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AG says state will drop lawsuit against Omaha, health director on mask mandate ordinance

By: - April 6, 2022 8:59 am
Masks in a shop window

(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add the mayor’s comments after signing the revised ordinance.

OMAHA — Omaha is adding a new layer of elected oversight to the final decision on any future mask mandates, which is enough to get the State of Nebraska to drop its lawsuit against the city and its health director.

The Omaha City Council passed an ordinance Tuesday giving the mayor and council veto power over emergency health rules ordered by the city’s health director during a pandemic. Mayor Jean Stothert said Wednesday she had signed the ordinance.

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson announced Wednesday that, once the ordinance was signed, the state would drop its lawsuit challenging the city’s former ordinance, which let the health director act alone.

The attorney general brought the lawsuit after Lindsay Huse, health director for the City of Omaha as well as Douglas County, enacted a COVID-19-related mask mandate in the city Jan. 12. She ended the mandate in mid-February. 

Huse has said the mandate was necessary to slow a surge in hospitalizations at the time, which she said threatened to overwhelm medical providers in the city. 

“I’m grateful for the City Council’s time and openness to discussing how best to balance our collective needs going forward,” Huse said in a statement Wednesday. “I would have liked to see more of public health’s suggestions for the ordinance incorporated, but no matter what, we are here to protect the public’s health and we remain steadfast to that commitment. I look forward to working with the Mayor and City Council in the future.”

Stothert, a Republican, and City Council member Vinny Palermo, a Democrat, argued that elected officials accountable to the people should get to weigh in on such actions. 

Peterson, in a statement Wednesday, said the changes made by the Omaha City Council appear to address the state’s concerns about the legality of Omaha’s approach.

“A key concern of the Office of the Attorney General has been that the prior structure created by the City of Omaha for emergency infectious disease management improperly placed exclusive authority in one person, the County Health Director,” he wrote. “This structure was lacking both accountability to the citizens and compliance with Nebraska statutes.”

Stothert said she was pleased Peterson was dismissing the lawsuit. “I proposed these changes so the city’s elected officials are ultimately accountable for decisions that impact every citizen, not because of pending legal action by the State of Nebraska,” Stothert said in a statement.

“Our revised ordinance creates a better process to address public health emergencies,” she said. “We will always support local control and take actions that preserve the City’s right to protect the health, safety and welfare of our citizens.”

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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