Beginning Monday, Lancaster County will join dozens of locales across the country in requiring face masks in indoor public spaces, although the move appears likely to draw a legal challenge from Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird announced Friday that anyone frequenting public places in Lancaster County, including the City of Lincoln, will be required to wear face masks through Aug. 31, at which time the city will reevaluate.
The requirement will be in place for anyone age 5 or older in an indoor space, unless 6 feet of separation can be maintained, Gaylor Baird said.
Exceptions will be made, including while exercising and while seated in a bar or restaurant eating or drinking, she said. Also exempted are those who can’t wear a mask because of a medical condition or disability and people seeking state or county government services.
The requirement comes as Lancaster County is reporting an uptick in new coronavirus cases.
The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department reported 50 new cases Friday, fueled by a sharp increase in cases among 20-somethings.
Gaylor Baird said it’s important to act now in order to head off the kind of spikes in cases seen in Miami, Houston and Phoenix that have set records and strained hospital capacity.
Health officials, she said, hope that mandating masks in public will help the city get control of the virus before thousands of college students arrive in the next few weeks and before schools reopen next month.
The requirement also could help get the message about the importance of wearing masks to young people who haven’t been reached so far.
“There’s a fierce urgency to do this right now,” Gaylor Baird said.
But Ricketts repeated Friday that he does not plan to mandate masks.
Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Ricketts, said the governor’s team is reviewing legal options.
“While the governor encourages the use of masks in appropriate situations, he strongly disagrees with the mayor’s decision to mandate masks,” he said in a statement. “This is not a data-driven decision based on the current numbers in Lancaster County at this time.”
Ricketts would not be the first governor to legally challenge a mask mandate.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging Atlanta leaders’ authority to require masks within that city’s limits.
More than half the states have issued statewide mask requirements, the New York Times reported Friday. That includes Arkansas, where Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, announced a face covering requirement on Thursday. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, issued a similar order. But in Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt said this week that he remains opposed to a mask mandate. A Republican, he is the first governor known to have tested positive for the virus.
A growing number of businesses across the country, including Walmart, CVS and Kroger, the parent company of Baker’s, have also required face coverings.
The Lincoln mask mandate was issued under a directed health measure by the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department.
Lincoln City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick said the move is part of the Health Department’s inherent authority to take whatever steps are necessary to fight contagious diseases, just as it did when combating polio and tuberculosis historically or sexually transmitted diseases in modern times.
He said city officials don’t see the measure as adversarial. The city so far has issued only one citation for violations of any of the health measures put in place.
In fact, Gaylor Baird said the mask mandate is key to keeping businesses open and boosting economic recovery and to allowing schools to reopen.
No other restrictions, such as restricting restaurant occupancy or closing bars, are being implemented at this time.
Instead, health officials have focused on educating businesses.
“It is our hope this one new action will prevent us from having to pursue these further actions,” the mayor said.
In Omaha, Chris Rodgers, president of the Douglas County Board of Health, said the County Health Department does not have the authority to issue a new directed health measure without the governor’s approval.
But Rodgers said in a statement that the Health Board is ready to pass a resolution asking all cities in Douglas County to pass a mask ordinance based on the increase in COVID-19 cases in the county over the past 10 days, the increased rate of positive tests for the last week and high levels of community spread.
The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department’s move also has support within the city’s business, education and medical communities.
“We all want to be able to welcome students to our campus this fall,” Ronnie Green, chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said in a statement. “And this is an important step to safely do that.”
Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Steve Joel spoke in support of the measure at a press briefing Friday, as did Wendy Birdsall of the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce.
The Lincoln Lancaster Medical Society sent a letter supporting the step. Dr. George Hansen, the group’s president, said the letter represents the position of a majority of the more than 600 physicians that he represents.
“This is not an issue that needs to divide us,” he said.
Case counts have also ticked in the state as a whole.
In the seven-day period that ended Friday, the state tallied 1,584 new cases, according to the state dashboard. That worked out to an average of 226 new cases a day over that period, up from an average of 159 cases a day for the preceding seven days. Previous weeks had ranged between 130 and 170 new cases a day on average.
On Tuesday, the state recorded 318 new cases. That was the largest single-day increase since late May. Nebraska’s highest one-day count was 677 on May 7.
Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health, tweeted Thursday that he hopes that the uptick is noise and not a prelude to a surge like Texas has experienced.
But he said the state is at risk of a new surge until the virus is controlled, which he described as fewer than 97 new cases a day. He would consider the virus contained at a rate of fewer than 10 cases a day.
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Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of UNMC’s infectious diseases division, said it’s important to catch upticks as early as possible because what you see with the virus today reflects what happened two weeks ago.
“What all of us have a concern about is (that) this turns quickly when it starts really rolling,” he said.
He thinks it’s prudent to mandate masks in public.
“It’s not a political statement,” he said. “It’s a public health measure.”
In Lancaster County, health officials have traced the increase to a sharp rise in cases among 20-somethings.
Douglas County health officials have also seen an uptick in cases among young adults.
Douglas County recorded 629 new cases during the seven-day period that ended Friday, or an average of almost 90 cases a day. That was up from 557 last week and 524 the week before that.
Testing in the state this week was running higher than the previous week, with 5,000 new results recorded on Friday alone.
Rates of positive tests in Douglas County were about 7% this week, down from almost 9% the week before.
World-Herald staff writer Paul Hammel contributed to this report.