LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts announced steps Wednesday that should allow a return to near normal across most of Nebraska.
The governor said all counties, except Lancaster, will be in a Phase 4 directed health measure as of Monday. Twenty-seven were already in that phase.
That phase limits the size of indoor gatherings but drops all other state-imposed mandates, including restrictions on restaurants, bars, gyms, child care centers, salons, weddings and funerals. Those entities are encouraged to follow voluntary guidelines to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus.
Locally imposed mask mandates in Omaha and Lincoln will remain in place, however. Both require people to wear face coverings in most indoor public spaces where they are not able to maintain 6 feet of social distance. There are several exceptions.
Ricketts did not elaborate about his reasons for the change at a press conference. His spokesman, Taylor Gage, pointed to the governor’s past comments about taking steps to slowing the spread of the coronavirus in order to keep enough hospital beds and ventilators available for those who need them.
“Protecting hospital capacity has always been the goal,” Gage said. “Hospital capacity remains very stable.”
State numbers show that 38% of hospital beds, 34% of intensive care unit beds and 83% of ventilators were available as of Tuesday evening. At the same time, Nebraska ranks 19th highest in the rate of coronavirus cases among states, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.
Neither Douglas County Health Director Adi Pour nor Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Director Pat Lopez were available to comment about the change on Wednesday.
Last week, Pour said Omaha is still struggling with infections. She said communities with coronavirus under control have a positive test rate below 5% and no more than 10 new cases per day per million people based on a seven-day rolling average, the equivalent of 6 cases in Omaha.
Instead, the county’s positivity rate was about 9.6% for the week that ended Saturday and the county has been seeing about 90 to 100 new daily cases. Lancaster County’s positivity rate was 13.3% for the same week.
In earlier comments, Lopez said Lancaster County will not move into Phase 4 this month, noting that the numbers of cases have increased with the return of college students and the reopening of schools. She said some “adjustments” to the local restrictions will be announced later.
“This is the time not only to stay the course, but also to redouble our efforts in Lancaster County,” Lopez said. “We need to do what is best for our community to overcome the impacts of this virus.”
The state began imposing directed health measures in March, when the coronavirus first began spreading in the state. Initial restrictions, which included closing sit-down service at restaurants and bars, have been gradually relaxed by Ricketts as the need for hospital beds and ventilators has declined.
In phase 4, indoor gatherings will be limited to 75% of capacity at a time. Facilities that hold more than 500 people or, in Douglas County, more than 1,000 people, must have their reopening plans reviewed by health officials. Outdoor gatherings can go up to 100% of an area's capacity.
Testing glitch. Ricketts said that a technical problem with TestNebraska slowed the reporting of coronavirus test results leading up to and through the Labor Day weekend. The glitch was discovered because the state public health data system was not receiving results, even though the laboratory had continued to process tests.
State Medical Officer Dr. Gary Anthone said the problem could not be fixed until Tuesday morning. The results have since been transmitted to the state system, producing a spike in the number of tests reported. He said the problem delayed people from getting test results for 3 to 4 days but did not affect the lab results.
Ricketts said the issue was unrelated to the weekend closure of TestNebraska sites in Omaha. He said testing was shut down to give workers time off.
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.