Editors note: An earlier version of this story stated the Nebraska Attorney General's Office did not respond to a request for comment. The Nebraska Attorney General's Office did respond to a request for comment. The Telegram regrets the error.
Columbus residents will have limited access to City Hall due to the large number of staff members who have COVID-19 or are quarantining because of a potential exposure, City Administrator Tara Vasicek said.
Vasicek, who was reached while she was working from home Monday, is also quarantining just as a precaution. A news release said that visitors must call the phone number posted on the door of City Hall, 2424 14th St., and be pre-screened.
"We’re just trying to be as cautious as we can,” Vasicek said. “We have to have at least a minimum number of staff to be able to maintain our operations so … we’re just taking our precautions we can take.”
The move is until further notice. Vasicek noted there is no spread within City Hall because staff wear masks and take other precautions.
Mayor Jim Bulkley on Monday said at this point, everyone in Columbus knows someone who has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Bulkley called for Gov. Pete Ricketts to institute a mask mandate, something Ricketts has reiterated he will not do.
Bulkley said the City is unable to pass a mask mandate due to a state statute, but if he was able to, he would propose one.
“Part of my frustration is our hands are tied because the way the law is written, Columbus cannot institute a mask mandate. It has to come from the governor,” Bulkley said. “The governor has taken a very solid stand on not mandating masks… I think we’re past that stage.”
We need to recognize the spike in cases, he said.
“I wish our retailers would be a little firmer in their belief of trying to get customers to wear (masks). I think most of our retailers suggest you wear (masks),” Bulkley added. “We’re only kidding ourselves to think this thing’s going to go away on its own, without help from all of us.”
Large cities like Omaha and Lincoln have mask mandates. The Omaha City Council passed an emergency ordinance. A memo from the assistant city attorney said the ordinance “amends the Omaha Municipal Code by creating Article III”, which was called “Prevention of COVID-19.”
Omaha is in Douglas County and Douglas County Health Director Adi Pour backed down from a county-wide mandate due to what the Lincoln Journal Star said was “an anticipated legal challenge from (Ricketts) and the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office.”
The chairman of the Legislature's Urban Affairs Committee recently said cities with a population of 5,000 up to 100,000 residents could enact mask mandates under specific state laws.
Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, in a news release, cited a statute that allows cities of the first class such as Ralston, Bellevue, Grand Island and Kearney to "make regulations to prevent the introduction and spread of contagious, infectious, or malignant diseases into the city."
The statute, according to the Lincoln Journal Star, also allows for those cities to create a health board to enact rules and regulations, with the force of law, to safeguard people's health, and also to prevent nuisances and unsanitary conditions.
The Urban Affairs Committee, which Wayne chairs, has jurisdiction over most statutes governing cities and villages in Nebraska. Wayne is also an attorney, according to the Journal Star.
Bulkley said the City would explore its options, though what Wayne said and if and how it could impact Columbus was not discussed or brought up during any point of the interview.
“I wish we would all step up and accept the fact that it’s here and there are some things we can do,” Bulkley said. “My personal opinion … is we allowed as a country, we allowed this to become a political issue, instead of leaving this as a scientist/medical issue, in the beginning, and the politics have clouded people’s thoughts.”
Earlier this year, Bulkley asked the City Council to wear masks to meetings.
“The fact is if something helps, even a little bit, why are we not all chipping in to do our darnedest to help with it?” Bulkley added. “That is my frustration.”
Bulkley said the problem he has with the mask mandate is the enforcement, even though he wants to see a mask mandate happen.
“We need the people just to step up and do it,” he said.
For now, City Hall will have limited access. A news release said the public has multiple options for paying water bills, including paying online, by phone, by mail, by Bank Bill Pay, by Auto Bank Pay or by two City Hall drop boxes.
Other government buildings will continue their measures, said Vasicek.
Water and sewer operations will be on an emergency basis, she said, and the police department is taking action to limit unnecessary contact.
On Nov. 9, the Columbus Police Department said on Facebook its lobby is open during normal business hours but they will attempt to “minimize contact if at all possible.”
The Platte County Sheriff’s Office said on Facebook on Nov. 8 that its front desk is open by appointment only until further notice.
“We are short-staffed due to COVID,” read the post.
The Columbus Fire Department has been locked down the whole time, Vasicek noted.
“Hopefully in a couple of weeks we will be in a little better place,” Vasicek said. “Things change day to day.”
Carolyn Komatsoulis is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach her via email at email@example.com.
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