LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts said Tuesday that his administration will not interfere with cities passing mask mandates, as long as they act within the law.
He commented at a press briefing just hours after Beatrice approved a mask mandate for all indoor public spaces. The Kearney City Council also unanimously approved a mask mandate Tuesday evening.
Several other Nebraska cities are looking to follow suit, including Grand Island, Hastings, Fairbury and others.
The briefing came one day after Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican like Ricketts, broadened that state’s mask mandate. Her new proclamation requires mask-wearing in any public indoor space when people are within 6 feet of each other for 15 minutes or more.
Ricketts has repeatedly refused to consider a statewide mask mandate, arguing that he doesn’t want to use government power to force mask use and that doing so would breed resistance. He also has barred local public health departments from establishing mandates in their areas.
However, he has imposed a limited requirement for indoor businesses where staff and patrons are in close contact, meaning within 6 feet for 15 continuous minutes or more.
On Tuesday, Ricketts continued to disagree with mandating broader mask use. But he did not put forward any arguments that cities cannot issue their own orders, saying simply that they should consult with their legal counsel.
Cities were emboldened when State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, an attorney and the chairman of the Legislature’s Urban Affairs Committee, said state law gives cities the authority to “make regulations to prevent the introduction and spread of contagious, infectious or malignant diseases into the city.”
He said cities also have authority to regulate nuisances, which would include curbing the spread of the potentially deadly pandemic.
Omaha and Lincoln already require mask-wearing in most indoor settings, other than residences. In Omaha, the City Council passed an ordinance to that effect.
In Lincoln, the requirement is part of a directed health measure imposed by the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department. The department has a special status under state law and does not have to seek state approval for its actions.
Ricketts urged Nebraskans to voluntarily wear masks but said they are not the only tool that can help prevent COVID-19.
He advocated for a “Swiss cheese” strategy to countering the virus, using several layers of control measures. While each has holes, together they can provide good coverage, he said. Other measures include keeping 6 feet of distance between people, washing hands regularly and avoiding crowded places, close contact and confined spaces.
In Beatrice, the mask mandate passed by the five-person Board of Health runs through Dec. 15. Beatrice Police Chief Bruce Lang said the mandate applies to all indoor public spaces. It doesn’t apply to private homes, the insides of vehicles or anywhere outside.
That makes Beatrice’s mandate stronger than Omaha’s, which includes a number of exceptions, including one that says masks are not required in places where people can stay 6 feet from one another.
But Lang said Beatrice officials will focus on education and compliance before they decide to issue citations.
“I can’t stress this enough that our hope is that we have voluntary compliance,” he said.
Lang said the health board acted under the same state statute that Wayne said gives cities of the first-class the ability to impose mask mandates. Lang said the board was “very reluctant” to impose a mask mandate but chose to act because of rising cases in surrounding Gage County, as well as requests from many residents.
Gage County was reporting about 169 cases per 100,000 people each day over the past week, according to Covid Act Now, which monitors virus data. That was higher than in Douglas County, which was reporting about 120 cases per 100,000.
Lang said the expanded COVID-19 wing in Beatrice’s community hospital is full, as are the satellite hospitals that the city uses.
“We need to take steps to try to mitigate (the virus),” he said.
In Kearney, a citywide mask mandate will go into effect Monday and last through Feb. 23, and then the City Council will vote on whether to extend the ordinance.
“In my heart of hearts this is something we need to do to defeat this. COVID is something you don’t want to mess with,” Kearney Mayor Stan Clouse said before the City Council voted 5-0 to enact the mask ordinance.
The ordinance requires people age 5 and older to wear masks in public to slow the spread of the coronavirus and ease the volume of cases filling Kearney’s hospitals.
Masks will be required for people at a business, event or location that is open to the public and where they cannot maintain 6 feet of distance.
The requirements have a number of exceptions. Masks will not be required in bars or restaurants while customers are eating or drinking or in people’s homes.
Violating the mask ordinance carries a $25 penalty.
World-Herald staff writer Reece Ristau contributed to this report, which includes material from the Kearney Hub.