When members of the Hastings City Council meet on Nov. 23, they will act on an ordinance requiring masks indoors when maintaining 6 feet of separation isn’t possible.
Council members discussed the proposed ordinance during their work session on Monday, emphasizing it isn’t a political matter.
The ordinance draft presented at the work session states everyone 5 and older will be required to wear a face covering their mouth and nose while indoors in premises open to the general public.
Among exemptions is anyone: seated at a bar or restaurant while eating or drinking; engaged in an occupation preventing the wearing of a face covering; obtaining a service or purchasing goods or services that requires the temporary removal of a face covering; removing a face covering to verify an identity; providing a speech to an audience as long as the audience is at least 6 feet away; or having medical conditions preventing the wearing of masks.
Individuals who are alone in an office, officiating at a religious service, exercising in an indoor facility where the level of exertion makes it difficult to wear a mask, or communicating with other individuals who have a disability making communication difficult also are among those exempted.
Mayor Corey Stutte discussed a sheet of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) statistics from the South Heartland District Health Department updated as of Monday. He said the “most disturbing” number was that 76% of hospital inpatients within the district are COVID-19 positive.
“I was a little bit shocked when we learned that number,” he said.
Throughout the pandemic local officials have asked the public to wear masks, social distance and practice good hygiene.
“It just hasn’t flattened the curve. We’re seeing some people who aren’t maybe complying on their own,” Stutte said.
He spoke with officials from the cities of Kearney and Grand Island, both of which are looking to also enact mask policies.
Stutte spoke with South Heartland Executive Director Michele Bever about what a mask policy may look like.
He said it’s important when looking at a directed health measure to have a regional plan.
He had a conference call earlier in the day Monday with mayors from the other Tri-Cities as well as health district officials.
“We decided we really should be consistent across the Tri-Cities, if possible,” Stutte said.
There are a lot of people commuting between the three communities.
The policy would go through the city’s Board of Health. Stutte said the city should receive an official recommendation on Tuesday.
“This isn’t just about the virus,” he said. “Really what we’re talking about is trying to make sure we keep the hospital capacity where it needs to be.”
He said it is important to keep first responders safe.
“What we’re focused on is making sure there is enough capacity here to serve the people that are sick, especially as we head into flu season,” he said.
The city doesn’t have plans to shut down businesses.
“We’re not shutting anything down, just to be clear,” Stutte said. “What we’re talking about is wearing masks, which is an extension of the current DHMs that require masks in other places already.”
City Administrator Dave Ptak said the city currently has 30 employees who either tested positive or were home quarantining.
“We’ve had more employees in quarantine or test positive last week than we did in the eight previous months,” he said. “So the uptick is real, and it’s getting close to home.”
Because this involves an infectious disease, the ordinance may take effect immediately after it is approved, according to Nebraska statute, instead of the typical 15 days after passing an ordinance.
The ordinance has a sunset date of 11:59 p.m. Feb. 23, 2021, which is 90 days after the council meeting. That duration is consistent with Grand Island and Kearney.
“It can be extended, or if things were to change it may be rescinded, certainly, before the 90 days,” Ptak said.
Councilman Scott Snell said enacting a mask policy isn’t about politics.
“I don’t want the general public to misconstrue this in any way as this being a political thing,” he said. “There are no politics involved. This is something we’re all in together. I know some people are going to read this in the newspaper and think this is some kind of political deal. It is not. It is a deal that will help us all get closer to a conclusion.”
Councilman Paul Hamelink said he expects pushback from the public.
“Not everybody will be happy about this,” he said. “Not everybody thinks there is a pandemic. On my block where I live there were signs a week ago about a ‘fake pandemic.’ Perhaps they needed to visit some of the fake patients in the hospital and see some of the fake graves in our cemetery. Nonetheless there are people who have issue with what is happening, so there will be pushback on this.”
Ptak said the city’s emphasis with the policy will be on education rather than enforcement.
“Our goal will be to not write tickets,” he said. “Our goal will be to educate and seek voluntary compliance.”
Hamelink said for many people in Hastings the mask policy won’t be a big change.
Walking through downtown to the City Building for Monday’s work session, Hamelink said he looked inside businesses.
“Almost 100% of the people were already wearing masks,” he said. “For a large portion of our community, this policy is already in effect. More and more people are already on board.”
Also during the work session, the council heard annual reports for Heartland Pet Connection, Hastings Public Library and Hastings Museum.