LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts announced steps Wednesday that should allow a return to near normal across most of Nebraska.
The governor said all counties, except Lancaster, will be in a Phase 4 directed health measure as of Monday. Twenty-seven were already in that phase.
That phase limits the size of indoor gatherings but drops all other state-imposed mandates, including restrictions on restaurants, bars, gyms, child care centers, salons, weddings and funerals. Those entities are encouraged to follow voluntary guidelines to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
Even now, in Phase 3, bars and restaurants may serve as much as 100% of their rated customer occupancy. But, as of Monday, there no longer will be restrictions on the number of people seated together in those businesses. In Phase 3, no more than eight people are allowed to sit together. Beginning Monday, groups larger than eight won't have to split into multiple tables.
Also on Monday, self-serve buffets and salad bars no longer will be off-limits.
Locally imposed mask mandates in Omaha and Lincoln will remain in place, however. Both require people to wear face coverings in most indoor public spaces where they are not able to maintain 6 feet of social distance. There are several exceptions.
Ricketts did not elaborate about his reasons for the change at a press conference. His spokesman, Taylor Gage, pointed to the governor’s past comments about taking steps to slow the spread of the coronavirus to keep enough hospital beds and ventilators available for those who need them.
“Protecting hospital capacity has always been the goal,” Gage said. “Hospital capacity remains very stable.”
State numbers show that 38% of hospital beds, 34% of intensive care unit beds and 83% of ventilators were available as of Tuesday evening. At the same time, Nebraska ranks 19th highest in the rate of coronavirus cases among states, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.
Last week, Douglas County Health Director Adi Pour said Omaha is still struggling with infections. She said communities with the coronavirus under control have a positive test rate below 5% and no more than 10 new cases per day per million people based on a seven-day rolling average, the equivalent of 6 cases in Omaha.
Instead, the county’s positivity rate was about 9.6% for the week that ended Saturday and the county has been seeing about 90 to 100 new daily cases. Lancaster County’s positivity rate was 13.3% for the same week.
In earlier comments, Pat Lopez, Lincoln-Lancaster County health director, said Lancaster County would not move into Phase 4 this month, noting that the numbers of cases have increased with the return of college students and the reopening of schools. She said some “adjustments” to the local restrictions will be announced later.
“This is the time not only to stay the course, but also to redouble our efforts in Lancaster County,” Lopez said. “We need to do what is best for our community to overcome the impacts of this virus.”
The state began imposing directed health measures in March, when the coronavirus first began spreading in the state. Initial restrictions, which included closing sit-down service at restaurants and bars, have been gradually relaxed as the need for hospital beds and ventilators has declined.
In phase 4, indoor gatherings will be limited to 75% of capacity at a time. Facilities that hold more than 500 people, or, in Douglas County, more than 1,000 people, must have their reopening plans reviewed by health officials. Outdoor gatherings can go up to 100% of an area’s capacity.
Some limits still will be in effect for gatherings. As it stands now, indoor gatherings are limited to 50% of rated occupancy. Beginning Monday, that restriction will rise to 75%.
For outdoor gatherings, the limit will rise from 75% to 100% of rated occupancy. Both indoors and outdoors, the gatherings are not to exceed 10,000 people.
At those gatherings, groups still will be asked to remain 6 feet apart.
Under Phase 3, parades, carnivals, midways, dances, street dances and beer gardens are prohibited. Those restrictions no longer will be in place.
Ricketts said a technical problem with TestNebraska slowed the reporting of coronavirus test results leading up to and through the Labor Day weekend. The glitch was discovered because the state public health data system was not receiving results, even though the laboratory had continued to process tests.
Dr. Gary Anthone, state medical officer, said the problem could not be fixed until Tuesday morning. The results have since been transmitted to the state system, producing a spike in the number of tests reported. He said the problem delayed people from getting test results for three to four days but did not affect the lab results.
Ricketts said the issue was unrelated to the weekend closure of TestNebraska sites in Omaha. He said testing was shut down to give workers time off.
A total of 66 Nebraska counties, including Hall, Hamilton and Merrick, will move from Phase 3 to Phase 4 on Monday "unless hospitalizations dramatically change," the state Department of Health and Human Services said.
Teresa Anderson of the Central District Health Department said the plan to go to Phase 4 is on track.
Even though Phase 4 is arriving, "we still want folks to be very diligent in wearing masks and keeping that social distance, staying home when you're sick, washing hands frequently," Anderson said.
For churches, Central District Health still wants individuals who are at high risk to play it safe.
"If you're sick or if you have an underlying health condition, stay home," Anderson said.
Health officials are concerned about "the number of quarantines and isolations that we're doing, in trying to keep those under control, while we continue through the fall," Anderson said.
"We're going into a critical period of time where we may in the next few weeks see increasing numbers of cases, based on what the experts tell us," she said, referring to the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
"So we want to be very careful as we move into the fall and very aware that the virus is still here."
Masks continue to be recommended "because we know that when you wear a mask, it protects others," Anderson said.
She has heard people say, "I'm not sick. Why do I have to wear a mask?"
"The truth is still that there is asymptomatic spread of the virus," Anderson said. "So even if you feel OK yourself, we want you to know that you are protecting others when you put that mask on."
She also wants people to know that "we're coming right up on influenza season. And so we want folks to be aware that flu shots are available now. This is a good time to seek a flu shot. If our COVID rates go up, let's get those flu shots now, so that we don't have to worry about them later."
Counties moving to Phase 4 on Monday include Adams, Clay, Nuckolls and Webster, which comprise the South Heartland District Health Department jurisdiction.