Omaha City Council puts emergency face mask ordinance into effect with unanimous vote

Omaha City Council passed an emergency face mask ordinance at its meeting Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020.
Omaha City Council passed an emergency face mask ordinance at its meeting Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020.
Published: Aug. 11, 2020 at 12:17 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 11, 2020 at 7:20 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - By unanimous vote, the Omaha City Council put an emergency ordinance into immediate effect, requiring face masks to be worn in public.

The proposed emergency ordinance, requested by councilmembers Chris Jerram, Pete Festersen, and Ben Gray, passed 7-0 during Tuesday’s council meeting. It needed approval from six of the seven council members to go into effect immediately. Last week, Festersen tweeted that the council had five “yes” votes.

Mayor Jean Stothert has said she would support whatever decision is made on the issue by the council.

The ordinance will expire Sept. 15, at which time the council will revisit the issue with guidance from Douglas County Health Director Dr. Adi Pour.

City councilmembers give comments

Before the vote, councilmembers gave comments of their own after listening to more than three hours of public comment for and against the emergency ordinance.

Councilman Pete Festersen said that should the emergency ordinance pass, businesses would be required to post a sign notifying customers of the emergency ordinance. He said the council has prepared a poster that businesses can easily find and print in order to comply with that particular mechanism of the ordinance.

Councilman Brinker Harding said the ordinance was “clunky” because of when it sunsets. Originally, it was set to sunset in October, which he said was far too long. The amendment scaled that back to September, which would put the emergency ordinance into effect for about a month. He also said the original ordinance was too restrictive.

“We’re trying to make it as nimble and responsive as it can be,” he said.

He also applauded those who gave public comments opposing a face mask ordinance because they have a medical condition that prevents them from doing so and admonished those who would ridicule or badger someone who isn’t wearing a mask, likening it to those who have a handicapped placard for their car and park in a handicapped stall then walk into a store.

Councilwoman Aimee Melton said a “no” vote today wouldn’t stop anything, and said she appreciated the efforts to make an emergency mask ordinance more reasonable. She also said she wasn’t going to vote “no” and let the ordinance go through with heavier consequences.

She talked about her concerns about her son wearing a mask at school, but that she wants him back in school, and she has been working .

“If you see somebody not wearing a mask, assume they have a good reason,” she said.

Amending the fee from $100 to $25 means they won’t get court costs tacked on, she said, and it won’t be a misdemeanor, which means it’s not a jailable offense.

“No one’s going to jail for not wearing a mask,” she said.

Melton said she agreed with Gov. Pete Ricketts that mandates don’t work and aren’t needed, but also pointed out that the governor said masks need to be worn and are effective.

“I do wish people would just voluntarily wear the mask,” she said.

The ordinance will also compel Dr. Pour to give the council weekly briefings, Melton said.

Councilman Vinny Palermo questioned why the City Council was making the decision at all, saying it should have been handled by local public health authorities. The Douglas County Board of Health unanimously voted to support a mask mandate and offered full support to Dr. Pour in making that decision, but the mandate was not put in place.

With the full support of a renowned medical community, the board of health and health director should be able to do what’s needed to protect the community’s health, Palermo said, and let the council focus on the city budget rather than implementing a mechanism that should already be in place.

Councilman Gray expressed concern for health-care workers and wanted to make sure they feel supported by the community. People on the front lines “need to know that we care about them,” he said.

“What I’m afraid of, really, is that if we don’t slow the spread... and we have to close again? A couple of our districts are going to be devastated. I’m not going to run the risk of devastating my district,” Gray said.

Councilman Jerram said it was unthinkable to know that science and medical experts compelled him to act in a certain way but that he refused to do so.

“I don’t want to have that on my conscience,” he said. “There’s a public emergency, folks.”

Waiting another “36 days is too long of a gap of failing to do anything,” he said. Needing six votes to move forward means compromise and accepting other people’s ideas, he said.

“If we don’t pass this one today, and we don’t speak as one voice as a council, then our community faces more time without measures that we know will help reduce this risk,” he said.

Comments from the medical community

Omaha City Council hearing, vote on mask ordinance -- Aug. 11, 2020

The first speaker was Dr. Mark Rupp with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, an expert on infectious diseases.

Rupp, who said he was not representing UNMC at the meeting, emphatically supported a mask ordinance.

Rupp shared evidence on the effectiveness of masks being worn to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

A mask requirement at UNMC which began March 28 resulted in a marked decrease of COVID-19 spread, Rupp said.

