In most Lincoln grocery stores in early December 2021, I typically found around one-third of people not wearing masks. In suburban Kansas City and Indianapolis, where I happened to spend most of my winter break, the grocery store masking numbers were similar, with most people wearing some type of cloth mask.
However, of these places, only Lincoln had a mask mandate in effect at some point during fall 2021. In fact, Lincoln was the only place in Nebraska able to enact such a mandate, thanks to the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department’s unique ability to issue mandates independent of the state.
I haven’t been a fan of Lincoln’s mask mandates throughout the last year, though I also haven’t found them to be particularly problematic. Instead, I’ve found vaccine mandates and in-person school cancellations to be the more concerning aspects of the COVID-19 response.
Yet the timing of the mask mandate’s expiration came as a complete surprise to me. If the mandates were effective in any way, it seemed as though this would have been the most important time to have them in place.
The city’s health department cited high vaccination rates as a reason the mandate was allowed to expire, but Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department director Pat Lopez recommended that Lincolnites continue to wear masks when in close contact with others indoors.
Predictably, cases began to sharply increase after the mandate was lifted, though it would be foolish to blame the rise entirely on the lack of a mandate, given that a similar trend occurred in nearly every city across the country, regardless of mask mandate.
And then, as the omicron wave was about to reach its peak, Lincoln brought back the mask mandate, only three weeks after it was allowed to expire. Of note, sessions of the Nebraska Legislature are exempt from this mandate.
Based on national trends, which show COVID-19 cases starting to decline from their peak, it’s probable that Lincoln’s cases will rapidly decrease in the coming weeks, but again, to credit the mandate would be foolish, given that Omaha and other cities without mandates will likely experience similar numbers.
Besides, if this mandate’s enforcement is similar to the ones before it, there may not be a significant difference in mask wearing between Lincoln and other similar cities without any mandates. In fact, most students I’ve talked to at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln had no idea of the mask mandate’s extension and subsequent reinstatement in the city.
Another major issue with Lincoln’s mask mandate is that it doesn’t make any distinction between cloth and N95 masks, despite the fact that health experts have made it clear that cloth masks do not work, especially against the omicron variant.
If that is the case, then either a mandate which requires high quality masks should be enforced, or nothing should be required at all.
Throughout the pandemic, the public has adopted a plethora of new terms into our everyday vocabulary: social distancing, quarantine, booster, epidemiology, etc. And yet, most of the public is woefully unaware of the different kinds of masks and their effectiveness.
Even as someone who has followed the pandemic more closely than the average layperson, I still admit to having lacked knowledge about the difference between an N95 and KN95 mask until researching this article. Both filter 95% of 0.3 micron particles in the air, hence the 95 in the name, but the N95 mask meets the standards for the United States mask regulating body, while the KN95 is made to meet Chinese mask standards.
For as much clamoring as there has been from medical experts on the importance of reinstating mask mandates and conservative commentators against the wholesale tyranny of a sign on a business door stating that face coverings are required, media coverage of mandates tends to erroneously conflate the existence of a mask mandate with the compliance and enforcement of such a mandate. However, not all mandates are created equal.
Based on classes I have attended at UNL, a much higher percentage of students comply with the university's mask mandate than the city’s, though this may be a consequence of professors having more authority over their students than a Walmart greeter has over customers.
And the actual effectiveness of the mandates has been lost underneath all of the noise.
In this case, the weak mandates in Lincoln have done just enough to produce all the negative ire against government overreach while seemingly failing to make a difference in the pandemic.
Brian Beach is a junior journalism major. Reach him at email@example.com.