Beginning Monday, Lincoln residents will be required to wear a mask in some public settings.
The decision, part of a new directed health measure announced by Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird at a Friday afternoon news conference, comes as the number of coronavirus cases in Lancaster County has risen in recent weeks. Here's a look at the details of the mandate and how it will impact Lincoln residents in the coming weeks.
What's the rule?
The mask requirement applies to residents over the age of 5 when indoors in a place that is open to the general public and when a 6-foot distance cannot be maintained between all patrons at all times. Masks must cover the mouth and nose.
The mandate will be in effect until Aug. 31.
Are there any exceptions?
There are several exceptions to this rule, mostly exempting specific places and activities.
The mandate will not apply to people who are outdoors, exercising, seeking government services, speaking in public or eating and drinking at a bar or restaurant. It will also not apply to those who cannot wear masks due to medical conditions, those purchasing a good or service that does not allow for mask wearing and those who can't preform their occupation while wearing a mask.
The mandate will also not apply in courts of law, at the Nebraska Legislature, elections offices and government facilities.
Also exempt: Medical providers, pharmacies, airports, public transit, congregate living shelters, group homes, and drug and mental health treatment centers.
All of these places, however, are expected to observe social distancing practices, keeping 6 feet of space between people as much as possible.
What is the controversy surrounding the mandate?
In a Friday morning news conference, Gov. Pete Ricketts said he does not believe mask mandates are necessary anywhere in the state, and local governments do not have the authority to enact them without approval from his administration. After Gaylor Baird's announcement, Ricketts spokesperson Taylor Gage said the governor was reviewing his legal options to challenge Lincoln's DHM.
"While the governor encourages the use of masks in appropriate situations, he strongly disagrees with the mayor’s decision to mandate masks," Gage said.
This disagreement could lead to a court battle, an outcome that Gaylor Baird and interim Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Director Pat Lopez have been hoping to avoid since early May. Earlier this year, they chose not to challenge Ricketts in court when he relaxed restrictions on businesses. At the time, Gaylor Baird said a legal battle could cause public confusion and would be poor governance in a time of emergency.
A guidebook written last year by Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican said that the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services carries override power on local DHMs.
But Lincoln City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick said the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department was established before the statewide authority, giving them the power to adopt stricter local policies.
There is, however, broad support for the mandate from other local officials and public figures.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green, Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Steve Joel and Norris Public Schools Superintendent John Schwartz each supported the mandate Friday, calling it a safe measure to ensure students can return to their classrooms this fall.
Why has this DHM been enacted now?
The mask mandate comes after a record number of new cases locally were reported for the week ending Saturday. There were 331 cases reported last week (the previous high was 299), and a positivity rate of 6.6%. Both of those metrics represent an increase over where the county numbers were in June. Gaylor Baird said this mask mandate could help lower case numbers at a critical time with the school year just a few weeks away.
She also said the mask mandate gives Lincoln a chance to stabilize case numbers without putting more pressure on local businesses, which are already suffering from earlier restrictions.
Do other cities and states have similar mandates?
There are 28 states, including Kansas and Colorado, that have enacted mask requirements that are similar to Lincoln's. While it has been less common, other city governments have also enacted similar measures, including Phoenix and Jacksonville, Florida.
Nebraska won't be alone if the state pursues legal action against Lincoln. Georgia Gov. Bryan Kemp filed a lawsuit last week week to invalidate a mask mandate instituted by the city of Atlanta.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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