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Ricketts rejects call for more COVID-19 restrictions now
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Ricketts rejects call for more COVID-19 restrictions now

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Following a weekend in which health care professionals increasingly called for stronger restrictions to control the spread of the coronavirus in Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday he will stick to his plan to ramp up restrictions if COVID-19 patients begin to occupy 25% of the state's hospital beds.

That was the strategy he announced late last week when the surge in COVID-19 patients surpassed 20% of hospital capacity.

"If we can slow the spread of the virus, we can avoid further restrictions," Ricketts said during a news conference.

At the same time, he acknowledged that "we are seeing more community spread."

Under the governor's plan, the 25% hospital bed mark would automatically trigger more restrictive directed health measures, including reducing the size of indoor gatherings to 10 persons and outdoor gatherings to 25 persons, along with requiring bars to return to carry-out and delivery service only.

Ricketts ties new restrictions to additional COVID-19 hospitalizations

Answering questions at Monday's news conference, Ricketts continued to reject a mask mandate and said he will pursue "a statewide approach" to restrictive measures, ruling out the option of allowing local health departments to adopt their own directed health measures.

Lancaster County is the rare exception, with its local directed health measure including a mask mandate and new rules effective Monday that included early closing times for bars and a three-week ban on indoor youth sports.

Nebraska teachers union leaders call on governor to issue state mask mandate and other measures

The Omaha City Council has also approved a mask mandate, and city councils in Grand Island and Kearney are expected to consider similar measures in the near future.

"We are asking people to use masks on occasions when masks are appropriate," the governor said, including when they are within 6 feet of one another for more than 15 minutes.

Ricketts has continually urged Nebraskans to wear a mask when they go to the grocery store and when they are in crowds or confined spaces.

"Masks are just one tool, not the only tool," the governor said. 

Maintaining 6 feet of separation, washing hands often and staying home when you are sick are also important, he said. 

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The Nebraska State Education Association added its voice to the call for more action at the same time the governor was holding his news conference.

In response, Ricketts said he is "sticking to" last week's judgment that "it's about managing our hospital capacity."

Ricketts hailed successful testing of COVID-19 vaccines as "good news" and shone a spotlight on the economic struggle being waged by Nebraska restaurants as they attempt to stay open and navigate coronavirus restrictions.

"There is fear, but mostly we're exhausted," said Zoe Olson, executive director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association. "Revenues are down about 30%; but we can make it for a time.

"We're tired and stressed," she said.  

But her main message was: "Please be kind to our staff."

Ricketts said testing for the virus under the state's Test Nebraska program has been expanded as cases surge, including in Omaha.

Lancaster County reports 59th COVID-19 death

The state is poised to top 100,000 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, perhaps when new cases are announced Monday evening. 

New cases per capita are highest in Midwest states, including North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa. Nebraska has averaged more than 2,000 new cases a day over the past week. 

Responsible actions by residents of the state, and not a vaccine, will be key to reversing the trend.

"It will take time to ramp up for distribution to the general public" once a vaccine becomes available, Ricketts said. 

Distribution to health care workers, first responders and the most vulnerable population could begin as early as December, according to most estimates.

Ricketts said the vaccine won't be available to all Nebraskans until later, "maybe April, maybe sooner."

Images of Lincoln during the pandemic

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or

On Twitter @LJSdon

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