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Nebraska governor threatens to withhold coronavirus relief funds from counties that require masks

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The governor of Nebraska has threatened to withhold millions of dollars in coronavirus relief funds from counties that require people to wear masks. The order contradicts advice from the state's health officials and even the governor himself, who has publicly implored the public to wear masks when they go to stores.

"If they don't want to follow the guidelines, they won't be eligible for the CARES Act money," Governor Pete Ricketts, a Republican, said at a press conference about the pandemic response. "But that's certainly their prerogative to do that."

A spokesman for Ricketts told the Omaha World-Herald that counties requiring masks risk losing the funds provided for them in the federal government's CARES Act. The legislation gave Nebraska about $1 billion in relief funds, including $100 million for counties, cities and utilities. Ricketts is in charge of distributing that money.

"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," Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage told the newspaper.

CBS News has reached out to Gage for comment.

Ricketts has regularly urged Nebraskans to wear masks in public during his coronavirus press conferences. At the same time, he has said businesses can only encourage customers to wear face coverings, and are not allowed to deny services to people who don't.

Meanwhile, physicians and health officials advising Ricketts on the state's coronavirus response say Nebraskans should be wearing masks in public to contain the spread of the virus.

Some county officials also lamented losing control over how they handle the pandemic.

"We know best what is happening in our counties," Deb Schoor, a district commissioner in Lancaster County — which includes the capital and second-largest city, Lincoln — told CBS Lincoln affiliate 1011 Now. "We're working with our health directors, our health officials. But yet realizing our governor is in control of these funds, and we will make sure we will do everything that we can."

Nebraska has confirmed more than 17,400 coronavirus cases, and 240 deaths, as of Friday, according to the state health department. Its daily confirmed cases peaked in late April and early May, with some days seeing more than 500 new cases. Several days this past week, the state saw nearly 200 new cases confirmed. 

Ricketts is the one of few governors who held off on issuing a statewide stay-at-home order when the pandemic hit, even as the virus spread to nearly every county. Ricketts said that other governors had urged him to put out a statewide order, but he believed a county-by-country approach was better. 

Ricketts appeared at the White House Thursday for a governors roundtable, where he praised President Trump's handling of the pandemic. "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," he told the president. 

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Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, left, talks with President Donald Trump during a roundtable with governors on the reopening of America's small businesses, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Thursday, June 18, 2020, in Washington. Alex Brandon / AP
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