on the size of public gatherings.
Gov. Steve Sisolak, in a call with reporters Wednesday, said he was “disappointed that Douglas County chose to allow the venue to host the event and go against the directives” and that the county’s aid allotment was being reviewed.
“If I were a surrounding county or city, I’d be upset about that,” the governor said. “We’re looking into exactly what happened, and we’ll reach a decision with my office and with the attorney general’s office.”
Counties in Nevada received a per capita share of a combined $148.5 million in federal CARES Act aid to localities in June, with counties agreeing to adhere to and enforce state directives regarding COVID-19 as a condition of receiving the funds. Those directives currently include a 50-person limit on public gatherings.
No official crowd figures were released for the president’s Minden event, but observers estimated attendance at over 5,000, more than 100 times the current limit.
A Douglas County spokeswoman, Melissa Blosser, did not return a phone call seeking comment on the possible loss of funding. Before the event, the county said First Amendment rights outweighed the state’s directives and that the outdoor event would be permitted.
Douglas County Manager Patrick Cates told The Record-Courier that the county was “fortunate to have the opportunity to host any president or presidential candidates and to listen to what they have to say about the future of our great nation.”
After Saturday’s event in Minden, the president traveled to Las Vegas and held an indoor gathering on Sunday at the Xtreme Manufacturing warehouse in Henderson, again attended by thousands. Officials there fined the venue for allowing the event.
At both events, the president accused the Democratic governor, without any evidence, of partisan interference to block the gatherings with the crowd-size limitations.
Sisolak, joining state COVID-19 response officials for their regular Wednesday briefing, said he had written to Vice President Mike Pence, as head the White House Coronavirus Task Force, noting that the president’s campaign had “packed thousands of people into two venues to hold public gatherings” that are categorized as high risk by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and in apparent violation of the White House’s own social distancing guidelines, which include a 25-person limit on gatherings in high-risk areas.
“I am beyond frustrated at the lack of clear, concise, and consistent messaging from the President on how to behave during this public health crisis,” Sisolak wrote, asking about additional federal support Nevada might expect to fight possible outbreaks “now that the President has undoubtedly risked an increased spread in two of our communities?”
State GOP Chairman Michael McDonald issued a statement late Wednesday afternoon accusing Sisolak of bullying Douglas County, adding that the governor’s “disturbing threat should be deeply concerning for all Nevadans.”
Chiming in on Sisolak’s behalf were Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, U.S. Rep. Dina Titus and state Democratic Chairman William McCurdy II, who said in a statement that the president’s events “could undo the months of concerted efforts from Nevadans who have followed these directives, stayed home, and socially distanced when necessary to be outside their home.”
With Nevada’s COVID-19 infection rates steadily improving, Sisolak also said Wednesday that he was asking the COVID-19 task force he appointed to review size limits on public gatherings, a move that could affect “everything from church gatherings to business meetings.”
“This is a natural next step in how we learn to live with this pandemic in our state,” he said.
He also noted that Nevada, among other states, had been taken off the list of places whose residents must quarantine themselves for two weeks on trips to New York, New Jersey or Connecticut.
“This did not happen by chance,” he said, “but because we’re collectively wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing, avoiding large crowds, getting COVID-19 tests and remaining vigilant.”