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State moves to relax additional COVID-19 restrictions in South Heartland district

Gov. Pete Ricketts on Monday announced that some of the social distancing restrictions written into the directed health measures for the South Heartland Health District will be relaxed effective May 18 — two weeks earlier than had been scheduled.

The relaxation of restrictions mean restaurant dining rooms, beauty and nail salons, barbershops, massage therapy services and tattoo studios will be able to reopen, but with many requirements in place to help mitigate the public health risk of doing so.

The South Heartland district includes Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties. The relaxation of restrictions will take effect at midnight on May 18.

According to information posted to the city of Hastings’ website, restaurant dining rooms will be limited to 50% of their maximum occupancy rating at a time. Each dining party must maintain a minimum of 6 feet of separation from every other dining party, with a maximum of six individuals in each party. Self-serve buffets and salad bars will continue to be prohibited.

Restaurant staff must serve food directly to customers or implement buffet orders from the customer’s table. Customers won’t be allowed to serve themselves.

Bar and counter seating aren’t permitted. Patrons may consume alcohol on the premises only if they also are consuming a meal.

Beauty and nail salons, barbershops, massage therapy services and tattoo studios can open while maintaining the 10-person rule with employees and customers wearing masks, plus other safety measures.

Child care facilities will be permitted to have up to 15 children per room/space, which is an increase of five over the current requirements.

In a news release Monday night, Michele Bever, executive director of the South Heartland health department, said her agency, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, and Ricketts have been monitoring local trends in the rates of positive cases as well as indicators of hospital utilization and capacity.

“From the public health perspective, our trends are showing that the huge efforts everyone is making in our counties to practice social distancing and prevention are working to slow the spread of COVID-19 and are keeping our health care system from being overwhelmed,” she said.

“However, we are not yet out of danger for increased spread of the disease, so it is important to have a stepwise reduction in restrictions that can ease us toward some normalcy, while doing everything we can to continue actions that reduce the spread.”

Bever said the health department will continue to monitor the rates of positive cases and deaths, as well as hospital utilization.

“If our trends start to get worse, the restrictions may be put back in place,” she said.

“We want to emphasize the importance of following the guidance for reopening and we encourage restaurant and salon owners to review the guidance and follow it carefully. We want businesses and patrons alike to understand their risks and to do everything they can to assure they are providing or entering a safe environment,” Bever said.

Mayor Corey Stutte said in his mayor’s comments during Monday’s Hastings City Council meeting things are going in the right direction.

“I think we’ve been doing a good job as a community following the recommendations from the health department,” he said. “You’re starting to see some of our numbers level out, which is a good sign, but we want to make sure people stay alert; that they continue to practice social distancing. We don’t want people to be doing things they don’t need to be doing. If you need to go out, only go out when it’s necessary to pick up groceries or whatever the case may be. We want people to continue to practice that because if we see a reversal of some of those numbers, it’s possible the directed health measures could be put back in place. I encourage our community to continue to do the great work they’ve been doing.”

The following restrictions already in place are set to continue through May 31:

  • Gatherings of more than 10 people in a single space at a time are still prohibited. This includes gyms, conference rooms, libraries, or other confined indoor or outdoor spaces. It does not include health care facilities, polling places, churches, factories, retail or grocery stores.
  • People who test positive for COVID-19 — including those who haven’t been tested but are showing symptoms as well as those who live with a COVID-19 positive patient and are showing symptoms — are required to home quarantine for 14 days from the onset of symptoms. Household members of a COVID-19 positive patient can discontinue their home quarantine seven days after the COVID-19 positive patient is released from home quarantine, but they must self-monitor for an additional seven days after that.
  • No in-person instruction is allowed from elementary or secondary schools, but meal distribution and remote learning still are allowed. Most schools are nearing the end of the spring semester at this point.
  • Organized team sports for youth and adults remain suspended, but Ricketts announced on Monday that team practices for baseball and softball will be able to begin across the state on June 1, with games starting on June 18. A number of social distancing guidelines will apply to athletes, coaches, parents and everyone else involved. Likewise, schools will be able to reopen their weight rooms for use of all student-athletes on June 1, but with safety guidelines. Those dates are subject to change as COVID-19 developments warrant.
  • All other businesses currently ordered to close in the South Heartland district must remain closed until May 31, or until the orders are amended, including bars, gentlemen’s clubs, bottle clubs, indoor movie theaters, and indoor theaters.

