From marijuana to coffee shops, Nevada businesses cautiously open doors after COVID-19 shutdown
The Nevada Indpendent
As the state emerged from its coronavirus-induced hibernation over the weekend, Nevada residents faced a personal decision: Should I stay or should I go?
Even with sunny weather and a go-ahead from Gov. Steve Sisolak — who last week announced the state’s scheduled reopening date would be moved up by more than a week — many Nevadans remained cautious about going out to dinner, shopping or other activities put on hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stephen Lafer, a Reno resident, has limited his excursions over the past seven weeks to the grocery store, Costco for his prescription medication, Home Depot for gardening supplies and the occasional takeout dinner. The loosening of restrictions won’t change the 71-year-old’s habits for now.
“I’m in that age group that is vulnerable,” he said. “And, besides that, I kind of feel it’s wrong to go about doing what might possibly enhance the danger of the virus spreading.”
In spite of polls showing some skepticism about reopening too soon, Nevada is not alone. More than half of the states in the country have moved to some kind of gradual reopening, according to a tally kept by the New York Times, even as many continue do not see the kind of continued decreases in COVID-19 cases recommended by public health experts before reopening.
Local governments say they have taken a gentle approach to enforcement, focusing on educating businesses and residents rather than bringing down the hammer on crowds. Meanwhile, businesses that reopened say they’re navigating a world of broader safety precautions and lower volumes but grateful to break out of cumbersome delivery-only models.
Lafer, a retired University of Nevada, Reno, professor, doesn’t have a timeline for when he might feel comfortable patronizing more stores or restaurants. He said it depends on the circumstances.
When a group of anti-shutdown protestors marched down his street several weeks ago, it didn’t leave him feeling confident about the broader public’s participation in safety measures.
“That kind of behavior bothers me immensely,” he said. “It makes me wonder whether or not a democracy is a good idea.”
But the gradual reopening came as a welcome relief to some people. Jon Nichols, 45, said it felt like “Christmas shopping” walking into a Total Wine & More and viewing products in person. He also stopped by a drive-through sportsbook at the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino in downtown Las Vegas and dined at the off-Strip Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse.
Nichols, whose brother died by suicide years ago, said that loss has instilled in him a zest for life. He worries what prolonged isolation will do for people’s mental health.
“I do my best and I keep distance, but I also feel like I’ve gotta live,” he said.
Nichols, a Henderson resident, said he knows some people will judge his decision. But the software engineer is quick to point out that he doesn’t align himself with the protesters gathering outside state buildings. He dons face masks in crowded public settings like grocery stores and respects others’ decision to stay home.
From the safety precautions he observed this weekend, though, he’s not afraid to visit certain places.
“It was kind of a quiet environment. It was cool,” Nichols said of his dining experience. “I certainly never felt like I came in even 10 feet of anyone other than the staff.”
Gary Sessa, 53, just wants people to display a bit more patience. As he picked up takeout from Nacho Daddy in Las Vegas, he witnessed a disgruntled group leave the restaurant after being told they needed to make a reservation. He felt badly for the staff, who had taken time to ensure proper social distancing inside and outside the restaurant.
“We’re all trying to do what we can to make this work,” he said. “It’s difficult for everybody. There are some people who are trying to make the best of the situation, and there are other people who just want to sit and complain.”
Sessa isn’t ready to dine in at restaurants or take a shopping trip, but it’s mostly because of a medical condition. He has a swollen lymph node in his chest courtesy of a disease called Sarcoidosis. His doctor has advised him to keep a low profile.
“I’m taking it slow,” said Sessa, a teacher at Bonanza High School. “I’d rather let things kind of settle down before I start going into restaurants for any length of time or going to get my hair cut. I’m all for these things being open, but I’ll wait a little longer.”
Under Sisolak’s Phase 1 reopening plan, a broader array of retail stores are allowed to open as long as they do not exceed 50 percent of capacity as determined by the local fire marshal. Restaurants are also allowed to open for dine-in service, provided they follow the new capacity rules, space tables six feet apart and employees wear masks at all times.
Personal care services, including barbershops, hair and nail salons, are allowed to open if stations are six feet apart and if employees wear face masks. Customers must make appointments, and walk-ins are prohibited.
