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OP-ED: In reopening casinos, virus is the dealer

Those who care to wager on a visit to Las Vegas will confront mixed messages on mask wearing, to say the least.

The Nevada Gaming Control Board just issued a rule requiring casino guests to wear face coverings at tables and card games only if there are no shields between dealers and each player. Other gamers are encouraged to wear masks but don’t have to. Casino employees must wear masks, however. Got all that straight?

Caesars Entertainment has been paying guests at its five Vegas casinos $20 to wear masks – if they are Caesars Rewards members. You’ve gotta salute a customer loyalty program that turns protecting your life into another perk.

Requests to wear masks but not rules requiring it may appeal to authorities afraid to lay down the law. We are seeing the sad results in a number of states suffering spikes in coronavirus cases – among them Florida, Arizona, Texas, California and Nevada. These are places where the absurd politics of masks have framed this simple means to curb a highly infectious disease as some plot to take away personal freedom.

Of course, such half-in, half-out policies are futile in a pandemic. It’s a fair guess that those who won’t wear masks are the same people who’ve been hanging around bars and crowded beaches, breathing on others and being breathed upon. To urge people to voluntarily wear masks says to the public, “We know that it helps prevent the spread of the coronavirus but that you nonetheless will not be protected from others.”

There’s been this mistaken notion that the virus was a threat mainly in high-density parts of the country – places like New York and Chicago – and not in America’s open spaces. As current numbers show a sharp decline in New York’s infection rate and sharp spikes in the heartland, the bigger threat may be weak leadership.

It turns out that churches and casino floors can be densely populated enclosed spaces no matter where they’re located. On a Saturday night, a cowboy bar on a country road can be as packed as a New York subway car. The difference is people on the subway are wearing masks.

In an unforgettable CNN interview in early May, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman offered up the people of Las Vegas as a “controlled group” to show what happens when an economy reopens at the height of a pandemic. Goodman accused a shocked Anderson Cooper of being “alarmist.”

Perhaps suggesting that densely populated cities were at risk in a way Las Vegas wasn’t, Goodman noted, “I grew up in the heart of Manhattan. I knew what it’s like to be in subways and on buses.” As for social distancing, she said it’s the job of businesses, not mayors, “to figure it out.”

What could possibly go wrong?

Las Vegas started reopening on May 9. There were, and still are, regulations for social distancing, but by opening so early and not requiring face masks, the coronavirus case load was bound to soar. And it has.

Tourists are apparently not rushing off to Vegas. “We’ve got a health crisis that has created an economic crisis,” Steve Hill, head of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said, “and the real key to fixing all this is to solve these health issues.”

He is right. The theory that needs discarding is that you can easily open an economy with a deadly pathogen on the loose. Those who accept the virus’ spread as a consequence figure at least they’d have an economy.

That’s not how it’s working out in Las Vegas. Vegas may be a place where crowds go to gamble, but not if the stakes are too high.

Froma Harrop is a nationally syndicated columnist. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.

Editorial voice from elsewhere

Members of Congress were wise to pause their campaign of priming the economic pump to counter the effects of the coronavirus epidemic.

Nearly $3 trillion in aid to individuals, families, businesses and local and state governments needed to be given time to work before more federal spending was authorized.

But it may be time to talk about a second round of stimulus – to counter a second round of COVID-19 infections.

Americans have begun, but only that, to reopen the economy after massive shutdowns this spring. Though millions have returned to work, the number still receiving unemployment benefits last week topped 20.5 million.

That is unsustainable.

By early May, it appeared COVID-19 was on the run in the United States. The daily count of new cases had dropped dramatically. That spurred many governors to lift restrictions, including those on businesses.

Now, however, the disease is spiking again in many regions of the country. That may prompt some public health officials to recommend a new round of shutdowns.

In fact, a significant number of businesses that had been permitted to reopen did not, because of owners’ and managers’ concern about the coronavirus.

If indeed a resurgence is upon us, the economy – and more specifically, millions of Americans who have exhausted benefits already received – will need help.

Members of Congress and the White House should be ready with a new assistance bill, if it proves to be needed. Such legislation simply must be crafted on a bipartisan basis.

It also must be limited to concrete aid to people and businesses that need it, without unrelated provisions that would cost money and be politically controversial.

Taking the safe route of refusing to restart the economy until COVID-19 was beaten was not practical. Thoughtful Americans understood that.

They also recognized that reopening while the virus remained active was taking a risk.

Blunting the consequences of accepting that risk needs to be viewed as a priority by both Democrats and Republicans in Washington.

Virus testing worth keeping tabs on

Many people beset with high – and increasing – health-insurance premiums have little sympathy for the business challenges faced by insurance companies.

That’s human nature, and that attitude/viewpoint is not likely to change.

But a coronavirus-testing billing situation uncovered by the New York Times is justification for health care consumers, as well as federal and state lawmakers and top appointed officials on both levels, to take notice on behalf of remedial options that might be available.

And what has happened on the coronavirus-testing front should propel the same lawmakers and officials to look into other areas of health care billing – to determine what other billing practices might merit serious scrutiny.

Back to the Times’ coronavirus-testing price examination conducted by investigative reporter Sarah Kliff, whose reporting focuses on the American health care system and how it works for patients:

Kliff found that an Irving, Texas, diagnostic lab had been billing insurers $2,315 for individual coronavirus tests for which major diagnostic labs charge $100 – some even as little as $50. In several cases, that same Texas lab upped the price to $6,946 when the lab said it mistakenly charged patients three times the base rate.

Beyond the lab in question, the Times’ report pointed out a chain of emergency rooms in Texas and Oklahoma have regularly charged patients $500 to $990 for coronavirus tests and that a small hospital in Colorado and a laboratory in New Jersey also have come to insurers’ attention due to their especially high bills for those tests.

Those excessive prices eventually translate into higher health insurance premiums that individuals, companies and other entities pay.

From a financial standpoint, everyone loses except those being paid the excessive fees. Much more scrutiny needs to be given to this coronavirus issue.

According to Kliff’s reporting, one national health plan also was surprised to learn that the Irving, Texas, lab had added a fee for sexually transmitted disease testing onto some coronavirus bills.

Some Americans harbor total distrust of the news media. That is unfortunate, because most news entities strive to be fair and informative and try to balance their coverage among various viewpoints. What did an example of responsible reporting like Kliff’s, in this instance, accomplish? Consider:

In connection with the Times’ report, the Irving, Texas, lab said the $2,315 price was the result of “human error” that occurred when a billing department employee entered the wrong price into an internal system. It is interesting that the lab didn’t have a “backstop” to quickly identify such errors.

The lab said it reduced the price to $500 after one insurance plan flagged the price in mid-April, then reached out to the Times, saying that it had once again reduced the coronavirus-testing price, this time to $300. That still is $200 more than what many entities currently charge.

Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion regarding health-insurance companies, but people should not ignore the broader picture that the Times exposed.

Everyone’s wallet and pocketbook has a stake in such valid news media scrutiny.