CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Gov. Steve Sisolak said Monday that he does not plan to take back the $8.9 million in coronavirus relief that Nevada allocated to Douglas County, despite local officials agreeing to welcome President Donald Trump for a campaign rally in defiance of state pandemic directives.
To prevent the spread of coronavirus, Sisolak issued guidelines to cap public gatherings at 50 people or fewer. But thousands of the president’s mostly mask-less supporters flocked to the Minden-Tahoe Airport in rural northern Nevada for a rally on Sept. 12.
In the days after the rally, Sisolak said he had not decided whether to enforce the terms of the contract. On Monday, he said he decided to not withdraw the funds because he didn't want to punish residents uninvolved with the decision to hold the rally.
“I remain disappointed that some leaders in Douglas County decided not to follow COVID emergency directives. But as Governor, my top responsibility is to protect all Nevadans and Douglas County residents need and deserve these resources regardless of the short-sighted decisions by selected local leaders,” the governor said in a statement.
The campaign originally hoped to host the rally at an airport in Reno, but organizers had to change plans after the airport authority warned the hangar operator that defying state directives would violate the terms of its lease.
County officials decided against forbidding the rally out of concern for residents' First Amendment rights, particularly after an August Black Lives Matter protest, where there were more than 50 protestors and counter-protestors. Although county officials decided to allow the event, they emphasized that, much like the protests, they weren't the hosts.
"It is the position of Douglas County that exceptions must be and have been made, throughout the State of Nevada and recently in Douglas County, to allow citizens to peacefully assemble and exercise their right to freedom of speech,” Douglas County Manager Patrick Cates said in a statement.
The eligibility certification document officials signed to receive the funds stipulated “adherence to the Governor’s emergency directives … including, but not limited to, the State’s face-covering mandate, restrictions on social and public gatherings, social distancing mandates, and restrictions on the occupancy of businesses and restaurants.”
The decision jeopardized the $8.9 million in coronavirus relief funds that the state allocated for Douglas County, which it has used for health-related expenses, small business grants and supplemental election funds, among other expenditures.
Sisolak's indecision over whether to enforce the contract prompted his detractors to lambaste him for considering it and call into question the discrepancy between the 50-person cap and the directive limiting businesses to 50% capacity — which allows for more than 50 people.
“What is the upside?” Republican Rep. Mark Amodei said to Nevada Newsmakers. "Are you trying to prove you’ve got the biggest club in the state? And I don’t want to be critical of the governor, but this just befuddles me.”
The federal government provided coronavirus relief to states and local governments presiding over more than 500,000 people.
Nevada did not disburse any coronavirus relief dollars to the city of Henderson, where the president’s indoor rally was held on Sept. 13. It took place without approval from local officials, who later slapped a $3,000 fine on Xtreme Manufacturing, the industrial site where the rallies took place.
Sam 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.