With the coronavirus pandemic continuing, Nebraska takes its next step Monday to lift restrictions, restart activities and open to more business.
As of last week, Nebraska was still adding an average of about 170 new COVID-19 cases a day.
But citing progress and encouraging signs in fighting the virus, Gov. Pete Ricketts authorized a further loosening of his directed health measures.
Certain rule changes around sports and elective surgeries will apply statewide.
A total of 89 counties, including the Omaha metro area and Lincoln, will move to what’s considered Phase 3 of reopening, allowing further opening of large gatherings, bars, restaurants, child care centers and a number of other places.
In the remaining four counties — Dakota, Hall, Hamilton and Merrick — the public health restrictions will open up to Phase 2, where the other counties are now.
Here’s an explainer of how the new rules work and where Nebraska stands on the pandemic.
The coronavirus is still spreading. Why is the governor doing this now?
Ricketts wants to “get Nebraska growing” after the economic hit from the pandemic. The governor’s approach is to reopen step by step, letting each phase prove it can happen safely.
What are the rules on large gatherings?
Indoor gatherings can go up to 50% of their rated occupancy. Outdoor gatherings can go up to 75%. But in any case, they can’t exceed 10,000.
This applies to a whole list of places: Indoor or outdoor arenas, auditoriums, stadiums and tracks, indoor theaters, indoor or outdoor auctions, fairgrounds, festivals, zoos, event conference rooms and meeting halls, libraries, swimming pools or “any other confined indoor or outdoor space.”
But within that, individual groups can’t have more than eight people, and groups are suggested to be 6 feet apart.
For places that hold 500 or more people, reopening plans or plans to expand to higher capacity must be submitted to the local health department. In Douglas County, that applies to places that hold 1,000 or more.
Bars and restaurants could already reopen. What changes?
They can now hold up to 100% of their rated occupancy — up from 50%. Instead of six people in a group, an individual party can go up to eight people. Patrons can now eat food at bar seating. Bar games are allowed.
What’s opening up on sports?
The earlier rules allowed non-contact and limited-contact sports: Baseball, softball, volleyball, golf and tennis. That will expand to contact sports, including basketball, tackle football, soccer and wrestling. As for timing, that will expand July 1, not on Monday.
But on Monday, fans who aren’t household family of the players can attend games.
The sports changes apply statewide.
What about wedding and funeral receptions? Any changes?
Seated parties can be a little larger — eight people per table instead of six. Limited dancing is allowed.
Self-serve buffets remain prohibited.
What else will have restrictions relaxed?
Several other things are changing.
Elective surgeries: Hospitals and other health centers can schedule surgeries as they see fit. Restrictions requiring them to meet a certain capacity first are being lifted.
Child care centers: The rules had put a maximum of 15 children per room. But that can expand to 20 children per room for 3-year-olds, 24 children for 4- and 5-year-olds, and 30 children for K-12 age kids.
Gyms: They can go up to 75% occupancy.
Salons, barbershops and various parlors: They can go to 75% occupancy, too. Customers and workers must still wear masks.
What else remains prohibited?
Parades, carnivals, midways, dances, street dances and beer gardens.
Should I wear a mask when I’m out?
Yes — masks are the clear recommendation from health experts. With the exception of salons and parlors, the rules don’t require masks. But they’re a quick and easy way to make a difference against the coronavirus.
Where does Nebraska stand in the pandemic?
Nebraska’s COVID-19 figures reflect improvement from the pandemic’s peak. But the coronavirus is far from gone.
Back on May 7, when the coronavirus was hitting Grand Island, Nebraska recorded a single-day high of 677 new COVID-19 cases, according to figures from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. A week before that, the state had single-day gains of 544 and 525 cases.
On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday last week, the state recorded 180, 195 and 189 new cases each day.
Those numbers are even down from a couple of weeks ago. Still, people remain susceptible to catching the virus in the community.
Ricketts calls hospitalization data his benchmark. What does that show?
As of late last week, hospitals around the state had 42% of their beds open and 45% of their intensive care beds available, according to state figures. Plus, 80% of all ventilators were available.
In the Omaha area, hospitalizations are trending down. Friday, the Douglas County Health Department reported 104 patients with a confirmed case of COVID-19 in Omaha area hospitals — the lowest total since May 10.
Statewide, about 150 people were hospitalized as of late last week. With about 100 people in Omaha area hospitals and 25 in Lincoln hospitals, that means a couple dozen are hospitalized around the rest of the state.
We have to see how coronavirus cases respond to more people being out and about. Some other parts of the country are seeing a resurgence as they open more.
But Ricketts is already looking ahead to the next phase of reopening, although he says he has not decided when that might happen.
What are the biggest changes in the next reopening phase?
Public gatherings — including indoor arena events or games at outdoor stadiums — can potentially have 10,000 people.
Bars and restaurants can reach 100% of their capacity.
Plus, contact sports — basketball (yes, basketball is considered a contact sport), football and soccer — are allowed.