Omaha mask mandate likely next week, Douglas County health director says

Published: Jul. 23, 2020 at 9:32 AM CDT|Updated: Jul. 23, 2020 at 6:03 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - A mask mandate is coming to Omaha.

Douglas County Health Director Dr. Adi Pour revealed Thursday afternoon during a news conference with Mayor Jean Stothert that while there are some details to work out, the mandate for wearing a face mask will likely be issued next week.

Lincoln’s mayor seems to have provided cover for the other cities to issue mask mandates. While Stothert said Omaha’s city code doesn’t allow her to do it, the health director can.

As positive cases continue to rise and community spread increases, such a mandate could come as early as next week — but only for the city of Omaha; not all of Douglas County, she said.

“But everything is up in the air,” she said. “And I think that a mandate, potentially, a mask mandate would help us in the right direction. I’m not there yet, like I said. There’s still some discussion.”

Since Omaha’s first COVID-19 death back in March, 121 others have died — 13 of them did not have underlying conditions.

The data from the last three days have been worrisome, she said, noting that the Douglas County Health Department has reported more than 100 new positive cases for three consecutive days: 108 reported on Tuesday, 179 on Wednesday, and 155 today.

“That is three days in a row with over 100 cases,” Pour said. “And what’s worrisome to me is the positivity (rate). Today, I saw it for the first time above 10%.”

She is also keeping a close eye on the number of hospitalizations, a metric Gov. Pete Ricketts often points to as a metric of how the state is doing in terms of the virus.

“Let’s not wait until we are at 100% occupancy of our hospital beds,” she said. “Let’s make sure we don’t get to that point.”

For months, Dr. Pour has touted the health benefits of face masks, wearing one herself for the duration of the past several local COVID-19 news conferences.

Watching how an indoor mask mandate in public places is working in Lincoln — and after a road trip to Aspen, Colo., where a mask mandate has been in effect since April — has affected the sense of community, Pour said.

“It feels like everyone is in it together, and we’re making it through,” she said.

A mask mandate would not force businesses to close, she said.

“I would love to keep (bars and restaurants) open, and therefore I think a mandate, a mask mandate, would keep them open,” Pour said.

Potential legal hurdles

The only roadblock to a mask mandate appears to be a legal one.

Dr. Pour has the authority to issue a face mask mandate in Omaha, but not in the whole of Douglas County. And while the governor encourages wearing masks, he stops short of ordering it.

“His position is we don’t have the data to mandate masks statewide. But Dr. Pour is concerned about Douglas County and the city of Omaha,” Mayor Stothert said Thursday.

Stothert said Omaha laws are different than Lincoln, where the mayor was able to issue a face mask mandate. Here, a mandate would have to come from Dr. Pour, Stothert said.

Pour said she believes Lincoln’s mayor has opened the door for other communities in the metro to follow suit.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if the eastern region would get together and do the same thing? Think of the population,” Pour said. “A regional approach certainly has some benefit to it.”

Dr. Pour said the city’s mask mandate would likely look a lot like Lincoln’s, meaning it’s for indoor spaces only and in places where 6 feet of social distancing cannot be guaranteed — and there are exceptions.

Mayor Stothert on face masks

“I do understand the importance of a mask... I wish every single person in Omaha every time they’re out in public would have a mask on. I think we would see different results,” Stothert said.

The more information that comes out from medical and infectious disease experts and epidemiologists nationwide, emphasizes that face masks are very to preventing COVID-19 spread, she said.

“I wish everybody would do it and just be responsible and do it without a mandate,” Stothert said. “That’s what I really wish would happen.”

The mayor said she’s seeing more people wearing masks in public, but acknowledged that some people won’t do it. It’s not an issue of not being able to get a mask, she said; they’re against wearing it.

The mayor also pointed out that Nebraska is one of seven states that didn’t have a shelter-in-place order, and still has some of the lowest numbers.

“Decisions that we make should be driven by data,” she said. The mayor said she looks at COVID-19 data daily.

Stothert also pointed out that part of the consideration behind issuing a face mask mandate is that it must then be enforced.

“That means it will be a crime, and police will have to enforce it and the city prosecutor will have to issue citations and prosecute it,” she said.

Douglas County COVID-19 demographics update

Dr. Pour reported Thursday that positive cases in Douglas County have been increasing among younger populations.

Last week, 61% of positive cases were among those younger than age 34. Pour also gave a more detailed breakdown of that group:

  • 0-4 years old: 3 cases
  • Ages 5-9: 4 cases
  • Ages 10-14: 23 cases
  • Ages 15-19: 55 cases
  • Ages 20-24: 124 cases
  • Ages 25-29: 110 cases

COVID-19 cases low among Omaha police, fire

Stothert said she’s also concerned about city police and firefighters in particular as they spend a great deal of time together, but noted that the number of positive COVID-19 cases among those first-responders have remained low.

Of the 902 Omaha Police officers, 23 have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 1, and five are currently isolating at home. In the fire department, 34 have tested positive with 15 currently isolating at home. in the fire department; and an additional 15 are quarantined at home awaiting test results.

The mayor also noted that Engine 56 was taken out of service Thursday because they didn’t have enough people to operate.

Digital Director Gina Dvorak contributed to this story.

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