Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts—who opposed a statewide mask mandate and strict lockdown measures as COVID-19 raged in his state—is now in quarantine with his wife after a dinner-party guest tested positive for the coronavirus.
The Republican dined outdoors with three other people on Sunday night, his office said. One of the attendees got a positive result the next day.
“Neither the Governor or First Lady are showing any symptoms, and they will get tested at the appropriate time,” Taylor Gage, a spokesman for the governor, said in a statement Tuesday morning.
Ricketts threw open his state back in September even as case counts were rising, and he has repeatedly refused calls from the medical community for a statewide mask mandate—even as other GOP governors have caved in to the common-sense public health move.
“We are a house on fire,” Dr. James Lawler, an infectious disease physician and a co-director of the Global Center for Health Security at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said about the coronavirus situation. “Cases are out of control and we have hospitalization rates in the Omaha metro area that are doubling almost every two weeks and our hospitals are essentially full. They will be full within the next two weeks.”
Lawler had advised the governor earlier in the pandemic, according to a Nebraska Medicine spokesman, and appeared with the governor at a press conference last month. While the spokesman noted in a text message that Lawler has “spoken with the governor from time to time recently,” he "has not been asked for the same level of advice as previously.”
Last weekend—as the state racked up some 3,200 more cases—a group of Nebraska doctors launched a social-media campaign aimed at changing Ricketts’ mind on the masks.
His spokesman, Gage, then publicly called out several doctors on Twitter, playing up recent retweets from some of the doctors celebrating the Democratic presidential election victory. Gage tweeted out screenshots of three doctors' Twitter accounts in which they had either tweeted or retweeted calls that “Gov. Ricketts, the time to act is NOW!” with the tagline “Nebraska Doctors Fighting COVID”—obviously trying to imply their COVID tweets, which reflected mainstream medical thinking, were somehow politically motivated.
On Monday, Ricketts held a press conference where he announced new restrictions given the state’s “increasing number of hospitalizations.” The new measures that begin Wednesday, according to the state, require 6 feet of separation from groups in places like gyms, bars, and restaurants; mask requirements at close-contact businesses like barbershops, salons, and bowling alleys “where staff and patrons are within six (6) feet of each other for 15 consecutive minutes or more,”; and limiting indoor gatherings “to 25% of rated occupancy,” according to the details released by the state. Nebraska will also require people at a bar “to wear a mask when not drinking or eating.”
Still, he did not impose a statewide mask mandate.
The governor appeared virtually at a press conference Tuesday and said he was “feeling great” and had “no symptoms.”
Asked by a reporter if the dinner that sent him into quarantine could be characterized as the governor “letting his guard down,” Ricketts pushed back.
“Guests wore masks as they came into the house and so forth,” he said of the outdoor meal. “But I think it does demonstrate that we just all need to be careful with regard to social interactions and trying to keep them to small group gatherings because the virus spreads from person to person so it will always take the opportunity to do that if it can.”
After throwing the state open in September, Ricketts had put in place slightly tighter restrictions last month, according to a release from his office, as the pandemic situation in his state predictably worsened.
The new restrictions announced Monday didn’t soothe Lawler’s fears about the strain on hospitals, and he called the moves “well short of the types of interventions that need to be taken to bend the curve.”
Lawler said officials should ban gatherings of more than 10 people, eliminate indoor dining, and close bars and clubs. A universal face mask policy in public is also needed, Lawler said, as well as an effort being made to “de-densify,” schools.
Without stronger action and preventive measures, he warned that “a month from now, people who need medical treatment in Nebraska aren't going to be able to get it.”
New daily positive case numbers in Nebraska have jumped since the end of October, according to state health data, and hospitalizations over the coronavirus in the state have also risen dramatically. The Omaha World-Herald reported Tuesday that “last week marked (Nebraska’s) sixth straight week of record new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.”
The state is in critical condition, said Nebraska State Sen. Adam Morfeld, a Democrat from Lincoln, who defined the governor’s response as “too little too late and confusing at best.”
He hopes the governor changes course, but isn’t confident he will.
“What the state's facing is an administration that's more concerned about appeasing their political base and attacking people than it is actually taking leadership and making tough decisions that need to be made,” Morfeld said.