“Wearing a mask is a visual reminder we are in the midst of a pandemic and special precautions are required,” he said. “Wearing a mask should not be a political statement.”

More doctors who are infectious disease experts from UNMC and Creighton University spoke in support of a mask ordinance, stating if the spread of COVID-19 is kept low, schools and the economy will benefit immensely.

During public comment, a number of those seated in the gallery did not wear masks and could be seen laughing and shaking their heads as doctors and medical officials spoke about encounters with patients dying of coronavirus.

“The only way we can go back to school is if we can keep the students and teachers safe,” one doctor said, who added her siblings are educators.

Next up was Dr. Adi Pour, director of the Douglas County Health Department.

“Why do we need a mask mandate? We have widespread community transmission,” she said. “116 cases per day.”

Pour detailed some of the cities that have less cases per capita than Douglas County included Seattle, Portland, San Fransisco, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, and more.

“That should be a wake-up call for all of us,” she added.

Public comment: proponents

The public hearing began with proponents of the ordinance going first.

Debbie Smith, an audiologist, said her life, because of hearing loss, has been severely impacted by masks.

“People with typical hearing, masks are a minor inconvenience,” she said. “But we are not able to do that. Please, pass the mandate so that clear masks can be worn.”

Andrea Skolkin, the CEO of OneWorld Health Center in Omaha, said she was there to beg for an affirmative vote for a mask ordinance in Omaha.

“Over the last several months, I have seen far too many ambulances and our patients entering area hospitals -- the sickest of the sick,” she said. “We’ve tested thousands and experienced a 25 to 50% positive rate. Right now it’s at 36 percent.”

James Cavanaugh, Douglas County Commissioner, said until a vaccine is made, wearing a mask is one of the most important ways to help prevent the disease.

“I’m reminded of the mayor in “Jaws” who dithered on closing the beaches while sharks were eating people,” Cavanaugh said. “That’s what’s happening here.”

Cavanaugh’s son, Shaemus Cavanaugh, said the only way the second semester of school in Omaha will not be held remotely is through the help of a mask ordinance.

Paul Kruse, a student at Creighton University and member of the men’s soccer team, spoke of a teammate who tested positive and nearly died, and looked at the section of the gallery not wearing masks as he told his story.

“Let’s stop being selfish and care for one another,” he said.

More members of Creighton Athletics also spoke in support of the mask ordinance.

“I ask myself, what would Jesus do?” one track member said. “This is the time to show our brothers and sisters in Christ to we care by wearing a mask.”

Public comment: opponents

After several more proponents, opponents of the ordinance were next to speak. Some opponents were not allowed to speak because they did not fill out the form correctly, one councilmember announced.

David Bagley said the positivity rate, once more than 20%, is now at about 10% and asked why a mask ordinance was not brought forth in April.

He brought a chart detailing Sweden’s experience with the coronavirus and said the country did not have a shutdown or mask mandate.

“We have heard from doctors today and there are experts on both sides. Sweden’s top epidemiologist, Bagley said, reported on Aug. 3 that “we see no point in wearing masks,” and a new Swedish report stated the lack of a shutdown saved their economy without sacrificing lives.

Larry Store spoke against the ordinance “or resolution or whatever the Hell it is. It’s unconstitutional.”

“It doesn’t give you the right as mayor or councilman to pass this resolution. It’s up to Congress or the president,” he said.

Store’s time expired and the microphone was muted as he was escorted out of the room with a Douglas County Sheriff’s deputy behind him.

Julie Harrison said she is horrified to see people riot and loot while city councils give into them, cutting police departments and taking other citizens’ rights away.

“I’m a citizen. I feel like we the people gave the government an inch and they’ve taken a mile,” she said. “I’m done going along, it’s time for people to decide for themselves and their families.”

Bob Anderson said “you can make numbers mean anything.”

Anderson said the fatality rate in Douglas County is a fraction of one percent and the infected population is less than two percent and doesn’t qualify as an emergency.

“There is no emergency,” he said. “Personal responsibility is the key to this resolution, not a mask mandate.”

Barbara First said she likes the idea of a mask resolution but not a mandate.

“I feel we have the right to decide for ourselves. And how will you enforce this mandate? The people hurt most will be children,” she said.

Richard First said he and Barbara are both 75-years-old and were raised by those who were in World War II.

“It used to be, if you walk into a bank with a mask on, they would call the cops. Now it’s going to be if you walk into a bank without a mask, they call the cops,” he said. “You know, the masks can actually increase the rate of infection, too. I respect that you’re wearing your masks but it seems kind of silly.”

