Las Vegas City Council members stood behind Mayor Carolyn Goodman’s call to reopen businesses in the state. In April, Goodman told CNN host Anderson Cooper that businesses should reopen in the state and even suggested Las Vegas could be a control group to test whether social distancing did indeed prevent the spread of COVID-19.
At the city council meeting on Wednesday, Mayor Pro Tem Michele Fiori reiterated that the state should open, saying that fear is controlling the public.
“Fear is a great way to control people, and make no mistake, if you are staying home for Nevada without underlying [health] conditions, you are in fear and you are being controlled,” Fiore read from prepared remarks.
Councilman Stavros Anthony also called for the state to reopen. “There is absolutely no reason why a retail store or restaurant cannot open up today,” Anthony said during the meeting. “We’re not stupid. We’re Americans.” He suggested leaving protective measures to businesses and their customers, although he noted that vulnerable people should stay home.
Goodman also called for the state to fix its unemployment system.
May 6 City Council Statement pic.twitter.com/AIwW2MGjKH— Carolyn G. Goodman (@mayoroflasvegas) May 6, 2020
The state saw 412,000 unemployment claims since Gov. Steve Sisolak shut down all nonessential businesses — including dine-in restaurants, bars, and casinos — on March 17, representing about 26 percent unemployment.
“And that does not count the thousands more who have not been able to get through to receive a single dollar yet. Nor does it include contract and gig workers who are not yet able to file for unemployment,” she said in a prepared statement.
She says her office fielded thousands of calls and emails from those who cannot get through to the Nevada Department of Employment Training and Rehabilitation. “The fate of imminent, utter poverty is every bit as real as the fear of the virus,” Goodman said.
Among the calls she shared, one from an unidentified chef states that he’s made 7,579 calls to the unemployment office with only a busy signal as a response. When he faxed and emailed his payroll records to the state, he never received a response. “Again, I’m sorry to cry on your shoulder. But what am I supposed to do?”
An unidentified bartender shared a similar story, saying that he spent his days calling unemployment without getting through to a person to help. “The stress is starting to overwhelm me and take over! I am scared…What am I supposed to do?”
Sisolak appointed Heather Korbulic as the director of the Nevada Department of Employment Training and Rehabilitation last week. She says her office shares the frustrations of Nevadans trying to connect with humans to get their unemployment filing approved. Many of those trying to file for unemployment report seven weeks of no payments since initially filing for benefits.
“We’ve been able to file historic numbers of claims during this pandemic. My team and I continue to work tirelessly to connect Nevadans to their benefits during this unprecedented time,” she said in a statement to the city council.
Yet the agency only made about 219,000 “first payments” to claimants in March and April, about half the number of initial claims that have been filed, the Nevada Independent reports.
One of the biggest issues Korbulic faces is an archaic computer system that needs to be addressed to handle the backlog of claims. When a claimant says they are unavailable to work, received vacation time in lieu of pay, or other issues, the unemployment office kicks those claims into a system that requires a phone call to resolve. While her department has about 200 staff who can handle claims, the U.S. Department of Labor rules prevent her from hiring additional staff to take on the increased workload.
The system for contract and gig workers to file for unemployment — dubbed the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program — is still not available nearly two months into the coronavirus pandemic. “It is set for deployment mid-May, and we’re on track for that,” Korbulic tells the Nevada Independent.
Sisolak’s stay-at-home order remains in place until May 15. The order does permit restaurants to offer takeout and delivery, and retail businesses can offer curbside service.
If Sisolak lifts his stay-at-home order on May 15, dine-in restaurants will be permitted to reopen with social distancing measures, masks for staff, and added cleaning in place. The Southern Nevada Health District released a list of guidelines for restaurants to reopen.
Casinos cannot open until phase three or four of Sisolak’s plan to reopen to the state for business. The Las Vegas City Council and Mayor Goodman have no authority over casinos on the Las Vegas Strip. The City of Las Vegas does include casinos in Downtown Las Vegas. Only the governor and the Nevada Gaming Control Board can determine when casinos can reopen and under what conditions.