Get caught up on The World-Herald's recent political stories in preparation for Omaha's city general election on May 11.
South Omaha voters have whittled their choices for City Council to two people who were born and raised in the tight-knit community.
Becky Barrientos-Patlan is vying for her first elected office in a bid to unseat first-term incumbent Vinny Palermo. Barrientos-Patlan is president of the Burlington Road Neighborhood Association, an organization she founded, and Palermo owns and operates Vinny’s Tree Service.
Barrientos-Patlan is a Republican, and Palermo is a Democrat in the officially nonpartisan race.
The two take different positions on an issue that has divided the public over the past year. Palermo voted for Omaha’s mask mandate, something Barrientos-Patlan opposes. The mandate is scheduled to expire in late May, a few weeks after the May 11 city election.
“It’s about individual rights. If you want to wear a mask, you wear a mask. But don’t mandate us,” Barrientos-Patlan said. “We live in America, we have constitutional rights. It’s hurting our businesses, it’s heavy-handed.”
Businesses suffer when people forget their masks and shop in neighboring communities where there isn’t a mandate, she said.
Palermo said the mask mandate was crucial to protecting teachers and students and keeping South Omaha businesses open. The packing plants, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and others were calling for Omaha to implement a mask mandate. Omaha was the last of the nation’s 100 largest cities to do so.
“It’s easy now a year later to say, ‘We can get rid of it.’ At that time, it wasn’t an easy choice,” he said. “District 4 is the heartbeat of the city in terms of jobs. Some of these jobs don’t come with benefits or health insurance. If they don’t work, they don’t feed their family next week.”
Both candidates say they’re focused on a key aspect of being a council member: constituent services. In other words, answering individual complaints about roads, litter, neighborhood conflicts and crime.
Both said they want to see police levels return to the point where the department can deploy officers to resolve simmering neighborhood issues on a one-on-one level.
“I would like to see the whole city be more proactive rather than reactive so that residents and homeowners don’t have to complain to get their services,” Barrientos-Patlan said.
A possible solution, Barrientos-Patlan said, would be to revive the police department’s nuisance task force so officers are designated to respond to ongoing problems in neighborhoods.
The two candidates cite similar concerns from residents as needing attention, such things as abandoned cars, litter, illegal dumps and problem neighbors.
Palermo pointed to his opposition to annexation as an indication that he understands older parts of Omaha end up neglected. Annexation, he said, results in city services being spread too thin.
Get caught up on The World-Herald's recent political stories in preparation for Omaha's city general election on May 11.
“We used to have 10 officers working complaints and nuisances, and now we have one,” he said, adding that he now knocks on doors to address problems.
Palermo says his accomplishments in his first term include a steep increase in city funding for unimproved roads, improved parks and construction of affordable housing projects.
Barrientos-Patlan said not enough is being done to meet South Omaha’s needs, and that she would work one-on-one with neighbors to improve services. That kind of effort, she said, would be an extension of the neighborhood work she already does.
Gun control has become a hot-button issue nationally with Democrats proposing changes now that they’ve taken control in Washington, D.C., and in light of the recent surge in mass shootings. All levels of government have the ability to regulate guns, and Barrientos-Patlan highlighted gun rights in her campaign literature.
While the issue has not recently come before the City Council, Barrientos-Patlan said she would oppose any local efforts to institute new gun restrictions. She said she supports Gov. Pete Ricketts’ decision to make Nebraska a Second Amendment sanctuary state.
Palermo said he, too, supports the Second Amendment, but sees the issue as the purview of state legislators. “I’ve knocked on thousands of doors, and no one has brought this up,” he said.
Here are some questions and answers to help Omahans voting in the general election.
Both candidates said they are strongly pro-police.
Palermo has been endorsed by the Omaha Police Officers Association and the Latino Peace Officers Association.
Barrientos-Patlan, who is married to a now-retired, longtime Omaha police officer, has been endorsed by retired Douglas County Sheriff Tim Dunning.
