Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert speaking before the Omaha City Council on July 21, 2020.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert speaking before the Omaha City Council on July 21, 2020.

By Chris Bowling

The Omaha City Council will consider an emergency ordinance for a proposed mask mandate on Tuesday, Aug. 11 after the Douglas County’s health director folded under state legal pressure on July 31.

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, who alone can not enact a mandate, said she’s in favor of one, but is not sure how effective it could be, even at a time when Douglas County is seeing a spike in cases.

“They’re not wearing a mask because they don’t want to,” she said. “It’s not because they can’t find a mask, you can find a mask anywhere. They are that group that  feels like they either have a right to make a choice to wear it or not or they don’t believe in it.”

She also questioned the legal repercussions. In Lincoln, businesses have been forced to shut down and there’s an ongoing legal battle with one bar ordered to close by the city. The hope is that police would never have to penalize people for not wearing a mask and could rather give out masks, but Stothert said it’s unrealistic to think that’s the solution for this problem.

“If a police officer comes up and says here’s a mask, they’re going to tell that police officer where they can shove that mask,” she said. 

The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office has involved itself in both Lincoln’s mask mandate and Omaha’s proposal for one. Omaha is the only of America’s 100 largest cities not to have a legal requirement that people wear masks in public. 

Attorney General Doug Peterson said his office would sue the city of Lincoln over its mandate and threatened to do the same if Dr. Adi Pour, director of the Douglas County Department of Health, did the same. Stothert said she supported Pour’s decision to enact a mandate, which Pour has the power to do under city charter, but also understands the conflict once the state involved itself.

“Dr. Pour cares about one thing, public health,” she said. “As she should, and she’s good at it. But she did not want to get in a big legal battle about who’s right and who isn’t.”

After Pour announced she would not enact a mandate, several members of the Omaha City Council voiced their intent to enact one themselves. The council have placed an emergency ordinance on their Aug. 11 agenda to advance the mask mandate to final reading, however, it would need support from six of seven members. Stothert doesn’t believe the ordinance’s sponsors would have that support.

The council’s mandate, which would expire Oct. 12, would be punishable by a $100 fine and include exceptions for people in:

  • Federal, state or county government services;
  • Group homes or mental health treatment facilities;
  • Pharmacies or other medical provider;
  • Airports;
  • Election offices and polling places on election day;
  • Bars and restaurants while eating or drinking;
  • Offices where the person is working alone or where they have head-height cubicles and can achieve 6 feet of social distancing;
  • Job where a person can not wear a mask.

There are also exceptions for people exercising indoors when social distancing can be maintained, giving a speech or lecture and those unable to wear a mask due to a medical condition. Children under 5 years old are also not required to wear a mask.

Council member Brinker Harding has expressed concern over the effectiveness of a mask mandate.

“My preference would be not to have the [mask] ordinance — that it would be voluntary,” he said. “I’m still open to discussions.”

Stothert said if someone were to enact a mandate, it should happen quickly. If the city council’s emergency ordinance fails to achieve at least a 6-1 vote, it would likely be delayed until September. Pour could still choose to enact a mandate as well.

Stothert said she still comes back to the fundamental question of how effective a mandate would be. While Nebraska, and Douglas County in particular, has seen a spike in cases, she said Omaha has been spared from the brunt of COVID-19 infections other places have seen. To now force people to wear a mask could have the opposite effect.

Even when her office posts on social media explaining how a mask mandate works and that the mayor alone can not enact one, it ignites a political firestorm.

“I’ve been called everything from a communist to a Nazi to ‘Are you going to make us all wear uniforms next, mayor?’” she said. “These are the ones that don’t want to wear it, and these are the ones that won’t wear it.”

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Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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