When members of the Hastings City Council meet on Monday, they will act on a policy that would require that masks continue to be worn until the 14-day daily rolling average for the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, is two or fewer new cases per day for the city.
That was the metric council members generally agreed on for wording to be placed on Monday’s agenda after more than an hour of discussion on the topic during their work session on Thursday.
Masks would not be required as long as the case-per-day number for the city stays at two or lower.
The 14-day timeframe was an adaptation of a recommendation from the South Heartland District Health Department.
Health Department Executive Director Michele Bever was present at the work session. James Lawler, director of the International Programs and Innovation for the Global Center for Health Security at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, participated in the discussion remotely.
Another recommendation the health department made was that the mask policy be kept in place until 70% of the population is vaccinated.
Council members thought that benchmark would be too far off to accomplish and the same people who oppose the mask requirement would be likely to oppose getting the vaccine.
Lawler said it is likely enough vaccinations would be available for the entire population by this summer.
Two or fewer cases per day equals eight cases per 100,000. On Wednesday that 14-day daily rolling average per 100,000 was 12.3 new cases for Adams County and 15.2 for all four counties of the South Heartland District Health District — Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls.
Adams County was below four new cases per 100,000 at the end of July, but by mid-November was averaging about 112 new cases per 100,000.
Thursday’s discussion came after council members voted 8-0 on Nov. 23, 2020, to approve Emergency Ordinance No. 4650, which authorized the city’s mask policy. It went into effect three days later.
The ordinance is set to expire on Feb. 23.
According to the ordinance, everyone 5 years of age and older is required to wear a face covering over their mouth and nose while indoors in premises open to the general public. There are some exceptions to that policy.
“Generally, if you can’t maintain the 6-foot social distancing a mask should be worn,” City Administrator Dave Ptak said. “It doesn’t mandate everybody has to wear a mask.”
For instance, he said, at the City Building employees don’t wear masks if they are working alone in their own offices.
“It’s just common sense is what we’re asking,” he said. “We’re not trying to create a Gestapo state.”
Violating the ordinance is a misdemeanor with an initial penalty of a $25 fine. Each violation may be considered a separate offense.
Police Chief Adam Story told council members on Nov. 23 it is his department’s philosophy to emphasize education or warnings rather than issue citations.
Story said during the work session his officers have written zero tickets to individuals not wearing masks.
Councilman Butch Eley, who will be absent during Monday’s meeting, stated he was against extending the mask policy.
In fact, he favored not putting the issue on Monday’s agenda and simply letting the policy expire.
“I think we’ve done a good job with what we’ve done,” he said. “I would rather see us requesting community support for masking. Not mandating, but asking for that; saying, ‘Hey, we’re past these (high) numbers we really ought to be wearing a mask.’ I think it’s getting time that we ought to let the community decide what we are going to do.”
Councilwoman Joy Huffaker said most feedback she has received has been against continuing the mask policy.
“So if compliance is already an issue now and we keep extending it and extending it people are just going to get mad and be like ‘I’m done,’ ” she said. “I’m hearing a lot of that in the community — that they’re tired of being told what to do. They want the ability to make their own decisions.”
Eley said about 75% of the feedback he has received has been for getting rid of the policy and 25% wanting to continue it.
Council members Shawn Hartmann and Ginny Skutnik each said the feedback they have received has been the opposite of the ratio Eley mentioned.
“I’ve heard from businesses that thanked us because it takes the monkey off of their back so they don’t have to be the bad guy,” Skutnik said.
Councilman Chuck Rosenberg said at his business, City Iron and Metal, customers always blame the business for unpopular policies even when it involves regulations handed down from government entities.
The Hastings City Council’s action on Monday comes after the Grand Island and Kearney councils voted to end the mask policies in those cities.
Hartmann said that could be a benefit for Hastings.
“I know Grand Island and Kearney have already visited this, and I don’t want to say we should follow anything about what they are doing, but I think it stands to reason we should pay attention to what they did,” he said. “There were people who wanted to extend it, and that got put down, too. So if you’re a business owner in Hastings and we extend it, will those customers come to Hastings because we have a mandate in place? Everybody automatically assumes ‘mandate and the people run away.’ What about the people it will possibly bring in? I don’t know if it is a cancel-out situation. Everybody is obviously getting a little different feedback.”
Also during the work session, council members:
- Received an update from Utility Manager Kevin Johnson about the electrical outages earlier this week, which included two areas of the city for 30-60 minutes.
- Received a presentation on the final report for the city’s housing study.
- Discussed establishing a date for the council retreat.
- Discussed a personnel issue in executive session.