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Nevada's New Mask Mandate Is Backed By Unions, Resort Industry

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Across the country, debates are flaring up again over mask mandates. Some governors are digging in their heels, saying they'll never allow one. Others, including in Louisiana and Nevada, are reinstating mask mandates in response to surging infection rates from the delta variant. Nevada Public Radio's Nate Hegyi reports on how that's being received in Las Vegas.

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: Las Vegas resident Mark Harraka is hanging out on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. He's wearing a mask. And he supports the state's new mandate for high transmission counties.

MARK HARRAKA: Anything to protect is better than getting locked down or being on a ventilator. I'll take a mask over a ventilator.

HEGYI: Steven Hendrix is a doorman at a nearby brewery.

STEVEN HENDRIX: I worked in health care for over 20 years. So, like, masks are not a problem for me. And I think they do help. So I don't mind masks at all.

HEGYI: It's an attitude shared by many front line workers in Las Vegas. The new mandate was put in place across most of the state last Friday. Hospitalizations statewide have tripled over the month of July. The new mandate has the support of casinos, the resort industry and the Culinary Union, which represents 60,000 front line workers, including cook Chad Neanover.

CHAD NEANOVER: Wearing my mask is a sign of solidarity for the people that have to wear the mask because they might not be able to get the vaccine for whatever medical reasons.

HEGYI: He's also wearing a mask to protect his unvaccinated, 5-year-old granddaughter. But getting healthy adults vaccinated in Nevada has been an uphill battle. It's a big reason why the delta variant took hold here earlier this summer. Brian Labus is a public health professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

BRIAN LABUS: We had a fairly low vaccination rate.

HEGYI: Less than half of all eligible Nevadans are fully vaccinated.

LABUS: We had backed off all of our social distancing requirements. We removed the mask mandate, re-opened things to 100%. And we introduced the delta variant into our population rather early. So all those things came together, basically, and gave us the right conditions for a lot of disease spread.

HEGYI: But things are looking up. Last month, the White House sent a surge response team to southern Nevada to get more shots into people's arms. The state's also holding weekly vaccine lotteries that hand out cash to folks who get vaccinated. And that's boosting rates. The average number of people who are getting the jab every day has increased by more than 20% since mid-July. But Las Vegas is also one of the most popular tourist destinations in America. And some visitors, like Scott Knutson, aren't fans of the new mask mandate.

SCOTT KNUTSON: Do not wear a mask. We're all grown-ups here. And it's all about control.

HEGYI: He calls the whole thing a plandemic (ph). He also isn't vaccinated and doesn't take the surge in cases in Nevada seriously.

KNUTSON: Not afraid of COVID at all. I'm a firm believer in Jesus Christ. He's my one and only savior. So I'm not worried about COVID or the new variant or nothing.

HEGYI: Debra McMichael came here from Alabama for a jewelry convention.

DEBRA MCMICHAEL: I think it's like anything else. If you're going to get sick, you're going to get sick.

HEGYI: That said, she also isn't a rule-breaker. And while she doesn't love Nevada's mask mandate, she is following it.

MCMICHAEL: I don't think if you've had the vaccine you should have to, which I've had the vaccine. But, of course, you see I got my mask. So...

HEGYI: Preliminary data from the CDC shows that vaccinated people can still carry and transmit the delta variant. Masks are a proven means of reducing coronavirus spread. Nevada state health department says they'll stay on here in Las Vegas until transmission rates substantially decrease.

For NPR News, I'm Nate Hegyi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBERT MANGELSDORFF QUINTENT'S "SAKURA WALTZ")

MARTINEZ: This story comes to us from the Mountain West News Bureau, a public radio collaborative. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.