LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts said Friday that he doesn’t expect COVID-19 infections to spike after the Memorial Day weekend and after social distancing restrictions are loosened on June 1.
One caveat — people need to continue to take precautions.
“If Nebraskans follow our rules, we’ll be fine,” Ricketts said.
Those rules, which the governor emphasized remain in effect through the holiday weekend, include avoiding groups of more than 10 people, washing hands frequently and vigorously, maintaining a distance from others of at least 6 feet, and wearing masks in stores and other public places.
“A best practice would be celebrating Memorial Day with your household,” the governor said, “but keep all celebrations to 10 people or less.”
Most Memorial Day commemorations have been canceled, though “virtual” commemorations are planned Monday by the Nebraska Department of Veterans’ Affairs, which people can watch online at veterans.nebraska.gov/memorialday, and by Offutt Air Force Base, which can be viewed on Facebook.
Some health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading member of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force, have warned of dire consequences, including more infections, if restrictions on social distancing and group activities are relaxed too soon.
But Ricketts, on Thursday, announced a long list of loosened guidelines, saying he’s trying to balance the desire of Nebraskans to return to a “more normal life” with the need to continue to control the spread of the highly contagious virus. As of Friday morning, COVID-19 had sickened more than 11,000 in the state and led to 143 deaths over the past three months.
As of June 1, bars, under social distancing restrictions, can reopen in 89 of the state’s 93 counties, and new guidelines will allow wedding receptions, concerts and even commencement exercises to return if rules are followed to separate and limit guests. In the other four counties, the hardest hit in the state, restaurants can reopen dining rooms, as long as they space tables apart and maintain less than 50% of capacity.
The Memorial Day weekend, one of the busiest for camping and outdoor activities, comes as tent camping will again be allowed in several state recreation areas. And Ricketts said Friday that out-of-state traveling, as long as visits are to an adjacent state or not one experiencing a big increase in infections, is again OK.
But the governor said following guidelines during June to limit the spread of the infection will help determine when more restrictions will be relaxed.
In related news:
» No stigma. Ricketts said Nebraskans should not “stigmatize” minority groups who have been hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak. Latinos, for instance, make up about 13% of Douglas County’s population, but have suffered 47% of the total infections there, he said, and Asians are only 4% of the total population but represent 16% of the cases.
“This virus does not care what the color of your skin is. If it can get to you, it wants to infect you,” he said.
Ricketts added that statewide figures on the race and ethnicity of those infected should be available by the end of the month.
Some Latino activists have complained that their community has been “sacrificed” and “treated as expendable,” and that the state has failed to take enough steps to protect meatpacking workers, of which a significant percentage are Latino.
» Rental assistance. Eleven state senators, led by Sue Crawford of Bellevue, called on the governor Friday to use some of the $1.2 billion in federal pandemic emergency funds to provide “rental assistance.” They said that with the governor’s order restricting evictions expiring on May 31, they expect a rush of eviction actions. Not all renters, they said, qualify for unemployment, and many are unable to pay rent because they’re still waiting for unemployment and pandemic aid checks.
“During this public health emergency, we cannot ask our most vulnerable citizens to stay home if they do not have a home to return to,” Crawford said. The federal CARES Act allows rental assistance to be paid, she said, and it would allow landlords to be paid while keeping people in their homes.
When asked about the request, Ricketts said “stay tuned,” adding that his administration will soon present a plan for spending its CARES Act funds.
Later, though, he clarified that he believes that the extra, $600-a-week pandemic aid sent to the unemployed should be enough for people to pay their rent.
» Summer school. New advice for schools on how to resume summer school classes or conduct graduation ceremonies is now available online at launchne.com, said Matt Blomstedt, the state’s education commissioner.
He said the new guidelines announced Thursday by the governor could allow schools to hold commencement exercises outdoors, in football stadiums, with proper spacing. The governor emphasized that any gathering of more than 1,000 people in Douglas County must get the OK of the local health director. Elsewhere in the state, gatherings of 500 or more need such permission.
» Health care guidance. The University of Nebraska Medical Center has put together guidance for health care providers and first responders on how to treat COVID-19 patients and other related issues. Look for the Health Care Providers Information link on the website for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
» Hospital beds. Use of intensive care unit beds — a metric Ricketts has emphasized is most important in managing the pandemic — is rising in Douglas County, and both the governor and Dr. Gary Anthone, the state’s chief medical officer, said they’re paying attention.
As of Friday, only 17% of the county’s ICU beds were available, and 30% of all hospital beds. But Anthone said he’s not worried, even though the availability rate for intensive care beds is below 20%. The Ricketts administration has used the 20% benchmark, saying that having fewer available would indicate a risk of overwhelming the health care system.
Anthone said his conversations with hospital managers and doctors indicate that they are managing, despite the heavy workload.
“I can look at the numbers all day, but the real data is talking to my colleagues ... and asking them how they’re feeling about things, are they getting out of control in Douglas County?” Anthone said Friday. “And not one of them is saying they are.”