Jul 31, 2020 7:33 PM

Omaha-area health director declines call for mandatory masks

Posted Jul 31, 2020 7:33 PM

By MARGERY A. BECK-Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Douglas County's health director said Friday that she won't issue an order requiring people in the county and Omaha to wear masks to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, despite a unanimous vote by the county's health board to do so.

The rejection of the health board's mandate came after Gov. Pete Ricketts and the state attorney general's office contacted local authorities to insist that such a requirement would violate state law.

Douglas County Health Director Adi Pour said Friday at a news conference that she thinks everyone should wear a mask, but that she decided not to issue an order requiring it because she found out doing so could pose "legal issues." She declined to answer questions about whether she had been contacted or pressured by Ricketts or other state officials to not issue mask order.

"I don't want to get into the legal issues of it," Pour said. "We all want to have a united front. We are trying to keep this community as safe as possible."

Ricketts, a Republican, has said that local governments don't have the authority to impose mask requirements. So far, the governor hasn't sought to invalidate a local order requiring masks in Lincoln.

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert clarified at the Friday news conference that Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson had informed local officials that a local mask mandate would conflict with state law.

The Attorney General's Office said Friday that it had called Omaha's city attorney to say a local mandate would violate state law. Ricketts' office later confirmed it was on that call.

The state law referenced allows local officials to take steps to "arrest the progress of" infectious disease only with the approval of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, the Attorney General's Office said. That law contains an exception for the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, the office said.

Stothert rebuffed persistent questions Friday on why she and local officials appeared to cave to pressure from state officials to reject a mask mandate, saying, "Why do we want a court battle?"

She said she would rather see residents do the right thing by voluntarily wearing masks to protect themselves and others.

"It just baffles me ... why there's even any debate over mask-wearing," she said. "We all should be wearing them."

Pour had been widely expected to issue a mandate Friday after the Douglas County Board of Health on Monday voted unanimously to support a mask mandate in Omaha and the county.

Pour's announcement comes amid a rise in coronavirus cases in the state. The state's online virus tracker showed a daily average of 278 confirmed cases over the last seven days, compared with a daily average of 241 cases during the previous week. Nebraska has had a total of nearly 25,800 confirmed cases and has had 328 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began.

Douglas County health officials also confirmed Thursday that 10 officers, two inmates and one contractor with the Douglas County Department of Corrections had tested positive for the virus.