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TIM BURKE: All eyes will be on rural counties as state reopens

Rural Nevada residents are so done mentally with the governor’s “Stay at Home” order and they are not alone.

In Northern California, rural counties are openly defying Governor Newsom’s lockdown order and have begun reopening. Sparsely populated Modec County began opening businesses last Friday.

On Monday, rural Yuba and Sutter counties began to reopen restaurant dining rooms, gyms, hair salons, and shopping malls.

In Nevada, residents and small business owners have marched to protest Governor Sisolak’s Stay at Home order. Rural government leaders have been making it known that they want to reopen now.

A major complaint by small businesses serving rural areas is the inequity of the quarantine orders, not only in Nevada but across the country. Hmm, let’s tell everyone to stay home but let the big box stores remain open so that everyone is forced to go there and be exposed to far more people than they would be going to their local mom and pop store. Yeah, that makes sense. Not.

The fundamental difference between highly infected regions and those with little or no COVID-19 cases corresponds directly to population density. With an estimated 2018 population of 8,398,748 distributed over about 302.6 square miles, New York City is the most densely populated major city in the United States. As of May 3, the total number of COVID-19 cases stand at 171,723 and 13,724 deaths. Compare that to the entire state of Nevada, with 5,491 cases and 266 deaths spread over 110,577 square miles of land and a total population of 3.1 million. Outside of our urban areas, we are spread pretty far apart here.

Until this past week, Governor Sisolak took a “we are all in this together” approach for setting timelines for when counties can begin the process of reopening businesses and services. At a press conference in Carson City Thursday, Governor Sisolak announced an “active transition” toward reopening an economy in steep decline, giving the clearest guidelines yet as to how the shuttered state will take steps to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan moves the control of the shutdown from the governor to a more collaborative, county leader approach. It will allow some nonessential businesses to open their doors in a limited manner for the first time since March.

The governor said the state would be able to move to a “Phase 1” reopening by or before May 15. As part of Phase 1, the new plan transitions more authority on reopening decisions to county governments but requires them to have guidance and restrictions that meet or exceed a baseline set by a state directive. A crucial part of the governor’s plan is a new Local Empowerment Advisory Panel (LEAP) that will help counties meet requirements to reopen. Members announced so far include Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick, Eureka County Commission Chair J.J. Goicoechea, and representatives from business-focused state agencies.

The issue of understanding how the needs of rural residents and county governments differ from urban Las Vegas has plagued the governor during his term in office. The 2019 Legislative Session was a stark example of how urban elected politicians gave scant thought to how the new laws they were feverishly passing would affect rural Nevadans. Past governors, whether Democratic or Republican, could be counted on to balance the needs of the urban cities with the rural areas. Perhaps this is a turning point for the governor in understanding that there is more to Nevada than Clark County.

Of course, all eyes will be on the rural counties as they reopen businesses and services, wondering what the outcome will be. There are several possibilities. There could be an uptick in the number of diagnosed COVID-19 patients, there could be Armageddon and entire rural populations will perish, or perhaps nothing will happen at all. No one knows the answer to that right now, but we will soon find out.

Tim Burke is a businessman, philanthropist, educator and Pahrump resident. Contact him at timstakenv@gmail.com

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