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Ricketts tells local governments they won't get federal COVID-19 money if they require masks
special report

Ricketts tells local governments they won't get federal COVID-19 money if they require masks

LINCOLN — At his regular coronavirus press conferences, Gov. Pete Ricketts makes a point of urging Nebraskans to wear a mask when they go to a store.

But when it comes to the state’s 93 courthouses and other county offices, he doesn’t want local officials to require masks. In fact, he’s told counties that they won’t receive any of the $100 million in federal COVID-19 money if their “customers” are required to wear masks.

“The governor encourages people to wear a mask,” according to his spokesman Taylor Gage, “but does not believe that failure to wear a mask should be the basis for denying taxpayers’ services.”

The no-mask mandate has been poorly received in some corners of the state, with officials criticizing the loss of local control. It also runs counter to the advice of public health officials, who have stressed the importance of wearing masks.

In Lincoln, the state’s second-largest city, officials were preparing to require all visitors to wear masks when entering the City-County Building. But the draft rules were promptly dropped when officials were informed that Lancaster County wouldn’t receive CARES Act money if it instituted a mask requirement.

Deb Schorr, a longtime Lancaster County Board member and past president of the Nebraska Association of County Officials, said county officials “love local control” and are better informed about conditions in their county, particularly concerning COVID-19. The virus has hammered several parts of Nebraska, even as 18 rural counties have not recorded a single positive case.

But with millions of dollars at stake, local officials said they had little choice but to comply with the governor’s order. Otherwise, they’d have to find local options for replacing the federal money, such as higher property taxes.

“We’d like to have a little bit more ability to call the shots in our courthouse, but we realize that he has the right to set the rules,” Schorr said.

An official in Dakota County was more blunt.

Dakota County Assessor Jeff Curry said he was hoping that a mask requirement could remain in place for the courthouse through July 1. The northeast Nebraska county, home to a Tyson meatpacking plant, has been one of the hardest-hit counties in the nation for COVID-19. Visitors to the courthouse were not only required to wear a mask when entering, but their temperatures also were checked and they were asked a series of questions about coronavirus exposure.

Those health precautions, however, went out the window as of Monday, the date that Ricketts directed government offices to reopen to the public.

Curry said the message from the governor is “you better do what I want you to do.”

“It sure would have been nice to be able to sit down with our health director and County Board and have a conversation about what to do, without being mandated to do it,” he said.

The issue first arose late last month when Ricketts issued a guidance document to counties, advising that if they wanted any of the CARES Act money that was allocated to the state, their offices needed to reopen to the public by June 15.

Of the $2 trillion in spending Congress authorized in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, Nebraska received about $1 billion to help offset coronavirus-related costs for states and local governments. A total of $100 million was set aside for counties, cities and utilities, with the governor in charge of doling out the money.

The only exception is Douglas County, which received $166 million to distribute to local entities in the county. The City of Omaha could be eligible to receive a share of both the county and state money.

Ricketts’ CARES Act guidance indicated that counties could set social distancing standards and control access to their buildings, but added: “Customers may be encouraged to wear face coverings, but may not be refused service for failure to do so.”

At a press conference Monday, in answering a question from a Dakota County reporter, Ricketts made it clear that if Dakota County officials didn’t want to adhere to the mask guidance, they could go without CARES Act money.

“Counties are not prohibited from requiring masks, but if they want CARES Act money, they have to be fully open, and that means they cannot deny service for not wearing a mask,” said Gage, the governor’s spokesman.

On Monday, a trio of physicians on the faculty at the University of Nebraska Medical Center — which has served as an adviser to Ricketts for his COVID-19 response — published a guest opinion piece in The World-Herald urging Nebraskans to wear masks in public places to avoid another surge in infections.

Schorr, the Lancaster County Board member, pointed out that Ricketts gave the State Supreme Court the option to require masks in courtrooms statewide. That, she said, presents a “challenge” for the Lancaster County Hall of Justice, which has courtrooms on the top three floors and other county offices on the first floor.

In Dakota County, visitors can now enter the courthouse mask-free. But Curry said the county instituted new limits on the number of people who can enter the courthouse. That has led to long lines of patrons waiting outside in the hot sun, he said, prompting the county this week to buy shade tents and hand out bottles of water to those in line.

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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