CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — California will not lift its mask mandate for indoor public spaces until Feb. 15, but Nevada and its casinos stopped requiring people to wear masks in public on Thursday, joining most other U.S. states lifting restrictions that were imposed to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak announced that the state no longer required face coverings in most places, "effective immediately."
But to avoid having students rip off their masks in class, he said rules for schools remained in place until the end of the day.
"Masks are not required for students and teachers and employees beginning tomorrow morning," the governor said.
The Nevada Gaming Control Board quickly followed with an order lifting the face covering rule for casinos "unless a local jurisdiction still imposes such a requirement."
The governor said locations in Nevada where masks may still be required include hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities, at airports and on aircraft and on public buses and school buses. He said masks aren't mandatory anymore in jails and correctional facilities.
Sisolak, who is seeking reelection in November, had been under increasing pressure to relax regulations. He acknowledged a wide divergence of opinion about mask mandates and said employers and school districts can still set their own policies.
A crowded field of Republicans vying to run against Sisolak have rallied their supporters with criticisms of Nevada's virus response and mask rules.
"Some people think we were ready long ago, some people think we're not ready yet," Sisolak told reporters. "I feel now is the appropriate time to move forward."
He pointed to a steep decline in coronavirus cases in Nevada since a statewide peak in mid-January. However, the spread of the virus in Nevada remains far above federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention thresholds for positivity and new cases per population of 100,000.
New cases statewide reached 7,865 on Jan. 10, but average about 1,280 cases per day now, Sisolak said. He noted that two-thirds of Nevadans age 5 and older are vaccinated, and said the state is spending $19 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to address the availability of COVID-19 test kits and therapeutics.
Nationally, cases and hospitalizations from COVID-19 have dropped markedly after peaking earlier this year amid the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant. A vast majority of Americans are protected against serious illness by effective vaccines and boosters.
But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend wearing masks 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.
Sisolak revived mask mandates last July, during a wave of the delta variant, under a state emergency order he first issued in March 2020. The rule required people in counties with high COVID-19 transmission rates to wear masks in indoor public spaces, consistent with CDC guidelines.
Sisolak said the CDC guidelines no longer would be binding in Nevada under the new executive order he signed Thursday.
"I want to be clear, the emergency is not over," Sisolak said. "The pandemic is not over. We're still getting far too many cases, far too many hospitalizations and far too many deaths."
"I'm hopeful and confident, based on the data we have, we are in a good positions to drop this and to give people back some freedom. Everyone wants to get back to their normal life ... I mean, its been two years. I think the time has come," he said.
State health officials have tallied almost 638,000 cases of COVID-19 in Nevada, which is home to 3.2 million people, and 9,311 deaths since the first was reported on March 16, 2020.
At the time, Sisolak closed casinos and many businesses until early June 2020 to prevent people from gathering and spreading the virus. Unemployment skyrocketed, topping 30%. Hotel bookings stopped. The effects on the state economy are still being felt.
Nevada depends heavily on tourism, hotel bookings, entertainment and gambling. Las Vegas has more than 150,000 hotel rooms, and casino taxes are second only to sales tax as the biggest contributors to the state budget. Nevada has no personal income tax.
The National Federation of Independent Business state chapter on Wednesday told Sisolak the mask mandate was making it hard for small businesses to retain and hire workers. It cited a U.S. Chamber of Commerce analysis that found businesses in the Silver State had the highest "quit" rate in the nation last year, at 3.8%.
"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,'" the group said in a letter to Sisolak.
Sisolak said he decided against dropping the mask mandate only for those who prove they've been vaccinated, as some other states have done, because he understands some people will never get vaccinated and he doesn't want to "hold our whole economy back."
"I don't want to put people in the position where ... you're going to have front-line workers having to ask people, "Have you been vaccinated? Prove to me you've been vaccinated.' I think that is unfair to people."
Sisolak acted shortly after officials in New York, Illinois and California announced plans to end indoor mask mandates in those states while keeping the rule in place for schoolchildren.
In Las Vegas, administrators of the nation's fifth-largest school district followed Sisolak's announcement with a statement lifting the mask rule for teachers and students on campuses, but keeping the requirement for masks on school buses.
"Because COVID-19 continues, students and employees of (the Clark County School District) can make the individual choice to continue masking," the statement said.
Ritter reported from Las Vegas.
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