A growing number of Nebraska cities are taking steps to implement mask mandates as coronavirus cases continue to climb across the state.
Three cities in the Omaha metro area — Ralston, Gretna and La Vista — have scheduled emergency city council meetings next week to consider requiring masks. On Thursday, Bellevue was still exploring its legal options, and Papillion officials were doing the same on Wednesday.
Elsewhere in the state, the Grand Island City Council will consider a mandate next week, the mayor said. Both Beatrice and Kearney passed mask mandates on Tuesday.
Comments by State Sen. Justin Wayne this week seemed to spark a domino effect of cities deciding to pursue their own mandates in the absence of a statewide mandate. Wayne, an attorney and the chairman of the Legislature's Urban Affairs Committee, pointed to portions of state law that he said give cities of all sizes the authority to impose regulations to prevent and manage diseases.
Ralston's Board of Health voted unanimously on Thursday in support of a mask mandate that is modeled after one in Omaha. The measure will go before the City Council during an emergency meeting Monday for final approval.
There's been confusion and debate among attorneys representing Nebraska cities and counties on whether cities of the first class, such as Ralston, can legally implement their ownmandates outside of directed health measures by county health departments or the state. Just last week, Ralston Mayor Don Groesser said the city's interpretation was that it could not pursue a mandate. Firstclass cities have between 5,000 and 100,000 residents.
But upon review of the statute presented by Wayne, Ralston and some other cities have changed course.
Bellevue Mayor Rusty Hike said its city attorney still doesn't believe that Bellevue has the legal authority to issue its own mask mandate, though the city is still investigating how it may go about creating one.
"Nobody wants their rights taken away from them, but we've got to keep people healthy as well," Hike said.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has resisted calls to impose a statewide mask mandate to help rein in the virus. But he said earlier in the week that his administration will not interfere with cities that choose to pass mask mandates, as long as they act within the law.
Last week, for the seventh week in a row, Nebraska and Douglas County set records for COVID-19 cases. The state also recorded a new weekly high for deaths related to the virus.
If approved by the City Council, Ralston's mask mandate would take effect at 8 a.m. Wednesday and remain in effect until it's rescinded by the city or superseded by a county or state directed health measure. It would require the use of a mask by anyone 5 or older in places generally open to the public, including businesses, religious centers, day care facilities, public transportation and private clubs.
Don Ficenec, Ralston's city attorney, said during the Board of Health meeting that he modeled the mandate's language after Omaha's to maintain consistency in the region. Ralston touches Omaha city limits on the north, east and west sides of the city.
Ralston's mask mandate appears to include the same exceptions listed in Omaha's mandate, which doesn't require masking when people canmaintain 6 feet of distance from one another, for those seeking governmental services or for those seated at a bar or restaurant.
Dr. Alex Dworak, a University of Nebraska Medical Center physician who sits on Ralston's health board, said hospitals are filling up and health care employees are overworked and exhausted.
Masks are not the only tool to slow the spread of the virus, Dworak said, but "they are an essential part of our strategy."
Groesser said he has lost five close friends to COVID-19. Police Chief Marc Leonardo noted that Ralston lost "an icon" this week with the death of James "Jim" McGrath, who coached wrestling at Ralston High School for 37 years. He had been hospitalized with COVID-19.
Ralston City Council President Jerry Krause, another health board member, said he has plenty of friends who oppose mask mandates. It's fair for people to question whether a mandate is the right solution, he said.
At the same time, Krause acknowledged that "we have a very serious problem."
The Gretna City Council will hold a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday to consider a mask ordinance that was still being drafted Thursday. Officials on Thursday closed City Hall to the public, asking people to call the city and meet with someone outside the building, said City Administrator Jeff Kooistra.
Gretna is looking at the mandates in Omaha, Kearney and Beatrice as it drafts its own, Kooistra said.
La Vista's Board of Health is expected to meet at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to consider a mask mandate that was still being drafted Thursday, city spokesman Mitch Beaumont said. An emergency La Vista City Council meeting will follow at 6 p.m. that day.
La Vista Mayor Doug Kindig said he would support whatever decision the council makes.