When Matthew DeFalco’s phone started blowing up with text messages from friends asking whether he was listening to Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman’s comments about reopening casinos, he headed home from a hike and switched on CNN.
It was a “Say what?” moment. Then he got appalled.
“My first instinct was to be embarrassed,” the 32-year-old political consultant said. “But more than that, it’s dangerous and reckless. It’s completely bonkers.”
The mayor — dressed in pearls, a blue blazer and decked out in defiance — took to the airwaves Wednesday to tell Anderson Cooper it was time for the fabled Las Vegas Strip to reopen after weeks of lockdown. It was stunning TV, but it was also a glimpse, although an extreme one, into how divided America is over loosening restrictions and opening the economy as coronavirus deaths climb.
It is a debate playing out amid funerals, and towns and cities adjusting to millions of newly unemployed. Goodman was unequivocal. It was time, she said, to get back to business. When Cooper shared a graphic about how Chinese researchers have shown that the virus can rapidly spread in congested areas, the mayor started chuckling and responded:
“This isn’t China. This is Las Vegas, Nevada.”
“Wow, that’s very ignorant,” Cooper responded.
“We learn from history. We’ve had Ebola, we’ve had West Nile, we’ve had polio,” the mayor continued.
“You didn’t have people with Ebola on a casino floor,” Cooper replied.
“Well, we don’t know that,” Goodman said.
At one point, Cooper took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes in frustration.
Cooper: Chinese researchers have shown how this virus spreads— Lis Power (@LisPower1) April 22, 2020
Mayor: You are tough. This isn't China, this is Las Vegas, Nevada.
Cooper: Wow, OK, that's really ignorant. That's an ignorant, ignorant statement. That's a restaurant, yes in China, but they are human beings too. pic.twitter.com/w1Ec00jsIl
Andrew Woods was equally perplexed. The owner of a small consulting firm in Las Vegas, he worried that those outside the state may view the mayor’s comments on social distancing and self-quarantining as representative. Greater Las Vegas has about 2.2 million residents, most of them liberals and moderates while the outlying rural areas tend to be conservative.
“It gives the impression that people in Las Vegas aren’t taking the coronavirus seriously, which isn’t the case,” he said. “I worry that longer-term impacts would be worse as a result.”
Throughout the seven-minute interview, Goodman, an independent who has been in office nearly a decade, would not relent. Cooper told the mayor: “You’re talking about encouraging hundreds of thousands of people to come to Las Vegas ... smoking, drinking, touching slot machines, breathing circulated air, doesn’t that sound like a virus petri dish?”
Goodman responded: “Sounds like you’re being an alarmist. I grew up in the heart of Manhattan. I knew what it’s like to be in subways and on buses and crammed into elevators.”
Cooper noted that the mayor does not have jurisdiction over the Strip, which is considered an unincorporated part of Clark County.
“You love your city and I get how you want it to get back to work, and I get how you’re in a tough position, but it seems really irresponsible given that you have no responsibility or say over casinos or what happens on the Strip,” Cooper said.
“That’s true,” Goodman responded.
Tourism and gambling revenue from the Strip came to a halt on March 18, when Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered all casino, gambling operations and businesses in the state to close in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.
Hundreds of thousands of employees were either furloughed or laid off. In 2018, about 164,400 people worked in hotels and casinos in southern Nevada. Gambling alone draws $6.6 billion in revenue annually.
Goodman’s interview on CNN came a day after she told MSNBC’s Katy Tur that people should assume that 100% of the population carries the coronavirus.
“And then you start from an even slate,” Goodman told Tur. “And tell the people what to do. And let the businesses open and competition will destroy that business if, in fact, they become evident that they have disease, they’re closed down. It’s that simple.”
After Goodman’s appearance on CNN, several Las Vegas doctors and City Council members told the mayor that they disagreed with her, according to Clark County Commissioner Michael Naft.
“Look, I get it,” Naft said. “My mom and dad are small-business owners in this community. It’s not easy to shut your doors. It’s frustrating.
“But opening too soon runs the risk of a second outbreak, and I don’t know if [Las Vegas] could recover from that.”
Naft, who has been commissioner for a year and a half, said, “Goodman is not the spokesperson for southern Nevada, and I don’t believe a majority of southern Nevadans are willing to be the control group for America.”
He added: “Las Vegas is such a valuable brand that we need to protect it. It is the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people, so when you have somebody who uses that title and purports to represent millions of people when that is not the case, that can be dangerous.”
Longtime Clark County resident Chris Pagan worried the mayor’s comments would make it more difficult for Sin City to recover economically. The 39-year-old doesn’t know when tourists will return. But he said when Vegas does open back up, he hopes it’s a place where visitors feel safe.
“I’m mad at what she said. I think the mayor is out of touch with what’s going on currently.”