Seven of Nebraska’s 10 largest cities have now passed local mask mandates, as Gov. Pete Ricketts continues to resist a statewide requirement.
City leaders, including local public health officials, have imposed mandates in response to rising coronavirus cases and deaths across the state.
With the flurry of new mandates, more than half of Nebraska’s 1.95 million people now live in a community that requires a mask to be worn indoors.
Most cities with mandates are in eastern and central Nebraska. Eleven of the state’s 25 most populous cities have a mandate. None is west of Kearney.
Local leaders in western Nebraska’
s North Platte, Scottsbluff, Gering, Alliance and McCook say they are encouraging people to wear masks, but not requiring it, which largely echoes Ricketts’ stance.
Gering Fire Chief Nathan Flowers, in a recent press release, noted that call volumes for local volunteer paramedics have surged 42%. He pleaded for the public’s help in wearing masks so ambulances aren’t delayed.
The number of communities enacting mask ordinances snowballed after State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha said in mid-November that state law gives cities of all sizes the authority to “make regulations to prevent the introduction and spread of contagious, infectious or malignant diseases into the city.”
Cities with recently enacted mandates include Norfolk, York, La Vista, Columbus, Hastings and Grand Island. Cities considering requiring masks soon include Papillion, Fremont, Blair and South Sioux City.
Ricketts has questioned whether cities can adopt mask ordinances on their own. Ricketts has said Omaha could impose a mandate because it’s organized under what’s called a home rule charter.
In Lincoln, the requirement is part of a directed health measure imposed by the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department.
The governor has said he does not believe state law automatically grants that authority to other cities and towns. However, he has advised them to check with their own legal counsel.
After watching the governor’s coronavirus press briefings, Wayne, a lawyer, wondered about the governor’s stance on the legality of local mask mandates.
Wayne asked his legislative legal staffer to explore what would need to be changed in state law to make local mask mandates possible. He found out that the law already allowed them.
“Cities are paying high-dollar attorneys to do this,” Wayne said, laughing. “So send me the bill.”
Ricketts, during his press briefing on Wednesday, said he hasn’t changed his mind about a broad statewide mask mandate. He noted that Nebraska’s directed health measures include a limited mask requirement. In indoor businesses, staff and patrons must wear masks when they are within 6 feet of each other for 15 or more consecutive minutes.
A few holdouts remain to the local mandates.
Bree Robbins, city attorney in Nebraska’s third-largest city, Bellevue, has questioned whether a local mask ordinance would be legal.
But Bellevue Mayor Rusty Hike said his city is considering its options, including a ban, as more cities adopt mandates. One other possibility: providing signs for businesses that want them recommending that masks be worn.
Lynn Rex, executive director of the League of Nebraska Municipalities, said she expects “more and more” cities to consider mandates until a vaccine is widely available.
Here is where each of Nebraska’s top 25 cities by population stands on mask mandates:
Omaha (pop. 470,702): Yes, city mask mandate.
Lincoln (pop. 293,905): Yes, mask mandate put in place through local directed health measure.
Bellevue (pop. 53,945): No, mayor has said the city is considering options for a mask mandate, city attorney has questioned whether it can legally pursue one, masks recommended.
Grand Island (pop. 51,440): Yes, city mask mandate.
Kearney (pop. 34,301): Yes, city mask mandate.
Fremont (pop. 26,731): No, city considering mask mandate, awaiting Board of Health recommendation for a potential ordinance as early as Dec. 8, masks recommended.
Norfolk (pop. 25,027): Yes, city mask mandate.
Hastings (pop. 24,972): Yes, city mask mandate.
Columbus (pop. 23,752): Yes, city mask mandate.
North Plate (pop. 23,522): No, masks recommended.
Papillion (pop. 20,636): No, Board of Health recommended a mandate Wednesday, heads to City Council on Dec. 1, masks recommended.
La Vista (pop. 17,247): Yes, city mask mandate.
Scottsbluff (pop. 14,621): No, masks recommended.
South Sioux City (pop. 12,516): No, considering mask mandate, masks recommended.
Beatrice (pop. 12,302): Yes, city mask mandate.
Lexington (pop. 10,017): No, masks recommended.
Gering (pop. 8,101): No, masks recommended.
York (pop. 7,902): Yes, city mask mandate.
Blair (pop. 7,841): No, considering mask mandate as early as Dec. 8, masks recommended.
Alliance (pop. 7,584): No, masks recommended.
McCook (pop. 7,545): No, masks recommended.
Seward (pop. 7,334): No, masks recommended.
Crete (pop. 7,294): No, masks recommended.
Ralston (pop. 7,272): Yes, city mask mandate.
Nebraska City (pop. 7,265): No, Board of Health meets Monday and may recommend a mask mandate, masks recommended.