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Masks won't be required in Omaha, Douglas County health director says
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Masks won't be required in Omaha, Douglas County health director says

From the Milestones in Nebraska's coronavirus fight series
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OMAHA — Douglas County’s health director backed off a mask mandate Friday after the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office challenged her ability to implement one.

Adi Pour, at a Friday news conference, cited “legal disagreements” between the state and the Omaha City Attorney’s Office.

Pour had been moving toward implementing an indoor mask mandate under her authority within Omaha city code. The Douglas County Board of Health met Monday to express its support for her move.

But Pour said that within the last 72 hours, a disagreement surfaced and led her to pull back to avoid a legal fight.

Gov. Pete Ricketts has questioned Omaha's and Lincoln’s abilities to implement local mask requirements. When asked if Ricketts contacted her, Pour responded passively, saying it was in the last 72 hours that the disagreements occurred.

"There was a legal decision,” Pour said.

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said the disagreement centers on the city’s legal ability in relation to state law. The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office contends state law trumps city code, Stothert said, even though attorneys in the city's Law Department think the City of Omaha is on solid ground if Pour wants to implement a mask order.

The Attorney General's Office issued a statement Friday saying the office's role "is to evaluate the law, not create or direct public health policy. Under Nebraska law, the Douglas County Health Department may only take measures 'to arrest the progress of' infectious disease 'with the approval of the (Nebraska) Department of Health and Human Services.' Nebraska law contains an exception for the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department," the attorney general's office said.

Lincoln's mask mandate has been in place since July 20.

Absent a mask mandate, Douglas County and Omaha officials pleaded with people who refuse to wear masks to change their habits for the good of children, people with compromised immune systems and the elderly.

Health experts from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, who attended the news conference, expressed frustration at the development. They called the community to task for the continued coronavirus spread.

Said Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the infectious diseases division at UNMC: “Personally, I’m very disappointed that we are not here before you to announce a masking mandate for Omaha and Douglas County.”

Rupp said he’s frustrated that the community could not overcome “the perceived political threats, potential legal challenges or logistical hurdles to mandate mask usage in our locality.”

Dr. Kari Neemann, UNMC’s assistant vice chancellor for Inter-professional Health Security Training and Education, said her son was exposed to the virus while in day care and is isolated after exposure.

"Our community failed him and it failed his classmates," she said.

Pour said she will continue to review data every day and left open the possibility of revisiting her decision. "But for now," she said, "I have to trust everybody in this community to do the right thing moving ahead."

Stothert said she had talked to the president of the Omaha City Council, Chris Jerram, about drafting a resolution that would let the council send a statement to the community strongly supporting the wearing of masks in public places.

But it would be a non-binding resolution.

The council could pass a mask ordinance, but Stothert said that would take weeks to follow the process and bring it to implementation.

The council could waive the ordinary legal requirements to speed up the process. But that would take six votes, Stothert said, adding that she’s not sure the council has six votes in favor.

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