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State AG may sue to block planned mask mandate in Omaha

January 12, 2022 GMT

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Health officials want to impose a new mask mandate in Omaha to slow the spread of COVID-19 as surging virus cases continue to strain hospital capacity, but the state said it would sue to block the rule if it is imposed Wednesday as planned.

Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse announced the new temporary mask mandate Tuesday despite the objections of Gov. Pete Ricketts and Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert. Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson later sent Huse a letter threatening to sue if she moves forward with the plan because she didn’t get state approval for the mandate.

But Omaha City Council President Pete Festersen said a majority of the council supports the move and believes Huse has the authority to impose the mandate under city code. Huse didn’t immediately respond to Peterson’s letter but she said earlier that lawyers for both the city and county assured her that she is on “very solid legal ground” in issuing the mandate.

“This is not a decision I made lightly. This was not an easy decision at all, and I know that it’s going to create some waves,” Huse said Tuesday. “But this is a tool that we have in our toolbox. We have research, evidence, out there showing that masks decrease transmission.”

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Huse added, “I’m not claiming that masks are going to end the pandemic or stop the pandemic, but it’s going to slow it down to give my brothers and sisters in health care the breathing room they need to take care of all of you.”

The city’s previous mask mandate expired last May.

Ricketts, a Republican who has opposed mask mandates throughout the pandemic, said he opposes the new Omaha mask requirement.

“I remain adamantly opposed to mask mandates for Nebraskans, and I support Mayor Stothert’s priorities to reasonably manage the spread of COVID-19 in Omaha,” Ricketts said.

Peterson, a Republican, told Huse in his letter that he doesn’t believe she has the authority to impose the mask mandate without state approval.

Stothert said she was disappointed that Huse decided to move forward with the mandate, although she said she believes the health director does have the authority to issue one. Stothert said she doesn’t think a mandate — or any other restrictions like the ones used early in the pandemic — make sense now that nearly 70% of Douglas County residents over the age of 5 have been vaccinated.

“I don’t believe citizens want to reinstate steps such as limiting capacity and canceling events, closing city facilities, closing restaurants and bars, and work from home options for many businesses, which had such negative consequences for families, businesses, employment, and the city’s economy,” Stothert said.

The state said the number of people hospitalized with the virus continues to grow this week and hit 635 on Monday. Hospital officials have said they worry that number will soar in the next couple weeks because of the rapid spread of the highly contagious omicron variant of the virus.

The new mask rule would be lifted if case rates and hospital capacity improved significantly, but Huse said current projections suggest the situation is worsening and many more hospital beds than are available now will soon be needed.

“We’re projecting with the increases due to omicron that a minimum of 40% capacity above and beyond what we are already seeing is going to be necessary to take care of people who are becoming ill — to say nothing of other people who don’t have COVID but have severe health care needs that need to be taken care of,” Huse said.

The state said that about 23% of hospital beds statewide remain available, but in Douglas County only about 12% of the regular hospital beds were free. Even fewer intensive care unit beds are available.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Nebraska has risen over the past two weeks from about 628 new cases per day on Dec. 26 to nearly 2,750 new cases per day on Sunday.

The state reported 17,382 virus cases to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week, up from 10,682 the week before and 4,956 before that. The latest total topped the state’s previous weekly record high of just over 15,000 cases set in November 2020.

Huse said she knows that some people don’t want to wear masks but she hopes they will comply with the mandate because the omicron variant has spread so quickly.

“I’m really relying on people to do the right thing and to really help their neighbors at this time,” she said.