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By MICHELLE L. PRICE, Associated Press

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Before the coronavirus pandemic, tourist-dependent Nevada had a notorious attraction: It was the only place in America where someone could legally pay for sex.

These days, even in the state known for sin, the business is taboo.

Legal brothels have been shuttered for nearly a year, leaving sex workers to offer less-lucrative alternatives like online dates or nonsexual escort services.

Those in the industry say many of the licensed prostitutes, who work as independent contractors, have struggled to qualify for unemployment benefits since closures began last March and some have opted to take their work into the shadows, offering sex illegally.

While the business of legal bordellos may seem incompatible with social distancing, sex workers and brothel owners say that’s not the case. Like other close-contact industries such as massage therapy and dental services, they contend brothels should be allowed to reopen with protective measures.

“We could easily do work at arm’s length, just the same as they do within the massage parlors, which are open in the state of Nevada,” sex worker Alice Little said. “You can go to a dentist and have him put his hands in your mouth. You can go to a tattoo parlor and get your face tattooed right now. You can get piercings put in your face. You’re certainly not masked for any of those things."

So far, Nevada officials haven't agreed.

A state task force that makes recommendations on coronavirus restrictions hasn't responded to pleas from brothel owners seeking a way to reopen. And a lawsuit Little filed against Gov. Steve Sisolak last year fizzled.

The Democratic governor recently said brothels, along with other adult entertainment like nightclubs and strip clubs, would stay closed at least through May 1. After that, the state may let counties decide whether to allow those businesses to open, as long as COVID-19 infections aren't surging.

Nevada, like many states, saw a spike of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths around the winter holidays, but since mid-January, those numbers have been steadily declining.

Prostitution is only legal in Nevada's estimated 20 licensed brothels, whose sex workers undergo regular tests for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS and obtain required work cards from local law enforcement after passing an FBI background check.

A throwback to the state’s days as a Wild West mining territory, brothels were illegal but tolerated in some areas until Nevada legalized them in 1971.

They’re only allowed to operate in counties with populations of less than 700,000 people. Brothels and prostitution are illegal in the counties that include Las Vegas and Reno, but some brothels are a half-hour to an hour away. Some offer free limo rides from the casino-heavy cities.

Little, who was working at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch brothel in the capital of Carson City, says she has lost 95% of her income amid the closures. She said she’s been providing virtual dates, webcam experiences and creating X-rated content through subscriber site OnlyFans, among other ventures.

“At this point, I am able to survive. I am able to pay my bills. I’m able to put food on the table, but I have had to dip into my savings," Little said.

Other brothel workers who are not comfortable linking their faces to online sex work have had a harder time pivoting to virtual services, she said. Finding a job outside the stigmatized sex industry also can be tough, Little said, because background checks can reveal the work authorization cards prostitutes must have in brothels.

Allissa Starr, who was working at Sheri’s Ranch brothel in Pahrump, about an hour outside Las Vegas, said some women she worked with are illegally offering sex for money despite virus concerns.

“They’re just doing what they can,” she said.

Starr, like Little, started offering virtual dates, where she might share a glass of wine, dinner and conversation with clients. Starr said she eventually got assistance under the federal pandemic unemployment program for gig workers, but it was about 10% of what she had been making and is set to run out soon.

Starr said she's able to cover her bills but can no longer put thousands in savings. She moved to Pittsburgh to live closer to family and save on rent. She's starting a self-care business but said if Nevada’s brothels reopen, she’d come back to work one week a month.

“It’s a way to easily provide money for me and my family, and it’s a way to provide security,” Starr said.

Reopening the brothels, Starr said, is “a personal risk, just like traveling. If you wear your mask, if the girls got COVID tests before they came to the ranch, I think it could be done safely.”

Mustang Ranch, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) east of Reno, appears to be the only brothel still offering some kind of companionship, taking advantage of an escort license it's had for about two decades. The license allows customers to hire women for nonsexual companionship.

Owner Lance Gilman said temperatures are taken, masks are worn and customers must come to the ranch and say where they’ll go on a date, typically a restaurant or casino.

Gilman said it’s a much-reduced operation — usually, about 30 women were available for hire 24/7. Only three or four women are working as escorts because many of them are uncomfortable leaving the security of the property for a date, he said.

