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Nevada to loosen cap on conventions, concerts and churches

September 30, 2020 GMT
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Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak arrives for a news conference at the Grant Sawyer State Building in Las Vegas, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. The governor provided updates on Nevada's COVID-19 response efforts and adjustments to current capacity limits on gatherings. (Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun via AP, Pool)
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Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak arrives for a news conference at the Grant Sawyer State Building in Las Vegas, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. The governor provided updates on Nevada's COVID-19 response efforts and adjustments to current capacity limits on gatherings. (Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun via AP, Pool)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Nevada is lifting a 50-person cap on public and private gatherings, in a step toward kick-starting conventions, concerts, sports events and trade shows that power the state’s economy, Gov. Steve Sisolak announced Tuesday.

“This is not the end. This is the first step toward getting us where we need to get back to. We need to get some people back to work,” the Democratic governor told reporters. “I’m confident, under these circumstances we can get them back to work safely.”

Sisolak said written guidelines , dubbed “Nevada Guidance for Safe Gatherings — Celebrations, Ceremonies, and Events,” have been posted on a state coronavirus response website.

The removal of the 50-person cap with conditions including submittal of safety plans, takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday.

It represents the most significant loosening of state restrictions designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 restrictions since June 4, when Sisolak let casinos partially reopen after statewide closures imposed in mid-March prompted waves of hospitality industry layoffs. Nevada’s unemployment rate grew to a record 30 percent in April, the highest in the nation. It improved to 13.2% in August.

Sisolak made a direct plea to convention organizers to keep their events in-state. “I know you may be considering locations in other states,” he said. “But before you make a decision, understand that Nevada is not only open for business, we plan to be open for the long term.”

To return to larger events, businesses will have to submit plans to local authorities to ensure social distancing and other pandemic directives. Venues that can accommodate more than 2,500 guests will be allowed to operate at 10% capacity. Smaller venues will be able to host up to 50% capacity or 250 patrons — whichever is less.

Only the state can approve large gatherings in stadiums, arenas and convention halls, Sisolak said.

The governor cast Nevada as an attractive destination amid the pandemic, even while the state’s cumulative positivity rate remains the nation’s ninth-highest, according to the COVID Tracking Project. He celebrated that a seven-day average of the positivity rate dipped to 7.8% — about half of what it was July 9. He said states with looser restrictions could experience surges of new cases that could upend convention plans.

The gambling industry continues to face challenges, particularly on the Las Vegas Strip, due to limited air travel, lack of mid-week convention business and an absence of arena events and entertainment options.

McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas and the regional Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority each reported a more than 50% drop in activity this summer compared with mid-2019. The Nevada Gaming Control Board is due on Wednesday to publish a casino winnings report expected to show sluggish state revenues from gambling halls.

Other restrictions will remain in effect — including a 50% capacity limit at businesses like casinos and restaurants. Sisolak said he intends to announce additional changes to restrictions, including for youth school sports, within 10 days.

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Sisolak has fielded criticism and lawsuits for letting casinos reopen at 50% capacity, while maintaining a 50-person cap for churches and other businesses.

He also traded barbs with President Donald Trump after thousands of people defied crowd size directives and attended Republican campaign rallies less than three weeks ago in northern and southern Nevada.

On the legal front, a Christian church in rural northern Nevada filed a federal lawsuit that challenging the 50-person cap that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In arguments now before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley argues for hosting up to 90 congregants at its 200-person sanctuary east of Reno — with masks and social distancing.

The church would be allowed to meet under its rules under the new directives. Church representatives involved in the case were not immediately available after hours Tuesday to say whether the case is now moot.

Sisolak said his appointed coronavirus response task force that has held weekly meetings and set rules for public activities in virus “hot spots” such as Las Vegas, Reno and Elko will continue to oversee restrictions beyond the governor’s directives, which serve as a baseline minimum.

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Associated Press writers Scott Sonner in Reno, Nev., and Sam Metz in Carson City, Nev., contributed to this report. 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 undercovered issues