Virus Outbreak Nebraska

Neb. Gov. Pete Ricketts speaks at a news conference about the coronavirus outbreak in Lincoln, Neb., Thursday, April 16, 2020. 

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska will let bars, zoos, movie theaters and swimming pools reopen and allow small concerts and auctions to resume on June 1 in all but four hard-hit counties, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Thursday as the number of coronavirus deaths continued to rise.

Ricketts announced plans to further loosen social-distancing restrictions, saying he's trying to strike a balance between public health and the need to move back toward normal life as people grow restless.

“We're taking this a step at a time,” he said at a news conference.

He made the announcement as state officials reported six more coronavirus deaths and 276 new cases in Nebraska as of Wednesday night, bringing the statewide totals to 138 deaths and 11,122 confirmed cases. Nearly 75,900 people have been tested.

The number of new cases has trended downward, however, since the one-day peak of 677 on May 7. Ricketts has said he's using Nebraska's hospital capacity to judge when to ease restrictions, and those numbers have remained fairly stable. Even so, public health officials say people still need to practice social-distancing measures to keep the virus from spreading.

Businesses that do reopen will still face mandatory social distancing restrictions. For instance, the number of patrons allowed in bars will be limited to half of the venue's rated capacity, and groups of customers will have to remain at least six people apart. Patrons won't be allowed to play pool, darts or arcade games or eat at the bar.

Nebraska will also allow gatherings of up to 25 people or 25% of a venue's rated occupancy, whichever is greater, as long as the total crowd doesn't exceed 3,000 people.

The new requirement will replace the state's current 10-person limit and will apply to both indoor and outdoor venues, including stadiums, fairgrounds, meeting halls, zoos, libraries and swimming pools. Individual groups will still be capped at six people and required to stay away from other groups.

Additionally, any event expected to draw more than 500 people will need prior approval from the county's public health director. In Omaha's Douglas County, the threshold is 1,000 people.

Ricketts will also ease rules for sports, allowing baseball, softball and volleyball teams to resume practices on June 1 and play games on June 18. Rodeos can begin on June 1, but contact sports such as football, basketball and wrestling will remain prohibited.

The changes won't apply to Hall, Hamilton, Merrick or Dakota counties, some of the hardest-hit regions in Nebraska. Hall and Dakota counties have seen particularly large spikes driven by local meatpacking plants.

On Thursday, a coalition of Latino Americans called on Ricketts and local meat packers to do more to protect plant workers who now account for a large share of Nebraska's coronavirus restrictions. Activists said conditions at the plants have generally improved, but they're still hearing reports about inconsistent use of protective equipment at some facilities.

“Unfortunately, these efforts may be seen as too little, too late,” said Yolanda Nuncio, a former member of the Nebraska state Latino American Commission. “Some of these plants have not lowered production rates, so when workers go on standard breaks, their coworkers must maintain the same rate of production.”

Asked about the criticism on Thursday, Ricketts said he has talked by phone with plant workers and union leaders to discuss their concerns. He also has said that local public health officials from the University of Nebraska Medical Center have gone out to plants to help them establish safety procedures to keep the virus from spreading.

For some infected people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe illness or death. But for most people, it causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks.

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