The Nebraska Legislature heard several COVID-related bills introduced by senators this session. With committee hearings wrapping up the second week in March, some bills will soon be debated on the floor of the Legislature. Read more to get the run-down on COVID bills ranging from expanding public meetings to opting out of mandatory vaccinations and more.
LB637: Increase in local public health department authority
On Feb. 19, Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha discussed his bill to increase authority of local public health departments regarding “contagious and infectious diseases.” This bill would also give them the ability to issue directed health measures for their communities, like a mask mandate.
Gov. Pete Ricketts opposes a statewide mask mandate, leaving it up to city councils or local public health departments. City councils can create mask mandates through ordinances, but local public health departments currently need approval from the state. The bill would allow them to issue directed health measures without state permission.
“I think the public health experts should be making these decisions, not politicians,” Vargas said.
Read more about why Nebraskans supported or opposed the bill. As of March 7, the Health and Human Services Committee has taken no action on the bill.
LB83: Expansion of virtual public meetings
With a decrease of in-person meetings, Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk discussed his bill on Jan. 27 to revise the Open Meetings Act to expand public meetings through virtual conferencing. The bill aims to modernize public meetings and authorize more instances when public bodies can use virtual conferencing for meetings, including declared emergencies.
“This is a classic good government bill to increase transparency and accessibility to stakeholders and citizens to participate in government,” said supporter Danielle Conrad, executive director of ACLU of Nebraska.
The bill was voted out of the Government, Military and Veteran Affairs Committee on Feb. 16 and will advance to the first round of floor debates.
LB643: Opting out of mandatory vaccines issued during a state of emergency
Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair said LB643 is not “against vaccines or the COVID vaccine.” He said his bill is proactive and protects peoples’ right to decline a mandatory vaccination directive if it’s issued by the state, during a state of emergency declared by the governor. The bill also provides no penalty, implication or punishment from the state for declining a mandatory vaccination.
Forty-three proponents came from across the state to support this legislation in the Health and Human Services Committee on Feb. 4.
“People should have the right to accept or decline a mandatory vaccination directive,” Hansen said. “This is a proactive bill…to give people something to use to defend their individual liberties and rights.”
As of March 7, the committee has taken no action on the bill.
LB295: Permanently allow to-go alcohol sales
On Feb. 8, Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln introduced a bill to the General Affairs Committee to expand to-go liquor sales. During COVID, Nebraska bars and restaurants were temporarily authorized to sell alcohol off-site. The bill expands this measure by changing the current law, which prohibits the sale of alcohol in the original container to people in motor vehicles.
In a Unicameral Update article, Geist said her intent for the bill is to help businesses recover from the pandemic and stay open.
The bill was voted out of the General Affairs Committee on March 4 and will advance to the first round of floor debates.
LB139: COVID lawsuit limitations
On Feb. 18, Sen. Tom Briese of Albion introduced his bill to the Judiciary Committee to provide liability protections for citizens and organizations against potential COVID lawsuits. The bill says a civil action about COVID hospitalizations or deaths must prove with clear and convincing evidence that it was caused by “gross negligence or willful misconduct.” It requires a lawsuit to be brought within two years. The bill also has an expiration date of whichever comes first: December 31, 2022, or one year after the COVID state of emergency ends.
Briese said in a Unicameral Update article that his bill is an important piece of the state’s recovery after the pandemic.
As of March 7, the Judiciary Committee has taken no action on the bill.
LB241: Health and safety protections for meatpacking employees
On March 1, Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha discussed his bill to increase COVID protections of meatpacking plant employees through December 31, 2021. His bill requires employers to offer personal protective equipment (PPE), enforce social distancing and provide paid sick leave for employees who test positive. The bill would also ensure employers track COVID positive cases and deaths and report them to the Department of Health and Human Services.
During the Business and Labor Committee hearing, Vargas said the amount of COVID hospitalizations and deaths in meatpacking plants this year requires action.
As of March 7, the committee had taken no action on the bill.