“Real leadership would be an invitation to make America great again,” he said, which was printed on his hat. “Come on, let’s get the truth out. If people know the truth we’ll do the right thing.”

Ally French said the council can only implement a mask ordinance for the threat of an epidemic and there is not sufficient proof of such a threat.

“Even if there was, you do not have the power to infringe on inalienable rights,” she said. “We are under a government trying to replicate the threat of an epidemic through mask testing which has already been deemed irrelevant by the CDC.”

French continued that if the ordinance passes, those in opposition of it would take the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court and the council would be subject to a lawsuit.

Gracie Cloyd, 6, said she is a daughter of the king who is not moved by the world no matter how narrow the path may become.

“I am learning to live by convictions and principles. And I am totally against bullying. I want you to know every time I shopping with my mom she prays with me in the car before we enter the store. She asks God for courage, wisdom and protection for me,” she said. “Not from the virus but the people who are mean to us or treat us differently for respectfully choosing to physically distance instead of wearing a mask. Please stop this bullying.”

Gracie’s mother, Tonya Cloyd, addressed Councilmember Ben Gray. She said she was disappointed in him for speaking earlier about alternative methods to combat the coronavirus and then “brought up Black Lives Matter,” which she said she does not support as an organization but “absolutely do value Black lives.”

“We want to empower people with knowledge and immune system support... and not cover their face with a false sense of security and wait for the savior unicorn vaccine especially when 12 of those in the running right now are being made with aborted fetal DNA,” she said.

Another opponent, Gwendolyn Litsen, said the council did not have the authority to make a mask ordinance and the COVID-19 pandemic was not an emergency.

“All research provided online by the council’s agenda failed to show that masks are proven to prevent infection of SARS-CoV,” she said. “Every single one of those studies that was actually a study said there is no direct evidence and two of the sources were erroneous information meant to intimidate citizens.”

Crystal Ellis said the ordinance was all about “big corporations, big pharma and administrators.”

“What is at the top of this is administrators. I hear it parroted that there is no real data. We submitted 50 peer-reviewed studies that say masks can actually be worse,” she said.

Ellis said her son was misdiagnosed three times by local doctors to have Evans syndrome which is a rare autoimmune disease and has since improved since they stopped giving him blood transfusions.

“I don’t know what has happened to all of you,” she said to the council. “Do you know how many viruses you have in your body? Doctors, do you know how many viruses you have in your body?” she asked to the part of the gallery where physicians sat.

“We have 380 trillion viruses right now. We can’t live without them. How do we know COVID didn’t already exist? We’ve already had strains of it inside of us,” she said before her time expired.

More opponents spoke to the council. Their topics ranged from a mask ordinance will cause more domestic disputes and conflict and encouraging vigilantism, that the pandemic was “farcical” or that the ordinance will further burden law enforcement officers.

“When do you come into homes? Where does your reach stop? Are you going to come into my home and tell me I can’t have beer? Or eat bad food?” one man said.

Nicole Williams was told her presentation would be limited to three minutes, and she argued that the sign language interpreter could not translate her words verbatim and thus it was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Just to let you know, ‘sovereign’ means one who is above the rulership and control of another,” she began before a deputy approached her and the council said she was out of order.

“I am not out of order, that doesn’t mean anything. I still have the right to speak. You guys swore the oath to support and defend the con- you do not have any right to touch me!” she said as the deputy began to escort her away from the microphone.

Asked by a deputy if she wanted to go to jail, Williams said she had the right to speak just as the microphone was muted.

As she was escorted out, she announced that “every single one of you is on notice because you are violating our unalienable rights.”

Courtney DeMarie of Carter Lake, Iowa, said she served the country for eight years including a deployment to Iraq. She began to cry as she recalled the events of 9/11.

“I knew I wanted to protect our country from any threats that may arise and maintain our freedoms. I’m here today because you are trying to take certain freedoms away. The freedom to breathe fresh air, for our bodies to have enough oxygen and to walk comfortably in our own skin while out in public,” she said.

She said she has seen people receive death threats for not wearing a mask while she has asthma and has been told to “just wear the mask.”

Just as Tuesday’s meeting began, confirmation came that the Big Ten Conference, which includes the Nebraska Cornhuskers, announced it would be canceling the fall season.

Watch the full video of the meeting

Omaha City Council hearing, vote on mask ordinance -- Aug. 11, 2020
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