LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts said Thursday that it’s too early to know whether rodeos can be held, wedding receptions set or the Nebraska State Fair can proceed as scheduled.

The same goes for youth soccer, adult sports, the reopening of bars, and pretty much any other event or business that brings more than 10 people together.

“Stay tuned,” Ricketts said at his daily coronavirus briefing. “We won’t know until we get a little bit more data here in the month of May what June will look like, much less what is going to happen in July or August.”

He said the state is moving step by step to ease up on social distancing restrictions. So far, 73 counties have been allowed to reopen restaurants, hair salons and other close-contact businesses, with restrictions. Another 16 will be able to do so on Monday. Religious services, including weddings and funerals, are being allowed statewide, also within limits.

The most recent step was to allow youth baseball and softball teams to start organized practices on June 1 and games on June 18.

But Ricketts said state officials are watching closely to see what happens under the relaxed restrictions before loosening up any more.

He said it will take about two weeks to see whether the changes lead to more cases. That’s how long it can be before someone starts showing symptoms after being infected. If all goes well through the rest of May, Ricketts said, the state could consider relaxing the 10-person limit on gatherings in June.

“It’s difficult to forecast how big of crowds we will get to until we actually get some experience loosening those restrictions,” he said.

Ricketts said he is watching two key measures: the rate of tests that come back positive for the coronavirus and hospital capacity. The rate of positive tests is one way of judging how widespread the virus is in a community.

Hospital capacity reflects how well the state is doing at slowing the spread of the virus and keeping the health care system from being overwhelmed. Typically, a certain percentage of those with the coronavirus will wind up needing hospital care, with some of them needing intensive care and ventilators.

Part of the decision-making will also depend on the state’s ability to do contact tracing. Ricketts said 277 state employees who have been trained to do contact tracing are now helping local health departments.

“This is an important part of how we tackle the virus head-on,” he said, “so everybody else can lead a more normal life.”

Felicia Quintana-Zinn, a deputy division director at the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, said tracers contact people who have tested positive for the coronavirus to find out who they might have exposed to the virus. In most cases, exposure occurs if people are less than 6 feet from one another for 10 minutes or more.

Next, the tracers contact the people who might have been exposed and direct them on whether to self-quarantine or simply monitor for symptoms of the virus. The goal is to prevent those people from spreading the virus further. Quintana-Zinn said people exposed to the virus are advised to talk with their own health care providers or the local health department about whether they need testing.

She said state officials are looking at contracting with private firms to increase the number of contact tracers. The goal is to beef up until the state has 1,000 tracers.


Our best staff photos of May 2020

Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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