Ricketts announced the relaxation of restrictions in the South Heartland Health District, Two Rivers Public Health District and Public Health Solutions Health District during his COVID-19 news conference on Monday. All three districts include Tribland communities.

Additional information on the directed health measures and the changes announced Monday is available on the South Heartland District Health Department website, southheartlandhealth.org.

Meanwhile, South Heartland announced on Monday night the death of a seventh district resident related to COVID-19.

The victim, a man in his 60s, had been hospitalized and had underlying health conditions. Although South Heartland didn’t specify it in its news release, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services reported that the victim was from Adams County.

South Heartland on Monday also announced five new positive cases of COVID-19, all in Adams County. The new patients include three women (one in her 40s, one in her 50s, one in her 60s), one female child, and one man in his 60s.

The new cases bring to 244 the total number of confirmed positive COVID-19 cases recorded in the South Heartland district since March 18. The cases have included 225 in Adams County, 14 in Clay County, five in Webster County, and zero in Nuckolls County.

Of the 244 total cases, 170 individuals have recovered. All seven district residents who have died have been from Adams County.

The Central District Health Department, which serves Hall, Hamilton and Merrick counties, was reporting a cumulative total of 1,410 positive cases of COVID-19 as of Monday. The Central district announced one additional fatality, bringing its death toll to 43.

Satewide, Nebraska now has recorded 8,572 positive COVID-19 cases and 100 deaths related to the illness.

SHDHD distributes personal protective equipment

The shipment of personal protective equipment that the South Heartland District Health Department received Saturday and distributed Monday was one of the largest it has seen during the coronavirus pandemic.

Supply levels typically vary in terms of what is requested from the agencies in the South Heartland coverage area.

“A lot of times they ask for 20 of something and we can only give them two. But (Monday) it was the other way around,” said Jim Morgan, SHDHD’s public health risk coordinator.

lbeahm / Laura Beahm/Tribune  

Gloves, hand sanitizer and masks were just some of the personal protective equipment distributed Monday by South Heartland District Health Department.

Eight pallets of supplies, purchased by the state of Nebraska and ordered by the Department of Administrative Services in Lincoln, included 28,000 surgical gowns, 20,000 surgical masks, 3,000 N95-grade masks, 50,000 pairs of gloves, 350 thermometers, and 200 gallons of hand sanitizer, according to a news release.

Organizations in Adams, Clay, Nuckolls and Webster counties picked up their allotted supplies Monday morning on the Adams County Fairgrounds.

The Department of Administrative Services fields requests from the agencies, divvies up the supplies based on need, and ships them around the state for distribution.

“Through their office, they decide how much they have to give out to everybody,” Morgan said. “We no longer have to split it out. They’ve made the decisions, so when they get here it’s already split out. It still goes through us, so I guess you could say we’re still the middle man.”

The Nebraska Army National Guard delivered the shipment Saturday, and SHDHD, along with the help of fairgrounds staff and volunteers, unloaded the supplies and piled them to be ready for pickup.

Some loads were larger than others, depending on the organizations to which they were heading. Morgan said the type of entity makes a difference.

“Hospitals are top on the line, they need it most,” he said. “Then, we have EMS (Emergency Medical Services) because they are the ones who have to make that first call and go out and put their lives on the line. Then, we have medical clinics, especially ones that actually do testing.”

While these shipments have been regularly distributed since mid-March, Monday’s saw a sizable increase in some regards.

Morgan said previously that gowns had arrived by the hundreds, whereas 28,000 were delivered this go-around.

“That made a big difference,” he said. “And with hand sanitizer we’d get 20 or 30 gallons. This time, we got 200 gallons.”

Shipments of masks have remained steady, Morgan added.

