The entire state, with the exception of Lancaster County, is set to shed most coronavirus restrictions by Monday.
The move comes as COVID-19 cases statewide are at their highest levels in four months.
Gov. Pete Ricketts announced Aug. 26 that Phase 3 of his directed health measure would be extended until Sept. 13 and that all health districts would move to Phase 4 starting Sept. 14, which is Monday.
One district, the Panhandle Public Health District, moved to Phase 4 on Friday. The health department, which covers 12 counties, is the fourth one in the state to move to Phase 4. The other districts are set to move to Phase 4 on Monday.
Phase 4 keeps a 75% capacity limit on large indoor venues such as arenas, but it eliminates virtually all other coronavirus-related restrictions. It also makes social distancing a recommendation rather than a mandate.
It does not, however, override local mask mandates in Lincoln and Omaha, nor does it supersede rules set by public and private universities and local school districts.
The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department said it will not be moving to Phase 4.
“We need a little more time," Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Director Pat Lopez said. "We know we had some outbreak situations at the university. We need a little more time to work through that and get things stabilized.”
Lancaster County last week reported 476 COVID-19 cases, in part because of a large number of cases among college students. The county has recorded 498 cases so far this week, a new high since the start of the pandemic. Over the past few weeks, more than 40% of the local cases have come from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Lopez said that while the state directed health measure moves most of the coronavirus restrictions to merely guidance, Lancaster County will continue to keep most of them as regulations that must be followed.
The county will make some changes that loosen local restrictions, however, including allowing buffets to resume operation. But it will retain restrictions that require limiting groups in restaurants and bars to eight people. Those establishments also must continue to keep tables 6 feet apart and require customers to remain seated.
One notable change is that outdoor venues in Lancaster County will be limited to 75% of capacity, but the health department is raising the maximum number of people allowed from 10,000 to 30,000. That would seem to indicate that the University of Nebraska athletic department could have up to 30,000 fans at Memorial Stadium if and when it hosts a football game.
Lincoln has become one of the state's COVID-19 hot spots, with case numbers at their highest levels since the pandemic started. But cases also have been rising in other areas.
Statewide, there were more than 2,300 cases last week, the highest weekly total since early May.
On Friday, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services reported 468 new cases, with totals rising to 37,841 cases and 434 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Among the coronavirus-related deaths reported Friday were residents of Gage, York and Seward counties.
While case numbers are increasing, a spokesman for Ricketts said the main goal with the state's directed health measures is to protect hospital capacity, "and hospital capacity remains stable."
As of Friday, there were 166 COVID-19 patients hospitalized statewide. That was a drop from 182 on Wednesday, which was the highest number since the first week of June. Overall, 34% of the state's hospital beds and 34% of intensive-care beds remain available. Hospitals also have 82% of their ventilators available for the sickest patients.
The three health districts that already have moved to Phase 4 have seen a significant increase in cases.
The North Central District Health Department, which covers nine counties, has seen its numbers more than quadruple since it moved to Phase 4. The department had 84 cases on July 31. As of Friday, it had 390 It had one coronavirus-related death before moving to Phase 4. It now has 14.
The Southwest Nebraska Public Health Department, which also covers nine counties, has seen its cases more than double, from 70 on July 27 to 165 as of Monday. It saw the number of deaths grow from 1 to 12.
The Loup Basin Public Health Department, which was the first health department to go to Phase 4, on July 23, has seen its case numbers jump from 109 on July 21 to 214 as of Friday, a 96% increase.
The directors of those departments, however, have said they don't believe loosening restrictions played a significant role in the rise in cases.
The health director for the Panhandle district, however, does acknowledge that loosening restrictions could increase risk.
"The transition from Phase 3 to Phase 4 of the DHMs does not mean the risk has decreased; in fact, relaxing the measures may likely increase the risk, so it is even more important that individuals take on personal responsibility for reducing virus transmission," Kim Engel said in a news release.
"As we move into this new phase, your actions are more critical now than ever before," Engel said. "We all want to feel a sense of normalcy, but we must do it safely."
Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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