LINCOLN — Ten more Nebraska counties, including Lancaster, Dodge and Washington, will soon see a relaxation of coronavirus restrictions, though the mayor of Lincoln said she reserves the option of retaining the measures now in place.
Gov. Pete Ricketts announced Wednesday that 10 additional counties can reopen restaurant dining rooms, barber shops and beauty salons, with some restrictions, on May 11.
They would join 59 other Nebraska counties that will see restrictions relaxed on Monday.
But Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird said that her city and Lancaster County are still working to reduce the negative health and economic effects of COVID-19. The county has seen a nearly 38% increase in positive cases over the past four days, to 204 cases, and the mayor said her decisions will be based on a number of factors, including the number of cases, the ability to test and to trace who came in contact with those infected.
“We want to work in concert with the State of Nebraska to support efforts to carefully and safely bring our economy back to life,” Gaylor Baird said. “That said, we reserve the right to reconsider the relaxation of measures if the status of our community demands that we do so.”
Ricketts repeated Wednesday that his decisions have been based on one main factor — whether health care resources to treat COVID-19 are being overwhelmed. He said that the state’s social distancing guidelines have been successful in fending off a spike in infections and that he had confidence in ordering the relaxation of restrictions.
“All of our public health experts said you cannot change the number of people getting infected, all you can do is flatten the curve, and spread it out,” Ricketts said. “You can’t stop a virus from coming. But if you reduce the peak, you don’t overwhelm your health care system.”
“We have not come close to overwhelming our health care system,” he said.
In Grand Island — a hot spot with the most cases in Nebraska— the state has been successful in working with local health care providers to transfer some COVID-19 patients to other hospitals, keeping ventilators and intensive care beds available in Hall County, the governor said. In Omaha, 76% of the 346 ventilators are available; at Grand Island’s St. Francis Hospital, six ventilators are in use, which Ricketts said is a decrease from recent days.
The new relaxed of restrictions effective May 11 in Lancaster, Dodge, Saunders, Washington, Arthur, Hooker, Lincoln, Logan, McPherson and Thomas Counties are identical to those ordered in 59 other Nebraska counties, including the Omaha metro area, which are effective Monday.
Left out of the announcements are the public health regions containing the state’s hardest-hit counties, including Hall, Dawson, Saline and Dakota, where meatpacking plants have become the focus of major coronavirus outbreaks.
The exchange of views came as positive coronavirus cases in the state continued to rise, to 3,784 as of 6 p.m. Wednesday. Deaths stood at 68. Some medical professionals have predicted that the state’s peak is still weeks away.
Local mayors have had some discretion in tailoring local restrictions. For instance, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert ordered the closure of city parks after she felt too many people were ignoring the governor’s guidelines to stay 6 feet apart and avoid public gatherings of more than 10 people. Gaylor Baird, meanwhile, has not closed down Lincoln’s city parks, which remain open for tennis and pickleball, as well as walking.
In other news out of the daily coronavirus briefing, the governor said Wednesday that:
- About 104,000 Nebraskans have filled out assessments at testnebraska.com to obtain free COVID-19 tests and help the state decide where to deploy testing tents and other resources. Ricketts urged people to access the website.
- He also said that during the past week, Nebraskans slacked off, a bit, in avoiding unnecessary travel. Statewide, traffic on roads was down 23% from normal last week compared to 28% the week before. “I think everybody’s tired of doing this, but we’ve got to continue to practice social distancing,” he said. “We’re going to be doing it through the summer and the fall in some form or other.”
- The governor said meatpacking plant workers are more likely to pick up an infection outside of the workplace, where they spend two-thirds of their time, so it’s important to follow social distancing guidelines in the community and home as well. He added that some cellphone data suggests that grocery stores may be the most likely place to become infected.
- Despite the loosening of some restrictions, Ricketts said Nebraskans should stick to a 10-person limit for Cinco de Mayo and Memorial Day celebrations. He said the Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs will be offering guidelines for alternative commemorations of Memorial Day and providing a “virtual” recognition of Memorial Day.
- The governor has been following his own advice and staying home. Ricketts said he travels to his office at the State Capitol, and then returns home, with a trip to pick up a pizza occasionally. He said there have been discussions about visiting the hard-hit meat-packing plants in the state, but he has declined to do that to adhere to his advice to “stay at home.”