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What you need to know: Q&A on Nebraska's new rules for bars, social gatherings, sports

All of Nebraska will take the next step toward reopening June 1 as Gov. Pete Ricketts issues new health directives to help manage social interactions, business operations and sports.

On Thursday, Ricketts announced the next phase of directed health measures. Eighty-nine counties that took their initial reopening steps this month will see some other restrictions eased in June.

The remaining four counties — Hall, Hamilton and Merrick in central Nebraska and Dakota County in northeast Nebraska — can make their initial moves to reopen as of June 1.

In the vast majority of counties, Ricketts’ new emergency directives will allow larger events, certain sports and the reopening of bars.

But it’s not a return to business as usual.

Here’s an explainer about what’s in the health measures:

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Q: What is opening up?

A: Some sports — limited and noncontact sports that were off limits — are allowed. Bars. Group gatherings, which applies to a whole range of auditoriums, stadiums, events and meetings, zoos, libraries and swimming pools. And wedding and funeral receptions.

Q: What are the rules for weddings and funerals?

 A: Up to 25 people, or up to 50% of the capacity of a room, whichever is greater (excluding staff), can attend.

Groups inside those venues would be limited to six people, with 6 feet between groups.

Self-serve buffets and salad bars are prohibited. Venue staff must serve food directly to all individuals.

No dances or other social events that require guests to gather outside of their respective tables are permitted.

Q: What places can expand on their initial reopening?

A: Gyms and fitness centers. Salons and barbershops. Tattoo parlors and massage studios.

Q: What about sports?

A: Ricketts is deciding which sports are allowed based on the level of contact in the sport, and he’s using the categories of contact from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Baseball, softball, volleyball, tennis and golf may begin practices June 1, and competitions can begin June 18. Rodeo events can begin June 1.

But basketball, football, soccer and wrestling are considered contact sports and remain prohibited.

Q: How will bars work?

A: Bars can reopen, but one big restriction is that patrons must be seated. That’s unless people are ordering or using the restroom. The bars also must restrict their crowds: no more than 50% of their rated occupancy, 6 feet of separation between seated parties, no more than six people in a seated party and 6 feet of separation between performers and patrons. Patrons can’t eat food at bar seating. Also, no pool, darts or arcade games are allowed.

Q: What about other sorts of gatherings?

A: The Governor’s Office will lift some of the restrictions on this broad list of gatherings: Indoor and outdoor arenas, indoor and outdoor auctions, stadiums, tracks, fairgrounds, festivals, zoos, auditoriums, large event conference rooms, meeting halls, indoor theaters, libraries, swimming pools and “any other confined indoor or outdoor space.”

Q: What are the limitations?

A: As far as gathering size, pick the greater number: 25 people, excluding staff, or 25% of the location’s rated occupancy. But no more than 3,000 people are allowed.

Plus, individual groups can’t have more than six people, and those groups must be 6 six feet apart.

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Q: So concerts are OK?

A: Possibly. If less than 3,000 people. And other requirements apply.

Q: Movies?

A: Yes, with restrictions.

Q: Drive-in movies?

A: They can operate at full capacity, if moviegoers stay in their cars.

Q: What events are still prohibited?

A: No carnivals, midways, dances, street dances or beer gardens. Certain parades are allowed — in which people stay in their vehicles and the public doesn’t line the street.

And dance recitals are permitted.

Q: Are there other rules?

A: Yes, this is not a blanket approval for bigger gatherings.

Any indoor or outdoor gathering, location or venue that holds 500 or more people must submit their reopening plan for approval to their local health department. In Douglas County, that applies to places that hold 1,000 or more people.

Q: What else is expanding?

A: Gyms, fitness centers, health clubs and health spas can step up to gatherings of 25 people, not counting staff, or 50% of their rated occupancy, whichever is greater.

Those places must ensure 6 feet of separation between all patrons.

Salons, barbershops, massage therapy services, tattoo parlors and body art shops must follow the same gathering limits. Workers and patrons must wear a mask, although people getting a facial can take off the mask.

Also, wedding and funeral receptions. They fit under the same crowd limits and must keep 6 feet of separation between different parties, which are limited to six people each. Self-serve buffets and salad bars are still out. Any food must be served directly by staff. Also, no dancing or social events in which get people up from their tables are allowed.

Q: What about Hall, Hamilton, Merrick and Dakota Counties?

A: They will open to the level where the other counties are now, including the initial reopening of restaurants and salons.

