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Lincoln mayor orders greater restrictions, closing barbershops and dine-in options
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Lincoln mayor orders greater restrictions, closing barbershops and dine-in options

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Andy Amen's barber chair at 19th and Washington streets has been busier than expected and more regularly sanitized in the last week, but come Thursday morning, he'll hang up his clippers until at least May.

"I was kind of hoping it wasn't going to happen," Amen said Wednesday, just hours after Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird announced tighter restrictions aimed at slowing transmission of the coronavirus. 

The rules, spelled out in a directive health measure, were triggered by Lancaster County's first confirmed coronavirus case resulting from community spread.

The case first acknowledged Tuesday involves a 50-year-old man with no travel history or exposure to identified COVID-19 patients, city officials said during a news conference. He remains hospitalized, and his contacts are self-quarantining.

Interim Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department Director Pat Lopez said the man had minimal contact with people in the community.

Ameritas headquarters closed after employee tests positive for COVID-19

Still, the case was a tipping point to move from what were largely recommendations of 10-person limits and social distancing to rules with penalties attached.

Similar restrictions began in Douglas, Cass, Sarpy and Washington counties last week, and Gov. Pete Ricketts added Lancaster, Dodge and Saunders counties Wednesday.

"We’re entering a new stage where community spread is likely to become more significant," Gaylor Baird said.

So beginning Thursday at 8 a.m., Lincoln's directed health measure will undertake steps similar to Omaha, including:

* No gatherings of more than 10 people for any reason in a single space, including weddings, funerals, sporting events and entertainment.

* For gatherings of less than 10, a 6-foot separation must be maintained.

* Restaurants must close their dine-in services and offer only carry-out, drive-thru or delivery. Bars are limited to off-sale only.

* Child care facilities will be allowed to operate with groups of 10 or fewer children or if groups of 10 are separated into different rooms or areas with sufficient airspace. The same applies to people working out at gyms or attending meetings.

* Grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and public transportation remain exempt, along with essential government operations and health care facilities.

* Staff working at a business are excluded from the 10-person limit.

The mayor said she expects people to comply with the rules, effective through May 6. If they don't, health officials will reach out to individuals and businesses in an attempt to gain compliance. Police enforcement will be used as a last resort, Lopez said.

Violation of the order is a misdemeanor offense and carries a maximum penalty of up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.

The city asked residents to make reports of suspected violations through UPLNK via the smartphone app or at lincoln.ne.gov/city/uplnk.

Even before tightened restrictions, many businesses are already feeling the impact, Gaylor Baird said, and her staff is working with federal and state partners for relief.

This order isn't meant to punish, but rather to protect the public and slow the spread of coronavirus in Lincoln, the mayor said.

The city's first confirmed case was announced Friday — a 48-year-old Lincoln man, who initially exhibited symptoms March 15 and visited his health care provider the next day after returning from a trip to Colorado on March 9. The second case was one of the man's family members.

Most Bryan drive-thru samples will be tested for COVID-19

Ameritas, one of Lincoln’s largest employers, closed its O Street headquarters Tuesday after learning an employee had been diagnosed with COVID-19, though the case had not yet been confirmed by the city.

Ameritas typically employs about 820 people at its headquarters just west of Gateway Mall, but the majority have been working from home since March 16 — leaving fewer than 250 people in the building this week, the company said in a release.

The employee diagnosed with COVID-19 worked in the headquarters from March 11 to March 16, when they began displaying symptoms and went home.

The company was told of the diagnosis Tuesday, and Ameritas staff informed the mayor's office at about 3:30 p.m. they were going to close their headquarters. 

It appears likely that the Ameritas employee's case is a presumed-positive diagnosis at this point. Health care providers aren't required to notify the health department about the patients they tested who are presumed-positive for COVID-19, Lopez said. Formal test results can take several days.

Businesses who have an employee report their COVID-19 diagnosis should immediately inform the health department, said Jennifer Brinkman, the mayor's chief of staff.

In their fight to slow the spread, Lincoln officials largely aligned their health order with Omaha's, including language directly addressing the operation of businesses such as Amen's barbershop, where public health officials worry about the transmission of the disease because of close contact. 

Omaha's initial order didn't address the operation of barbershops, salons, massage and tattoo parlors, but Douglas County Health Department Director Adi Pour ordered those businesses closed Tuesday. 

Demond Wilkinson and his wife, Jana, closed their barbershop, Skinny D's, at Ninth and G streets in Lincoln last week after hearing of COVID-19 spreading within the family of a friend in Illinois. 

"I'm 44," Demond Wilkinson said. "I'm kind of in that (age bracket), so it's just not worth the risk." 

He knows some customers won't self-report to him that they may have the virus, if they know at all, so he doesn't want to unnecessarily expose himself or others, he said. 

"We won't even take house calls," he said of their plans going forward.

He consulted with other barbers in his area of town, and each decided to close, Wilkinson said.

Amen and Wilkinson both plan to rely on savings to pay bills in the next six weeks, each said in an interview.

Amen's appointment book had seven cuts scheduled for Thursday, one Friday and one Saturday, and he expected news of the mayor's order to prompt some urgent Wednesday night cuts for those clients, he said.

Six weeks of sitting at home will suck, said Amen, who will mark his 13th year as a barber in May.

Gaylor Baird respects all of the sacrifice involved in life amid restrictions.

"This is a time of challenges for us, but it won't last forever," the mayor said. "We will get through this together."

Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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