Image of the coronavirus.
Gov. Pete Ricketts continues monitoring the state's COVID-19 rates. Pictured is an image of the coronavirus.

The mask mandate debate continues this spring as the first Nebraskans receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

Unlike the governors of states such as California and Colorado, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts hasn’t issued a statewide mask requirement, instead opting to leave the decision to individual communities. 

“The best way to encourage use of masks is to ask people to do the right thing,” Ricketts said during a July 14 news conference.

Omaha’s mandate began Aug. 11, 2020, and is scheduled to continue through May 25 of this year. City leaders in Scottsbluff have opted not to implement a mandate. 

While Omaha’s population of 475,862 dwarfs Scottsbluff’s 14,737, some residents of the western Nebraska community have been advocating for a mask mandate, as the Star Herald reported.

Beatrice, an even smaller community of 12,300, passed a mandate from mid-November to Jan. 15. Beatrice City Councilman Bob Morgan said the city passed the mandate due to the rapid spread of the virus in November.

“We knew we had to do something because our hospitalization rates were increasing,” he said. “When we put it in place, it was basically a tool we could put in place to control — hopefully — the spread of COVID-19.”

Morgan said the mandate was effective, and even after the mandate expired, the city continues encouraging people to wear masks.

“We saw a decrease in the number of COVID cases from a positive perspective,” he said. “And over the last two months, our hospitalization occupancy rate has gone down.”

To date, Gage County has a total of 2,052 cases, while Scotts Bluff County has recorded 4,405. Both cities are the largest in their respective counties. Morgan said there is controversy on whether masks were effective or not, and when Beatrice passed its mandate, some residents were resistant.

“There were a few pockets of opposition,” he said. “The majority of the community was very supportive.”

Fairbury, population 3,686, passed a mask mandate Nov. 19 but voted to end it when it expired on Dec. 15. Mayor Spencer Brown said the city voted not to renew the mandate and continue with a recommendation to wear masks because of the public’s opposition to the mandate. 

“There’s been pushback on the mandate, just because it is a mandate, not necessarily because they don’t want their patrons to be wearing masks or coming in with masks, but just because they’re upset that the government is trying to tell them what to do,” Brown said at the Dec. 15 meeting.

After the mandate ended, cases in Fairbury actually decreased. According to The New York Times, the 14-day average number of new cases was 10 on Dec. 15, and that number dropped to two by Jan. 1. By Feb. 3, the 14-day average of new cases landed at one, where it has remained since. 

However, this trend follows Nebraska as a whole. On Dec. 15, Nebraska’s seven-day average of new cases was 1,225. On Jan. 1, the seven-day average of new cases was 944. As of Feb. 15, that average is at 401. 

Kearney’s mask mandate is set to expire at 11:59 p.m. on Feb. 23, per a council vote on Nov. 17. On Feb. 9, the Kearney City Council voted 5-0 to retain the law until its original expiration date of Feb. 23. 

The city council is weighing the decision to keep the mandate in place past Feb. 23. According to The New York Times, Buffalo County — which Kearney is a part of — is at an extremely high-risk level. However, the county’s average daily cases per 100,000 was 129 on Nov. 23, while on Feb. 15 the average dropped to 24 per 100,000. 

As Nebraska’s vaccine rollout is only the 33rd quickest in the nation, masks are likely to be at least encouraged for the near future.