In 2019, during Palermo’s second year on the council, he pleaded guilty in federal court to misdemeanor counts of willfully not filing a timely tax return for 2012-2014. He was fined $35,000, paid $21,209 in restitution and is on probation. Palermo’s accountant at the time was indicted in 2013 for, among other things, conspiracy to defraud the government by filing false tax returns.Barrientos-Patlan cited Palermo’s conviction as one of her reasons for running. “He should have stepped down,” she said.
Palermo said he pleaded guilty because he had a family to support. Had he been single, he said, he would have fought the charges.
“At the time, I didn’t know that the accountant I paid to do my taxes didn’t do them. Part of the (plea) agreement was to take responsibility. I’ve put safeguards in place so this won’t happen again, and we’re moving forward.”
That mask you wear indoors to guard against the coronavirus might be a good thing to keep on after you step outside.
With allergy season well underway, masking up outdoors could help keep allergy sufferers from suffering, said Dr. Linda Ford, a local allergist.
“When using your mask, you’re not going to be breathing in much pollen,” said Ford, who runs the Asthma & Allergy Center in Bellevue. “Masks we’re wearing for coronavirus are helping most people not to have as many symptoms as you would normally have.”
Mask-wearing, along with hand-washing and social distancing, also helped lead to a drastic drop in influenza cases this past flu season.
Trees, with the exception of oak, have been pollinating in high numbers for about six weeks, Ford said. Tree pollen will be a factor through the end of May, she said. Allergy sufferers will find some relief on days that are unseasonably cool.
Grass pollen kicks in at the end of May through June and July. Weed pollen ramps up in July and runs through the end of October. (Ragweed season starts in August.)
“Unlike COVID, we know a lot about pollen, and Mother Nature is very predictable,” Ford said.
Ford offered some tips to allergy sufferers as pollen counts tick up:
Find out what you’re allergic to and try to avoid it.
Keep windows closed.
Don’t dry clothes on an outdoor clothesline. Avoid airing things out outside while spring cleaning.
If you have spent time outside, take a shower, wash your hair and change clothes once you come inside.
Find a non-sedative, over-the-counter allergy medication.
Try a steroid nasal spray rather than a decongestant nasal spray.
Use a saline nasal rinse.
If over-the-counter remedies don’t work, consult a doctor or allergist.
Steroid injections or allergy shots are other ways to alleviate symptoms.
Influenza numbers in Douglas County and across Nebraska are at record low levels, public health officials said.
With some vaccine clinics in the Omaha area now reporting unfilled appointments, the Douglas County Health Department is shifting strategies to inoculate harder-to-reach residents and planning for a future when even younger people can get the shots.
Adi Pour, the health department’s director, said the county now potentially could be receiving 40,000 doses of vaccine per week, between its allocation and shots sent by the federal government to health centers and pharmacies.
With that relative bounty of vaccine and many willing recipients now vaccinated, next steps for distributing vaccine include walk-in clinics that don’t require appointments, more vaccination clinics at work sites and providing vaccine to primary care clinics.
“There are some challenges,” Pour told the Douglas County Board of Health on Wednesday. “But we need to think on. We can’t stand still.”
Kerry Kernen, who is overseeing the department’s vaccination effort, said 54.4% of residents 16 and older have gotten at least one dose of vaccine and 34.9% are fully vaccinated.
Large clinics run by area health systems are shifting to more evening hours and taking walk-ins. The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services’ drive-thru site on Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus also has begun taking walk-ins, as has Heartland Family Service’s Intergenerational Campus near 43rd and Fort Streets.
Kernen said the department continues to work with community groups to identify new vaccination sites in North Omaha. Officials visited seven North Omaha churches last week looking for smaller clinic sites.
Vaccination in the eastern part of the city has lagged rates in areas such as Elkhorn and Bennington.
The leader of the Nebraska health directors group says health officials are seeing some people who initially said they were not going to get vaccinated make a different decision.
