County Health Director in Tussle With Omaha Mayor, Nebraska Governor After Mask Mandate

A mask mandate announced this week for Douglas County, Nebraska, has drawn criticism from Governor Pete Ricketts and the mayor of Omaha, the largest city in the county and state.

The mandate was announced by Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse, as she said it was necessary to relieve pressure on the state's hospitals by slowing the spread of COVID, which has spiked in Nebraska in recent weeks.

"This is not a decision I made lightly. This was not an easy decision at all, and I know that it's going to create some waves," Huse said Tuesday, according to the Associated Press. "But this is a tool that we have in our toolbox. We have research, evidence, out there showing that masks decrease transmission.

"I'm not claiming that masks are going to end the pandemic or stop the pandemic, but it's going to slow it down to give my brothers and sisters in health care the breathing room they need to take care of all of you."

The mandate, as well as previous COVID restrictions, have received criticism from Ricketts and Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert.

Omaha City Council President Pete Festersen said the council believes Huse has the authority to impose the mandate and said a majority of the council supports the decision, the AP reported.

Nebraska COVID Mask Mandate Omaha Mayor Governor
A mask mandate was announced this week for Douglas County, Nebraska, amid pushback from the state's governor and the mayor of Omaha, the largest city in the county and state. Above, a sign requiring mask use is seen outside a store in Union Station on July 30, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The city's previous mask mandate expired last May.

Ricketts, a Republican who has opposed mask mandates throughout the pandemic, said he opposes the new Omaha mask requirement and may try to block it in court. The state attorney general's office didn't immediately respond Tuesday to questions from the AP about the mask rule.

"I remain adamantly opposed to mask mandates for Nebraskans, and I support Mayor Stothert's priorities to reasonably manage the spread of COVID-19 in Omaha," Ricketts said.

The state said the number of people hospitalized with the virus continues to grow this week and hit 635 on Monday. Hospital officials have said they worry that number will soar in the next couple weeks because of the rapid spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the virus.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Nebraska has risen over the past two weeks from about 628 new cases per day on December 26 to nearly 2,750 new cases per day on Sunday.

The state reported 17,382 virus cases to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week, up from 10,682 the week before and 4,956 before that. The latest total topped the state's previous weekly record high of just over 15,000 cases set in November 2020.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.