Bellevue councilmember issues letter, urging mask mandate

Says urging people to wear one not enough
Posted at 2:08 PM, Dec 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-03 15:08:26-05

BELLEVUE, Neb. (KMTV) — On Tuesday, Bellevue City Council met, along with Bellevue Mayor Rusty Hike, to discuss a mask measure for the city. In the end, a resolution, urging people to wear masks was passed but one council member says it's not enough and now is the time to pass a mask mandate.

Bellevue City Councilmember Thomas Burns provided the following letter to Mayor Hike:

"Dear Mayor Hike,

Thank you for bringing forth a valuable discussion Tuesday evening on the need for masks during this COVID crisis, which experts predict will get worse before a vaccine arrives.

I was heartened you said the Board of Health would be meeting soon, and then to read in today’s newspaper our City Administrator told the World-Herald’s Reece Ristau the Board may meet yet this week. I am pleased to see this getting the attention we all believe it deserves.

I know how important we all think it is to speak with a unified voice. Unity seemed to be of particular concern when Gretna and La Vista “broke away” from the Sarpy County communities’ cooperative effort and independently pursued mask ordinances.

But now, with Papillion moving forward, if unity is our concern, we need to get on par with our sister cities again and act responsibly. Bellevue has been represented at the countywide pandemic meetings, and I am aware of this fact from my discussions with county officials also in attendance at those meetings.

In the interest of unity, I want to offer some helpful perspectives to the Board of Health, and my colleagues, should the Board of Health fail to act favorably on a mask mandate.

Tuesday night’s Council meeting included multiple statements meant to be wellintended. However, these statements were an unfortunate choice substituting kind words for meaningful action.

A resolution is an excellent tool to recognize citizens’ worthy acts, high school sports teams’ accomplishments, and memorable civic events or celebrations. That is an appropriate role in our service as leaders. But so is making hard decisions.

In the spirit of bringing clarity to the discussion in the City Council meeting, allow me to offer the following perspectives.

It was suggested that enforcing the mask ordinance would overwhelm our city legal staff. I find it hard to consider this a valid argument in the face of reality. In Omaha, after months of a mask ordinance, two citations have been issued. We are all aware of the population difference and the calendar disparity here, so we can easily discern this would not lead to such a crisis in our City Hall. I remind everyone the city attorney enforces all sorts of ordinances.

For example, various city officials sit at the table when a citizen appeals a code enforcement citation. Nobody has suggested the elimination of our codes to relieve overburdened staff. This argument does not hold water.

It was suggested our law enforcement officers would be out of service responding to mask complaints at the risk of damaging response times to priority calls. It even got to the point during our meeting when someone sadly invoked the tragic shooting at Sonic as a reason not to run this risk. That incident was no more caused by our lack of a mask mandate than would it have been prevented if we had a mask ordinance in place. To suggest otherwise in either direction could be characterized by the public as an unfortunate scare tactic.

Again, the Omaha Police Department has issued two mask citations in a matter of months. In that same period, how many traffic citations have they issued? In that same period, how many traffic citations have our police officers issued?

Does any responsible adult think we should stop enforcing traffic laws because there might be higher priority calls?

Does any member of the Council think so little of our police officers to imagine they would choose to pull someone over for expired plates or fail to signal when there is a concurrent radio call to respond to an active shooter? That is a rhetorical question because we already know the answer.

It was stated correctly the Governor and Attorney General of Nebraska once held the position that only Omaha and Lincoln could adopt mask mandates. But after Senator Justin Wayne cited state law to the contrary, the Governor, from his self-imposed COVID isolation, retreated from his previous position and said he would not attempt to stop cities from adopting ordinances to protect the health of our residents.

Now, most of the Nebraska cities have ordinances in place, and the third-largest city does not. Councilman Preister stated we are late in responding compared to surrounding cities. I agree, but I suggest to the Board of Health that “late” is not improved by substituting the word “never.” Our failure to this point can be rectified by the Board of Health and City Council.

It was said that we have a patchwork of mask regulations from community to community in Nebraska. I don’t disagree. It is unfortunate. That is why I salute Republican governors in states like Iowa, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Utah, whom all opposed statewide mask mandates but adopted them since the November election.

A random series of standards is not of our making unless we personally and willingly contribute to a lack of responsible action as public officials. The lemming may walk over a cliff. Bellevue does not owe such allegiance to a mask opposition that is no longer sustainable or even actively demanded by the Governor.

It was said people would be bullied, and fights will erupt if anti-maskers or individuals with health issues are asked to comply. First, there are exceptions for people with health issues, young children, and customers eating or drinking at an establishment. Let’s remember some facts. Councilman Preister noted that studies indicate 85 percent of people support a mask mandate. To further illustrate this point, an anti-mask rally was well-publicized in Omaha, and only 35 people attended. (The population of Omaha in 2018 was 468,262. It has grown since then, but you get a broader understanding if you labor under the false impression or paralyzing fear that you must swim against the current to do what is right.)

I ask you to walk through Westroads Mall, where every store requires a mask for entry, and every shopper is wearing one. There is no bullying, and there are no fistfights. To argue Bellevue taxpayers are incapable of such civility is a position I refuse to endorse. The Board of Health should not, and neither should the Mayor and Council members.

Move Bellevue forward. I intend to continue to advocate that course. I trust the Board of Health will demonstrate a similar commitment.


Thomas Burns City Councilman City of Bellevue, Nebraska"

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