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Rodeo fans flout mask mandate, but state regulators are watching

Updated December 6, 2021 - 7:58 am

Herds of rodeo fans who have spurned Nevada’s indoor mask mandate at this year’s Cowboy Christmas have caught the attention of state regulators.

The Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration is looking into a referral it received regarding a lack of masking compliance at the National Finals Rodeo companion Western-themed gift show, Nevada Department of Business and Industry spokesperson Teri Williams said in an email.

Compliance by both vendors and show-goers was scarce at Cowboy Christmas’ opening night Wednesday at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Images by a Las Vegas Review-Journal photographer at the gift show, which runs through Dec. 11, captured several instances of few people wearing masks indoors.

The lacking compliance comes the same week the governor’s office announced that the mask mandate will continue at least through the end of the year and as Clark County faces a rising COVID-19 test positivity rate.

“We recognize enforcing indoor mask wearing isn’t perfect and continue to work with our show partners to make it as easy as possible for our convention center guests to comply,” said Lori Nelson-Kraft, senior vice president of communications for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which owns and operates the convention center.

Nelson-Kraft said the convention authority has been working with the event’s host company, Las Vegas Events, to address the issue by handing out masks to attendees at entrances, having volunteers walk around the show floor with “masks required” signs, talking to the vendors, and pushing out reminders on the NFR app, social media channels and pre-recorded overhead announcements.

Exhibitors at the gift show also have the opportunity to leave the show with a full refund if they do not accept the mask mandate, she added.

Last year, National Finals Rodeo left Las Vegas for less restrictive pastures in Texas.

A Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association representative could not be reached for comment Friday.

OSHA reviewing

Despite issuing the mandate, the governor’s office is not directly involved in issuing noncompliance fines. That task is in the hands of local jurisdictions, such as Clark County, and the state Department of Business and Industry, which operates Nevada OSHA.

“It’s always a partnership and everyone needs to do their part by wearing their masks so we can continue to enjoy large events and gatherings,” Meghin Delaney, spokeswoman for Gov. Steve Sisolak, said in an email.

Sisolak on Tuesday acknowledged the difficulty frontline workers face in enforcing his mandates.

“They take a bunch of guff from people,” he said. “That’s not right, either. We’ve lost some common decency and civility as a result of the pandemic.”

The governor said he would speak with officials in his office about masking compliance at large gatherings but provided no information.

Nevada OSHA has 30 people on staff to work on inspection and compliance efforts statewide, Williams said. The penalty for a serious violation can exceed $13,000.

The agency changed its approach to compliance enforcement over the summer and now only does proactive checks in health care settings. In other settings, Nevada OSHA only responds to complaints, Williams said.

OSHA has seen a decrease in the number of complaints filed in recent months, Williams said.

In the case of Cowboy Christmas, the complaint will go through the agency’s normal complaint and referral process. Nevada OSHA only has jurisdiction over employers and employees, not the general public.

“Local governments were given the general enforcement authority over large gatherings so addressing issues of large scale public non-compliance is in the county’s jurisdiction in this case,” Williams said.

Organizers say demand for the show has never been higher. In 2019, the event drew more than 250,000 attendees.

County officials unaware of problem

A spokesman for Clark County said the county’s offices were closed Friday and that his team would answer questions about mask mandate enforcement on Monday.

Clark County Commissioners Jim Gibson and William McCurdy II said they had not heard about a lack of mask mandate compliance at National Finals Rodeo or Cowboy Christmas but said they would follow up with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Gibson, who plans to attend the rodeo next week, said he was unsure of what rules in the governor’s directives apply to the event, and that he plans to see how the LVCVA has advised event organizers.

Large events that require attendees to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 may opt out of requiring attendees to wear masks. Neither National Finals Rodeo nor the associated Cowboy Christmas meet that requirement.

Gibson said he personally hasn’t seen widespread avoidance of the mask mandate when he goes into public.

“Anecdotally, I heard there are places around that are not complying, but I’m not experiencing that myself,” he said.

Gibson said the county follows up on complaints about a lack of compliance and still does some proactive enforcement, though not as much as in the past. He said the county does not receive extra funding to enforce the governor’s mask mandate.

“We’re doing the very best we can to be supportive of business and industry and at the same time be protective of the community,” he said.

McCurdy said the county has tried to ensure compliance by issuing guidance to hotel and convention partners. He said from what he understands, there has been compliance. He said he wants to do his part to promote compliance with the mask mandate, keep things open and maintain public health.

“The No. 1 priority is always to make sure that not only our workers, but our attendees, are safe,” he said.

Gibson said everyone wants the mask mandate to vanish, but the county must hit the proper thresholds for that to happen.

Persisting mandate

Nevada’s mask mandate is tied to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For counties to ditch the mandate, positivity rates in those jurisdictions must fall below 8 percent and stay there for two weeks. Counties also must have a case rate of fewer than 50 per 100,000.

Only Esmeralda County has met the requirements to drop the mandate.

The Southern Nevada Health District said in a statement that wearing a mask is an effective tool to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and urged people to wear them to protect themselves and the community.

“COVID-19 and its variants continue to circulate in our community. As people attend more holiday events it is important they continue wearing masks in public indoor settings and that they take additional precautions. These include getting fully vaccinated against COVID-19, wearing masks in crowded settings and when among people who don’t share your household, getting the flu vaccine, staying home when sick, and washing hands frequently,” the health district said.

UNLV epidemiologist Brian Labus said masking doesn’t offer total protection against the virus, but it works with vaccination to provide the best protection possible.

“It’s kind of like seat belts and airbags working together,” he said. “You can’t just rely on one of those things. The more of those things you have, the better off you’re going to be.”

Labus said public health officials initially thought 60 percent to 70 percent of the community being vaccinated would be sufficient to beat back the spread of the virus and drop mask mandates.

With the rapid spread of the delta variant, health officials think it will take 85 percent or more of the community being vaccinated, he said.

Only about half of eligible people in Clark County are vaccinated.

Contact Blake Apgar at bapgar @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5298. Follow @blakeapgar on Twitter. Contact Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter. Staff writer Mary Hynes and Report for America corps member McKenna Ross contributed to this report.

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