LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska could see another flare-up of coronavirus cases because of the demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, but state officials concluded that allowing protesters to peacefully vent was more important than concerns about the pandemic, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday.
His comments came as new, lighter virus restrictions went into effect throughout most of the state. The restrictions approved by Ricketts allow bars, zoos, swimming pools and other public venues to reopen, with crowd limits based on a venue’s occupancy.
Protests in Omaha and Lincoln have each drawn more than 1,000 people, often clustered into large groups as they confront law enforcement officers. Some protesters and officers haven’t worn masks, ignoring the recommendation of public health officials.
“We’re certainly concerned about that potential for additional spread of the coronavirus,” Ricketts said at a news conference. “If you’re out at the protests, it would be a good idea to wear a mask.”
Ricketts said he discussed concerns about the virus with other public officials, but decided that the protesters’ free-speech rights “outweigh the concerns about the pandemic.”
He said the protesters are justifiably angry about the death of Floyd, a black man who died after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed a knee against his neck for more than eight minutes. Chauvin, who is white, has since been fired and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Officials in Omaha and Lincoln have imposed overnight curfews, from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., after a violent weekend that included widespread vandalism and numerous arrests in both cities. Ricketts has dispatched the Nebraska National Guard as well to help local and state law enforcement.
Tensions increased Monday when the top prosecutor in Omaha, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, announced that he wouldn’t file charges against a white bar owner who fatally shot a black man during the weekend protests.
Kleine said Jake Gardner, who owns two bars near where the shooting happened, fired the fatal shot during a scuffle with protesters outside of one of his bars. Kleine said Gardner feared for his life before the shooting, which killed 22-year-old James Scurlock.
On Monday, Ricketts and Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert implored protesters to stay peaceful and respect the curfew.
The new virus restrictions went into effect Monday in 89 of Nebraska’s 93 counties, despite the looming public health threat. State officials confirmed another 196 new cases on Sunday, bringing the statewide total to 14,101. Of that number, 170 people have died from the virus. More than 103,800 people have been tested so far.
Hospitals statewide continued to have adequate capacity, with 45% of hospital beds, 49% of intensive care unit beds and 77% of ventilators still available for use.
The new rules will also allow non-contact sports such as baseball, softball and volleyball to resume practices on Monday, and games can begin on June 18. Rodeos can also resume Monday, but contact sports such as football, basketball and wrestling will remain prohibited.
Ricketts imposed the rules to try to prevent the coronavirus from spreading and overwhelming the state’s hospitals.
Some restrictions were also eased in hard-hit Hall, Hamilton, Merrick and Dakota counties, but to a lesser extent.
For some infected people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe illness or death. But for most people, it causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks.
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