Our best concert photos of 2020

Ricketts seeks 'balance' as he reopens Nebraska bars and loosens limits on public gatherings

LINCOLN — With other states loosening COVID-19 restrictions and bar owners in Omaha lawyering up, Gov. Pete Ricketts announced Thursday that he was relaxing many of the limits on public gatherings and liquor outlets that he first started imposing two months ago.

Effective June 1 in 89 counties, including the Omaha area, bars and lounges can reopen under the same rules that now apply to restaurants — no more than 50% capacity, with patrons at tables spaced out by at least 6 feet and no one sitting at the bar.

Ricketts also announced that public gatherings in those counties can increase from the current limit of 10 to 25 as of June 1.

For stadiums, outdoor and indoor arenas, theaters, festivals, zoos and other large venues, the limit was raised to 25 people or 25% of a venue’s rated occupancy (not to exceed 3,000), whichever is greater.

Groups inside those venues would be limited to six people, with 6 feet between groups. That includes wedding and funeral receptions.

The same spacing requirements are applicable to wedding and funeral receptions, but venues for those events can have 25 people or up to 50% of the capacity of a room.

As for health clubs, they can allow up to 25 people or 50% of their rated capacity.

Those changes are considered Phase 2 of the reopening. Four counties, including hard-hit Hall and Dakota Counties, will move to Phase 1, where the other 89 counties are now, on June 1.

The governor said he was trying to strike a balance between containing the spread of the highly contagious virus so as not to overwhelm hospital resources, and allowing people who are tiring of restrictions to resume a semblance of “normal life.”

When asked if relaxing restrictions would assure that infections and deaths would rise, he said:

“The people who say I don’t want any infections, that’s just not realistic, because it’s a virus. You can’t stop it. And the other thing is, if you lock down too long, what we’ve seen in other states is that people will start to ignore your (social distancing restrictions).”

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He used the analogy of driving: People die every year from traffic accidents, but people are still allowed to use the highways, within certain rules.

“What is that right speed to allow people to go back to a more normal life and still preserve (access to) the health care system?” the governor asked.

He thanked Nebraskans for their “sacrifices,” which have allowed for the relaxing of rules, while continuing to urge people to wear masks in public places and maintain a 6-foot separation from others.

The move comes one day after Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds unveiled a relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions in her state that included opening bars, and after a group of Omaha bar owners hired a well-known trial attorney to explore whether Ricketts could legally impose restrictions on lounges but not liquor outlets that also sold food.

A state senator urged caution Thursday, saying the state still hasn’t reached the level of testing for the coronavirus that has been recommended before loosening restrictions.

“There are other states who have started to do this, and it would probably benefit us to be more cautious and see what their experience is until we stumble into another infection,” said Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha.

The new rules are going to be hard to enforce, Lathrop predicted, especially because some people think the pandemic “is nonsense.”

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, meanwhile, said she thought that the governor’s actions have been well thought out and guided by medical experts in the state. But ultimately, it will be up to Nebraskans to continue to follow social distancing advice.

“At the end of the day, we need people to be responsible,” she said.

Ricketts voiced optimism that Nebraskans will voluntarily comply with the new guidelines. He said that they have so far, by and large, and that they have been cautious when rules have been relaxed.

As far as enforcement, the governor said the state doesn’t have enough law enforcement officers to enforce the rules.

“People don’t want police on their doorstep,” he said. “We want voluntary compliance.”

Ricketts has often said that his “north star” in managing the coronavirus is avoiding spikes in infections so that there are plenty of hospital beds and ventilators available.

In recent weeks, he’s used a benchmark of maintaining at least 30% of hospital resources before relaxing restrictions.

So why loosen rules in Douglas County, where hospital beds are filling up, leaving only about 28% available?

The governor said that the 30% benchmark was always open to change and that most of the uptick in hospital use in the Omaha area is not related to the coronavirus.

“A lot of people put off going to the hospital who are now going in,” Ricketts said.

Both he and the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Gary Anthone, said they are regularly communicating with Omaha hospitals to manage the issue.

Omaha bar employees on Thursday gave mixed reactions to the new rules.

Some said that, financially, they need to reopen and want to get back to business, but others expressed concerns about how to do that safely.

The coming weeks will be “kind of a tight rope,” said Abigail Lemke, general manager of Jake’s Cigars & Spirits in Benson.

Employees will wear masks, she said, but how can customers do that when they’re drinking? And, will they follow social distancing rules after a few drinks?

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Lemke said.

The new rules effective June 1 also reduce restrictions on noncontact and limited-contact sports, such as volleyball and rodeo.