Mustang Ranch submitted a proposed plan to state officials that suggests reopening for contactless dates in private rooms, with masks and gloves worn by workers.

"In this industry, much, if not the majority, of the courtesan-customer interaction does not involve physical contact even during normal business operations,” the proposal says.

State officials haven't approved the plan.

Asked how the brothel could ensure sex workers and customers have no physical contact behind closed doors, Gilman said there’s no way to make such a guarantee: “All you can do is rely upon the credibility and the ethics of the commitments that are made.”

“Human nature is human nature,” he said.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Tags: Associated Press, infectious diseases, prostitution, Nevada, technology, business, health, public health, coronavirus, lung disease

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LeBron James Makes Massive Final Decision on His Lakers Future: Report

Getty Lakers superstar LeBron James

LeBron James has signed an extension with the Los Angeles Lakers.

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, James has agreed to a two-year, $97.1 million extension that includes a player option for the 2024-25 season. The extension, which has a 15% trade kicker, makes James the highest-earning player in NBA history with $532 million in guaranteed money, surpassing Brooklyn Nets small forward Kevin Durant.

The two-year, $97.1M extension, which includes a 15 percent trade kicker, makes LeBron James the highest earning player in NBA history with $532M in guaranteed money. He surpasses Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant. pic.twitter.com/UUHMspiKZp

— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 17, 2022

James averaged 30.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists while shooting 52.4% from the field, 35.9% from beyond the arc and 75.6% from the free-throw line in 2021-22. However, the Lakers went only 33-49 and didn’t even qualify for the play-in tournament.

James Is ‘Extremely Happy’ in Los Angeles

Despite the Lakers’ disastrous 2021-22 season, James is reportedly “extremely happy” in Los Angeles, according to a July 29 report from NBA insider Marc Stein. Both of James’ sons play basketball at Sierra Canyon School in Los Angeles. Bronny James will be a senior in high school this year, while Bryce James will be a sophomore. James’ wife and daughter also enjoy living in LA.

“Sources briefed on the matter stress that James is extremely happy in Los Angeles despite the Lakers’ back-to-back rocky seasons,” Stein reported. “He and his family, by all accounts, have grown increasingly entrenched in Southern California since James signed with the Lakers in the summer of 2018.”

James was ineligible for a no-trade clause because he agreed to an extension. The four-time MVP and four-time Finals MVP was limited to signing a two-year extension since he will be 38 or older when his current deal expires, a rule in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement.

James Is Ready for Next Season

James, the only player in NBA history to rank top 10 all-time in points and assists, is looking forward to next season. The All-Star swingman posted a picture of himself yelling and flexing on his Instagram story in June with the caption, “Yeah I know I’m a lunatic to the grind!”

The King also published a second story on a black screen with the caption, “MAN I CAN’T WAIT FOR THE FALL! SO READY TO GET BACK OUT THERE! SO MOTIVATED.”

LeBron is ready for next season. ???? pic.twitter.com/Nc8o9cwEcd

— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) June 14, 2022

James signed with the Lakers in the summer of 2018. LA missed the playoffs in 2018-19, won the championship in 2019-20, lost in the first round of the 2021 postseason and failed to qualify for the play-in tournament last season. James has played in 223 out of a possible 307 regular-season games since joining the Lakers, averaging 27.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.2 assists.

According to a July 29 report from Stein, James wants the Lakers to trade for All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving. Stein also reported that Russell Westbrook is aware of James’ desire to play with Irving, who won the 2016 championship with LeBron on the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“As it stands, barring a trade to ship out Westbrook suddenly coalescing after weeks of fruitless talks, (Darvin) Ham is going to have to coach Westbrook, which is bound to be challenging in the extreme given that Westbrook is well aware that the Lakers have been trying hard to move him,” Stein reported. “And that James badly wants Irving to take his place.”

James and Westbrook didn’t sit next to each other or say hello during the Lakers’ Summer League game on July 8 in Las Vegas. James sat on the south baseline, while Westbrook positioned himself on the opposing sideline.

Kyle Goon of the Orange County Register reported on July 15 that “several people within the Lakers organization acknowledged it was an awkward and tense moment between its two most high-profile superstars.”

James played in the Drew League on July 16 and finished with 42 points, 16 rebounds, four steals and three assists.

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