At the start of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, SHDHD had a “stash” saved up in case of emergency. Much of that PPE had been housed for some time. The equipment that is now being distributed is “newly manufactured,” Morgan said.

Over the last six or seven weeks, SHDHD has seen many changes in supply requests due to vendors regaining the ability to distribute more timely and directly to hospitals and clinics, etc.

lbeahm / Laura Beahm/Tribune  

Jim Morgan and Liz Chamberlain with the South Heartland District Health Department load personal protective equipment for Webster County Community Hospital during distribution Monday morning at the Adams County Fairgrounds.

“A month and a half ago, there were a lot of requests made. But we didn’t know how much they really needed; they just said they needed these things,” Morgan said.

What has increased, though, are supplies like hand sanitizer and thermometers going to places such as grocery stores and convenience stores.

“In the overall scheme of things, we’re trying to get the stuff that we can out to these places and make sure they don’t have people working for them that are positive so they don’t pass it on,” Morgan said.

Supplies SHDHD still can’t get its hands on include disinfectants and goggles. But face shields and gloves have made up for that.

“If you talk to EMS, they say, ‘We’re happy that we can get anything’; whereas compared to hospitals who are required to have certain things on hand and they are just happy to get things that take them back up to where they were at one time, where they need to be.

“They’re all happy to get it, but some places are happier than others because they just didn’t have what they needed.”

Council approves forensic study of viaduct

The Hastings City Council is moving forward with hiring a forensic engineering firm to do a condition assessment and forensic structural analysis of the 16th Street viaduct.

Council members voted 7-1 during their regular meeting Monday to approve a retainer agreement with Engineering Specialists Inc. of Omaha. The initial retainer fee — $26,900 — is half of the $53,800 cost for the condition assessment and forensic analysis of the bridge. Councilman Chuck Rosenberg dissented.

Council members voted on March 9 — after a strong response from petitioners — to rescind their December 2019 resolution to demolish the 16th Street viaduct and instead place a repair option for the 85-year-old structure on the November general election ballot.

“We need to find out exactly what its condition is, so we can accurately project what the cost will be as far as the repair,” City Administrator Dave Ptak said. “I don’t want to have any ballot language that would be misleading or cause the public to think it was going to cost more or less than what it is that we have on the ballot.”

If approved, it would be the viaduct’s second major repair, having also been repaired in 1985.

Council members voted 6-2 during their final meeting of 2019 to approve the “tear-down” option of a resolution that also included an extensive repair option; an option for a new bridge with a shorter span; and an option for constructing a new viaduct at a different alignment. The tear-down option was the cheapest provided by engineering firm Olsson, estimated to cost $1.46 million.

The extensive repair option is estimated to cost $3.1 million, and would extend the life of the existing structure 25-30 years.

The viaduct has been closed to traffic since the end of May 2019 based on an engineering assessment that highlighted severe deterioration.

The agreement with ESI includes a Condition Assessment and Forensic Analysis at a cost of $53,800, plus an optional examination using X-ray and/or ground-penetrating radar for possible confirmation of the extent of corrosion estimated to cost $13,971 per pier.

Anthony Siahpush with ESI recommended to council members during their May 4 work session doing the condition assessment, plus an instrument examination testing for three of the nine piers — the one in worst condition, the one in best condition, and one at random. Testing three piers, plus the forensic analysis, would cost $95,713.

Siahpush didn’t have a presence at Monday’s video conference council meeting.

ESI will present the more exact estimate in time to have “not to exceed” ballot language submitted to the county clerk by Sept. 1, which is the deadline to have it added to the November general election ballot.

Siahpush said the initial assessment would take 4 ½ to 5 weeks and testing another three weeks, for eight weeks total. ESI could be ready to go in late May or early June.

Rosenberg, who dissented, asked to wait to spend the nearly $100,000 for the forensic assessment of the viaduct until after voters act on possibly repairing the structure.

“It’s tough times for us now,” he said. “I don’t feel that spending almost $96,000 is frugal when the voters may not approve this.”

He said he talked with petitioners, asking their opinions about a “not to exceed $5 million” repair amount on the ballot. He asked if the repair amount ended up being more than $5 million whether they would agree with the decision to raze the structure.

