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Gov: Nebraska would have sued to stop Omaha mask mandate

August 4, 2020 GMT

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Gov. Pete Ricketts has acknowledged that state officials planned to sue if Douglas County’s health director issued an Omaha-area mask order to try to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Ricketts, a Republican, acknowledged Monday that officials from his office and the attorney general’s office told Douglas County Health Director Adi Pour by phone last week that she didn’t have the legal authority to issue an order requiring people to wear masks in public, the Omaha World-Herald reported.

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“If she moved forward, we would challenge that in court,” Ricketts said during a news conference.

The governor’s account helps explain Pour’s surprise decision last Thursday to not issue the mask order, despite a unanimous vote by the county’s health board to do so.

Douglas County and Omaha officials dispute Ricketts’ stance that Pour doesn’t have the authority to issue a mask order. Omaha’s city attorney, Paul Kratz, said the state law Ricketts and the attorney general’s office cite don’t apply to Omaha because the law exempts metropolitan class municipalities. Omaha is the only city in Nebraska that fits that definition.

“The unfortunate thing is, this issue is a scientific matter that’s being politicized,” said Douglas County Board member Chris Rodgers, who also serves on the county health board.

An Omaha ordinance gives the county health director the authority to issue orders to address an epidemic. The City Council is considering a measure to enact a mask mandate.

On Tuesday, the state’s online virus tracker showed that daily average of new confirmed cases over the last seven days had remained steady from the week prior, at 293. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Nebraska has had nearly 27,000 confirmed cases and 332 deaths from COVID-19.

The tracker indicated Nebraska hospitals have space to take on new patients, with 41% of the state’s hospital beds, 43% of its ICU beds and 80% of its ventilators available as of Tuesday.