Omaha Mask Mandate Reinstated Amid Omicron Surge


Dr. Lindsay Huse, director of the Douglas County Health Department, answers questions about a mask mandate she instituted in the City of Omaha effective Wednesday morning during a news conference outside of the department’s offices, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. (Scott Stewart/Daily Record)
By 
Scott Stewart
The Daily Record

The City of Omaha implemented a mask mandate Wednesday under the authority placed by city code in the city’s health director.

Dr. Lindsay Huse, who serves as the health director for the city as well as the director of the Douglas County Health Department, announced the mandate Tuesday, prompting the ire of both Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts. Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson sent Huse a letter threatening to sue over the mandate, which Huse described in public comments Tuesday as a temporary measure.

The mandate requires any public place within city limits to require everyone age 5 or older to wear a face covering while indoors unless they maintain at least 6 feet of physical separation at all times. Exceptions include those seeking to receive government services, those seated at a bar or restaurant and those participating in religious services, along with some additional provisions.

The order is set to remain in effect until case counts for Omaha are below 200 per 100,000 on a seven-day total and hospital capacity is at or below 85% for seven consecutive days.

“I’m not claiming that masks are going to end the pandemic or stop the pandemic, but it’s going to slow it down to give my brothers and sisters in health care the breathing room they need to take care of all of you,” Huse said.

The order was prompted by the recent surge in cases due to the omicron variant, which health officials have been saying could overwhelm area hospital systems. Long waits for care would extend to patients beyond those who have contracted COVID-19, such as those seeking treatment for cancer or other ailments.

“This mandate will help us reduce the incredible strain on our hospitals,” Huse said Wednesday. “They need your help now, so they can help you later.”

Stothert issued a statement in advance of Huse’s announcement Tuesday, sharing a screenshot of a text Huse sent the mayor in August saying she would not act without Stothert’s support. Huse responded to that by noting the change in the pandemic since then, including the impact it has on the health care system.

“I don’t believe citizens want to reinstate steps such as limiting capacity and canceling events, closing city facilities, closing restaurants and bars, and work from home options for many businesses, which had such negative consequences for families, businesses, employment, and the city’s economy,” Stothert said.

Ricketts, who has opposed mandates throughout the pandemic, also criticized Omaha’s new requirement.

“I remain adamantly opposed to mask mandates for Nebraskans, and I support Mayor Stothert’s priorities to reasonably manage the spread of COVID-19 in Omaha,” Ricketts said.

The mandate is only within Omaha’s city limits because the Douglas County Health Department lacks the authority to issue a countywide mandate. The county did ask the state Department of Health and Human Services to issue a directed health measure, but the agency declined to do so, according to Huse.

Huse said that she would encourage other Douglas County communities to consider their approaches.

Responding to questions about the legality of the mandate, Huse said she consulted with both the city and county attorneys. She said the city Law Department would defend any challenge to the mandate.

“We feel we are on solid legal footing,” Huse said.

Dr. Maureen Tierney, chair of the Creighton School of Medicine’s Department of Clinical Research and Public Health, recommended Wednesday that people consider double-masking, especially if they are unable to wear a higher-quality N95 or KN95 mask.

“Wearing a tight-fitting cloth mask and medical procedure (surgical) mask together can help limit spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 by helping with source control or substantially reducing exhaled respiratory particles from infected wearers and reducing exposure of uninfected wearers,” Tierney said.

Huse said she knows that some people don’t want to wear masks but she hopes they’ll comply with the mandate because the omicron variant has spread so quickly.

“I’m really relying on people to do the right thing and to really help their neighbors at this time,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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