The observations run the gamut.
"No one wore a mask, not the server, not the kitchen, nobody."
"Management is refusing to enforce the mask mandate."
"I would hate to see a super-spreader event here among our most vulnerable veterans."
"Not wearing masks and the police need to sit here all day and night."
Those are just a handful of the 389 logged complaints to 911 or Omaha or Douglas County hotlines in the first five months of Omaha's mask mandate, which was enacted Aug. 11.
Concerned patrons, passersby or employees reported problems at roughly 280 different business locations in all corners of the city. Of those, almost 70 spots had more than one complaint — accounting for some 175 complaints in all, a World-Herald analysis of the Omaha Police Department's database found.
Officers followed up in person on each complaint and conducted 447 of their own compliance checks. They visited 200 businesses with no recorded complaints from the public and stopped at dozens of other places that had at least one public complaint.
The businesses included convenience stores, bars, restaurants, gyms, retail and grocery stores, auto dealers, day cares, a few churches and two American Legion posts.
Yet 99.4% of the time, officers found that the businesses were not violating the emergency city ordinance, or they reminded people of the rules and handed out signs and a warning.
Omaha police have issued only six citations to employees, a general manager or an owner for failing to wear a mask while indoors in public.
Owners, managers and workers from spots listed in the Police Department's database talked about business hardships because of people's altered habits prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. They expressed frustration at confronting their own customers. Some were thankful for the education and repeated checks from officers. They differed on whether they would welcome an extension of the mask mandate, which is set to expire in a month, but all said they would comply.
Many noted that wearing masks has become a normal part of life.
But the tone of complaints filed against the businesses offer a glimpse of the occasional contentiousness that masks — and the laws requiring people to wear them — have generated. Doctors and scientists broadly agree that wearing a covering over your mouth and nose can help cut down on the spread of droplets and can reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Omaha's mask mandate allows numerous exceptions. Masks aren't required while people are exercising, sitting at a bar or restaurant or seeking government services. You also aren't required to wear a mask if you are at least 6 feet away from other people, or if you have medical or mental condition or disability. Dozens of the complaints reported behavior among those who were exempt from the mandate, such as diners or gymgoers.
One caller reported 20 track athletes running at Memorial Park without masks. Authorities left a message with the caller, explaining that masks aren't required outside.
Some businesses faced a learning curve in implementing the mandate.
Someone filed a complaint against Patty's Childcare Center of South Omaha, at 4102 S. 13th St., in late August. Director Alejandra Lopez had told workers to wear masks, but until the mandate was imposed, workers balked at wearing one for eight or more hours a day.
"We knew about it, but it was people getting used to the new thing," she said. "Now with time, everybody knows, it's not just because it's a mandate, but it's because you want to keep people healthy."
Other businesses had enacted their own mask rules before it was required by ordinance or swiftly followed the new law.
"We posted the signs that were published on the city's website and just got started," said Mark Sweet of Don & Millie's. "It's a nonissue for us. It really hasn't affected (our business), and we're 100% supportive."
The restaurant's location on Saddle Creek Road was the fourth business in Omaha that was reported for "people not wearing mask(s)" on the afternoon of Aug. 12, the mandate's first full day. An officer visited two days later and saw that signs had been posted and people were wearing masks.
Omaha mask mandate complaints, checks and citations
From Omaha's first full day of the mask mandate on Aug. 12 to Jan. 12, these are the locations of the 389 logged public complaints (purple), 447 officer-initiated compliance checks (blue) and six citations issued (orange), based on data from the Omaha Police Department.
The data was cleaned up to fix addresses and remove personal identifying details, including names of callers, call takers, employees, phone numbers, license plates and Omaha Police officer badge numbers. Otherwise, notes were printed as is. If an entry is blank, that means there was nothing entered in that spot in the database or the entire entry was personal information (just officer badge numbers, for example). For complaints, the date and time listed is when the complaint was made or logged into the database. The date or time when officers followed up on those complaints might appear in some, but not all, of the officer notes. For officer-initiated checks, the date and time listed is when they visited the business.
