LAUGHLIN — The township of Laughlin, with its many gaming establishments, is actively seeking approval from Gov. Steve Sisolak in ongoing negotiations to receive separate COVID-19 standards than Las Vegas.
Although both Laughlin and Las Vegas are in Clark County and are tourist destinations, they share little in common about the severity of the coronavirus pandemic. There have been 45 confirmed cases in Laughlin Township, the Southern Nevada Health District said on Monday, while there have been nearly 30,000 in Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson.
Kathy Ochs, of the Laughlin Town Advisory Board, has been in regular contact with the governor’s office on the issue as Laughlin seeks to avoid any closures or other rollbacks that may be enforced in the Las Vegas area.
Bob Bilbray, of Bilbray Industries, said at last week’s LTAB meeting that he “is so proud of how Laughlin has handled the COVID crisis,” working diligently to keep up cleanliness and sanitary standards throughout the crisis, and that the effort has paid off. He, too, is a voice asking Sisolak to not lump Laughlin into any generalized standards that may be imposed on Las Vegas should the numbers of COVID cases keep spiking upward. Should Las Vegas be shuttered again, they are collectively asking that Laughlin be spared, based on the difference in the data concerning COVID between the two Nevada locations.
Ochs began her campaign in April, trying to get some level of distance established with the governor’s office between the two gaming locations as it became obvious that statewide mandates were the way Nevada was choosing to handle the onslaught of COVID-19 as it expanded across the nation, causing untold financial damage while taking American lives in staggering numbers daily. Back then, there was little time for such conversation via the governor as he was trampled under the stampede to decide how best to handle the epidemic in America.
In Nevada, the writing was on the wall. Las Vegas, a gambling and tourist mega-stop, is based on close-proximity activities. It is condensed and compact and as such was an inevitable spot for COVID-19 to settle.
Ochs began working with Clark County administrators, such as District A Commissioner Michael Naft and Alex Ortiz, assistant director of administrative service, as well as state Sen. Tom Hardy, and local casino representatives and Tina Gish, from the Southern Nevada Health District.
On March 18, Sisolak announced the closure of all “non-essential” businesses, casinos in particular, and so began a long and painful spring. The spring turned into summer and, although the pain has eased somewhat, the threat of a return to business closures is real; Sisolak has left the state under Phase Two of his four-phase reopening plans.
Sisolak and the Nevada Legislature now are wrestling with a $1.2 billion budget deficit, thanks in large part to the loss of gaming and entertainment tax revenue caused by the closures. In the absence of federal assistance, Nevada could be suffering the economic effects of COVID-19 for a very long time, and the longer it lingers, the worse things will get.
Laughlin residents, however, see a brighter light in the local tunnel than that of Las Vegas. Ochs, aBilbray and others are now reaching out to the governor for that survival based on how different and for all purposes better Laughlin has handled the COVID-19 pandemic either based on its rural location and significantly smaller population and visitor totals and its adherence to safety protocols or both.
“I started working to get a ‘rural’ exclusion to phasing of the levels for reopening for all rural areas back in April,” Ochs said. “It was conversations I had with Alex Ortiz, Commissioner Naft, and Sen. Hardy. I also asked for help from Laughlin Chamber, Tina Gish at the SNHD, Bob and from Matt Laughlin to reach out and support the concept to the same individuals, and to help me gain data to support the cause.
“Things were very up in the air at that time and I could not get enough data from other rural areas other than Laughlin to support my request. Most of what data I did get came from Jackie (Mazzeo) at the chamber, and updates from Tina with the SNHD, as she had them. At the time, we did the formal requests, we had zero cases, but Sisolak had already tasked the Gaming Control Board to work with properties to submit reopening plans and chose that vehicle directly with the license holders to be the driver of reopening.
“I don’t care about the credit, never have, but I do believe this is the right cause to get behind simply because the information on the ground in rural areas is vastly different than in Vegas. In addition, I believe we need to have testing every two weeks here in Laughlin in order to adjudicate any positives we may have in this community. I just recently had my entire staff tested, and no one is positive in my little company, but it also occurs to me as entire casino properties are testing their staff now, we need to have a way to return these people back to work once they test negative. I really want to have that locally instead of sending them to Las Vegas for testing.
“On our first testing back in May, we as a chamber funded that solely, as we needed it for the community and we were not sure if the cost would be reimbursed, but did not care.... This was too important to our economy. Our stakeholders donated all the costs and did the volunteering.”
She added, “So in addition to getting a legislative rural designation implemented to communities that are already designated as the legal definition of ‘rural’ from our state legislators, we also need that language to provide for funding of testing in the ‘rural’ areas with the available COVID funding that Congress passed.
“I do not know if there is time for state legislators to get this on the calendar, but it is needed, otherwise we will all be shut down again when the data does not fit the need.”