Omaha City Council extends mask ordinance, now set to end just before Thanksgiving

Council members call out audience for snickering, outbursts; Jerram calls for enforcement
Published: Oct. 6, 2020 at 1:33 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 6, 2020 at 4:04 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The City Council voted 5-2 during its meeting Tuesday afternoon to further extend the face mask ordinance put in place in August.

Councilman Brinker Harding and Councilwoman Aimee Melton voted against extending the ordinance, which is now in effect until Nov. 24 — two days before Thanksgiving.

Much of what the council heard from medical experts on Tuesday echoed the statements made by doctors at UNMC/Nebraska Medicine on Monday.

The council heard public comment — and from Douglas County Health Director Dr. Adi Pour — last week on the ordinance that was set to expire Oct. 20.

Tuesday, Dr. Pour gave an update on the status of COVID-19 in Omaha. She said it’s been a “very disappointing week” from her position, noting the local positivity rate — at more than 12% — is the highest it’s been since late May. The biggest increase in the county has fallen on those ages 20-59.

Pour said that while bed capacity numbers may not be alarming, the number of hospitalizations is causing fatigue among medical staff, particularly in the aftermath of Labor Day weekend gatherings, and as Omaha Public Schools resumes classroom attendance. She warned that cold and dry weather will increase the efficiency of COVID-19.

Pour described five factors that contribute to the increase of cases: school and college being back in session, athletic events taking place, DHM phase 4 relaxing measures, Labor Day family gatherings, and fall and winter weather increasing the efficiency of the virus as well keeping people indoors.

Local epidemiologists say that even though Omaha has had an ordinance for eight weeks, many people aren’t following it.

Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of UNMC’s division of infectious diseases, talked about the impact of COVID-19 on hospitals and healthcare professionals.

“I appeal to you that it is not the time to relax our guard against COVID-19 and I urge you to maintain the current mask mandate,” said Dr. Rupp.

Councilman Ben Gray asked Rupp if he sees us approaching a crisis. Dr. Rupp responded: “We see warning signs. If they’re ignored, we could easily approach a crisis.”

Dr. Ali Kahn, dean of UNMC’s College of Public Health talked about COVID-19 infection data trends in the U.S., particularly in areas that have face mask mandates in place.

Only cancer and heart disease will kill more people than COVID-19 this year, and we still have four months left in the year, he said.

“We have the power to affect this virus' trajectory,” Dr. Kahn said, calling the nation’s COVID-19 outbreak a “unique American failure.”

“Masks work," he said. "Ask the 1,700 health care workers who died if they would have wanted an N95. Masks work. Masks save lives.”

The three doctors speaking in favor of extending the city’s face mask ordinance presented their case with data and even visual aids, even as a number of people in the audience snickered, laughed, and even mocked the experts. The behavior drew comments from some on the council, and one woman was removed from the room after her outburst.

“I’m getting a ton of people saying and screaming things showing disrespect to the people in the room,” Councilman Gray said.

At several points during the face mask ordinance discussion, a few members of the council had stern words for members of the public in the audience, calling out their behavior as disrespectful of the medical professionals' time and expertise as well as the council — and even democracy — itself.

“We can disagree, but we need to respect each other,” Melton said. “Let’s not laugh and make a scene."

A number of people seated in the audience and not wearing masks, were openly laughing, shaking their heads, and mocking infectious disease experts as they addressed the council and presented statistics to support their recommendation that the face mask ordinance continue. One woman was removed from the legislative chambers after shouting out her own version of positivity rates.

The council also discussed adjusting the metrics in the ordinance that would cause it to expire after Dr. Kahn said he would make a major concession and agree to a goal of 10 cases per 100,000 people on a seven-day rolling average, as opposed to the target of 5 per 100,000 that Dr. Pour often cites when asked when she would support repealing the mask ordinance. Currently, he said, we are at a rolling weekly average of 25 cases per 100,000. The council seems poised to add such benchmarks as amendments to the ordinance in coming weeks.

To provide an opposing perspective, Melton invited Dr. Lee Merritt, an orthopedic surgeon who said she is semi-retired, to talk about COVID-19 information, prevention, and testing. In her comments, Melton said she “used to think masks work,” but now she doesn’t.

Merritt said she believes COVID-19 has been made worse by wearing masks, and said more studies should be done to show the benefits of Vitamin D and zinc. Local public health experts told 6 News that’s not based on science, and that her other theories had also been debunked.

During his comments, Councilman Chris Jerram later criticized Merritt’s dismissal of the more than 210,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., which he said could have been prevented.

Councilman Rich Pahls said the business community and schools are asking for the city’s help in promoting use of face masks to prevent community spread of COVID-19.

Harding said he thought the ordinance would have more “teeth” if Omaha could convince surrounding communities to follow suit with a face mask requirement.

Jerram was critical about the city’s lack of enforcement, noting that not a single ticket had been written since the ordinance went into effect in August.

“For those afraid of enforcement, at least to date, you have nothing to fear; there hasn’t been any enforcement. That’s a problem. That’s a reason the rates in our community are going up recently," he said.

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert’s office issued a response shortly after the council vote:

Digital producer Harper Lundgren contributed to this report.

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