In South Omaha, efforts continue to vaccinate residents at meatpacking facilities and manufacturing plants. The department also is working with Ben Salazar, a community activist, to hire and place bilingual community health workers at three supermarkets to provide information about vaccines and answer questions.
Nebraska Methodist College, which already has taken its Mobile Diabetes Center to low-income housing towers and homeless shelters, is expanding its efforts in the refugee community, including scheduling clinics for next month in apartment complexes where many refugees live. The county is discussing using the former Yates Community Center near 33rd and Davenport Streets as a vaccination site.
Health officials, working with VNA, also have given 233 total doses to homebound residents. Homebound residents can call the health department at 402-444-3400 to seek the service.
Over the next couple of weeks, Kernen said, the focus will be on school-based clinics. Douglas County, working with Sarpy County, plans to offer clinics at area high schools for students 16 and older and their parents. The sites will include all of the Omaha Public Schools’ high schools, as well as Millard schools, Westside and Creighton Prep. The Pfizer vaccine is approved for people 16 and older and the Moderna shot for those 18 and older.
“We really want to focus on making it really easy for these kids,” Kernen said.
Isabella Persky, a 17-year-old Westside senior, got her first shot at her high school and will get the second Saturday. Most of her friends have gotten shots, too.
They weren’t necessarily concerned about getting the virus, she said, but they don’t want to spread it and they hope to get back to doing more normal things. That includes having a more typical freshman year of college next year, with all in-person classes.
“I wanted to get vaccinated ... if it’s what will help us get back to normal sooner,” she said.
The health department plans to partner with Children’s Hospital & Medical Center to offer a clinic at the NorthStar center, near 48th and Sahler Streets, and take mobile clinics to libraries, beauty salons and barber shops, community centers and school parking lots.
A pilot testing project in three Omaha Public Schools buildings found COVID-19 infections that were not identified by outside testing.
In addition, CHI Health soon will pilot providing vaccines at its primary care clinics, Kernen said. Methodist Health System and Nebraska Medicine are in the planning phase for such delivery.
The challenge will be not to waste doses, Kernen said, given that a vial of Moderna vaccine must be used within 12 hours of being tapped. Health officials anticipate vaccines eventually will be available as single-dose syringes.
Kernen said health officials also are planning for vaccinating adolescents. Pfizer has requested emergency-use approval to give its shots to youths ages 12 to 15. A federal advisory panel is expected to consider the request any day.
Health officials, meanwhile, continue to see new evidence that the vaccines are working.
Pour said the county so far in April has recorded only seven deaths related to COVID-19, down significantly from fall and winter peaks. None of the seven was fully vaccinated.
She also noted that cases are down among teachers and staff in the county’s schools. Vaccinations for that group began the first week of March.
However, she said, COVID-19 continues to spread in the community, and residents need to continue masking, distancing and taking other precautions in public.
Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray, a health board member, said he doesn’t know whether the City Council has an appetite to extend Omaha’s mask mandate beyond its May 25 expiration date.
“The fatigue you’re seeing in the community, you’re also seeing on the council,” he said.
Gray said, however, that municipal buildings and many businesses will continue their mandates. And several council members would be willing, if necessary, to offer an emergency mandate, which can be done quickly.
Pour said the county’s seven-day rolling average for new cases last week was 20 per 100,000 residents. For spread to be considered under control, that figure would have to be 10 cases per 100,000 or lower. The rate was 12 to 14 cases per 100,000 in February.
Cases had been ticking up until last week’s small decrease, when the the weekly tally was 1,186 new cases. When Pour briefed the board in mid-March, the previous week’s count was 808.
Pour said the increase aligns with the identification of more transmissible COVID-19 variants in the community. By Tuesday, the county had tallied 228 variant cases, 191 of which were the B.1.1.7 variant that originated in the United Kingdom. Many of those cases are occurring in younger people, with 25% in people ages 19 and under.
“We are (going in) the right direction, but I would like to see our spread in our community smaller than it is right now,” Pour said. “And with vaccination, hopefully we can get there.”