The light at the end of the tunnel that government officials and health experts have been talking about for months in relation to the coronavirus pandemic is finally here.
And for the first time since last July, Lincoln residents and visitors to the city will be able to let it shine fully on their faces.
Local officials Tuesday said they are letting Lancaster County's mask mandate expire at the end of the day Thursday.
That means masks will no longer be required at most businesses, government offices and other indoor settings starting Friday.
Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird called it "an historic moment in our community's pandemic story."
The move comes as local COVID-19 cases have waned to levels not seen since the early days of the pandemic. Last week, the county recorded only 78 new coronavirus cases, the lowest weekly total since April of last year.
Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Director Pat Lopez said the daily case rate is about 4 per 100,000, which is well below the threshold of 10 per 100,000 that health officials had set as a goal.
Those numbers — along with other positive signs, including climbing vaccination percentages and steady hospitalization rates — led officials to lower the county's COVID-19 risk dial to the green, or low-risk, range for the first time since it was rolled out.
"Achieving the green level on the risk dial is a major milestone for our entire community," Lopez said.
The only concerning statistic over the past week was three additional COVID-19 deaths, the first announced locally since mid-April. Lopez said all three of the people, a woman in her 70s, a woman in her 80s and a woman in her 90s, had not received the COVID-19 vaccine. She said she did not know if they declined vaccination or for some reason did not have access to the vaccine.
The shots seem to be taming COVID-19 in ways that masking, social distancing and other measures could not. As of Tuesday, Lancaster County led the state with about 58% of its population 16 and older fully vaccinated against the virus. Last week, the Pfizer vaccine was authorized for kids ages 12-15, and nearly 11% of that age group locally has already received a first dose.
Lancaster County hit its peak weekly total of more than 2,100 new COVID-19 cases the week ending Dec. 4. Local health care workers received the first vaccines 10 days later, and cases started falling steadily. They leveled off in mid-February at about 350 a week and held in a narrow range for about two months. However, over the past month as vaccines have become widely available, cases weekly fell to below 300, then 250, then 200 and finally below 100 last week.
"Overall, we've been winning the race between infections and injections," Lopez said.
The drop in cases will mean a return to some semblance of normalcy in everyday life.
Masks will likely still be required in some buildings, including hospitals and the Lincoln Airport, and it's possible that some retail stores and other businesses might continue to require masks for entry.
However, it appears most retail chains are dropping mask mandates.
Hy-Vee on Tuesday became the latest retailer to drop a mask-wearing requirement in its stores.
The Iowa-based grocer said it will no longer require a mask for customers and employees who are fully vaccinated. It said it will, however, still require unvaccinated employees to wear a mask at work.
Hy-Vee joins Walmart, Target, Costco, Walgreens, Starbucks and a number of other retailers that have dropped their mask requirement in the wake of an announcement last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in most indoor settings.
It's likely most local businesses will follow suit, but City Attorney Yohance Christie said Lincoln businesses can still choose to require employees and customers to wear face masks as a condition of entry, and people who don't comply could be asked to leave and face criminal charges such as trespassing if they don't.
Lopez also said that while masks are no longer required, the Health Department is still recommending that unvaccinated people wear masks, especially people who work with the public, such as restaurant and child care workers. She also recommended that people who have close contact with clients, such as hair stylists, tattoo artists and massage therapists, wear masks even if they have been fully vaccinated.
Dr. Eric Avery, president of the Lancaster County Medical Society, said it's likely some people will choose to continue wearing masks when in public even if they are fully vaccinated, and their decision needs to be respected.
"We need to be comfortable with people wearing masks," Avery said. "That might be something new that goes on for a long time."
While the end of the mask mandate is the major change that will come with the new local directed health measure that takes effect Friday, there are other notable changes. One removes capacity limits for indoor and outdoor venues. That means restaurants and bars no longer have to limit how many people come in, and it also means that Memorial Stadium, Haymarket Park, Pinnacle Bank Arena and Pinewood Bowl can have full crowds.
The new DHM also does away with the requirement that organizers of outdoor events file an event plan with the Health Department. However, it still requires an event plan for indoor events hosting more than 500 people.
Gaylor Baird also said the city's Tuesday media briefing will end, although city officials will still brief the media on coronavirus issues as needed. City officials have organized 122 local briefings since the pandemic began.
The cost of COVID: Remembering lives lost in Southeast Nebraska
They were teachers and farmers and factory workers and homemakers. They played the piano, fixed old cars, danced to the Beach Boys, cuddled their grandchildren.
They loved to ice fish, gab with friends, read, run marathons, bowl, wander antique stores.
They were our co-workers and neighbors and friends. Our parents. Our spouses.
They all have one thing in common. They died from COVID-19, a virus that arrived in Nebraska in March 2020, claiming its first life in Lancaster County a month later.
These stories represent a fraction of the lives lost in Southeast Nebraska, but they are our way of paying respect to each and every one.
We'd like to share the stories of others from Southeast Nebraska who have lost their lives to COVID-19. If you would like to have your loved one added to our online tribute, please email your contact information to: email@example.com
Roger A. Ryman, 70, died Oct. 20 from COVID-19. He was a cowboy in his younger years, but became a grandfather devoted to his Magnificent 7.
Jack Fields, 87, died of COVID-19 on Dec. 8. He spent his career fixing copy machines and making friends and creating memories for his children and grandchildren.
Phyllis "Phyl" Maly, 87, died of COVID-19 on Jan. 14. She was an artist, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and a woman at home in her own skin.
Beth Smith, 64, died of complications of COVID-19 on Jan. 20. The redheaded woman loved music and parties and adventure and was a loyal friend, sister, aunt and partner.
Lillian "Lil" Gibson, 61, died of COVID-19 on Nov. 2. The dialysis nurse and marathon runner was small but mighty with a big smile and warm personality.
Julie Koch: She taught us kids to be independent, strong, courteous, respectful and kind. Her pragmatic outlook on life earned her many friends wherever she was living or working. She rarely showed a temper, seeming to always take life in stride.
Wanda Darlene Hedges was a strong woman who raised her family on a farm near Bennet. Sometimes she worked at a nearby grocery store, but she was mostly a full-time mother.
Anna Sales, 69, died of COVID-19 on Nov. 6; four days later her husband Chuck Sales, 88, also died of the virus. The couple loved to bowl, travel, serve their church and listen to Elvis music.
Orva Samuelson, 95, died of COVID-19 on May 22. She and her late husband loved to dance and play cards and after she raised her daughter she became an Avon lady and turned customers into friends.
Tam Mai, 80, died of COVID-19 last May. The man from Vietnam was a protective big brother and a devoted son and grandfather who taught his grandchildren to study hard and be respectful.
Nadene Stull, 94, died Dec. 12 from complications of COVID-19. She lived a full life as a bookkeeper and mother of three sons who later went on to become a lay minister in the Methodist church.
Janet Ann Jodais, a caring mother known for her love of reading, crafting and church life, died Oct. 8 of COVID-19 in Lincoln at age 83.
This spring, the Journal Star set out to honor the lives of those lost to COVID-19. The families were eager to share the stories of those they loved.
Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.