LINCOLN — A waitress at a Bellevue sports bar, fired for posting a tweet critical of Gov. Pete Ricketts for not wearing a face mask during a recent visit, said Thursday she’s still upset the state’s top leader didn’t set a better example for fighting off COVID-19.
Karina Montanez, a 25-year-old single mother who has risk factors for the virus, said she was “aggravated” the governor didn’t take precautions by wearing a mask during his visit to DJ’s Dugout on election night, Nov. 3. So she recorded and posted a video taken on her cellphone.
“Here we have a rich, powerful man who’s supposed to be taking care of us, and here he’s in a sports bar, taking off his mask and taking photographs like he’s a celebrity,” Montanez said. “It aggravated me. It got under my skin.”
Montanez was fired Tuesday by the sports bar for violating company policies, but her viral video, and news of her firing, has spawned national publicity, as well as $2,500, so far, in financial support for the now-unemployed college student.
A spokesman for the governor said Thursday that Ricketts was wearing a mask when he entered and exited DJ’s Dugout on election night. Spokesman Taylor Gage said he removed his mask only temporarily that evening for a picture with a baby.
The sports bar is in Sarpy County, where no mask mandate is currently in effect for bars or other public places.
Ricketts, earlier this week, acknowledged that he briefly removes his mask when asked to pose for a photograph. Being without a mask, he said, only becomes a problem after spending 15 minutes with someone, within 6 feet.
Montanez’s video, and her subsequent firing, inflamed an already hot debate over Rickett’s rejection of a statewide mask mandate. Despite being urged to do so by several public health authorities in the state, Ricketts has instead opted for increased education about mask-wearing and other coronavirus safety steps. The governor has insisted that mandates breed resistance.
On Thursday, he joined several public health officials at the launch of a new publicity campaign aimed at increasing the voluntary use of masks and other safety steps. Meanwhile, more cities are considering joining Omaha, Lincoln, Kearney and Beatrice in imposing their own mask mandates.
While the sports bar has received several complaints about Montanez’s firing, an authority on labor law said Thursday that private employers are well within their rights to fire employees for violating company policies.
University of Nebraska law professor Steve Willborn said that Nebraska is an “at-will” employment state, which allows private employers to dismiss employees without a reason.
Unless she was dismissed because of her race or gender, Willborn said that the waitress probably doesn’t have a claim.
“The First Amendment (about free speech) only protects public employees,” he said, adding that if the employee had worked for a public entity, she might have a case.
Montanez posted a 17-second video showing Ricketts, who wasn’t wearing a mask, visiting with a group of people. Montanez can be heard speaking on the video, “Hey, Pete? Where’s your mask, Pete? ... We’re in a pandemic, Pete.” At one point, Ricketts can be seen being handed a baby to hold.
Chris Stovall, general manager of the Bellevue DJ’s Dugout, said Montanez was fired for violating a corporate policy against employees posting things on social media that name the company and can be regarded as “harmful” to the sports bar, or put it in a “bad light.” All employees are informed of the policy when hired and asked to sign off that they understand it, he said.
“For us, it’s not that it’s political, it’s just our stance (on social media),” Stovall said. He added that another employee was fired a month ago for violating the same policy.
Montanez, however, said she remains unclear about what policy she violated. She said she was led to believe it was a policy about using her cellphone during work hours, which is a rule regularly not followed by several employees of the sports bar.
“I don’t feel like I have any clear answers,” said Montanez, who had worked at DJ’s Dugout for 2½ years.
Two state senators, Carol Blood of Bellevue and Megan Hunt of Omaha, have criticized the firing. Blood said the waitress should have received a reprimand, not a pink slip.
Ricketts had traveled to Bellevue on election night to attend an election party for former Bellevue Mayor Rita Sanders, who won a seat in the State Legislature. Sanders and Ricketts are Republicans; Blood and Hunt are Democrats.
Montanez said it’s been an emotional roller coaster since her post went viral earlier this week. After she was fired Tuesday, she asked people on Twitter to “donate to this lovely single mama” via social media accounts.
She said she asked for money “as a joke,” but has been heartened to receive the donations.
(Alert: This video contains language some viewers may find objectionable.)
“To many it’s not much (money), but for me it means the world,” said Montanez, who is taking classes at Metropolitan Community College and raising a 4-year-old daughter.
JoAnne Young of the Lincoln Journal Star contributed to this report.