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Ricketts still opposes mask mandate as virus cases rise

November 16, 2020 GMT

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Gov. Pete Ricketts stood firm Monday in his opposition to a statewide mask mandate despite a recent surge in coronavirus cases that threatens to overwhelm Nebraska’s hospitals and indications that many residents aren’t taking the pandemic seriously.

Ricketts urged residents to voluntarily wear a mask, saying it’s one step of many to slow the pandemic.

The Republican governor has focused heavily on getting voluntary compliance from residents, with campaigns urging people to avoid crowds, wash their hands frequently and stay home if they feel sick or show symptoms of the virus. He said he’s hopeful that residents will follow the guidelines to avoid the tougher restrictions he has promised if hospitals become more crowded.

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“Everybody can be a part of this,” he said at a news conference.

Ricketts has also refused to let local public health districts impose their own restrictions within their areas. He said he wouldn’t do so because the virus is spreading statewide, unlike earlier this year when hotspots were contained to specific regions.

Those decisions have drawn criticism from some state lawmakers, who believe Nebraska should be doing more to curb the spread of the virus.

On Monday, state Sen. Justin Wayne, of Omaha, said he believes that cities have the authority to impose their own local mask mandates.

Wayne, the chairman of the Legislature’s Urban Affairs Committee, said he’d like to see a statewide mask mandate.

“Absent this state action, however, I believe that individual cities in Nebraska have the authority to take decisive action and follow the lead of Omaha and Lincoln by not just suggesting we wear a mask to stop the spread, but by requiring it,” Wayne said.

The Nebraska State Education Association, representing public school teachers, on Monday also called for a statewide mandate in classrooms. The group released a survey of 6,500 Nebraska teachers, which showed that 92% support a mask mandate for teachers and students and nearly one in four plan to leave the profession by the end of the school year.

The number of new confirmed daily cases declined Sunday after a sharp increase over the last few weeks, according to the state’s online tracking portal. Nebraska now has the nation’s seventh-highest diagnosis rate nationwide, with one out of every 136 residents having been diagnosed.

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Nebraska reported 1,327 new cases Sunday, down from the new record high of 2,681 on Nov. 6, but far higher than it was in the summer, when the number of new cases per day was consistently less than 300. The state has recorded 98,161 new cases and 779 deaths since the pandemic began.

Meanwhile, the state’s hospitals are struggling to keep pace with a surge in new hospitalizations, although administrators said last week that their facilities are still safe for patients.

On Sunday, the state saw a new record of 914 active hospitalizations. If the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients rises to around 1,170, Ricketts said he will impose new social distancing restrictions on restaurants, bars, churches and other public and private gatherings.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte