LINCOLN — Public health workers in Lincoln have been getting some disturbing answers when they ask residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 to retrace their steps:
“I don’t remember where I went. It was a bar crawl; I went from one to the other. No, I don’t know who was there.”
Coronavirus cases are surging in Lincoln, and health officials say it’s because of a sharp increase in cases among 20-somethings.
About 57% of Lancaster County’s new cases in the past two weeks have been among people in their 20s, an age group that makes up only 18.5% of the county, according to the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department.
In a little more than a month, thousands more young people will descend on the capital when classes resume at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and other colleges.
Case numbers, positivity rates and hospitalization rates are up in Lancaster County, which is further fueling concern among local officials.
“These behaviors have pushed our community backward,” said Scott Holmes, the Health Department’s manager of environmental health. “(They are) creating a swell of COVID-19 cases (that) will wash through our community as their friends, younger siblings, parents and grandparents are exposed and get sick over the next several weeks.”
In response, local health officials are drawing up a plan on how to clamp down on the spread. Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird is expected to announce any tougher restrictions Friday.
“All options are on the table,” she said earlier this week.
Those options include requiring masks, closing bars or restricting capacity, restricting the size of public gatherings and changing the rules for sports.
As of Thursday, a total of 2,313 cases were reported in Lancaster County, far fewer than the 8,534 reported in Douglas County.
Statewide, 22,134 cases had been reported as of Thursday.
Lancaster and Douglas Counties appear to have roughly similar percentages of young adults infected. (The two counties use different age ranges.)
In Lancaster County, people ages 20 to 29 make up 30.4% of the total cases. In Douglas County, people ages 20 to 34 make up 32.2% of the cases.
Douglas County health officials say they, too, are seeing an uptick in cases among young adults. In the past week, those 20 to 34 have made up 46% of new cases, even though they make up only 23% of the county’s population.
“We are concerned about the numbers of young people socializing in that age group and the lack of mask use among them,” said Phil Rooney, spokesman for the Douglas County Health Department. “It’s worrisome.”
The increase in cases among young adults is coming weeks after Nebraska relaxed restrictions on bars and restaurants. On June 22, they were allowed to operate at 100% capacity again. They had been limited to 50% of capacity. June 22 was also when maintaining 6 feet of distance was made voluntary outside of Lancaster County.
One thing that is certain for now in Lancaster County: Bars can expect more compliance checks. Lancaster County has issued mandatory restrictions that other parts of the state don’t have.
In Lancaster County, people are not allowed to dance or mingle at bars. They must remain seated in groups of eight or fewer and at tables at least 6 feet apart.
Bars caught violating these rules will receive a warning but eventually could be shut down, Holmes said. A letter to bars was sent out this week.
Lincoln bar owner Patrick Gray doesn’t believe that bars are responsible for the surge and said closing them won’t solve the problem.
“If you close the bars, it’s not going to change those other social activities. People will still go to barbecues, or the beach or out on a boat,” said Gray, who co-owns Gray’s Keg with his wife, Karen.
Public health officials agree. If young adults don’t change the way they socialize, the problem won’t be brought under control, Holmes said.
Gray said he would be in favor of requiring greater use of masks if it would help businesses stay open.
Patrons of Gray’s Keg, a neighborhood bar with live music on weekends, have been responsive when asked to abide by health restrictions, Gray said.
There have been a few times, he said, when he’s had to ask people not to dance to the music and to remain seated.
“I’m polite. ... It’s the rules we’re living with now,” he said. “We haven’t had any issues.”
Looking ahead to the resumption of college classes, Holmes said he’s comfortable with what university officials have planned for the classroom. Among other steps, UNL will be requiring masks of most people while indoors.
College classes aren’t what has Holmes worried.
“The biggest concern is what happens in the evenings or weekends with college students,” he said. “The desire to be together, to hang out together, to spend time together, that’s a strong pull for college students. And that’s probably where we’ll have our greatest risk for spread of COVID.”
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