Douglas County health department clarifies Omaha mask mandate

While health officials and critics shared their opinions on the Omaha mask mandate, businesses are working to comply with the order.
Published: Jan. 12, 2022 at 7:55 AM CST|Updated: Jan. 12, 2022 at 9:30 AM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Despite a threat from the state attorney general to take legal action, Omaha’s mask mandate went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.

Also on Wednesday, the Douglas County Health Department clarified that the version of the mandate posted on its website Tuesday was not the final accurate version of the mandate, and provided a corrected version to 6 News.

The corrected version contains an exception for religious gatherings as well as stipulations for premises open to the public and defines those spaces. It also details what constitutes a proper face covering.

About 50 gathered Monday afternoon outside the health department, holding signs and chanting, calling for the removal of the Douglas County health director.

Dr. Lindsay Huse issued the temporary mandate Tuesday as a response to rapidly increasing cases, in an effort to fight escalating hospitalizations. She told the board of commissioners Tuesday morning: “This is not a decision I made lightly, this is not an easy decision at all. I know it’s going to create some waves. But this is a tool we have in our toolbox. We have research, evidence out there showing that masks decrease transmission.”

Douglas County Health Department officials clarified some of the details in Omaha's new mask mandate, in effect Wednesday.

Following the announcement, several school districts updated their policies to follow the mandate beginning Wednesday. Millard and Elkhorn public school districts said they will follow the mandate districtwide. Several other districts, including OPS and Westside, already had mask requirements in place.

The city’s COVID-19 Prevention order issued by Dr. Huse calls for face coverings to be required for anyone ages 5 and older and for people to separate with six feet of distance from others not in the same household, with some exceptions:

  • Those seeking federal, state, city, municipal, or county government services
  • Anyone seated at a bar or restaurant to eat or drink, or while immediately consuming food or beverages
  • Those engaged in exercise
  • Anyone working in an occupation that prevents wearing masks
  • Those obtaining services or purchasing goods or services that require temporary removal of masks
  • Anyone giving a speech, lecture, or broadcast, or officiating at a religious service, to an audience, which must maintaining six feet of social distancing
  • Those participating in a religious service
  • Anyone who cannot wear a face covering because of a medical condition, mental health condition, or disability that prevents the wearing of a face covering
  • Those younger than age 5

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts issued statements Tuesday opposing the mandate and questioning whether Dr. Huse had the authority to implement it.

Nevertheless, local businesses spent Wednesday making swift changes.

“It didn’t take a lot of effort to get everything organized. We’ve been through this already just got on the phone with a few of my store managers and let everyone know about the decisions that were being made and made sure we had masks for the guests,” said Alex Mullen, Ika Ramen and Izakaya operations manager.

Some businesses tell 6 News some customers aren’t aware of the new mandate so they are taking the time to educate them on the changes.

“We’ve had quite a bit of traffic this morning. Probably 50 50 on whether people come in with masks or not. The other 50% that don’t it’s just ‘hey you want to put a mask on?’ and it’s just like sure here you go. It’s been pretty easygoing. No conflicts or issues like that,” said Andrew Ostendorf, Haney’s Shoe Store manager.

Officials from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, CHI Health, and Nebraska Medicine talked about how the omicron COVID-19 variant.

During an update on Nebraska hospitals’ response to omicron on Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Angela Hewlett, infectious diseases specialist at Nebraska Medicine and medical director of the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit, said Omaha’s mask mandate was happy news and that Douglas County Health Director Dr. Lindsay Huse is doing the right thing.

“This was incredibly welcome news. ... Honestly, it was almost like we were cheering in the hallway,” Dr. Hewlett said. “...I think wearing a mask, honestly, is an act of kindness. It’s something that people can do — a very very simple act — that people can do ... to help protect the people around us as well as our community.”

The surge in cases isn’t just about the healthcare system — it affects other services we often take for granted, she said.

“Imagine calling 911 and not having someone respond, or calling the fire department and not having them respond to a house fire because we have too many who are sick. These things are actually happening in states that are very close to us right now. ... So if wearing a mask is all we have to do to try to protect our community, then I think that’s a very simple aspect of those layered interventions that can be done by individuals to help not only themselves but other people around them.”

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