WAHOO – The City of Wahoo joined several other cities in Nebraska to enact a mask mandate in an attempt to halt the spread of COVID-19.
On Nov. 24, the Wahoo City Council approved the first reading of an ordinance to reaffirm the City of Wahoo Board of Health’s action to require masks, which was done the day before. The mandate did not become effective until after action at the council’s Tuesday night meeting.
Order 2020-03 requires everyone over the age of 5 to wear face coverings in any premises that is open to the public. The order defines this as public or private entities that employ or engage workers and any place that is generally open to the public, like schools or daycare facilities.
The city council has the authority to reaffirm or void any order drawn up by the board of health.
The decision was made with not just the health of the community in mind, according to City Attorney Jovan Lausterer.
“This is clearly a health issue, but it also morphs into an economic issue, a political issue, all of the like,” he said.
Saunders Medical Center’s Dr. Hank Newburn, a member of the board of health, said the virus is spread through respiratory droplets, which can be impeded by masks.
“The medical literature is clear that wearing masks…is much more effective than not wearing masks,” he said.
Terra Uhing, executive director of Three Rivers Public Health Department, attended the meeting via Zoom to voice her support for the mandate. She said wearing masks is proven to work in Saunders County schools, which is part of the three-counties covered by Three Rivers.
“Universal masking has been effective in our schools and that’s what’s allowed us to keep kids in our schools,” Uhing said.
At the same time, positive cases are increasing in the area.
“In the last three weeks, we have seen just a huge uptick in the number of cases,” Uhing said.
Mayor Jerry Johnson, who attended the meeting via Zoom, said cities are stepping in because Gov. Pete Ricketts refuses to pass a state mask mandate.
“That’s why cities are coming forward and doing this,” he said.
Theresa Klein, executive director of the Wahoo Chamber of Commerce and Greater Wahoo Development Fund, said local business owners are in favor of the mask mandate.
“The responses I got were similar to, ‘Thank God, it’s about time,’ and ‘at last,’” she said via Zoom.
Eight of the nine Chamber board members that responded were excited to see the mandate passed.
“I think it’s a great move for Wahoo and its leadership,” she said.
Police Chief Bruce Ferrell, who serves as the secretary of the board of health, said he supports the mandate because they have seen an increase in calls involving people who may have had COVID-19.
The city council’s reaction was more mixed. An ordinance was introduced to reaffirm the mandate by Council Member Mike Lawver, who said that if the council had mandated mask wearing back in April or May, the city wouldn’t be in this situation now.
“This is one of those things that I feel is right for the community,” he said.
Council President Stuart Krejci, who ran the meeting in place of Johnson, seconded the motion.
“I think of this as a way to keep our hospitalizations down and not let this climb into a different category, and for that I second the motion,” he said.
But Council Member Karen Boop had reservations.
“I personally don’t believe in masks even though I had COVID,” she said.
Uhing agreed that social distancing, hand washing and limiting gatherings are also necessary to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
“Masking has worked, but it’s not just masking alone,” she said.
When the council voted to waive the required three readings of the ordinance, the council’s split was evident. Lawver, Krejci and Carl Warford voted in favor of waiving the readings, while Boop, Patrick Nagle and Greg Kavan voted against. The tie vote killed the motion.
The council then voted on the first reading. It was another tie, with the same council members in favor and against. In this case, Johnson was able to break the tie. He voted yes and the first reading passed. The council will vote on the ordinance again at a future meeting to make it final.
Even though the council has not passed the third and final reading of the ordinance, the mandate was still put into effect immediately after the meeting, according to the city attorney.
“It will go into effect regardless of what the council did today,” he said.
Ferrell discussed enforcement with the council. He said the plan is to spend the first week or so educating the public, rather than issuing citations. Violation of the mask mandate is a Class III misdemeanor, and a person can be fined for each day they do not comply.
Other charges could apply as well, Ferrell said, including trespassing if a business asks a person who is not wearing a mask to leave and they do not comply.
The mandate will be in place until Jan. 4, 2021, but can be extended further if necessary, Lausterer told the council. The board of health chose this date in order to get through the holiday season, he added.
There are exceptions to the mask mandate, as written in the board of health’s order. This includes courts of law; medical providers; city/county/state/federal facilities; individuals who are alone in a room, vehicle or enclosed work area; a person who is offering a religious service; individuals exercising in a gym or fitness center or playing team sports where the level of exertion makes wearing a mask difficult; musicians playing instruments that cannot be played with a mask on and public safety workers actively engaging in a public safety role.