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City council members split on new mask mandate order

Posted at 10:15 PM, Jan 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-11 23:15:35-05

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Another mask mandate has been ordered for Omaha, but this time it’s coming from the county health director.

This decision has the city council split.

Council President Pete Festersen said the majority of the council agree with Dr. Lindsey Huse's decision to order a mask mandate.

“This spike happened very quickly, and I think that had her very alarmed," Festersen said. "I think it’s important to listen to our public health experts.”

He said going through the council like the mandate did previously, would take too much time.

“The challenge with the city council process is, it's very impractical to address a COVID surge like we’re experiencing right now," Festersen said. "It would take a minimum of at least six weeks, just to address this issue, which I think misses the critical time that we’re seeing right now.”

Festersen believes the decision would probably have been vetoed anyway by Mayor Jean Stothert who opposes the new mandate.

But not all the council is in agreement.

Aimee Melton, Don Rowe, and Brinker Harding don’t want to see another mandate and are calling it government overreach.

"Unlike our last mandate which was a $25 fine, this is a Class II misdemeanor that comes with - if you violate it - up to sixth months in jail, a $500 fine, or both," Melton said. "And I think that is completely government overreach to have that kind of punishment for not wearing a mask.”

Phil Rooney with the Douglas County Health Department told us while it is possible for people to be jailed up to six months, it's not likely.

Harding said there's not enough evidence to support mask mandates, though many infectious disease experts and the CDC have said masks help curb the spread of COVID.

Rowe says it's a different time than when the last mandate was put in. Vaccines are available as well as some treatments, though many are in short supply right now.

“Things are different today," Rowe said. "I am fully vaccinated with three COVID shots and a flu shot, I feel safe.”

When asked if after four weeks of a mask mandate it appears cases are going down, would they be willing to change their mind about mandates, the council members said no.

“It is going to drastically go down," Melton said. "If you look at what has happened in other countries, that’s exactly where we’re headed. We’re going to peak and come back down.”

Despite their disapproval, Melton, Harding, and Rowe all say they will be following the order.

Festersen said there is some concern about how this new mandate is splitting city leaders.

"We’re all concerned about the polarization around these issues," Festersen said. "Everyone has concerns about COVID cases and the pandemic and how to handle it best, and it’s been uncharted territory.”

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