Ricketts: Feds Recommended Mask Mandate, but State-Tailored Measures Better

Nov. 30, 2020, 4:17 p.m. ·

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Gov. Pete Ricketts speaks Monday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Governor Pete Ricketts acknowledged Monday the White House coronavirus task force recommended a statewide mask mandate, but defended his plan as better tailored for Nebraska. And state Veterans Affairs Director John Hilgert asked people to voluntarily wear masks and take other precautions to protect veterans.


Ricketts was asked about the federal recommendation for a statewide mask mandate after Omaha writer and former World-Herald assistant editor Dan Golden released documents he obtained from a public records request. They show the White House coronavirus task force at various times recommending a statewide mask mandate for Nebraska, a step the governor has steadfastly refused to implement. On August 23, for example, a report from the task force said “a mask mandate needs to be implemented statewide (in counties with 20 or more cases).

It could not immediately be determined how many counties fit the bill as of that date, but now, 87 of Nebraska‘s 93 counties do. On November 22, the report calls on the state to “ensure masks at all times in public.” (To see the reports, click here).

Asked about the quotes, Ricketts did not dispute their authenticity. But he said they reflected a “cookie cutter” approach by the federal government that did not differ much from state to state.

“They are using a…program that is really looking at the entire country and then trying to apply it to Nebraska, rather than looking at Nebraska-specific data which we’ve talked about months ago. We had problems with the way the White House was collecting our data and using it – being inaccurate and so forth. So we put together here a plan in Nebraska a plan that’s right for Nebraska. So we listen to all sorts of experts. We take the White House information in consideration. We talk to our local folks, our public health directors. So we look at a variety of different sources to be able to come up with our directed health measures that are tailored specifically for Nebraska,” he said.

The reports do include Nebraska-specific data. Ricketts’ mention of problems with the White House referred to an incident in August when the White House put Nebraska in the “red zone” for having more than 10 percent of people who were tested test positive, while the state maintained it was less than 8 percent. The state’s directed health measures, which today were extended through the end of the year, require people to wear masks if they are going to be within 6 feet of others in indoor businesses for more than 15 minutes. And while the state has refused to go farther, at least 7 of the state’s 10 largest cities have enacted their own mask mandates.

On another subject at the news conference, Director of Veterans’ Affairs John Hilgert called for people to take precautions to protect residents in the state’s four veterans homes. Hilgert directed his advice to people who might not think they should be concerned.

“If you think ‘I’m young, I’m healthy, I’m asymptomatic, I don’t have to worry,’ I would say that yeah, you do. Because your friends that you associate with that are also perhaps young and healthy as well may be a housekeeper at a long-term care facility, a medpass (who distributes medicines), or a CNA (certified nurse assistant), someone who works in dietary (services). The thousands of health care workers that we have across the state may be exposed asymptomatically if you don’t take the precautions,” Hilgert said.

So far, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 131 residents and 150 employees of veterans’ homes have tested positive for COVID-19, and 15 residents have died.

Hilgert said he himself had COVID-19 in May and has now largely recovered, although he still needs to be tested for effects on his heart. And he urged people to think about more than themselves in making decisions about precautions to take.

“’Should I wear a mask?’ Of course the answer is yes. And maintain distance. And wash your hands. And (observe) the ‘three c’s.’ But when you’re going through that decision process I would ask you not only to think of your own situation, and even beyond your immediate circle of friends. One step over the horizon – think of those folks: the veterans who’ve sacrificed so much. This is not a huge sacrifice compared to serving in the military,” he said.

And Hilgert compared taking actions to protect other people to the way Nebraskans react after a snowstorm.

“Someone’s car can’t make it up the hill and what do you do? You get out and help them push. No one is mandating you to do that. No one is telling you you have to, but you know it’s the right thing to do because your neighbor needs assistance,” he said.