Nebraska to ease some restrictions on churches, restaurants

April 24, 2020 GMT
Vials used in the test to detect the presence of COVID-19 are seen at a testing site affiliated with the Methodist Health System, in Omaha, Neb., Friday, April 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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Vials used in the test to detect the presence of COVID-19 are seen at a testing site affiliated with the Methodist Health System, in Omaha, Neb., Friday, April 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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Vials used in the test to detect the presence of COVID-19 are seen at a testing site affiliated with the Methodist Health System, in Omaha, Neb., Friday, April 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Life in the Omaha area and other parts of Nebraska will start inching back toward normal on May 4, Gov. Pete Ricketts announced Friday as he unveiled plans to loosen the state’s coronavirus restrictions.

Ricketts said he will relax restrictions in 59 counties, including Douglas, Sarpy and Cass in the Omaha area, but not Lancaster, which includes Lincoln.

“We want to tailor this to each region,” Ricketts said at a news conference. “If we don’t have a significant spread of the virus in these communities, the things we are doing are really very incremental.”

The new orders, which will be in effect until May 31, will allow restaurants in chosen counties to reopen their dining rooms but require them to keep crowds at or below half of their rated occupancy. Dining parties would be limited to six people, and buffets would remain closed. Bars would have to keep their dining areas closed.

Salons and tattoo parlors in those areas will be allowed to reopen as long as they prevent more than 10 people from gathering in one place. The state will also relax restrictions on day care centers in those regions, allowing up to 15 children per room instead of the current 10.

Nebraska is one of the handful of states without a formal stay-at-home order, although many of the restrictions Ricketts imposed are similar. The Republican governor has taken a regional approach with restrictions. The counties where restrictions are being relaxed were chosen based on their locations within the state’s public health districts, which have seen vastly different numbers of cases. Some rural counties still haven’t seen any confirmed cases.

Despite the new orders, Ricketts said he wasn’t recommending one way or the other whether people should go to eateries. He said people with underlying health conditions or the elderly may still want to avoid large gatherings.

“It’s going to be a personal determination, whatever you’re comfortable with,” he said.

A few hours later, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert announced that she will reopen the city’s public parks on Saturday with limited daytime hours. Playgrounds will remain closed and visitors will still have to abide by the city’s 10-person crowd limit, she said.

“We figure our parks are big enough that people can spread out and follow that 6 foot rule, but we don’t want to see big groups of people,” she said.

Ricketts said he hasn’t yet ordered similar changes in the Lincoln area because that region’s public health restrictions don’t expire until May 6. The restrictions in the Omaha area were set to expire April 30.

The regional orders don’t apply to hard-hit areas in Hall, Dawson or Dakota counties, which are home to meatpacking plants and have seen a recent spike in cases.

Statewide, Ricketts said churches will be allowed to resume in-person services, weddings and funerals on May 4 with some restrictions, but he urged vulnerable people to continue avoiding crowds. Families attending services will have to remain at least 6 feet away from other families, and congregants won’t be allowed to pass around collection baskets or other items.

Ricketts said relaxing the rules on church services is partly an outreach effort to immigrants and non-English speakers to stress the importance of the state’s social-distancing guidelines.

“We feel like we can do a better job reaching out to them through religious organizations,” he said.

Ricketts said hospitals in areas where restrictions are being relaxed have been able to treat all of their infected patients so far and still have a lot of available beds, intensive care unit space and ventilators.

“All of this is focused around the health care system,” he said. “If we’re not overwhelming the health care system, we’re winning. That’s our goal.”

Nebraska state health officials reported two new COVID-19 deaths late Thursday, bringing the state’s total deaths from the disease to 47 since the outbreak began.

Two counties in rural central Nebraska — Greeley and Sherman counties — also reported their first confirmed cases of the virus on Thursday, officials said.

Of the two new deaths reported Thursday, one was a man in his 60s in hard-hit Hall County. Officials gave no details about where the second death occurred, saying more information would be released later.


For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

Nebraska’s online coronavirus tracking portal show 2,124 confirmed cases in the state by Friday morning. More than 18,700 people had been tested for the virus statewide, with 16,488 of them testing negative for the illness. The actual number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.


Associated Press writer Margery A. Beck in Omaha contributed to this report.


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