Businesses that are not allowed to open include bars, nightclubs, massage parlors, spas, gyms, fitness studios, brothels, strip clubs, movie theaters (except for drive-ins), bowling alleys, live sporting events and casinos.
Local governments respond
Sisolak’s Phase 1 directive contained plenty of details on mandatory and recommended best practices for different industry types, but was short on one topic area: enforcement.
The emergency directive merely authorizes local, city and county governments to enforce the directive and industry-specific guidelines, with suggestions on possible penalties including fines or suspension/revocation of business licenses.
But many jurisdictions have avoided taking direct enforcement action against businesses or individuals who may be violating social distancing rules or other requirements ordered under Sisolak’s directive.
North Las Vegas spokesman Patrick Walker said the municipality had worked collaboratively with other Southern Nevada governments to create a business reopening guide, and sent out Sisolak’s guidance document on Thursday to all of the city’s 6,200 business license owners.
Walker said the city’s enforcement staff was investigating complaints as they came in, but had received no complaints as of mid-day Monday.
“Our businesses thus far have done an outstanding job complying with the previous emergency directives, and we anticipate that cooperation to continue,” he wrote in an email.
Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick told the Las Vegas Review-Journallast week that the county would work with the Southern Nevada Health District, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and licensing boards to conduct business inspections, but did not say whether the county would take any additional steps to enforce social distancing or other requirements.
Clark County spokesman Dan Kulin said business license agents visited more than 200 businesses over the weekend to help answer questions and offer guidance on how to comply with the required social distancing steps needed under Phase 1. He said the county did not receive any complaints over the weekend about businesses not following those guidelines.
It appears most jurisdictions are taking more of a public education than an enforcement route. Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve said she had heard scattered reports of people or businesses over the weekend not following social distancing rules, but that city code enforcement had generally tried to give businesses leeway in correcting issues before taking stronger corrective action.
“This is something that people are not used to, your customers aren’t used to, your businesses aren’t used to this,” she said. “It’s a whole new environment that we have to adapt to.”
A city of Reno spokesman confirmed that outside of a few complaints of people not wearing masks — which is a recommendation, not a requirement — the city has not had any major complaints of businesses violating the governor’s orders.
Even so, businesses opening their doors now will be greeted with a much different environment, given lingering concerns about COVID-19 as well as rampant unemployment. Schieve, who owns second-hand clothing stores in Reno, said her businesses have not reopened and when they do, she expects much different consumer behavior.
“You don’t just turn on the lights and everything goes back to normal,” she said. “Some businesses will do incredibly well and others, I think, are going to struggle if they’re not essential or provide a service that people absolutely need right now.”
Randi Thompson, state director of NFIB Nevada, a small business association, agreed.
“If you open, they will come is not necessarily the case right now,” she said. “You’ve got people that are still wanting to hunker down.”
Businesses navigate a new normal
Uncertainty about customer counts didn’t stop some businesses from opening their doors Saturday on short notice from the governor. Eric Jacobson and Kyle Howell, co-owners of Recycled Records in Midtown Reno, ordered gallons of hand sanitizer and wiped down the store for their reopening.
They estimated roughly two-thirds of customers wore masks, with everyone else maintaining a safe distance from one another.
“We haven’t had to give anybody a hard time about getting too close to other people,” Jacobson said. “Everybody’s been really, really great.”
Sunday was not as busy, but Howell and Jacobson said they are taking it one day at a time.
“We actually discussed not opening for safety reasons, but we thought we’ll just do it this way and it’s kind of an experiment and we’ll see where that goes,” Jacobson said.
The Thursday announcement that Phase 1 of Sisolak’s reopening plan would begin Saturday surprised Alex Farside, the co-owner of Reno’s Coffee N’ Comics.
Farside and his partner had much work to do in less than 48 hours, including setting up a plexiglass shield at the cash register and rearranging the store to increase space between tables.
Farside said it can be hard to hear customers’ orders when they speak through masks, but he’s glad for the chance to talk in person.
