LINCOLN — By May 4, diners can begin returning to restaurants in the Omaha area and several other areas of Nebraska lightly impacted by the coronavirus, Gov. Pete Ricketts announced on Friday.
The decision to begin relaxing the state’s COVID-19 restrictions, the governor said, was based on “hard data” that hospitals and intensive care units are not being swamped, and not on pressure to reopen the economy.
“If we’re not overwhelming our health care system, we’re winning,” Ricketts said.
The decision also includes a resumption of religious services, weddings and funerals, with restrictions. Tattoo parlors, hair salons and massage studios will also be allowed to reopen. And child care centers will be allowed to have 15 children per room, up from 10.
The announcement came as some other states, including Georgia, Oklahoma and Alaska, are moving to reopen restaurants, personal care and some other businesses, according to CNN. Six states, including Colorado and Minnesota, are easing some restrictions next week.
In Omaha, restaurant owners and health officials greeted Friday’s news with a mixture of elation and caution. Dine-in service at restaurants and fast-food outlets has been shut down for more than a month.
“I may pop a cork tonight,” said John Wade, director of operations for Restaurants Inc., which operates six eateries in Omaha, including Stokes and Taxi’s.
He predicted a mixed reaction from patrons.
“Certainly there are going to be those who are more at risk, who are going to be cautious and continue to do takeout,” Wade said. “But I think there are others who have been cooped up and chomping at the bit to get out.”
Some health professionals, including one with experience in Lexington — one of the state’s hot spots — expressed doubt about relaxing restrictions now.
And State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha criticized Ricketts’ decision, saying it was much too soon to relax restrictions.
“He is a miniature Trump. He is trying to replicate Trump,” said Chambers, a frequent critic of the governor, in reference to calls by the president to reopen the nation’s economy.
State Sen. Megan Hunt wrote on Twitter, “I am concerned that the motivation for allowing restaurants/churches/salons/etc to reopen is to get people off unemployment + ineligible for pandemic assistance checks. We can’t ask people to expose themselves or their employees to danger and then give them no financial support.”
But Ricketts said his decision was all about statistics that show the state’s health care resources are not being overwhelmed by the virus.
In the Omaha area, for instance, 75% of the ventilators are available for COVID-19 patients, the governor said. As of Friday afternoon, 38 of the state’s 93 counties had reported no positive tests for the coronavirus, though Ricketts said the state will be monitoring to make sure cases don’t surge there or elsewhere in the state.
The hardest-hit areas of the state will not see restrictions relaxed on May 4, Ricketts said, and the ban on gatherings of more than 10 people — which is enforceable by law — will remain in effect statewide through May.
But in the 10 public health districts across the state that have been “lightly impacted,” Ricketts said, restaurants can partially reopen, religious services can resume with proper social distancing, and barbershops and beauty salons will be back in business.
The regional public health districts where restrictions are loosening, besides the Douglas County Health Department and the Sarpy/Cass Health Department: East Central, Four Corners, Loup Basin, North Central, Northeast Nebraska, Panhandle, Southeast and Southwest.
Ricketts said Lancaster County, the state’s second-most populous county, was not included in Friday’s announcement because the directed health measures there expire later, on May 6. The Central Health District, which includes Hall County — the county with the highest number of cases in the state — was not included, nor was the Two Rivers Public Health Department, which includes Lexington, another hot spot.
“We want to tailor this in each region,” the governor said. “The things we are doing are very incremental ... and are appropriate for those districts.”
Religious services, prayer gatherings, weddings and funerals will be allowed statewide as long as household groups are separated by 6 feet and nothing is passed among participants.
Tattoo parlors, barbershops, beauty salons and massage studios will be allowed to reopen as long as both patrons and the service providers are wearing masks.
Restaurants will be allowed to serve at 50% capacity with parties of no more than six, seated at least 6 feet from other tables. Bars and movie theaters will remain closed, and people will not be allowed to sit at the bar in a restaurant. Self-serve buffets will not be allowed.
Bottle clubs will not be allowed to reopen for sit-down service under the new health directives. Nursing homes, because of their vulnerable residents, will also remain off-limits to visitors.
Adi Pour, the head of the Douglas County Health Department, urged caution, and said she would not recommend that people in the high-risk category, like the elderly or those with existing health problems, resume outings to restaurants or church.
“We’ll phase this in, with some input from the different sectors,” Pour said. “If anything changes, I’m not against going to the governor and saying can we look at this again.”
Even Ricketts, as he left his coronavirus briefing on Friday, said he didn’t expect churches to immediately fill with worshippers.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said she plans to patronize restaurants again, but people must strike a balance between safety and being able to socialize again.
“We have to let people get out a little,” Stothert said.
Two other health professionals expressed concern about relaxing restrictions.
Dr. Bob Rauner, the Lincoln-based chief medical officer for a network of 58 independent medical clinics in Nebraska, said easing some restrictions in Omaha might be OK if its rates of infection are stable. But the concern is if testing levels aren’t adequate, the virus could spread undetected before official case counts catch up.
In Grand Island and Lexington, he said, local doctors knew hot spots were forming a week or two before they showed up.
“By the time you know it’s a problem in Omaha, it will be too late,” said Rauner, who has a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins University. “You’re supposed to see a decline in new cases for two weeks before you do this.”
Right now, labs in the state are performing between 600 and 800 tests a day. The state health department on Friday encouraged health care providers to test additional Nebraskans. Ricketts’ testnebraska.com initiative, under which up to 3,000 tests will be conducted daily, is still several days away.
Dr. Joe Miller of Omaha, a retired physician who practiced in Lexington for more than 30 years, said Omahans have done a fairly good job of physical distancing. But he, too, is concerned about opening up without more testing.
“You have to have good testing in place … so you can catch it right away and shut it down right away,” Miller said. He spoke Friday after dropping off 462 sterile gowns in Lexington.
Wade, the Omaha restaurateur, said that his management team was in a meeting, planning for a May 1 reopening — the day after directed health measures were set to expire in Douglas, Sarpy and Cass Counties — when they learned of Ricketts’ announcement.
His eateries had switched to carryout meals only, but with greatly diminished staffing. Now, he’s working on how to make sure diners are spread out. Wade said safety will be foremost on the minds of restaurant operators.
“We had already some things in motion for May 1. But May 4, we are very excited for,” he said.
The governor made the announcement one day after the number of confirmed cases passed 2,000 in Nebraska.
As of Friday, the total hit 2,421 and the number of deaths reached 50.
The number of cases in Nebraska continues to climb as the state sees outbreaks tied to meatpacking plants. More than 11% of tests now are coming back positive, reflecting the virus’s spread, with rates as high as 40% in Dawson County, Ricketts said.
The rate of positive tests, he said, was taken into consideration when deciding where — and where not — to relax restrictions. Ricketts added that the total number of positive tests was less of a factor, because that number has been expected to rise with expanded testing.