Nebraska governor threatens to withhold federal coronavirus aid to counties that require face masks

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Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts threatened to withhold $100 million of federal funding allocated to counties in his state if they mandate residents wear a face mask to protect against the coronavirus.

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The Republican governor has in the past encouraged the public to wear masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19 -- which has killed 240 people in the state and infected 17,415 -- but says that counties that bar visitors from courthouses and other county offices because they aren't wearing a mask, will not receive a portion of the $1 billion allocated by the CARES Act to help the state.

A man wearing a face mask exits the Sarpy County administration building in Papillion, Neb., on Thursday, June 18, 2020, where face covering is recommended but not mandatory. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

A man wearing a face mask exits the Sarpy County administration building in Papillion, Neb., on Thursday, June 18, 2020, where face covering is recommended but not mandatory. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

"Counties are not prohibited from requiring masks, but if they want CARES Act money, they have to be fully open, and that means they cannot deny service for not wearing a mask," Taylor Gage, the governor's spokesman, told the Omaha World-Herald.

Local officials have complained that Ricketts withholding the funds has caused them to change course on local mandates that would require a mask at city buildings and have taken the control out of the localities' hands, even though they are more in touch with the needs of their counties.

“We’d like to have a little bit more ability to call the shots in our courthouse, but we realize that he has the right to set the rules,” Deb Schorr, a Lancaster County Board member and past president of the Nebraska Association of County Officials, told the newspaper.

In the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Ricketts held off on implementing a statewide shutdown and instead allowed counties to decide for themselves when to close their local businesses, despite warnings from health officials.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts speaks during a roundtable with President Trump on the reopening of America's small businesses, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Thursday, June 18, 2020, in Washington. 

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts speaks during a roundtable with President Trump on the reopening of America's small businesses, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Thursday, June 18, 2020, in Washington.  (AP)

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On Thursday, Ricketts praised President Trump at a White House roundtable event about reopening small businesses across the country, saying: "We really appreciate your efforts, your leadership and that of your team to be able to help us through this pandemic and give us the tools to be able to manage it."