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).”
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:
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.
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.