For now, practice or playing of contact sports like football and wrestling is still discouraged.

But Ricketts said he was optimistic about Nebraska football’s return.

“I actually believe we’ll have a season this fall, but we’re taking this a step at a time,” he said.

The governor added that travelers leaving the state over Memorial Day weekend to neighboring states — and not those experiencing surges in cases — will not be required to quarantine upon their return to Nebraska. As of June 1, travel restrictions will apply only to international travel.

Several other social distancing restrictions will remain in place, including those on church services, day care attendance, and restaurant spacing and occupancy. Parades, carnivals and similar events will remain prohibited, with some exceptions.

In related news:

Milk donations.

The Alliance for the Future of Agriculture, a coalition of agriculture groups, has purchased some refrigeration units for four food banks in the state so they can take donations of milk from dairy producers, who have had to dump some milk in recent weeks because of a lack of processing capacity.

Donations are being sought to purchase more units for more food banks. To donate, go to becomeafan.org.

Unemployment claims.

New unemployment claims in the state are slowing. Just over 5,900 new claims were filed last week, about 400 fewer than the previous week, and a backlog of unprocessed claims has dropped from 64,000 a month ago to 11,500 now.

People who haven’t received checks were urged to make sure that they had filled out a weekly certification form online. Failing to do that is a common mistake that can block the receipt of benefits, State Labor Commissioner John Albin said. He said about 85% of claims are now being processed within 28 days.

World-Herald staff writer Reece Ristau contributed to this report.

Our best staff photos of May 2020

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020

Withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty would ground Offutt reconnaissance jets

The Trump administration on Thursday gave notice that it will pull out of the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, a move that would permanently ground two Offutt-based photo reconnaissance jets used to enforce the accord.

The treaty allows the U.S., Russia and 32 other nations — mostly European countries — to conduct supervised, unarmed observation flights over one another’s territory. The flights began in 2002; more than 1,500 have been flown since.

The planes carry expensive cameras, called sensors, built to specifications strictly regulated by the treaty. The U.S. aircraft, 60-year-old OC-135B jets, are maintained by the 55th Wing and flown by crews from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron at Offutt. The mission crews that operate the cameras and analyze the imagery are from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in Virginia.

On Thursday, the administration told international partners that it wants out of the treaty because Russia is violating the pact. It said imagery collected during the flights can be obtained quickly at less cost from U.S. or commercial satellites.

Thursday’s notification indicates that the U.S. will formally exit the treaty in six months. It follows an eight-month Defense Department review.

Questioned by reporters in Washington, President Donald Trump left the door open for further talks with Russia on the treaty. He said Russia and the U.S. “have a very good relationship” right now and speculated that Russia might ask to renegotiate the pact.

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“There’s a very good chance we’ll make a new agreement, or do something to put that agreement back together,” Trump said.

The pullout has been opposed by Trump’s fellow Republicans in Nebraska’s congressional delegation.

“I think it’s a mistake we’re pulling out,” said Rep. Don Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general who once commanded the 55th Wing. “The most important thing is that our allies want it. Our more junior NATO partners rely on this imagery.”

The treaty has its roots in an idea first proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s that was rejected by the Soviets. President George H.W. Bush resurrected the idea at the end of the Cold War, and his administration negotiated the treaty.

Open Skies enjoyed bipartisan support until several years ago, when a faction of Republicans alleged that Russia has been leveraging it to gain an unfair advantage over the U.S. and began efforts to scuttle the treaty.

The critics have cited Russia’s restrictions of flights along the border with the neighboring Republic of Georgia, where pro-Russian breakaway governments have declared independence. The Russians have also restricted the length of flights over Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea that is packed with military sites.

But the treaty’s defenders say it is still valuable, especially to our allies, by letting them keep an eye on one another. It also keeps NATO militaries working together, as most U.S. missions are flown in partnership with other countries.

Nebraska’s Republican congressional delegation has joined with Democrats in supporting the treaty. Bacon, Sen. Deb Fischer and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry have led efforts to secure funding for replacements for the aged OC-135Bs, which were built by Boeing at the dawn of the jet age.

The Trump administration’s budget justification document says the OC-135Bs have experienced “decreasing mission reliability due to age, difficulties with out-of-production parts, and increased operating costs.” The document said that because of failures in their engines, fuel systems, landing gear, generators and airframes, the planes have completed just 65% of their missions between 2007 and 2017.