“We have a little patio and I went out and put a little sign next to a planter. It says, ‘The party’s here!’ even though it’s not really, but at least it has sparkles and it looks cute,” he said. “We’re trying not to talk about doom and gloom the whole time when people come in.”
Iman Hagagg said new requirements have put a damper on reopening her Las Vegas Egyptian street food restaurant, POTs, which she said can only fit nine people under social distancing requirements. Hagagg is not closing POTs to walk-in diners, but she is also not advertising that it’s open for sit-down meals and hopes to keep serving customers via delivery for now.
“Expectation and reality are two different things,” she said.
She worries about the safety of her customers and staff and is trying to figure out how to open for full service without jeopardizing anyone’s health.
“The face mask, how are you going to give people the hospitality they deserve?” she mused. “We cannot give the full experience to the customer, I would say.”
Inyo Fine Cannabis Dispensary in Las Vegas opened its storefront over the weekend after its reopening plan was approved by the Nevada Department of Taxation. Only 10 customers are allowed in the store at once, and customers — not just employees — must wear masks.
There’s even a contingency plan in place for how to address customers who revolt against the mask-wearing provisions.
Owner David Goldwater said allowing storefront sales has opened the dispensary up to customers who only want to spend a small amount of money on cannabis products. Under the original delivery-only model, dispensaries had to provide enough to make the trip worthwhile but not more than state regulators permit.
“Delivery was tough because in order to do it compliantly you couldn’t have much volume. It didn’t scale,” he said.
Goldwater has added back almost half of his employees — not everyone has been chomping at the bit to come back — and is monitoring demand to see when the time is right to bring back the rest.
“It’s been as good as can be expected,” he said of the reopening.
Salons are among the businesses allowed to reopen in Phase 1 — something that thrilled Alana Davis until she realized only hair and nail salons are included. She doesn’t think it’s fair that lash and waxing salons like hers, Aesthetically Speaking in Reno, are still ordered closed.
“I personally believe that because the hair stylists were causing an uproar because none of them can file for unemployment, that that’s why [Sisolak] allowed the hair and nails to open,” she said.
While she’s using the extra time before reopening to continue deeply disinfecting and implementing social distancing procedures, she pointed out that estheticians were wearing masks and sterilizing tools with Barbicide well before the pandemic.
“I feel that our sanitation and disinfection policies that were in place prior to this even happening were way more than Walmart or Home Depot,” she said.
She isn’t worried about volume when the salon finally can reopen. Most of the estheticians are booked solid for three weeks, with lash extensions, eyebrow waxes and Brazilian waxes among the most in-demand services.
Globe Salon co-owner James Reza had planned to open his two Las Vegas hair salon locations on Saturday. But after receiving about 200 calls at each location in a 24-hour period, Reza quickly realized that the salon would need more time to accommodate clients safely.
“It’s hard when we were given 19 hours notice to close, and then we waited anxiously for 49 days, and then given about 36 hours to reopen,” he said. “That was kind of an emotional whipsaw, not to mention the processes of firing up the businesses from essentially a dead stop.”
During those weeks without an appointment, some of those clients did take hair matters into their own hands.
“There are some guests who have laughingly ‘warned’ us of what to expect,” Reza said. “We did our best to encourage guests to wait it out… grown out hair and hair color is a lot easier to fix than someone who tried to freshen their balayage at home or ‘trim’ their bangs with garden shears.”
Reza expects the appointment book will be full for the rest of May. Still, it could be hard to make ends meet long-term by operating at a reduced capacity.
“Operating at partial capacity is not a realistic long term solution for any business,” he said. “But we are happy we can do so right now.”
Small businesses that did not see a rush over the weekend were left dismayed, Thompson said. Given the rapid reopening, she said next weekend will be a better indicator of consumer behavior. By that time, businesses will have had enough time to restock and spread the word about their reopening.
Even then, they know business might be slow for several months.
“There’s some reasons for that no doubt,” Thompson said. “We’ll just live with them and adapt accordingly.”
Reporter Michelle Rindels contributed to this story.
Heather Ashbridge, who started with Nevada State Development Corporation in 2008, previously served in several roles with the organization, including assistant vice president and loan officer. She is based in NSDC’s Reno office.