“All of them said yes, that would be fine with them,” Rosenberg said. “They did not want to spend over $5 million to fix the bridge.”

He said it’s frugal to wait for voters to decide the fate of the bridge before spending more money.

Mayor Corey Stutte said one detriment to waiting until after the election to do the forensic assessment would be learning, after voters choose to repair viaduct, the viaduct has an anticipated lifespan of five to seven years after being repaired.

“Are we really giving voters a full picture of what the condition of the bridge is?” he said. “We’re here because petitioners wanted to put this on the ballot. We have said that this would to have to raise taxes to be paid for. I think there’s been an understanding that there’s a fiscal impact to this. I personally don’t think that raising taxes before COVID-19 was a good idea. I don’t think it’s a good idea after COVID-19.”

During their work session, council members discussed figures separately obtained by both Siahpush and an engineer related to one of the petitioners, that the Union Pacific Railroad will charge $1 million per day work occurs on the viaduct over the railroad.

Ptak said he has talked to a Union Pacific Railroad consultant since the May 4 work session, who told him costs associated with working with the railroad include $1,400 per day to have a flag person there.

Ptak said he was told the total cost to work with UP would be about $50,000, which would include taking an engineering review of the plans and specifications for the repair. It would then go through design and insurance through UP and then enter into a construction and maintenance agreement through the UP call center.

“When you factor that in with the cost of finding out exactly what’s wrong with it it doesn’t add very much cost to be sure as far as what the cost needs to be,” he said.

Mail-in ballot return has run strong as Election Day arrives

The Adams County Clerk’s Office has seen a strong return on mail-in ballots for the primary election but is expecting fewer voters than usual to appear in person on Tuesday.

“We already have an amazing turnout for the election so far,” said Adams County Clerk Ramona Thomas, who doubles as county election commissioner.

The office sent out 7,519 early voting ballots for voters who requested them before May 1. The office has had 6,304 ballots returned as of Monday afternoon. Ballots must be returned to the Clerk’s Office by 8 p.m. Tuesday to be counted, and should be placed in the ballot drop box at the south entrance to the Adams County Courthouse, 500 W. Fourth St. Ballots should not be placed in the U.S. mail at this point because they wouldn’t arrive at the Clerk’s Office in time to be counted.

Due to the number of mail-in ballots requested and the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, pandemic, Thomas doesn’t expect a large turnout at polling locations Tuesday. Poll hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Voters will sign in to receive the ballot corresponding to their political affiliation, which also includes nonpartisan races and issues.

She said there will be at least three poll workers at each polling place, as required by law. There had been some concern due to COVID-19 because some of her regular poll workers were senior citizens in the high-risk category and wouldn’t be able to help this time.

She sent out notifications to registered voters to help for the day, and was able to find enough people to meet the three-person requirement for each polling station.

There has been a lot of last-minute interest in helping as a poll worker, but the training for the positions already has been completed. Normally, election workers are trained in person, but they had to use more online resources this time due to the gathering limitations.

Thomas said there will be masks available for poll workers as well as a limited number that can be used by voters. Poll workers will set up markers to demonstrate the 6-foot distance to be used to continue social distancing during the process. Thomas said that if voters arrive before those markers are set up, they should keep at least 6 feet away from others.

The reduced number of polling workers at each precinct location and a loss of experience among them may cause delays during busier times like first thing in the morning or over the lunch hour.

“Voters will need a lot of patience and respect for others,” she said.

Voters should be aware of some changes in the location of polling places this year.

Because of COVID-19 issues, the polling location for Hastings Precinct 1C has been moved for this election from the campus of Good Samaritan Society-Hastings Village to the west end of the Activities Building on the Adams County Fairgrounds, 947 S. Baltimore Ave.

The polling location for Blaine Precinct at Central Community College-Hastings has been moved into the campus gymnasium to allow for more effective social distancing.

In Holstein, a water line damaged at the fire hall forced the polling station to be moved to St. Paul Lutheran Church youth center.

Voters with questions about the election can call the Clerk’s Office at 402-461-7107.