OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Douglas County Health Director Dr. Lindsay Huse spoke to the Douglas County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday and announced her intention to implement a mask mandate for the City of Omaha starting at midnight on Wednesday.
Huse held a follow-up press conference outside the health department offices Tuesday afternoon. Watch below or on our Facebook page.
"I can't stand by and not do everything that we can. My integrity as a health professional — as a public health professional — cannot stand by and watch that happen. I can't watch and our hospitals can't handle a huge surge of more omicron cases," Huse said during the morning board meeting.
"Later today I plan to use my authority under city code chapter 12 sections 1, 21, 23 and 24, to order a mask mandate for the City of Omaha, that would be effective as of midnight tonight. This is not a decision that I made lightly. This was not an easy decision at all, and I know it's going to create some waves."
Following the meeting, City Council President Pete Festersen sent a brief news release expressing that the majority of the council supports the mask mandate and asserted the need to keep schools, hospitals and first responders operating.
"We believe Dr. Huse clearly has this authority and we will continue to support the resources needed to increase testing and vaccination rates in our community," Festersen said in the release.
Gov. Pete Ricketts does not take the same position as Festersen and the majority on city council.
The Governor emailed a response to 3 News Now, reading: “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. The Douglas County Health Department lacks legal authority to impose a mandate, and I have asked Attorney General Peterson to consider legal action.”
Dr. Huse said she consulted with city and county lawyers.
“I feel were on very solid legal ground," said Huse.
Three members of the Omaha City Council oppose the mandate. Aimee Melton, Brinker Harding and Don Rowe released a statement via email on Tuesday afternoon.
The email read, in part: "We also vehemently object to an unelected and unaccountable bureaucrat imposing their will upon the city without reaching out to those who are entrusted by the citizens of Omaha to represent them. We are ready and willing to have a conversation with Dr. Huse regarding her concerns, but to this point she has failed to reach out to any of us regarding her plans."
Huse specified that the potential mask mandate would be applicable indoors for a period of four weeks, and would be reassessed with benchmark criteria. Those criteria include less than 200 cases per 100,000 people in a seven-day period and a hospital capacity at or below 85% for at least seven days.
"Ultimately, I was brought here to protect the public and that's what I'm trying to do," Huse said during the afternoon press conference outside of the DCHD offices.
In-person school, low rates of mask-wearing in public without a mandate, and those who still haven't been vaccinated were all factored into her decision, she said. The goal is also to make hospital capacities more manageable for healthcare workers and keep businesses open instead of suffering staffing shortages.
"We have research evidence out there showing that masks decrease transmission," Huse said. "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 healthcare the breathing room that they need to take care of all of you."
Huse cited data from the Douglas County COVID-19 dashboardthat showed growth in pediatric cases over the last could of weeks, especially for ages that are too young to be eligible for a vaccination, but that all age groups are showing an increase in positive COVID-19 cases.
Nearly 400 individuals are hospitalized for COVID-19 in the area and there are more than 50 COVID-19 patients requiring ventilators.
The mandate, like the last one, has exceptions. you don’t need one when you’re eating at restaurants, working out or attending religious services.
Commissioners and public commenters raised questions about which agencies would enforce a mask mandate and how they would enforce it, as well as comparing the ability to enforce a mask mandate outside of Omaha city limits in outer Douglas County.
DCHD Resource Specialist Phil Rooney read specific language at the press conference that the mask mandate entails, including that proper face coverings must cover the nose and mouth, and also that disobedience to the mandate could be punishable as a misdemeanor and subject to a fine or even jail time.
"There is a fine and another — jail time essentially, that is built into that. That is determined by municipal code and the courts, that is not something that is defined by us," Huse clarified. "In terms of enforcement, it's a collaborative effort between Douglas County Health Department inspecting basically any complaints of businesses that might not be complying, public spaces where compliance is not happening. If there are repeated offenses, then local law enforcement can be involved to issue a citation."
Last week, both the Omaha police and fire departments announced a mask mandate, and the presidents of six area education associations banded together to create an open letter to local governments asking for a community mask mandate.
On Monday evening, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said she does not support a mask mandate for the City of Omaha.
Beyond the mask mandate, Huse was provided with a broader range of questions at the morning board meeting about expanded testing and Nomi Health funding as well as access to monoclonal antibodies.
During the afternoon press conference questions shifted to whether she had received death threats, if the city was worried about potential litigation from Attorney General Peterson's office, and also off-camera interruptions from members of the public.
Huse said the DCHD has explored options that could reduce the stress on the existing healthcare infrastructure, but a limited supply of antiviral treatments and monoclonal antibodies is still the reality, and there is a limited quantity of at-home tests that are currently reserved for individuals who are unable to access testing under other means.