LINCOLN — Don’t expect things to be back to normal by Easter, especially in the Omaha and Lincoln areas, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Wednesday.
The Republican governor, at his daily coronavirus briefing, said restrictions imposed in Douglas, Lancaster and five other counties will extend several days beyond Easter, April 12, and that the spread of the virus will dictate when Nebraska officials ease restrictions there and elsewhere.
That’s all despite President Donald Trump’s expressed desire to have churches “packed again” and the country back open for business by Easter.
“Don’t expect to be in church for Easter,” Ricketts said.
He spoke as the number of coronavirus cases in Nebraska continued to climb, and tighter restrictions on social distancing were being prepared for three more counties.
Because community spread cases of coronavirus have now been identified in Lancaster, Dodge and Saunders Counties, those counties are now scheduled to join Douglas, Sarpy, Cass and Washington Counties under state-imposed directed health measures.
Those measures include a mandatory 10-person limit on crowd sizes, as well as the closing of bars, in-house dining at restaurants and elective surgeries. Churches also have suspended services. The purpose, the governor said, is to slow the spread of the potentially deadly virus and make more hospital rooms available in the event of a surge in patients.
Ricketts said there was no way to predict exactly when things could return to normal but said Nebraskans should be prepared for restrictions to last at least eight weeks. In the case of the Omaha area, the directed health measures are to be in effect until at least April 30, when they will be reviewed; in the case of Lancaster, Saunders and Dodge Counties, those restrictions extend until at least May 7.
On related issues:
- The governor joined Weysan Dun of the Nebraska Red Cross in urging Nebraskans to donate blood. The Red Cross is critically short of its blood supplies because 150 blood drives have been canceled in the state due to the pandemic, which led to 4,000 fewer donations than expected. Ricketts said that his wife, first lady Susanne Shore, has already donated blood and that he plans to donate during a March 31 blood drive scheduled for state workers in Lincoln. Dun said the Red Cross has implemented new safety measures so blood drives can resume.
- Ricketts said the state has no plans to provide an early release of any inmates, despite concerns about a coronavirus outbreak in the state’s overcrowded prisons. He said he didn’t think Nebraskans would support that. “(Inmates are) in prison for a reason,” Ricketts said. Neighboring Iowa is among the states that have allowed the release of some inmates who face a high risk of contracting the virus due to age or medical conditions. Some county jails in Iowa are also ticketing some lawbreakers instead of taking them to jail. The ACLU of Nebraska is among the groups in this state that have been urging the “compassionate release” of some elderly and ill inmates.
- Ricketts said trying to expand Medicaid immediately to give 90,000 more Nebraskans health care would actually delay implementation of the expansion, now scheduled for Oct. 1. That, he said, is because the state would have to amend and refile its waiver application to the federal government. Ricketts, who opposed Medicaid expansion, said expanding Medicaid is a bigger change that most people think, because it requires lining up new physicians and installing new software.
- The governor said county health departments can supersede the state in ordering coronavirus restrictions, as Douglas County has with hair salons and related businesses. Ricketts said he does not wish to close businesses, including those where it’s necessary for workers to be within 6 feet of a customer. He urged such business to use common sense. The Douglas County Health Department has ordered hair salons, nail salons, massage parlors and similar businesses to close, because they cannot maintain a 6-foot distance from customers.
- Jessica Kolterman of Lincoln Premium Poultry, the firm operating the huge chicken-processing plant in Fremont that supplies Costco warehouses, said the 1,000 workers there have been supportive of efforts to keep working to maintain the flow of food. Extra cleaning and other precautions have been taken, Kolterman said, and absenteeism has remained normal so far.
- The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office is joining 32 other state attorneys general in warning Amazon, eBay, Craigslist and others to rigorously monitor price gouging practices by online sellers. Price gouging online is just as illegal as it is for brick-and-mortar stores, Ricketts said. Examples include inflated prices for hand sanitizer and face masks, the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office said.
- Ricketts urged Congress to provide future aid to the states via block grants, because state and local officials have a better idea of how to spend such money.
World-Herald staff writers Jeffrey Robb and Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.