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Nevada Governor: Any Business Reopenings Will Come Slow

An outdoor mall at Bally's Las Vegas is empty of people along the Las Vegas Strip, during the coronavirus pandemic April 14, 2020, in Las Vegas.

Gov. Steve Sisolak said Thursday he intends to detail next week some of the criteria he'll use to determine how soon it's safe to slowly start reopening businesses and relax other restrictions as coronavirus trends continue to improve in Nevada.

But he said any changes will be incremental and insisted he won't succumb to pressure from critics demanding reopening of casinos and nonessential businesses for short-term economic gain or provide a specific timeline of when that might happen.

"I'm putting the lives of my fellow Nevadans ahead of dollars," Sisolak said as the mayor of Las Vegas and others continued their criticism of the extended closures that began in mid-March.

"We will reopen when the time is right," he said Thursday night at the state capitol building in Carson City. "It's not as easy as flipping a switch."

Sisolak said the good news is that most Nevadans are heeding his call to stay at home and practicing social distancing.

"It's working. On many metrics we are doing a good job," he said.

More than 3,300 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and 137 have died in Nevada. But the rate of increase in those numbers has slowed this week and the percentage of hospital beds filled with patients has steadied over the past 10 days. About four out of 10 acute care beds statewide remain empty, as do about three out of 10 in ICU units.

Washoe County's joint response team announced Thursday it was putting on hold plans to open a temporary facility in the days ahead with 500 to 750 beds at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center in preparation for a potential surge of coronavrius patients. Reno Regional Medical Center says it already has 700 beds ready in a makeshift facility in its parking garage, with another 700 ready to go if needed in the coming days.

But concerns about the economy continue. Federal officials reported that a whopping 60,180 more Nevadans filed for unemployment benefits last week, and state Senate GOP Leader James Settelmeyer said Sisolak had a duty to share with Nevadans whether he'll extend the existing closure order past April 30.

"I don't have a benchmark date yet," Sisolak said Thursday night. He said prematurely reopening businesses runs the risk of hurting the economy more in the long run.

"It would be a very gradual manner. Restrictions would slowly be released or relieved a little bit," he said.

Settelmeyer's pressure on the governor to provide more specifics about the potential for reopening casinos and businesses, sending children back to school and easing restrictions on outdoor recreation and churches came a day after Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, a political independent, called the statewide shutdown of all but essential businesses "total insanity" and pleaded for the economy to reopen.

"Being closed is killing us already," Goodman said, "and killing Las Vegas, our industry, our convention and tourism business."

The 60,180 Nevada residents who filed unemployment claims last week brought to more than 300,000 the number of out-of-work people seeking benefits checks in the month since Sisolak ordered casinos, bars, gyms and restaurant dining rooms closed to prevent people from congregating. Grocery stores and drive-thru and takeout eateries have been allowed to remain open.

Nevada health officials said Thursday the state's death toll from the COVID-19 respiratory illness was at least 137, with more than 3,300 people infected.

Most people with the virus experience symptoms such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems can face severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

The number of new jobless claims reported by the U.S. Department of Labor was lower than the almost 80,000 filed the week before, State Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Rosa Mendez said.

Nevada unemployment administrators and the governor have acknowledged severe backlogs and frustratingly long waits to file for jobless benefits in an office that Sisolak said wasn't designed to handle the unprecedented wave of idled workers seeking relief.

The Nevada jobless rate jumped to 6.3% in March, the state jobless office reported Wednesday, a dramatic increase from the all-time low of 3.6% in January and February.

In the weeks between March 14 and April 4, Nevada had its highest number of initial weekly unemployment insurance claims on record.