By SAM METZ and MICHELLE L. PRICE AP/Report for America
LAS VEGAS (AP) — A New Year’s Eve event at a canopied casino-mall in Las Vegas expected to be attended by at least 14,000 people could be a superspreader event that overruns hospitals, members of Nevada’s coronavirus task force said Tuesday.
Nevada COVID-19 response director Caleb Cage said plans for the Fremont Street Experience’s annual event could hamper the state’s ability to contain the virus amid the ongoing surge in hospitalizations.
“It seems an awful lot like the city worked very hard in order to skirt the spirit and the letter of the directives as they are written in order to protect us,” he said.
Since November, Nevada has limited capacity at events to 25% or 50 people to contain the virus.
Cage said the Fremont Street event not only violated the current restrictions, but wouldn’t be allowed under any of the past 10 months’ looser restrictions.
Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration denied Fremont Street Experience a permit to host its annual celebration, but the city of Las Vegas issued the venue a special-use permit so it could charge for access and enforce crowd control.
City spokesman David Riggleman said, by issuing a special-use permit, Las Vegas wasn’t sanctioning any event but recognizing that many planned to gather in a public place and attempting to make it as safe as possible.
“People are coming to the Fremont Street Experience and the question for the city was: What was it going to do to prepare for the fact that people were coming?” said Wesley Harper, the executive director of the Nevada League of Cities, who spoke on behalf of Las Vegas. “If they’re going to come, let’s do some things to try and make this as responsible as possible.”
Harper implored officials to view the event as a “protest” that couldn’t be stopped without violating the First Amendment. He said the $25 cost wasn’t for tickets, but for a “service fee” to subsidize the cost of necessary law enforcement.
Fremont Street Experience’s public relations representative Terri Maruca declined to comment.
According to the outdoor mall’s website, everyone will need to wear a mask at all times and stay 6 feet away from each other. Unlike past years, Thursday’s event will not include street performers or live music. But guests will be able to watch a light show, see the Slotzilla Zoomline and walk the corridor’s six blocks. Guests of Fremont Street hotels will also be allowed on the premises for festivities.
Clark County Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick told the state task force she was concerned the event could push Las Vegas-area hospitals beyond their capacity. In Clark County, 87% of licensed hospital beds — including 78% of ICU beds — were occupied as of Monday, the most recently available data.
Kirkpatrick said she worried it would be hospitals and their staff, rather than New Year’s Eve street party-goers, who will pay the price for the event. While it does not fall under county jurisdiction, she said she planned to ask organizers to cut the size of the event to 7,000 and cancel the light show.
Las Vegas Metropolitan police Deputy Chief Kelly McMahill said at a Tuesday news conference that officers will not be enforcing Nevada’s mask mandate and or social distancing requirement on New Year’s Eve, but they plan to ask pedestrians to comply.
“We welcome you to have a good time but we also don’t want to send ourselves back months in this pandemic where we have more and more people going to the hospital and we’re closing down the city,” McMahill said.
Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.