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Nevada to loosen cap on conventions, concerts and churches

                                Gov. Steve Sisolak gives an update on the state’s COVID-19 response in Las Vegas on Sept. 3.


    Gov. Steve Sisolak gives an update on the state’s COVID-19 response in Las Vegas on Sept. 3.

LAS VEGAS >> Gov. Steve Sisolak announced today that Nevada would lift the 50-person cap on public and private gatherings to help facilitate the return of large events like conventions, concerts and trade shows that power the state’s economy.

“This is not the end. This is the first step toward getting us where we need to get back to. We need to get some people back to work. I’m confident, under these circumstances we can get them back to work safely,” the first-term governor said in a press conference.

The removal of the 50-person cap will go into effect Oct. 1 and is the most significant loosening of restrictions since early June, when Sisolak allowed casinos to partially reopen after statewide closures prompted waves of layoffs throughout the hospitality industry.

Sisolak made a direct plea to convention organizers to keep their events in-state. “I know you may be considering locations in other states … But before you make a decision, understand that Nevada is not only open for business, we plan to be open for the long term,” he said.

To return to hosting larger events, businesses will have to submit plans to ensure social distancing and other pandemic directives. Under the new guidelines, large venues that can accommodate more than 2,500 guests will be allowed to operate at 10% capacity. Smaller venues will be able to host up to 50% capacity or 250 patrons — whichever is less.

Sisolak said Nevada remained an attractive destination amid the pandemic, despite the fact that the state’s cumulative positivity rate remains the nation’s ninth-highest, according to the COVID Tracking Project. He celebrated that the seven-day average of the positivity rate had dipped to 7.8% — about half of what it was on July 9. He told convention organizers that states with looser restrictions are likely to experience surges of new cases that could upend their plans.

The gambling industry continues to face challenges, particularly on the Las Vegas Strip, due to limited air travel, lack of mid-week convention business and an absence of arena events and entertainment options. McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas and the regional Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority each reported more than a 50% drop in activity compared to mid-2019. The Nevada Gaming Control Board is due on Wednesday to publish a casino winnings report showing sluggish state revenues from gambling halls.

Other restrictions will remain in effect — including the 50% capacity limit governing businesses like casinos and restaurants. Sisolak said he intends to announce additional changes to restrictions, including youth sports, in the coming days.

Sisolak has fielded criticism for letting casinos reopen in June at 50% capacity, while maintaining the 50-person cap for churches and other businesses. His directives also attracted scrutiny when he traded barbs with President Donald Trump after thousands attended Nevada campaign rallies in September in defiance of state directives.

Churches, in particular, have been a flashpoint in the debate over the directives. A lawsuit filed by a rural church in northern Nevada challenging the 50-person cap made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The church is telling the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco it should be allowed to host up to 90 Christian congregants at a time at its 200-person sanctuary east of Reno — with masks and social distancing.

Sisolak said the month-old coronavirus response task force that holds weekly meetings and sets rules for public activities in virus “hot spots” such as Las Vegas, Reno and Elko will remain responsible for overseeing restrictions beyond the statewide directives, which function as a baseline minimum.

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