About halfway through her Election Night shift at DJ’s Dugout, an Omaha-area sports bar, Karina Montanez looked up to see Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts smiling and laughing with a group of half a dozen women.
Just one person was wearing a mask—and it wasn’t the governor, who six days later would be forced to quarantine after, he said, he was exposed to the virus at a small, outdoor dinner party.
So Montanez took out her phone and started recording.
At one point in the video, Ricketts—a Republican who furiously resisted a coronavirus lockdown last spring and has steadfastly refused to issue a mask mandate since—wipes his nose before reaching over and taking an infant from one of the women.
“I was completely disgusted,” Montanez told The Daily Beast, referring to the moment with the infant.
“I have medical conditions that cause me to be high risk if I were to get COVID,” Montanez told The Daily Beast. “So seeing Ricketts come in like he was a celebrity really rubbed me the wrong way… I don’t understand why it’s so hard for him to understand what he’s doing is hypocrisy and puts everyone at risk.”
But this stance had severe repercussions for the server. On Tuesday afternoon, Montanez said, her manager called her and told her upper management had seen the video and asked that she be fired. Montanez, who is a single mom, said the job, which she’s had for over two years, was her only source of income.
DJ’s Dugout did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
Like many states in the upper midwest, Nebraska, which currently ranks sixth per capita for new coronavirus infections nationally, is caught in the throes of the country’s grim COVID-19 surge. As of Wednesday, nearly half of the 978 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Nebraska were in ICUs, which were at almost 80 percent capacity, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
With concerns about space at hospitals mounting, the White House Coronavirus Task Force issued a new report on Tuesday calling the crisis in the state “exponential and unyielding,” and noting that “serious messaging and action are needed from state leadership,” including getting all Nebraskans on board with wearing face masks.
But Ricketts has long downplayed the role of masks in reducing the spread of coronavirus, arguing that they are “just one of the tools we have” for reducing COVID transmission. Instead, he’s repeatedly urged Nebraskans to avoid what he called “the Three C’s”—crowded places, close contacts, and confined spaces, something he says is part of a “Swiss cheese strategy,” meaning that individually each layer has its own holes but can provide coverage when used together.
Both Montanez's video and a different picture from that night appear to show Ricketts violating this approach, which his office has been pushing since October. In the photo, Ricketts, who was attending an Election Night party for newly elected State Sen. Rita Sanders, smiles with Sanders and 19 other attendees. Ricketts, standing directly under a neon Corona sign, is maskless, like the others in the photo. Although the party occupied a separate section of DJ’s Dugout, Montanez said the sports bar was full of other patrons, and that the video she filmed was outside the private area.
At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, which the governor attended via video because he has been in quarantine, Ricketts dismissed the suggestion that he had flouted the very guidelines he’d been trumpeting.
“Oftentimes when I’m taking a picture depending on the preference of the person taking the picture, I’ll remove my mask to take the picture and put it back on when the picture ends,” Ricketts said.
Montanez’s video appears to refute this. In it, the governor stands at a table, casually conversing with about half a dozen women and a handful of children. One of the women wears a mask, but no other face coverings are visible on adults in the video, which lasts approximately 10 seconds. Montanez told The Daily Beast that this was just one of many tables Ricketts stopped at that night while conversing without a mask.
Gov. Ricketts’ office did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. But Dr. Angela Hewitt, an infectious disease expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said while Ricketts may have called his actions that night safe, similar behavior has caused multiple outbreaks.
“Removing your mask in an indoor setting, especially in close contact with others who do not live in your household, is not a smart idea,” she told The Daily Beast. “This is a very risky situation, because it has been shown that COVID-19 can be transmitted easily in indoor settings, especially when distance cannot be maintained. The larger the gathering, the more likely that someone in the group will be infected, even if they have no symptoms.”
At Tuesday’s press conference, Ricketts also downplayed half a dozen questions about his ongoing refusal to issue a statewide mask mandate. This even as other holdouts, like fellow Republican Governors Kim Reynolds of Iowa and Doug Burgum of North Dakota, have responded to soaring rates of new infections in their own states by finally—if begrudgingly—issuing them.
When it comes to speaking out about the scope of the crisis in his state, Ricketts has been far from shy. The governor spent much of last week sounding the alarm about Nebraska’s dramatic surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations, which are currently doubling every 21 days, writing in the weekly column he posts on his website that if Nebraskans can’t control the spread of the virus, the state would run out of beds in a matter of weeks.
“So far, we have been able to provide hospital beds, ICU beds, and ventilators to anyone who needs care. If trends continue, Nebraska will reach a point where that’s no longer possible. To avoid reaching this point, it’s critical that each person reduce their mobility and contact with others,” Ricketts wrote.
On Friday, the governor’s office followed up this warning with new recommended health measures tied to the percentage of all hospital patients being treated for COVID statewide. That number is currently at 20 percent, putting the state in the “orange threshold” of restrictions, such as bars being open with social distancing and indoor gatherings limited to 25 percent capacity. Just 200 more hospitalizations, however, push Nebraska into the red threshold, which limits bars and restaurants to carryout orders and subjects indoor gatherings to the 10-person rule.
Those hoping to finally see a trigger for a statewide mask mandate were disappointed.
“This is crazy stuff. People are dying—we need to stop politicizing this and do everything we can to stop this,” Hewitt said.
Earlier this month, Hewitt joined several other public health experts with a social media campaign aimed at convincing Ricketts to adopt a mask mandate for the state. Ricketts did not respond, but his communications director, Taylor Gage, shot back on Twitter with posts criticizing Hewitt and two other women doctors over their support for the Biden/Harris ticket.
As for Montanez, she said she doesn’t regret the spontaneous bit of activism she says cost her her job.
“Even with fear of the outcome of all this, I am glad I posted the video,” Montanez told The Daily Beast. “I actually hesitated posting it that night but went for it because of how the government, including the President, were acting towards this pandemic. People deserve to know the truth, even if it hurts one way or another.”