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Mayor sees evidence of mask mandate's effectiveness; 16 new cases
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Mayor sees evidence of mask mandate's effectiveness; 16 new cases

From the Milestones in Nebraska's coronavirus fight series
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A likely third straight week of declining new coronavirus cases demonstrates the effectiveness of Lancaster County's mask mandate that took effect almost a month ago, Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird said Friday. 

The 16 cases confirmed Friday marked the lowest number of new daily cases this week, and Lancaster County headed into the weekend positioned to have the fewest weekly total of new cases since late June.

The new cases raised the county's total to 3,431, and with no new deaths from COVID-19 reported, the toll remained at 19.

Earlier in the week, the Omaha City Council followed Lincoln's lead by enacting a mask mandate of its own, and Gaylor Baird praised the decision.

"Given the proximity of our two cities and the amount of interaction typically occurring between us, we in Lincoln are safer with Omaha having a mask requirement in place," Gaylor Baird said.

During Nebraska visit, Dr. Birx says masks should not be a partisan issue

Lancaster County's mandate led to a legal battle this month with Madsen's Bowling &  Billiards, where the owner defied the city's closure order and told his patrons masks were optional there.

The health department took the bowling alley and pool hall to court to enforce its order, then had the police shut down the business for three days before the two sides reached an agreement allowing Madsen's to reopen. 

Among the requirements in Madsen's compliance plan the Health Department approved was a requirement that staff ask patrons to wear a mask when inside and not advertise actions conflicting with the directed health measure, according to a copy of the plan obtained by the Journal Star.

"We're not asking people to confront each other about their reasons for wearing a mask or not," Gaylor Baird said. "So again there may very well be reasons people don't have them on."

Mask use indoors is required in most cases; however, people seated at a table where they are eating and drinking are not required to wear them, according to the directed health measure.

Health Department staff expect Madsen's will comply with the plan, interim Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department Director Pat Lopez said. 

"We have no reason at this time to think that they aren't," she said, noting that she wasn't aware of any new any complaints about violations there since Madsen's reopened.

Her staff will continue to conduct surveillance on the business, as is the case at other bars and restaurants in Lincoln.

"It's hard to say who has a health problem and can't wear a face covering or mask," Lopez said. "But I think if we were in a place doing surveillance and no one was wearing a mask, that would be extremely suspicious." 

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Ultimately, there comes a point when people are expected to do the right thing, she said.

Madsen's reopens its doors after Health Department OKs its compliance plan

Risk of contracting the coronavirus in the county remains high, and Lopez's staff decided to keep the risk dial in the orange category for another week, though the data has positioned it close to dropping into the yellow (moderate risk) category, she said. 

The positivity rate, which denotes how prevalent positive cases of the disease are when compared with the number of tests being done, has leveled off since peaking in July, she said.   

Despite overall increases in hospital stays for all patients, Lincoln hospitals continue to have the capacity to care for coronavirus patients, Lopez said. 

But the declines also come as the total number of tests has fallen in recent weeks. 

Lopez said she didn't know what exactly may be causing that decrease in testing, but she said it is possible increased mask wearing has reduced the need for some people who were around people infected with the virus to get tested.

Three of four tests in the county continue to come back within three days, but Lopez on Friday called out the testing delays for people who seek testing through CVS Pharmacy.

Its independent testing lab, Quest Diagnostics, has taken between eight and 10 days to turn around tests for Lancaster County residents, which Lopez called unacceptable.

Lancaster County confirms 31 new COVID-19 cases

Gaylor Baird's team, along with Gov. Pete Ricketts' staff, have brought their concerns about the testing delays and are working with the company to resolve the issue, she said.

In a statement on its website, Quest Diagnostics said it's trying to increase its capacity, noting that to date it has completed more than 11.2 million tests. 

The mayor said she recognizes how surges in cases across the country can have a downstream effect on cities such as Lincoln. 

But residents here are asked to stay home while awaiting a coronavirus test result. 

"The whole effort is broken down with that kind of a lengthy turnaround time," she said. 

Residents seeking testing should instead utilize Test Nebraska, the mayor said.

Photos: Lincoln during the pandemic

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

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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