Gov. Pete Ricketts announced Thursday he is ready to further loosen restrictions imposed in most of Nebraska to control the spread of the coronavirus, giving a green light to reopening movie theaters and bars and authorizing a broad range of activities effective June 1.
The current restriction on gatherings of more than 10 people would essentially be replaced by a 25-person guideline, along with clearance for large public events at arenas and stadiums with spectator participation at 25% of capacity not to exceed 3,000 people.
Traditional parades and carnivals would continue to be prohibited for now.
While announcing the long-expected easing of sanctions, Ricketts and Dr. Gary Anthone, the state's chief medical officer, took cautious note of the increasing number of coronavirus patients hospitalized in Omaha.
Hospital resources in Lincoln remain stable, they said.
"Douglas County is the area of the most concern," Anthone said. "We are watching that very closely."
"COVID-19 is on the rise in Douglas County," he said.
The hospital system statewide is "more stable (now) with the exception of Douglas County," Ricketts said during his daily coronavirus news briefing.
"We're going to work with the hospital system" in Omaha to anticipate and manage any needs, he said.
The coronavirus hospital patient number in Omaha has risen to 134, with 43 on ventilators, Anthone said.
Eased sanctions will kick in June 1 in Lincoln and Omaha and 87 rural counties, with hard-hit areas in two health department districts — which include Grand Island and Dakota City — operating for the first time under the more limited standards currently in place across the rest of the state.
Statewide, teams and individuals in the youth sports of baseball, softball, tennis, golf and volleyball can resume practice beginning June 1 and competition June 18.
Rodeo events are also allowed beginning June 1.
Limitations on contact sports, including football, basketball, wrestling and soccer, would continue.
Looking ahead, Ricketts once again said he believes there will be football this fall, including at Memorial Stadium.
Under the new directive, bars in Lincoln and across most of the state will be allowed to open on June 1, operating under the same general restrictions that were applied to restaurants this month, with limitations on numbers — 50% of capacity — and requirements for distancing.
As with arenas, entry to zoos, movie theaters, swimming pools and auto racing venues that decide to open June 1 will be limited to 25% of capacity, with a cap of 3,000 people.
Venues hosting receptions for weddings and funerals can host 50% of a room's capacity, with social distancing rules still in play.
Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird said later Thursday that Lincoln will adopt the governor's new directed health measure to ensure Lancaster County residents have the clearest guidance on what kinds of gatherings and business operations are allowed.
Still, city officials and Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department staff will continue to monitor hospital capacity, caseload, the infection rate and work with operators of larger venues who must submit their reopening plans to the health department under the new measure.
Wherever people are gathered though, health department staff will expect them to follow the rules, city officials said.
What he has been trying to do, the governor said, is "find the right balance" in imposing and then gradually lifting restrictions designed to slow the spread of the virus and allow the state's health care system, and specifically hospitals, to be able to manage the load.
"People have been cautious," he said, "and I think that's a good thing."
"We're getting through this together," the governor said.
"If you go to a big event, it would be a good idea to wear a mask," he cautioned.
Among the changes on June 1 will be requiring travelers to quarantine for 14 days only after returning from a foreign country.
Once again, Ricketts said part of the impetus for gradually relaxing sanctions is a concern about the patience of the public for an extended set of restrictions.
"We're trying to find the right speed now," he said. "If you lock down too long, people start ignoring restrictions."
Steve Martin, executive director of the Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska, joined Ricketts at the briefing to announce the beginning of a fund drive to provide food pantries with refrigerators and freezers.
In answer to questions, Ricketts said he recently met with meatpacking workers by telephone to listen to their concerns about protection from the virus in their workplace.
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