Only four entries were removed from the database: one that reported a driver not wearing a mask and therefore was not able to be mapped and three that either had an erroneous address or contained no information.
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Checking for mask compliance has become a low-priority assignment for the Police Department's traffic unit, whose officers stop by businesses as needed or when they aren't busy with higher priorities. Lt. John Wells, who commands the unit, also oversees the department's coronavirus-related enforcement.
Police can't be everywhere at all times, Wells said. He equated mask checks to when motorists slow down when they see police cruisers nearby.
"The same sort of phenomenon applies when (people) walk in and see a police car out front," he said. "If they weren't otherwise inclined to grab a mask, they get a mask."
OPD began by informing businesses on how to follow COVID-19 prevention rules. Police give the businesses leeway, Wells said, but if officers repeatedly find violations, they will issue citations. The punishment is a $25 fine.
The two businesses with the most complaints eventually were cited. Wheatfields restaurant, at 103rd and Pacific Streets, topped the list with 12 complaints and an additional officer-initiated check. One caller reported being "mask shamed" after visiting Aug. 24.
After 11 previous visits, plainclothes officers went to the bakery Dec. 11 and cited a 39-year-old server and 63-year-old owner Ron Popp for not wearing masks in staff and food prep areas.
Popp said Friday that he wears a mask in the dining room but takes it off in his office, which is near the kitchen.
"Since we're such a popular restaurant, we were bound to have one citation because all our other (checks) were fine," he said. "My difficulty is, my blood pressure goes way up when I wear a mask. Is death imminent? No, but it makes it so hard to do that all day and breathe your own carbon dioxide. I just couldn't do that."
According to the Mayo Clinic, carbon dioxide freely diffuses through masks, and there is no risk of lower oxygen levels while wearing one. Surgeons, nurses and other medical professionals wear masks for long periods of time.
Popp said the pandemic has hurt local businesses.
"I'm disappointed that Omaha is not supporting all the restaurants like I feel they should," he said. "When this is all done, I'm not sure how many restaurants are going to be in operation."
Pets R Us, near 108th Street and West Center Road, had the second-most complaints, with six people reporting employees and customers not wearing masks. Officers went to the business Jan. 3 and found a cashier, a 69-year-old woman, with a "paper mask hanging from her right ear only as she was checking out a customer," according to a police report. She told officers that there were exceptions for people with health problems. She was cited.
Another employee at the pet store told an officer that the manager wasn't working and that "customers could shop elsewhere if they had a problem with the masks being worn correctly," the report said. The cited employee and the manager declined to comment.
Workers at three other businesses — Anytime Laundry near 96th and Q Streets, Rick's Meats in Elkhorn and Lansky's at 50th and L Streets — were also cited. The people cited and the owners of the businesses declined to comment or didn't return phone calls, except for Christopher Hoffmann, the general manager at Lansky's.
Hoffmann admitted that he was complacent and said he takes responsibility, but he said there was a misunderstanding. According to the police report, Hoffmann was standing “in a common area speaking to a customer” on Dec. 18. But Hoffmann said he was talking to a contractor and no customers were in the restaurant. Yet officers cited him — the only instance of a citation being issued on officers’ first contact with a business.
Hoffmann said he takes customer safety and the mask mandate seriously. He said he doesn't like the attention his citation has brought the family establishment and wants only to focus on staying afloat to keep people employed.
Business has recovered a bit since health restrictions have been loosened, Hoffmann said.
"We seem to be doing OK," he said. "I think people are wanting to come out and support us. I don't think we would be doing good business if we were openly flying in the face of mandates or putting people at risk. We want everyone to feel safe when they come to Lansky's."
What's most difficult, one local restaurant owner said, is when patrons refuse to follow the rules. The owner, who has several area locations, spoke on the condition that he not be named because he wanted to share his frustrations about such customers.
"It really puts a strain on my employees because they don't want to be confrontational," he said. "The server is worried about her tip. If she has to be the enforcer, the bad guy, then she's worried the (customer) may not tip her as well. We're here to serve the public food, not to be police, and this puts us in a really delicate situation."
