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Mask mandate in Lincoln extended even as state plans to ease restrictions
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Mask mandate in Lincoln extended even as state plans to ease restrictions

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Farmers Market influencers 8.22

Jordan Gonzales walks through the Haymarket Farmers Market on Aug. 22 handing out stickers, masks and wristbands encouraging others to wear masks and practice social distancing.

Lincoln and Lancaster County will continue to mandate masks and carry forward the current restrictions through September as the number of new coronavirus cases increases, Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird said Friday.

Earlier this week, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services announced that barring a dramatic increase in hospitalizations, all of the state's counties would move to Phase 4 of the state's reopening plan — the least-restrictive stage — on Sept. 14.

Lancaster County's more-restrictive health measure would trump the state's directive.

Gaylor Baird and Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department Director Pat Lopez have said the mask mandate and current local restrictions helped contribute to three weeks where the number of new cases declined. And by continuing the restrictions, the county can avoid a dramatic spike. 

Wearing masks, frequent hand-washing, maintaining distance and avoiding large gatherings have continued to prove effective, the mayor said. 

"With schools back in session and with activities and events increasing in our broader community, we must remain committed and focused on our public health strategies that will help us continue to keep our community moving forward," Gaylor Baird said at her Friday news conference on the coronavirus response. 

A move to relax restrictions across Nebraska isn't guaranteed because of the unpredictable nature of the virus, Lopez said.

Local school superintendents support Lancaster County's decision to maintain current restrictions, she said. 

Lancaster County added 73 new cases Friday, but no new deaths.

With 251 cases reported this week, its the fifth-highest weekly total of the pandemic with another day to go, according to the health department. 

The increase in cases comes after more than two weeks of school and the return of students to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. But though students and staff represent a significant percentage of new cases, local contact tracers have not tied any cases directly to the classroom, Lopez said. 

Rather, the surge in cases among residents age 11 to 29 largely stems from social gatherings outside of school, where some are less careful in social distancing and wearing masks, she said.

One of 3 new cases in Lancaster County this week have come in the 11-to-29 age group, she added. 

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Health department staff upgraded the community risk from moderate to high and moved the risk dial from yellow back to orange after one week at the lower status. 

For the second consecutive week, the county has had rising cases. 

Lancaster County saw three straight weeks of declining cases after it enacted Nebraska's first mask mandate for indoor public spaces July 20. 

As part of the directed health measure, the Health Department ordered a handful of downtown Lincoln bars to close for 24 hours in early August over violations. Then when it attempted to shut down Madsen's Bowling & Billiards, the north Lincoln business challenged the closure order, forced the city to take it to court and the police department to enforce the order. 

After three days, Madsen's reopened with the Health Department's approval. 

A misdemeanor charge the city filed against Madsen's for violating the first closure order is set for a hearing next month, when Madsen's attorney Chris Ferdico will argue to throw out the charge. 

Separately, Madsen's plans to lead a class-action lawsuit against the Health Department alleging the local directed health measure and its mask mandate were illegal and an abuse of power that damaged the business and its employees, Ferdico said Friday.

Ferdico said he plans to file the lawsuit early next week. 

Madsen's plans to argue that the Health Department doesn't have the legal authority to enact stricter directed health measures than the state, which city attorneys maintain it can because the Health Department predated the state.

The directed health measure not only is illegal, Ferdico said, but it's put businesses in an impossible situation of requiring customers to put on a mask despite physical or political reservations, and risking being closed if they don't.

In addition to the indoor mask mandate, the local restrictions require patrons to be seated at bars and restaurants, and that groups number no more than eight.

"We strongly believe that when government officials are acting outside of their right and left limits they must be held accountable," Ferdico said. 

Photos: Lincoln during the pandemic

Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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Local government reporter

Riley Johnson reports on local government in Lincoln.

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