Gov. Pete Ricketts on Monday announced the further loosening of restrictions implemented to control the spread of the coronavirus in Nebraska, suggesting that reporting data indicates that infection from the virus is "on a downward slide" in the state.
In announcing an easing of restrictions effective June 22, the governor looked ahead to transforming state-mandated restrictions into more of a policy of guidance from the state, perhaps as early as sometime in July.
However, the governor noted, the large crowds of protesters who have recently gathered on streets in Nebraska to protest the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis represent "a cause for concern" about renewed spread of the virus.
As a result of those gatherings, "we can expect more cases," Ricketts said.
"We will continue to monitor this very closely," the governor said during an afternoon news conference at the Capitol.
Ricketts announced that current Phase 2 restrictions in 89 of the state's 93 counties, including Lancaster County, will be eased to Phase 3 effective June 22. At that time, bars and restaurants will be able to serve patrons at full capacity.
Currently, guests are limited to 50% of capacity.
Social distancing guidelines will remain in place, Ricketts said, but guests can be seated in groups of eight, up from six currently.
Patrons in bars and restaurants will be required to be seated, but pool, darts and arcade games will be allowed as long as people have a seat to go back to. Self-serve buffets and salad bars still will be prohibited.
Four counties — Hall, Hamilton, Merrick and Dakota — will move from the state's strictest rules to the restrictions currently in place in all other counties June 22.
In other changes effective next week:
* Fan attendance for youth games can be expanded beyond immediate family members.
* There will be no further restrictions on elective surgeries.
* Limits on room capacity at child care facilities will be expanded.
Attendance at indoor events will expand to 50% of capacity, not to exceed 10,000 people. Indoor spaces include movie theaters, conference rooms and concert halls.
For outdoor venues, attendance can go to 75% of capacity, also with a cap of 10,000 people.
When the move is made to Phase 4, proposed guidelines will allow for 75% capacity for indoor events with no cap on outdoor events other than maintaining 6 feet of distance between groups.
Although the trajectory for continuing to open up the state is good, Ricketts said, "this is not a green light for football at Memorial Stadium yet."
In all cases, plans for large events must be approved by local health departments.
At the midpoint of the June calendar, the governor said, available data supports the loosening of restrictions.
Nebraska enjoys "a robust hospital capacity today" as measured in terms of available beds, intensive care unit beds and ventilators, he said.
Even in hard-hit Douglas County, hospitalization for coronavirus patients is "on a downward swing," he said.
In Hall County, where COVID-19 cases surged in April, the positive rate on tests dropped from a peak of 44% to just 2% on Monday.
Testing for infection by the virus is accelerating along with contact tracing that identifies other Nebraskans who may have been exposed to the virus by those who have tested positive, Ricketts said.
State officials are working with nursing homes on plans to ease restrictions on residents and visitors.
"There hasn't been a validated death in the last two weeks at long-term care facilities," said Dr. Gary Anthone, the state's chief medical officer. That's where the virus has taken its greatest toll, with 99 assisted-care residents among the 220 confirmed coronavirus deaths in the state.
Ricketts said he is committed to "a step-by-step approach" to loosening restrictions based on data so Nebraskans can "go back to a more normal life," but he also has previously said that he is prepared to begin tightening restrictions once again if needed.
Hopefully sometime in July, he said, he can make an announcement moving from restrictions to a policy of guidance that "will give people an opportunity to look out ahead and start to doing your planning."
Ricketts said his expectation is that "schools will be operating with kids in the classroom this fall" and that family members will be able to begin visiting their relatives in long-term care facilities perhaps as early as later this month.