CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada is rescinding requirements for people to wear masks in public, becoming the latest state in the U.S. to lift restrictions imposed to limit the spread of coronavirus but that have increasingly drawn complaints and protests.
Gov. Steve Sisolak announced during a video news conference Thursday from Carson City that the state will no longer require face coverings in public places, “effective immediately.”
However, mask rules at casinos were not immediately lifted. The state regulatory agency, the Nevada Gaming Control Board, said it will send an industry notice “notifying our licensees of the change.”
Masks won’t be required in jails and correctional facilities, Sisolak said, but “there are locations where Nevadans and visitors may still be asked to wear a mask" including hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities, and at airports, on planes and on public buses and school buses.
The Democrat acknowledged a wide divergence of opinion about mask mandates, saying he knows some people think the state is not ready to drop mask requirements, but that deceasing case numbers and hospitalizations had convinced him it was the right time.
He added that employers and school districts can still set their own policies.
“If a particular school board wants to go further, or if a particular business wants to go further than my directive and require masks, I respect that ... if it makes them feel better, if it makes them more secure,” Sisolak said.
The National Federation of Independent Business state chapter on Wednesday urged Sisolak to drop the mask mandate it said was making it hard for small businesses to retain and hire workers.
Separately, Bill Hornbuckle, president and CEO of MGM Resorts International, the state's largest employer, said during an earnings conference call Wednesday that he anticipated the mask rule in Nevada would be relaxed.
“I expect that given positive COVID trends in Nevada we will start to see meaningful loosening of COVID restrictions in the very very near future consistent with what we have seen in other states," Hornbuckle said.
Nationally, cases and hospitalizations from COVID-19 have dropped markedly after peaking earlier this year amid the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant, and the vast majority of Americans are protected against the virus by effective vaccines and boosters.
But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend wearing a mask indoors in places of “substantial or high transmission” of the virus, which as of Wednesday was all of the U.S. but 14 rural counties.
New cases in Nevada have continued a steep decline since a statewide peak in mid-January. But the rate of the virus spread remains high — far above the CDC’s thresholds for positivity and new cases per population of 100,000.
Sisolak, who is up for reelection in the Western swing state in November, said the state is spending $19 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to address the availability of COVID-19 test kits and therapeutics.
A crowded field of Republicans vying to run against Sisolak have criticized Nevada's virus response and mask rules.
Sisolak acted just days after officials in neighboring California announced an end next week to indoor masking requirements for vaccinated people. Masks will remain the rule for schoolchildren in that state.
New York and Illinois on Wednesday became the latest states to announce an end to indoor mask mandates, but school mandates remain in those states.
In Nevada, decisions about masks in classrooms have been left to local school officials, and rules about masks in casinos come from the state Gaming Control Board.
In Reno, Washoe County Health District Officer Kevin Dick told reporters Wednesday it was “just a matter of time” before Nevada drops its mask mandate.
The NFIB Nevada chapter cited a U.S. Chamber of Commerce analysis that found the Silver State had the highest “quit” rate in the nation last year at 3.8%.
Workers cited mask requirements and harassment by customers who refuse to wear masks among reasons for leaving their jobs, the chamber said.
“While many question the effectiveness in stopping the spread of COVID, there is agreement that after two years more and more people are refusing to wear masks, which is presenting a challenge to employees who still have to act like the 'mask police,’” its letter to Sisolak said.
Since July 2021, Nevada has been under a state emergency order requiring people in counties with high COVID-19 transmission rates to wear masks in indoor public spaces, consistent with CDC guidelines. School districts in Nevada’s largest counties, Clark and Washoe, have required masks for all students regardless of vaccination status.
Dick, Washoe’s health district officer, said Wednesday that lifting mask mandates would be a difficult decision for school districts because they’ve been hit hard by staffing shortages due to sick teachers and administrators, and children in general have lower vaccination rates that the general population.
“Historically, as we’ve removed mitigation measures, there has been an increasing in cases occurring because that layer of protection isn’t in place anymore,” Dick said.
Ritter reported from Las Vegas.
Scott Sonner And Ken Ritter, The Associated Press