Shoppers at the A Street Market in Lincoln are now greeted at the door with a smile and a reminder to mask up.
With mask-wearing now required in many indoor spaces in Nebraska’s capital city, a worker at the neighborhood grocery store stays stationed at the front doors, ready to sanitize shopping carts and make sure everyone is complying with the new rule. If customers don’t have a mask, they can buy one for $1.
“Only two people needed to buy a mask,” market owner Larry Baus said on Monday afternoon. “No one’s getting upset. We have a really good customer base. ... Everyone has a spirit of cooperation.”
Monday marked the first day of Lincoln’s new mask requirement. Local leaders say the public health measure is needed to tamp down a growing increase in the number of coronavirus cases, especially before University of Nebraska-Lincoln students begin arriving for the fall semester and K-12 schools reopen in some fashion.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts had a decidedly different take, calling the mask mandate an example of government overreach that isn’t backed by hard data.
He said he is still reviewing whether Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird and the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department have the legal authority to require face coverings without the state’s permission.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said Monday that she’s not interested in following Lincoln’s lead — she believes any mask mandate should come from Ricketts, not local entities.
Stothert said she has been encouraged by how many people she sees in public wearing masks and by the declining percentage of people testing positive in Douglas County.
Stothert also said that enforcing a local mask mandate would not be a good use of police resources.
“I wish everybody would wear a mask in Omaha,” Stothert said. “I understand the importance of it. I understand how they work, and I think they are critical in controlling COVID. I would rather people (wear) them on their own and be responsible.”
Ricketts said he too encourages people to wear masks — it’s one of several practical steps, along with hand-washing and social distancing, that can help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But the current trend of coronavirus cases and hospitalization rates in the Lincoln area doesn’t support the need for a government-issued mandate, he said.
Ricketts was one of only a few governors who did not issue a formal, statewide stay-at-home order when the pandemic started, but many residents voluntarily did that anyway, he said, because Nebraskans are “community-minded people.”
“We have managed through the peak of our cases and the peak of our hospitalizations without having a mask mandate,” he said. “Why do we need one now? We’ve been able to manage this by asking people to do the right thing.”
“We should continue to educate, we should continue to communicate the importance of wearing a mask, but to bring the heavy hand of the government in and tell people what to do — that to me just seems overbearing,” said Ricketts, who was speaking at a press conference on the state’s Medicaid expansion.
Local hospitals have plenty of open beds and are not overwhelmed, Ricketts said. Monday, the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department reported that 21 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized — 15 from Lancaster County and six from other communities.
“There really isn’t a data-driven reason why you would need to continue to make more restrictions,” he said.
Gaylor Baird has said the number of people who are ill enough to require hospitalization has been steadily growing over the past several weeks — just nine people were hospitalized on July 2.
But what about local control, something Ricketts typically supports, he was asked. Why can’t Lincoln leaders take additional steps to manage the virus in their community?
Ricketts said he doesn’t want to see the state’s 500-plus municipalities coming up with a patchwork of conflicting regulations and restrictions, though regions of the state have been under different restrictions at times as coronavirus cases rise or fall in certain counties.
A pandemic guide written last year by Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican indicates that directed health measures issued by local health departments must be approved by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. But the city attorney for Lincoln believes that the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department has the power to enact further measures to control the spread of contagious diseases.
Gaylor Baird announced the new rule Friday, with the backing of a number of Lincoln doctors, the local chamber of commerce and educators. The mayor said she hopes increased mask-wearing indoors will preempt the type of spikes that states like Florida and California are now trying to tame, though masks have become the latest culture divide during the pandemic.
The Lincoln-Lancaster County area counted 331 coronavirus cases last week, the highest weekly count since the pandemic started, although the number of people being tested has also increased. About 6.6% of tests are coming back positive, and officials have said they’ve seen more 20-somethings coming down with COVID-19.
Douglas County, which has a bigger population and no mask requirement, recorded 629 coronavirus cases last week, with a positivity rate of 7%.
The directed health measure issued by the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department requires people to wear face coverings in Lancaster County and Lincoln through at least Aug. 31.
The requirement applies to anyone age 5 or older in an indoor space, unless people can remain 6 feet apart, the mayor said.
A number of exceptions apply, including for people exercising or eating or drinking in a bar or restaurant. Those who can’t wear a mask because of a medical condition and people seeking state or county government services don’t have to wear masks, either.
Police won’t be ticketing people who don’t wear masks, city officials said, and people shouldn’t contact them to report violations. Residents can use the city’s UPLNK reporting system to lodge any complaints or observations about people not wearing masks or businesses not enforcing the rules.
Ricketts said he will not withhold any federal coronavirus aid from Lancaster County for enacting the mandate because masks will not be required in state or county buildings.
The governor previously warned counties that they would not be eligible for CARES Act money if they required their “customers” to wear masks at the local DMV or county assessor’s office.
Baus said most of his customers were already wearing masks while they shopped for groceries, and his employees have been masking “since day one” of the pandemic. His staff is friendly and “very tactful,” he said, and he’s hopeful that there will be few, if any, run-ins with customers upset about having to wear a mask.
“We’re doing what we need to do to keep our employees and customers safe,” he said.
World-Herald staff writer Reece Ristau contributed to this report.
Photos: The faces of the mask effort
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