Ricketts Loosens More Areas, Defends on Nursing Homes, Meatpacking, Testing

May 11, 2020, 5:32 p.m. ·

Map showing when and where restrictions are being loosened (Graphic by Joe McMullen, NET)

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Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts announced Monday health regulations will be relaxed in more areas of the state, and defended his administration from criticism on its handling of nursing homes, meatpacking plants, and testing.

The health restriction relaxations follow the pattern already established elsewhere in the state: allowing restaurants to reopen at 50 percent capacity, allowing barber shops, beauty parlors, tattoo parlors and massage therapy businesses to reopen so long as patrons and employees wear masks, and expanding day care limits from 10 to 15 children per room. The rules will be relaxed in the public health district that includes Norfolk and Madison County on Wednesday, and in the districts including Crete, Hastings, and Lexington next Monday. That will leave only Grand Island/Hall County and neighboring Hamilton and Merrick Counties, along with Dakota County, under tighter restrictions.

Also Monday, Ricketts announced guidelines allowing baseball and softball practices to resume June 1, and games on June 18, with certain restrictions.

Read sports guidelines here.

The governor also responded to criticism from AARP Nebraska of his policy of not announcing which nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have had cases of COVID-19. The group said the information is important for families to make decisions. Ricketts has said the state will release only aggregate data, not name individual nursing homes. Today he said those looking to place a family member in a nursing should ask questions of the facility.

“If you’re looking to place a family member or a loved one in a certain facility, I would certainly ask them with regard to the facility if they have anybody testing positive there,” Ricketts said.

The governor was also asked about a call by ACLU Nebraska to turn recommendations for meatpacking plants, including keeping a six-foot distance between workers, into requirements, rather than recommendations. He said that’s not the state’s role, but rather, it’s up to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA.

“Our role here as the state of Nebraska is to work with the facilities to try and keep them open. The federal government’s job is to do the regulation. Apparently the ACLU, in their statement or press release or whatever, is saying the facilities are not following OSHA guidelines. That’s really OSHA’s business to be able to enforce, not the state of Nebraska’s,” he said.

However, OSHA’s guidelines are couched in terms of a recommendation to meatpackers to “Configure communal work environments so that workers are spaced at least six feet apart, if possible." ACLU Nebraska maintains the state has the legal authority to make that a requirement.

And, Ricketts was asked about four state senators demand that the state end its contract with a group of Utah companies involved in the new TestNebraska testing program. In a letter Monday, Sens. Machaela Cavanaugh, Megan Hunt, Carol Blood and Rick Kolowski complained that executives of the lead company, Nomi Health, have no knowledge of public health practice in this area. In an interview, Sen. Cavanaugh said Nebraskans were not given the opportunity to do the expanded testing covered by the $27 million contract.

“The governor did not go to our current testing facilities and ask if he gave them these resources to build a lab and to do expanded testing, could they do that. That question was never asked,” Cavanaugh said.

Cavanaugh said the governor should have consulted with entities including the University of Nebraska Medical Center, or UNMC about how to expand testing.

Ricketts said local public health entities couldn’t get the needed machinery and tests quickly enough, and dismissed the senators’ criticism.

“I think it’s just kind of ludicrous what the senators are asking for. I don’t understand why they don’t want more testing here in the state. We found a way to be able to do it. They should be happy that we’re doing more testing,” he said.

The governor added that no one from UNMC had complained to him about TestNebraska.