Yesterday, Governor Steve Sisolak (D) declared a state of fiscal emergency. On one hand, this comes as no surprise, considering this state, the nation, and the world have endured a public health emergency for over two months.
But on the other, why aren’t we surprised any more? What’s causing this emergency, really? And how can we get out of this?
“The states have been on the front line fighting this virus, and we need the federal government to provide this aid to help us preserve core services like public health, public safety and public education.”
– Governor Steve Sisolak
In a press release announcing Sisolak’s signing onto a multi-state letter calling for $1 trillion in direct federal aid for state and local governments across the nation, and just moments after he declared a fiscal state of emergency, Sisolak said, “The cost of responding to the COVID-19 public health crisis, and the subsequent impacts to our economy have been devastating, and it is critical that the federal government provide additional support and flexible relief to the State of Nevada and our local governments.”
Sisolak continued, “The states have been on the front line fighting this virus, and we need the federal government to provide this aid to help us preserve core services like public health, public safety and public education.”
And in the letter itself, we find this passage: “Red and blue states alike all are faced with the same COVID-19 math, as are Democratic and Republican mayors across our states. The moment requires unprecedented partnership from all of us – across every level of government and across party [lines]. We urge you to take swift action to help states and local governments provide core government services for American families.”
And yet, other than Marie Waldron (R), the Minority Leader of the California Assembly, all the other signatories, including California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) and Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D), are Democrats. Why is there such a huge disconnect here?
So how severe is this emergency?
According to the fiscal analysts at the Governor’s Office, Nevada faces a deficit ranging from $741 million to $911 million just for this fiscal year (ending June 30). Though this seemingly lands Nevada in the lower range of Jeremy Aguero’s recent projection of a $1.7 billion to $2.9 billion deficit for the entire 2019-21 biennium, we’re still looking at a shortfall that amounts to at least 16% of Nevada’s current state budget.
Last week, Reps. Susie Lee (D-Las Vegas) and Steven Horsford (D-North Las Vegas) joined with several of their Western Democratic House colleagues to call for more federal aid for state and local governments in Democratic leaders’ upcoming “CARES 2.0” package. And for several weeks, we’ve noticed mounting evidence of state and local governments approaching (or possibly even surpassing) deficits not seen since 2009, deficits that have developed from the combination of plummeting tax revenue and soaring demand for social safety net programs.
And yet, the White House and Congressional Republican leaders have been voicing more and more opposition to “CARES 2.0” in recent days. First, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) floated the notion of “blue state bankruptcies”. Then in the last week, President Donald Trump has lied about the nation’s still inadequate testing capacity, suppressed CDC guidance for safe business reopenings, celebrated the potentially dangerously premature wave of business reopenings that have begun, and (again) promoted baseless QAnon conspiracy theories while also promoting businesses he still profits from.
Why haven’t we put this emergency behind us yet?
Sen. Rand Paul, to Dr. Anthony Fauci: "I don’t think you’re the end-all. I don’t think you’re the one person that gets to make a decision.”
Fauci: "I have never made myself out to be the end-all and only voice in this. I'm a scientist, a physician, and a public health official." pic.twitter.com/6gQ6i1awhn
— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) May 12, 2020
For all the talk about Nevada and other states beginning to gradually reopen (and certain other states rushing to reopen en masse), it’s becoming increasingly, painfully clear that America hasn’t really been ready to reopen. The U.S. almost certainly can’t handle rapid reopening en masse, but recent data even casts doubt on multiple states’ decisions to leap into “Phase One” so soon.
While the State of Nevada’s official data and The Nevada Independent’s COVID-19 tracker show a general “flattening of the curve” in daily infection, hospitalization, and death counts, the cumulative share of Nevadans testing positive for the novel coronavirus has not yet fallen below the WHO’s recommended 10% benchmark (and remains well above the 3% benchmark used in other countries). Even though Nevada’s ICU occupancy rate has slipped to 63% and Nevada’s rate of ventilators in use has slipped to 26%, a number of the state’s frontline medical workers still lack sufficient PPE. And overall, Covid Act Now (a NGO that specializes in data-based modeling) still places Nevada at “moderate risk” for reopening.
And yet, as I am preparing this story, Dr. Anthony Fauci is testifying in the U.S. Senate. Earlier this morning, Fauci rebutted the White House’s and various other Republican politicians’ “positive messaging” with a clear warning that, “If we do not respond in an adequate way, when the fall comes–given that it is without a doubt that there will be infections that will be in the community–then we run the risk of having a resurgence.”
If this emergency is so severe, why is it becoming another “hyperpartisan battle in America’s culture war”?
While most Americans generally still see COVID-19 as a serious threat, recent poll numbers near and far have shown a growing trend of Republicans and Trump supporters expressing less concern about the pandemic and more desire to reopen en masse. Again, I should make clear that a solid supermajority of Americans (including Nevadans) still appear to support social distancing rules and other critical health and safety actions.
Even as some elected officials dragged their feet to shut down and/or rushed to reopen, many Americans have been staying home to stay safe regardless. This right here explains why Sisolak and state gaming regulators should not fear pressure by certain casino magnates and far-right politicians to “reopen now!” No matter how soon casino resorts reopen up and down Las Vegas Boulevard, they probably won’t see an immediate return to pre-pandemic occupancy rates so long as most prospective travelers continue to sense high risk in flying or driving far from home.
And yet, even as the Republican legislators demanding a special session to address the budget deficit have just cause to call for such a special session, we’re also seeing Republican legislators and other party leaders demand a faster reopening schedule despite the flashing warning signs suggesting that the state may now be moving too quickly to reopen, warning signs that Nevada’s Native American tribes are heeding as they continue to enforce restrictions to stop further spread of COVID-19.
TL/DR: We have a real emergency on our hands, a severe emergency in need of realistic solutions.
In short: Just as we warned back in March, COVID-19 has caused both a public health crisis and an economic crisis that is particularly hitting us hard here in Nevada due to our dependence on tourism. Sisolak’s declaration of fiscal emergency is based on the severity of our ongoing public health emergency, and Democratic and Republican legislators’ demands for a special session are based on the strong likelihood of their need to make critical decisions on the state budget regardless of whether Congressional Democrats succeed in getting their new HEROES Act (aka, “CARES 2.0”) signed into law.
But unless the White House and Congressional Republicans relent in their opposition to the HEROES Act, there’s no one Deus ex machina that can magically swoop in and save us, especially not any kind of rapid reopening en masse. We can’t afford to risk exacerbation of the public health crisis to roll the dice on “saving the economy”, especially since the economic crisis will likely persist as long as a large number of Americans continue to notice the public crisis.
If you’re in need of medical treatment, contact your primary health care provider first. If you fear you can’t afford treatment from a hospital or doctor’s office, check with the Southern Nevada Health District, Washoe County Health District, Carson City Health and Human Services, or the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services for resources in your area. For additional aid, check the Nevada Current’s and Battle Born Progress’ resource guides. If you can afford proper treatment and you are fortunate enough to help others in need, please donate to larger operations like Direct Relief and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, and to local groups like Three Square.