Alarmed by the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Las Vegas, elected officials approved a new indoor public space mask mandate for all county employees, but it excludes tourists and has no bearing on casinos or public schools.
The Clark County Commission unanimously adopted the motion Tuesday night following a raucous emergency hearing, in which the majority of speakers opposed a recommendation from the Southern Nevada Health District to require all members of the public to wear masks in all public settings.
Under the new rule, all Clark County employees, regardless of their vaccination status, will be required to wear masks in public spaces of county buildings, but not in their enclosed offices or cubicles.
Dr. Cort Lohff, chief medical officer for the Southern Nevada Health District, told the commission that COVID-19 infections in the community have tripled since early June, driven largely by the delta variant.
Las Vegas casinos and other businesses were allowed to fully open in early June after months of being closed or operating under severely limited capacity.
The county's COVID test-positivity rate is at 13.8% and data from state health officials showed that 889 new COVID cases were reported in Clark County on Tuesday alone.
On Friday, the health district issued a recommendation to require all members of the public to wear masks in public settings "regardless of their vaccination status."
Health officials said that roughly 42% of the population in Clark County is fully vaccinated. The U.S. population overall currently stands at 48.8% fully vaccinated.
"Our biggest pockets of unvaccinated are younger folks, 12 and older who are eligible for the vaccine. We are also seeing low rates among African American folks," said Lohff, adding that the health district has launched an outreach program that includes a social media campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated.
"The most important thing is to increase our vaccination rates in our community because we know that the vaccines are very safe and despite what you heard, very effective," Lohff said.
Commissioners said they could not issue a full mask mandate on the public because they have no jurisdiction over casinos and other private buildings in the city of Las Vegas.
"This has nothing to do with the school district," said Marilyn Kirkpatricks, chairperson of the Clark County Commission. "The school district rules fall under the state Board of Education and the Clark County School District."
Commissioner Jim Gibson, who proposed the limited mask mandate, said, "We have to do something."
"We can't afford to allow hospitals to become more worse in terms of their crowding and we cannot afford to have this economy suffer in the slightest," Gibson said. "We have already been through a shutdown and a startup. We cannot afford to have major conventions choose to go elsewhere."
The mask mandate will is scheduled to go into effect at midnight Thursday and will stay in place until at least Aug. 17 when the commission meets again.
Clark County is the most populous county in Nevada with about 2.3 million residents and includes the cities of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson.
Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, applauded the mask mandate the commission passed.
"I support the Clark County Commission for using their local authority to issue this mitigation measure amid significant community transmission in Southern Nevada and as we continue our joint effort to increase access and confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines," Sisolak said in a statement posted on Twitter.
Some business owners, such as Ben Cucio, who owns a watch design and repair company, told the commission he fears that a total public mask mandate will eventually be imposed if the county's COVID-19 crisis continues to worsen.
"People are not going to make any money and they're not going to make any semblance of a reality having to face another shutdown," Cucio said.
Todd Koren, CEO of Absolute Exhibits, a company that builds exhibits for trade shows and conventions, said he supports the commission for taking action.
"I think it's a great first step. We have to prove to our tourists that Las Vegas is a safe place to come and visit," Koren told Las Vegas ABC affiliate KTNV. "Exhibitors who are thinking about coming to a trade show just want to know that it's safe and that we're taking the right measures."