The owner said he doesn't mind the mask mandate and personally wears a mask everywhere. He would rather see tighter restrictions so that coronavirus numbers would plummet and things could return to normal. He attributes a drop in business not to the mask mandate, but to people's changing habits and their fears of getting sick.
Many businesses provide masks to the rare customer who arrives without a mask. Chad McMahon, the owner of the four metro-area locations of The Good Life Sports Bar & Grill, gives both employees and customers disposable masks or cloth masks with his restaurant's logo on them.
When asked about complaints that he's not requiring employees to wear their masks, McMahon said that's false. He said he actually is a mask stickler — he recently sent an email to all staff reminding them to wear their masks. But short of tackling maskless customers who get up from their seats to go to the restroom, he said, it's impossible to get 100% compliance.
McMahon said he's paying a cleaning company $6,000 a month to spray and disinfect all his restaurants — an unforeseeable added cost due to COVID-19.
"All our employees follow the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines to a T," he said. "Everybody's pretty good about it. We get the few that raise a fuss about it, but hey, we just tell them it's the way it is."
When officer-initiated checks began Oct. 20, convenience stores were an easy place to conduct mask checks because officers were already stopping at the stores.
At QuikTrip locations across Omaha, for example, officers conducted 46 mask checks. They issued no mask-related citations.
Aisha Jefferson-Smith, a spokeswoman for QuikTrip, said company officials are committed to complying with all state and local laws and require employees and customers to wear masks while in stores so they are "good neighbors in the community."
Jenny Lynn, a manager at the Anderson Convenience Market near 180th Street and West Center Road, said employees wear masks, but the establishment took down the plexiglass barriers it had erected at counters because it was difficult to pass items back and forth. She said employees "recommend" that the estimated 10% of customers who don't wear a mask put one on, but she added that it's not their job to enforce the law.
"We're not going to lose a sale because somebody doesn't want to wear a mask," she said. "And we're not going to kick them out of the store like others do ... We're not going to tell a customer to wear what they don't want to wear."
Two Omaha City Council members say they plan to seek an extension of the mask mandate for 90 days after the current expiration date of Feb. 23, which would keep it in place until May 25.
Matt Bohnenkamp, co-owner of Harold's Koffee House in the Florence area, would like to see the mandate disappear because he thinks that the masks are useless and become dirty when people put them in their pockets or leave them on the table. The issue, he said, has become divisive.
"With the advent of masks, it will put everybody on edge because you feel like you're always being judged," he said. "Either you have the mask on or you're doing it wrong or you don't care about people ... It just steals joy."
Wells said his officers are tasked with enforcing the mandate and said it wasn't for him to say whether officers' time and effort are worth the result.
Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said that from the beginning, he hoped that officers would handle mask enforcement delicately.
"Obviously, it’s not ideal when you use law enforcement to address public health measures — it means you’re in a very difficult situation," he said. "And COVID-19 and this national pandemic was that very unique situation. So it had to be done appropriately and with the proper tone and touch.
"We needed to do those compliance checks in a way that kept everybody safe but also kept the Omaha Police Department in a positive light with our community."
The only businesses with more than 10 officer-initiated checks were five bars in North Omaha and one midtown bar — totaling 88 checks. The top seven businesses with the most public complaints were in west Omaha, yet collectively, they had only two officer-initiated compliance checks.
Officers made 20 visits to Jesse's Place, near 24th and Lake Streets, from Nov. 14 to Dec. 26. Bartender Mychael Shields said that each time, the visit consisted only of a quick look around and a chat with her or another bartender. Shields said she welcomed the visits, and officers were always pleasant and respectful.
"When you're in a bar environment, people are drinking, they get drunk, you're reiterating the same thing (about masks)," she said. "It's easier for me to say, 'The police are going to come in, so make sure you have your mask around your face.' If they know that (police) presence is going to be here at some point, then it makes it easier for me."
Lopez, the child care director, said even if officials lift the mandate, she will require her employees to wear a mask.
"We should all still be wearing it until a vaccine is widely available," she said.
World-Herald reporters Jeff Robb and Hunter Paniagua contributed to this report.