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“By not recapitalizing the Open Skies aircraft, we are adding risk to our aircrews,” Bacon said. “The current aircraft are old, have bad maintenance rates and are prone to breakdown in Russia, putting our crews in bad situations where they are harassed by Russian authorities.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper toured one of the planes and spoke with crew members during a February visit to Offutt.

Congress has appropriated at least $41.5 million for replacing the jets in its 2020 budget. About $250 million is needed.

In March, Esper halted the bidding process on the two new aircraft, which were slated for delivery starting in 2024, citing uncertainty over whether the U.S. would continue in the treaty.

Last winter, Fischer, Bacon and Fortenberry persuaded Congress to include a provision in the Defense Authorization Act requiring the administration to give 120 days notice to Congress and provide other justifications before it could withdraw from the treaty.

Bacon said Thursday that he’s not aware that the Pentagon has complied.

“We expect them to follow it,” he said.

Bacon’s Democratic opponent, Kara Eastman, also criticized the Trump administration’s action. She said she thought that Bacon should oppose it more forcefully.

“Our allies in Europe have urged us to stay in this pact but of course, Donald Trump is ignoring these important alliances,” she said in a statement.

Last month, top Democrats on the Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees in both the House and the Senate wrote to Trump, accusing the president of “ramming” a withdrawal from the treaty. They said it would undermine U.S. alliances with European nations that rely on the treaty to hold Russia accountable for its military activities in the region.

”The administration’s effort to make a major change to our national security policy in the midst of a global health crisis is not only shortsighted, but also unconscionable,” wrote Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J. “This effort appears intended to limit appropriate congressional consultation on, and scrutiny of, the decision.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Offutt Air Force Base through the years

Photos: Offutt Air Force Base through the years

Omaha man is charged with first-degree murder in slaying of convicted sex offender

Inmates in a medical unit at the Douglas County Jail greeted an Omaha man charged with killing a convicted sex offender with a standing ovation, the man’s attorney said Thursday.

James Fairbanks, who was arrested Tuesday, also has had more than $1,200 placed into his commissary account, attorney Steve Lefler said — apparently from donors who cheer Fairbanks as a hero online.

But Chief Deputy Douglas County Attorney Brenda Beadle said Thursday that Fairbanks shouldn’t have taken the law into his own hands, which is why he was arrested.

“I don’t classify somebody who would kill somebody in cold blood a hero,” she said. “He doesn’t get to be the judge and jury. That’s why we have a system in place.”

In court Thursday afternoon, Fairbanks, 43, was ordered held without bail on charges of first- degree murder and use of a firearm to commit a felony. Authorities say he fatally shot 64-year-old Mattieo Condoluci on May 14 at Condoluci’s home at 4305 Pinkney St. Officials said Fairbanks later wrote an email to local news outlets taking responsibility for the slaying.

The email writer said he was apartment hunting in the neighborhood where Condoluci lived and learned of him while investigating the neighborhood. The author said he works with children and was agonized thinking of the damage that child predators do.

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“(I) couldnt (sic) in good conscience allow him to do it to anyone else while I had the means to stop him,” the email said.

Lefler said he hasn’t asked Fairbanks if he wrote the letter. But Fairbanks, who is on leave from his job at the Omaha Public Schools, wants a jury to hear his rationale, Lefler said.

In arguing to Douglas County Judge Thomas Harmon that Fairbanks deserves a $500,000 bail, Lefler said Condoluci’s daughter Amanda Henry was pleased to hear of her father’s death.

“She is relieved because there has been a potential predator that has been eliminated from our community,” he said. Fairbanks, he said, “is not a threat to the citizens of our community who respect the rights of our children.”

When a reporter asked Lefler to explain that statement outside of court, he said it was “pretty obvious” and declined to say anything further.

Beadle interpreted Lefler’s statement to mean that he acknowledges that his client is a threat to some people.

“We charge people with child abuse on a regular basis, and it doesn’t mean that we want the citizens of our community to go kill all those people,” she said. “Obviously (Fairbanks) is a danger, and he is a threat.”

Henry attended the hearing and plans to continue to support Fairbanks, although she said she’s unable to help him financially. She is a part of a Facebook group called “Free James Fairbanks,” started by the mother of a Florida boy Condoluci was convicted of molesting in 1994. Condoluci was also convicted in 2007 of child sexual assault in Sarpy County.

Henry supports an online petition asking President Donald Trump to pardon Fairbanks, which has more than 12,000 signatures.

She said it’s hard to consider her father a victim.

“He’s hurt so many people,” she said. “It was a matter of time before somebody did it.”

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