Nevada Gov. Sisolak in Legal Dispute Over Local Bar Closures

  • 62 bar owners filed injunction after governor ordered return to phase one restrictions
  • Closures included restricted gaming locations with gambling machines at bar tops
  • Plaintiffs' argument centers around high compliance of bars and casinos, financial losses
  • Recent spike in COVID-19 cases has seen Sisolak introduce new long-term recovery plan
flag of Nevada state against blue sky and clouds background
Bar and tavern owners have filed an injunction against Gov. Steve Sisolak over his decision to reverse bar reopening plans. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

Controversial return to phase one

Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak is embroiled in a legal battle with local bar and tavern owners over his decision to roll back pandemic reopening plans.

A recent spike in COVID-19 cases saw the governor reverse some steps in Nevada’s reopening strategy. From July 10, Sisolak ordered a return to phase one level restrictions for bars in certain Nevada counties, forcing them to close.

banned gaming machines from bar tops

The governor’s ruling also banned gaming machines from bar tops – a limitation which directly impacts the state’s restricted gaming locations. The venues operate 15 or fewer slot machines; a significant number of which are built into bar tops. Nevada is home to almost 2,000 of these restricted gaming facilities.

A total of 62 bar owners have filed an injunction against Sisolak in an attempt to reverse this order. The plaintiffs argue that the closures will create significant financial losses if they are to continue. They also contend that the health and safety measures that are in place significantly limit any risk to patrons and staff.

Details of the case so far

As a result of COVID-19 limitation, the court injunction proceeded virtually via video conference. Both sides made their case in a 90-minute hearing on August 13.

bars and casinos are currently 80% compliant

In defence of the plaintiffs, attorney Dennis Kennedy argued that the bar industry has been significantly more compliant than other industries. According to the lawyer, bars and casinos are currently 80% compliant with the government’s COVID-19 guidelines. In contrast, he said, water parks, which are currently open for business, are 0% complaint.

On the other hand, Sisolak’s attorney Craig Newby questioned the court’s authority in regard to dictating state COVID-19 policy. Newby also cited a recent case in which the US Supreme Court upheld a 50-person cap on worship services in Nevada, despite the protests of a local church.

After hearing from the legal counsel representing both sides, Judge Kerry Earley asked for more time to consider her ruling. She hopes to provide a decision imminently.

Sisolak’s COVID-19 casino strategy

Gov. Sisolak first announced a Declaration of Emergency for COVID-19 on March 12, which ultimately forced casinos to close for more than three months. During that period, operators implemented a number of health and safety measures in preparation for reopening, including mandatory mask policies and social distancing.

forced casinos to close for more than three months

Casinos were permitted to resume operations on June 4 as Sisolak initiated phase two of the state’s reopening plans. However, COVID-19 cases have been on the rise in Nevada since businesses restarted. So far, there have been 58,812 confirmed cases in the state and 1,030 deaths. Clark County has been the worst affected, representing 86% of all cases.

Although casinos have been allowed to remain open so far, Sisolak has been forced to rethink his initial reopening strategy as a result of the spike in cases. In June, the governor announced an emergency directive extending phase two reopening plans. Last month, he said the state would no longer adhere to a state-wide phased reopening strategy and would instead introduce a long-term recovery plan based on each county. Ultimately, this could see land-based casinos closed in higher-risk counties if cases continue to rise.

Sisolak’s new plan was introduced with the aim of providing “predictability and stability” for the state. The strategy centers around the use of data from each Nevada county to assess the risk of infection. If a county is deemed to have a decreased risk of infection, then restrictions for that county could be eased.