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Editorial, 11/22: Nebraska at critical point in virus fight

Editorial, 11/22: Nebraska at critical point in virus fight

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Virus Outbreak Nebraska

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts wears a face mask during a tour of a new DMV service center in west Omaha, Neb., Monday, July 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

As of Thursday morning, there have been at least 106,617 COVID-19 cases and 838 deaths in Nebraska since the coronavirus pandemic began in March.

More troubling, over the last two months, those numbers have dramatically increased, making Nebraska one of the hottest of coronavirus hot spots.

The state’s seven-day rolling average is 123 cases per 100,000 people. That, according to a New York Times database, is the fifth highest rate in the nation, behind North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Iowa.

Beyond the geography, what do those states have in common?

All have Republican governors. None, until the last week, had mask mandates.

On Nov. 14, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum ordered the wearing of masks in his state, to, he said, help doctors and nurses and a health care system that has been overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases.

On Tuesday, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds followed suit, while saying, “No one wants to do this. ... I don’t want to do this.”

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, however, continues to resist a statewide mask mandate, despite the urging from Nebraska Medicine, which has provided guidance to the state throughout the pandemic, and the pleas of doctors, nurses and teachers who encounter the virus and its impact on a daily basis.

Ricketts argues that masks should be used voluntarily and that a mandate would trigger resistance, not compliance.

But Ricketts’ voluntary approach has failed.

That can be confirmed anecdotally and statistically. In the counties where masks are not mandated, the percentage of mask wearers, by sight, is lower than in Lincoln and Omaha where masks are required, over Ricketts’ initial objections. And the infection rates in the non-metro counties is higher than in Douglas and Lancaster counties.

Nor do Ricketts’ actions in the face of the rising numbers work to address the dual pandemic dilemma of protecting public health while keeping businesses and the economy open.

Returning to restrictions on bars, restaurants and the size of gatherings will help to stem some of the virus’s spread. But those restrictions will bring a dampening economic effect and, likely, will put some restaurants and bars out of business.

In much the same manner as the Trump administration’s failure to craft a national anti-virus strategy pushed responsibility for dealing with the pandemic to states, Ricketts’ recalcitrance on masks has pushed that public health action down a level of government.

As he interprets it, Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne believes the law allows room for municipalities to require masks by ordinance.

Beatrice and Kearney have, in the last week, voted to require masks, and Grand Island and Hastings are considering mandates.

As for the rest of the state, the Journal Star editorial board joins the doctors, nurses, public health experts, educators and concerned citizens in urging Ricketts to require masks everywhere in Nebraska, creating a uniform measure to fight the virus, curb the rise in cases and bring a quicker end to the pandemic.

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Assistant city editor

John Schreier, an Omaha native and sixth-generation Nebraskan, is an assistant city editor and has worked at the Journal Star since 2017.

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