We haven’t reached the finish line yet, but Governor Steve Sisolak announced last week that people in Nevada will soon be no longer living under a public health emergency. The move is months late.
The governor issued his emergency declaration on March 12, 2020, as the coronavirus took hold, giving him expanded powers to act unilaterally in the fight against COVID-19. Governor Sisolak will finally allow the order to expire on May 20, nearly 800 days later.
Governor Sisolak’s decision will likely come as a surprise to many Silver State residents, who have been going about their business as usual for many months now, even though the state has remained on this highly unusual basis for far longer than necessary.
Nevada was among the last states to lift its mask mandate, dropping the edict in February. Likewise with the declaration of emergency. The National Academy for State Health Policy reports that as of May 1, Nevada was one of only 15 states — including California and New York — that had yet to lift its emergency executive order.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has tested our state on every level,” Governor Sisolak said in a statement about his decision to end his order. “By working together at all levels of government and in every corner of the state, we have kept our healthcare system from being overwhelmed and continued to provide services to Nevadans in need.”
But any emergency that had “overwhelmed” the state’s public health system had long passed. Meanwhile, routine commerce, school, casinos and sporting events had returned to near normality several months ago. Yet the governor offered no explanation as to why it took him so long to suspend the emergency declaration. The likely answer is the simplest: he had no obligation to cancel it.
Nevada is an exception among the 50 states in that the legislature, by law, has ceded much of its authority to the executive during times of public health crises and other emergencies. The law places few limits on the governor’s powers, nor does it require that such declarations be renewed from time to time with the approval of lawmakers. In short, the governor — in the absence of judicial intervention — has a blank cheque.
It’s dangerous and unhealthy no matter which party is in power, and it’s problematic in a democratic republic that depends on checks and balances. When lawmakers meet again in February, they should review Nevada’s emergency laws and, at a minimum, require the governor to receive periodic approval from the legislature for the imposition and extension of such orders to the coming.