Encouraged by declining COVID-19 cases and widespread vaccine availability, the Omaha City Council is poised to let the city’s mask mandate expire on May 25.
If the council had wanted to extend the mandate — as it has done four times since the measure was passed in August to help prevent the spread of the virus — it would have needed to introduce an extension at its April 20 meeting to ensure a continuous mandate. That’s because ordinances must go through three council meetings and don’t take effect until 15 days from final approval.
But no extension was introduced. Councilman Pete Festersen, one of the original sponsors of the mandate, told The World-Herald that city officials are closely watching data on COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and more. He said he’s encouraged by current trends, wider availability of vaccines and the approaching end of the school year.
“I don’t want to have the mask ordinance in effect any longer than absolutely necessary, but we’ll continue to evaluate the numbers in the coming weeks,” Festersen said.
His colleagues on the council broadly agreed that with vaccines going into arms each day, the mandate shouldn’t be necessary in a month.
Councilwoman Aimee Melton: “Now that everybody has an opportunity to get the vaccine, I don’t believe that we need a government mandate because people are free to choose to wear the mask.”
Councilwoman Colleen Brennan: “Overall, things are going down and people are getting vaccinated, so I don’t really see a need for us to mandate (mask-wearing).”
Councilman Vinny Palermo: “I’ll be paying attention to the numbers just like everybody else, and we’ll see what happens.”
Councilman Brinker Harding: “In my discussions with every one of the council members, they saw no reason to extend the mandate.”
Councilman Ben Gray, another sponsor of the original mandate, said the council will continue to monitor data and talk with health experts. If the city’s coronavirus outlook were to worsen, he said they could consider pursuing an emergency measure to keep the mandate in place beyond May.
An emergency ordinance would not need to go through the typical three-meeting process, but its passage would require a super-majority of six votes. As it stood Tuesday, it was unlikely such a measure would find sufficient support.
Council President Chris Jerram did not return a message seeking comment.
Despite the council’s plans, Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s infectious diseases division, warned that it may be too soon to roll back the mandate.
Virus numbers in the Omaha metro area are “headed in the right direction,” he said, driven by strong vaccinations of elderly and vulnerable people. But there’s still plenty of risk in the community — “particularly, strongly, if you are unvaccinated,” he said.
Rupp said he thinks the “wiser course” would be to keep in place a mask mandate that can be loosened or rescinded as conditions change.
On Sunday, the Douglas County Health Department reported 18 cases per 100,000 people on a seven-day rolling average. Rupp said public health officials would like to see that number dip to a low, single-digit number.
“It would be better, in my opinion, to be safe (rather) than sorry,” Rupp said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday eased its guidelines on outdoor mask-wearing, saying fully vaccinated Americans don’t need to cover their faces outside unless they are in a big crowd of strangers, among other recommendations.
Rupp urged people to continue wearing masks in indoor settings like bars, restaurants and gyms, especially those who are not yet vaccinated.
“You’ve really got to go get vaccinated in order to be safe in those kinds of settings,” he said.
People in Omaha have been required to mask up in businesses, restaurants and a variety of other settings since Aug. 11. Since then, mask mandates have been the subject of fierce debate.
During previous public hearings on mask mandate extensions, public health experts and supporters said widespread masking was a vital tool in controlling the pandemic while keeping schools and businesses open.
Opponents doubted the efficacy of masking, questioned social and emotional effects on children or said wearing a face covering should be a personal responsibility, rather than a government mandate.
Brennan noted that businesses and school districts will still be able to make their own policies on masking. The Greater Omaha Chamber, which previously backed the city’s mandate, on Tuesday did not directly address the future of the policy.
David Brown, president and CEO of the chamber, said in a statement that Omaha is in a “transitional time.”
“We join area businesses and health professionals in remaining vigilant and hopeful,” Brown said. “Vaccinations are up. The number of COVID-19 cases is trending down. We encourage everyone to continue to follow the guidance of our national and community health leaders, as we strive to keep the economy as open and safe as possible.”
This report contains material from the Associated Press.
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