The Grand Island City Council on Tuesday approved a citywide COVID-19 prevention ordinance.
The new ordinance requires people to wear masks when indoors at premises open to the general public within city limits.
People who do not wear masks risk a $25 fine plus court costs, a total of $74.
Businesses that allow people to not wear masks risk being charged as a public nuisance.
Exemptions to the rule include:
— Children under age 5.
— People are also not required to wear masks while seated at a bar or restaurant when they are immediately having food or drink.
— People communicating with other people who are deaf or hard of hearing, or who have a disability or medical condition that makes communication while wearing a face covering difficult are also exempt, as long as 6 feet distance or more is maintained.
The ordinance will expire on Feb. 23, 2021,unless extended by the City Council.
The new rule was met with support and criticism from Grand Island residents.
Lisa Albers, a Grand Island Public Schools board member, supported the mask mandate, as it would help protect school students and staff members.
“The students and parents want to stay in school. Teachers want to stay in school,” she said. “Students have immediate access to food while they are in school. They have immediate access to assistance with their academic work while in school.
“Students have access to some social and emotional support while they are in school.”
She added, “A mask mandate would help ensure students can stay in school.”
Ron Depue, a Grand Island resident, supported the ordinance, saying, through tears, the council’s decision was an important one.
“I have no medical or scientific expertise. I’ve just been around a long time and I’m smart enough to listen to smart people,” Depue said. “Every single one of our health professionals here in town has said we need a mask mandate. They have pled for a mask mandate!”
Adam Condon, a Grand Island resident, spoke against the ordinance, saying other freedoms would be restricted next.
“Masks are not effective,” Condon said. “Why don’t we recommend people take zinc, which is a strong antiviral? Or vitamin C, which helps the immune system, or vitamin D? If people still develop it, give them hydroxychloroquine. We can do that instead of pushing masks and this tyranny you’re bringing down on us.”
Matt Sibley also spoke against the ordinance, challenging the evidence presented by Grand Island medical experts at Tuesday’s meeting.
“The evidence ought to be overwhelming if you are going to infringe on the liberties of citizens to the point where you can’t even go out and show your face,” Sibley said. “What evidence do you show as justification for this infringement? It ought to be overwhelming.”
The experts speak
Grand Island police Chief Robert Falldorf said Tuesday that COVID-19 absences have compounded staffing issues at GIPD.
“Toward the beginning of the year the Police Department, in our patrol division, we were down anywhere from eight to 10 officers,” Falldorf said. “When you look at COVID absences on top of that, it creates a lot of problems for us. We really thrive when we’re more of a proactive department. The majority of this year, we’ve really been a reactive department.”
Dr. Rebecca Steinke, who serves on the Grand Island Board of Health, said the city’s medical facilities could be overwhelmed by Christmas.
“The numbers of COVID tests that came back positive in the last week confirm we’re already on that trajectory,” Steinke said. “It will be almost impossible to safely contain and properly care for that surge of patients, even with plans to double up rooms or use beds that are not meant for sick people. If things do not change soon, rationing of care will become a reality.”
She added, “Masking slows the spread of COVID and that is the goal.”
Mayor Roger Steele said Grand Island businesses cannot withstand another shutdown.
“If (Gov. Pete Ricketts) shuts down businesses, it reduces commerce. It destroys jobs. And it destroys people’s hope for a better future,” he said. “Failing to pass this ordinance means we put at risk our schools, our hospitals, our medical providers, our businesses, and our jobs.”
Council Member Chuck Haase said the 90-day ordinance is not an attack on rights.
“I want our schools to stay open,” he said. “I do not want the problems to tank our economy with a government shutdown. I want us to sustain our essential workers. I want to avoid rationing care in our hospitals.”
He added, “If we don’t agree with you on a solution, it doesn’t mean we don’t care.”
Council Members Justin Scott and Jeremy Jones voted against the ordinance, both saying a mandate is an overreach that unfairly imposes on the community.
Grand Island Board of Health
The recommendation for a mask mandate had been approved earlier in the day by the Grand Island Board of Health.
The board agreed a mask mandate was needed in response to rising cases of COVID-19 in the Grand Island area.
Teresa Anderson, Central District Health Department director, said at Tuesday’s meeting that masks effectively protect people from COVID-19.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic. The surge we’re just encountering right now is a very large surge and a very prolonged surge,” Anderson said. “We’re at a point right now where if we don’t take action right now, our experts at the University of Nebraska Med Center tell us we will see a very sharp and continued increase.”