LINCOLN — The social distancing restrictions that curbed travel in Nebraska apparently cleared the roads for extreme speeders.
Nebraska State Patrol Superintendent John Bolduc said Tuesday that troopers have cited 177 drivers for going more than 100 mph since the restrictions began. He said that represents a “substantial increase” over pre-pandemic levels.
Speaking at Gov. Pete Ricketts’ daily coronavirus briefing, Bolduc attributed the spike to the state’s directed health measures, which discouraged travel and encouraged people to stay home. Traffic counts have dropped since Ricketts imposed the first measure on March 19.
“I think the opportunity is there, and some folks are taking advantage of it,” Bolduc said, while warning that “it’s not safe to travel at those speeds on our Interstates.”
He said people should not think they can get away with extreme speeding just because of the pandemic. But he did say troopers have been advised to use discretion in handling situations to reduce their potential exposure to the virus.
So far, no troopers have tested positive for coronavirus, although a few have had to self-isolate after arresting people who claimed to be infected. Testing showed that neither the troopers nor the people they arrested had the virus.
Along with normal duties like stopping speeders, troopers have been helping with the state’s response to the coronavirus, Bolduc said. They have provided security at a number of mobile testing sites around the state, often working at sites where Nebraska National Guard members are helping with the testing.
They also have delivered samples from those testing sites to the public health laboratory in Lincoln. Bolduc said the patrol took on the latter task at the request of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
Bolduc compared the patrol’s efforts in this crisis to their work during last year’s severe weather and floods.
“You just adapt, and you solve the problems that come at you,” he said.
The briefing came one day after Nebraska recorded its 100th virus-related death. Ricketts said 62 deaths were among residents of long-term care facilities, including nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
A total of 292 residents and 218 employees of long-term care facilities have tested positive for the coronavirus. Ricketts’ policy is to release aggregate numbers only. The state does not release information on specific facilities, unlike Iowa and many other states.
Nebraska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Gary Anthone, said 192 people are hospitalized for coronavirus across the state. That includes 81 people who are in intensive care, with 56 of them on ventilators. But he said hospital capacity remains good and hospital beds are only about half-full statewide.
Many of the questions posed to Ricketts on Tuesday concerned the relaxing of restrictions, particularly involving bars. The governor said he will not allow bars to open during May but will watch the disease trends to see about a later reopening date.
He said bars are a particular concern because they attract gatherings of people. At a typical crowded bar, “Was there 6 feet of distance between anybody?” he asked.
As for other events and activities, he said he has a team working on how county fairs might proceed. Auto racing and horse racing can be held as long as participants observe social distancing guidelines and there are no fans. He encouraged people to call his office to see what might be possible on those events. No guidance is available yet for the Cornhusker State Games or the Seward Independence Day festivities.
Ricketts said many decisions will hinge on what happens under the current loosening of restrictions. He said he wants to make sure that cases do not overwhelm the health care system, which means being able to keep at least 30% of beds, intensive care beds and ventilators available. State officials are tracking capacity on a hospital by hospital basis.