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actual science COVID-19 Nebraska Politics

Is Lincoln more afraid of Ricketts than an overflowing morgue?

Today, Lincoln’s Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird announced that as of May 11, the city’s directed health measures will be in line with the state’s. That means restaurants will be allowed to re-open their dining rooms (at half capacity), and other services involving close, extended physical contact (ideal conditions for viral spread) will be allowed to reopen with some protective measures in place. The announcement came as a surprise to Lincolnites who had hoped the city would stand up to the governor and hold the line on stronger protections.

Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird at the May 7 press conference.

The Seeing Red Editorial Board would like the mayor to clarify, in a forthright way, why she loosened these restrictions at the moment that cases are surging in our county, and after Lincoln’s kids have borne the heavy weight of social distancing for months. The mayor herself acknowledged that none of the benchmarks that public health experts look for have been met in Lincoln. It appears that the mayor has chosen to loosen restrictions against her own better judgment because she is worried about a protracted and expensive legal battle with the Ricketts administration over who calls the shots in the state’s capital city. If it is the case that Lincoln is being bullied by the governor into reopening, knowing that it will mean significant loss of life, we demand that the mayor say so clearly and loudly.

In her press conference today, Gaylor Baird said, “Confusion about what’s allowed by one level of government or the other is not helpful to anyone,” so “rather than create confusion between the state and the county or engage in a legal battle, we will also issue a local DHM [directed health measure] that aligns with the state.” This leaves us uncertain about what the driving force is behind the relaxation. Is it a worry that Lincoln residents will be confused? Or is it a worry that Ricketts will take us to court? We certainly hope confusion between state and local directives is not the reason, as confusion is a far lower price to pay than mass death and can be solved with effective messaging. And if legal pressure from the governor is the worry, we would hope the mayor would lay that responsibility where it belongs, at Ricketts’s feet, and would be clear and forthcoming about why the city is so keen to avoid a lawsuit in which it represents public health and the governor represents corporate wealth.

Here’s why we want answers. The people of Lincoln have paid a hefty price for locking down in many ways over the last two months. Specifically, the children of Lincoln have been deprived of learning, milestone events, and the socializing that is crucial to mental health. They paid this price when infection rates were low–even just a few weeks ago, Nebraska was 41st in the nation for infection rates. But things have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Johns Hopkins University has just identified Nebraska as the second most rapidly escalating virus hotspot in the country and the New York Times has identified Lincoln as one of the top emerging hot spots, at the exact time that we are reopening restaurants, salons, and tattoo parlors.

So why is this the moment we become worried about “confusion” over the difference between local and state measures? Or about a protracted legal battle? We made Lincoln’s kids, their parents, and workers pay a price when there was just as much possible “confusion” and the risk was far lower. We have heard the mayor and members of her administration promise to follow the science on this virus. Nearly all epidemiologists agree that the time to relax is not when the virus is rapidly spreading. We heard the mayor herself say that now is not the time to relax. And then, we heard her say that we were relaxing. Confusion indeed.

Lincoln has just surrendered to a threat that we made our kids suffer for months to avoid. As we prepare to watch our friends, co-workers, and neighbors take ill and die, we are at the very least owed a clear explanation from the mayor for this turnabout. Is it because our city government is more afraid of Ricketts than an overflowing morgue?