Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts has made bringing more of a sense of normalcy back to Nebraska a top priority, even if it amounts to a potentially dangerous decision during the coronavirus pandemic.
Effective Monday, Ricketts moved much of Nebraska into phase four of the state’s reopening plan. The decision essentially terminated already loosened state health requirements on a range of areas that included bars, child care centers, gyms, restaurants and salons according to the guidance released by the state department of health and human services.
Instead of specific state restrictions on those areas, the state now says “guidance will remain and use is recommended.”
“We're at the stage right now where we're just managing the virus and so we're allowing people to be able to go back to a more normal life,” Ricketts told reporters earlier this week.
Health experts were quick to note that there are risks with Ricketts' approach. Jennifer Horney, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Delaware, told The Daily Beast that “looking at the amount of community spread that's likely right now both in the state and the region, relaxing restrictions doesn't seem to be a very smart thing to be doing right now.”
“I think that the relaxation of these kinds of measures is happening at a time when there's no evidence to show that we're ready for that,” Horney warned. “And I think Nebraska should expect to see growing case counts as activities are resumed where we know spread is a risk."
Ricketts’ decision also increased the number of people allowed to gather together in all but one of the state’s counties inside places like auditoriums, indoor theaters and meeting halls to 75 percent rated occupancy, according to the state, while outdoor venues in phase four counties can operate at full capacity. Sites for large events with a capacity of more than 500 people, or 1,000 in Douglas County which includes the city of Omaha, however have to get approval from their area’s health department, per the state’s relaxed guidelines.
But from her perspective, state Sen. Megan Hunt said she “can't find a credible public health expert (who) says it's a good idea to reopen right now.”
“My major concern about the easing of restrictions is that people are going to get complacent and comfortable and think that because the governor said so, it's completely safe to go about our business and our lives like we did before the pandemic” Hunt, a Democrat, said. “When cases are still on the rise in Nebraska, that's a really dangerous mindset to have.”
Nebraska’s test positivity rate stood at 10.2 percent as of Sept. 12, according to state data, and new case numbers have jumped repeatedly since the end of July after the state had low figures in mid to late June and early July. Compare that rate to Ohio, a state where Republican Governor Mike DeWine has taken a different path to reopening and currently has a 3.7 percent positivity rate.”
Ricketts has been among a handful of GOP governors most resistant to sweeping statewide action during the coronavirus pandemic. Nebraska never had a statewide shelter in place order or a statewide mask mandate.
But the day before a large number of counties entered phase four, the state’s largest county by population wasn’t shy about how an indoor mask order in Omaha has helped their public health situation. In a press release Sunday, the Douglas County Health Department noted the county’s cases and positivity rate had improved in a week to week comparison following a local mask order in Omaha.
The situation is tenuous in Nebraska, said Dr. Mark Rupp, professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, adding that the state is seeing a level of transmission "that should give nobody really reassurance," at this point.
The combination of the recent Labor Day holiday, the return of college classes and schools reopening and “that the final public health measures are being lifted, to more or less completely reopen business and venues,” has the health expert worrying about what could come next.
"I think the combination of those three things is pretty much a guarantee that we'll see an upswing in cases," Rupp said.
During a press conference Monday, Ricketts continued to stand by moving the state into a more aggressive reopening phase but recommended six feet of social distancing when in public and urged people to don a mask when in a store or in close quarters and “avoid crowded bars and restaurants.”
“We want to take appropriate steps to allow people to go back to that more normal life, to do some of the things we've been doing before, but be mindful that as we do this, we want to take those steps to be able to slow the spread of the virus all with the goal of making sure that we're protecting our hospital capacity,” Ricketts said.
Lancaster County, which includes the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the city of Lincoln, is the only county not entering phase four the governor said. He made clear he didn’t agree with the county’s decision, but cited a “carve out” in state statute that allowed Lancaster to hold back outside of the governor’s control. The area had earlier issued an indoor mask requirement in July.
In Sarpy County, which state data shows ranks third in the state for most positive tests in the last two weeks, the chairman of the county board of commissioners said he supports Ricketts approach.
“Until he gives me a reason not to support him, I'm going to support him,” said Don Kelly, a Republican.
But for Rupp, the Nebraska health expert, the move to phase four of the reopening is “not prudent.” He urged for a more staggered approach with small steps.
“We saw what happened in the sunbelt states when things are relaxed too quickly," Rupp said. “And I just hope that Nebraska's not making that same mistake.”