Signaling future efforts to loosen more restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Thursday that the state has begun to "plan for kids to come back to school in the fall" and launched conversations on when it would be safe to move ahead with the resumption of youth sports.
But, the governor said, all of that will be determined by whether the state can safely move ahead as it continues to attempt to corral the virus with increased testing and contact tracing.
A state directed health measure is scheduled to be eased in Lincoln and Lancaster County effective on Monday, clearing the way for indoor meal service to resume in restaurants and reopening barber shops and salons.
Restaurants are expected to be directed to operate at only 50% of seating capacity with 6 feet of separation between dining parties and no more than six persons in any dining party.
Everyone would be required to wear a mask in barber shops and salons.
Ricketts said the state's coronavirus testing operation will move into Lincoln on Friday with testing at the Lancaster Event Center from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., continuing on Saturday.
Initial testing has been completed in Omaha and Grand Island.
Ricketts announced that 1,005 meatpacking workers have now tested positive for infection by the virus. That's one in six of the 6,700 workers who have been tested.
But the largest death toll continues to center on residents of long-term care facilities. So far, 267 residents and 188 staff members have tested positive, and there have been 57 fatalities among residents.
State Education Commissioner Matthew Blomstedt announced the launch of an online Department of Education website to help plan for the reopening of Nebraska schools this fall during the governor's daily coronavirus news briefing.
"We want to look at processes and procedures this summer," he said, working in collaboration with local public health officials.
Some areas of the state are likely to be able to keep their school calendar essentially intact, Blomstedt said, but his agency also "wants to be thoughtful about digital and remote-learning options" that may be appropriate as schools resume operations after having had time to consider educational innovations.
"After this is all done," he said, there is likely to be an improved digital environment and improved connections with parents, he said.
"There's a real need for social and emotional learning," Blomstedt said.
The Department of Education has created a new website, launchne.com, to carry on a dialogue about how to move forward, he said.
Resumption of youth sports "is a conversation we are having," Ricketts said. "But there will be nothing in May, no organized teams in May," he stressed.
Surveying the state's capacity to continue to deal with the coronavirus, the governor noted that 48% of hospital beds are still available along with 44% of intensive care unit beds and 77% of ventilators.
Ricketts said 129,000 Nebraskans have signed up at TestNebraska.com as the state gears up testing for the virus.
Answering questions, the governor said his decision to deny an earlier request from Grand Island officials that he impose a shelter-at-home order in the city to stem the outbreak at the meatpacking plant in their community was appropriate since such an order would not have closed the JBS beef plant because food processing is defined by the federal government as an essential industry.
State Labor Commissioner John Albin reported during the briefing that the Department of Labor has now processed 81% of unemployment claims that have flooded the department since the pandemic shut down the economy with 26,000 left to process.
"I think we're getting a passing grade," he said.
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