City Mask Mandates May Be Possible; Restaurants' Role in Pandemic Discussed

Nov. 16, 2020, 3:18 p.m. ·

Zoe Olson, Nebraska Restaurant Association, speaks Monday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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In the face of Governor Pete Ricketts’ refusal to issue a statewide mask mandate, a number of Nebraska cities are looking into taking action on their own. And a state restaurant official is pushing back against the idea that dining out increases the risk of being infected by the coronavirus.

Unlike some other governors around the country, including recently his fellow Republican governors in Utah and North Dakota, Governor Ricketts has steadfastly refused to issue a statewide mask mandate to prevent the spread of COVID-19, arguing it could breed resistance and backfire.

Monday morning, just before Ricketts’ news conference, state Sen. Justin Wayne, a registered Democrat in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, issued a news release saying he believes cities have the authority to require masks on their own. Wayne, a lawyer who chairs the Legislature’s Urban Affairs Committee, cited a state law allowing cities to “make regulations to prevent the introduction and spread of contagious, infectious, or malignant diseases into the city.”

Asked about Wayne’s statement, Ricketts said he’s not sure that’s right.

“I don’t know that it’s just automatically guaranteed for every city to be able to do that such as Sen. Wayne is suggesting. I’d certainly recommend cities have to consult with their legal advisors before they do something like that,” Ricketts said.

Lynn Rex, executive director of the League of Nebraska Municipalities, said people who have looked at the issue for the organization think cities do have that power.

“The League staff does agree with Sen. Wayne’s statement,” Rex said. “That being said, I know there are city attorneys in various parts of the state that are reviewing and researching basically how or if they want to proceed in doing it. And some cities may be in a better position than others to move forward on it,” she added.

Rex said factors that might influence cities’ ability to require masks include whether they have consistently used their authority to address other problems, and also whether they have the law enforcement capacity to enforce a mandate.

The city of Omaha and Lancaster County, which includes Lincoln, already have mask mandates, because of special carve-outs in state law.

Also at the governor’s news conference, the issue of restaurants’ role in preventing or spreading the virus was discussed.

Some studies have suggested a link between dining out at restaurants and higher rates of coronavirus cases. But Monday, Zoe Olson, executive director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association, pushed back against that idea. Olson said restaurants are taking increased precautions.

“It’s important to note there has been no national outbreak of COVID-19 traced to a restaurant, and that includes Nebraska,” Olson said.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control in September of patients in 11 health care facilities found patients who tested positive were about twice as likely to have reported dining in a restaurant as those who tested negative.

Olson cast doubt on the significance of that.

“Simply saying ‘I went to a restaurant at some point and I got coronavirus’ – there’s not a direct causation line,” she said.

She also disputed another study, co-authored by a Stanford professor, citing criticism by the National Restaurant Association that it was based on computer modeling that could be inaccurate, like polling.

Olson said Nebraska’s restaurant business is down by about 30 percent during the pandemic, and urged people to be understanding.

“Please be kind to our staff. Whether or not you agree with health measures, please be kind to our staff. Our staff are stressed. We’re coming to the holidays and …we have staff who are concerned with what’s this going to look like for their income, for their livelihood. Please be kind and continue to use our services,” she said.

Ricketts has indicated if patients hospitalized with COVID-19 reach 25 percent of the state’s hospital capacity, he will require serving staff to wear masks and limit in person dining hours to between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m.