Panhandle counties are expected to remain in Phase III of directed health measures into August, health officials said Thursday.
“There’s not a certain date (that the Panhandle will be moving into Phase 4,” Kim Engel, Panhandle Public Health District director, said during Thursday’s briefing. “It will not be at the end of this month. Phase III will continue into August.”
Asked about the reasons that Panhandle may remain in Phase III, Engel said that officials base the decision on the virus activity in the area. Though she was not specific about threshold that may be utilized for health officials to make those decisions, the Panhandle has been listed most of the month as having moderate risk for COVID-19 exposure.
Engel said that events and other activity this month will also be taking place, with school just two to three weeks away from starting.
“We just feel its best if we keep those restrictions in place a little bit so that we can have our kids start school and stay in school before all the restrictions are relaxed.”
When Gov. Pete Ricketts implemented Phase III, it had initially been scheduled to run through the end of July. However, Ricketts makes the decision on relaxing measures and health officials have hinted throughout the month that they expected Phase III to remain in place until the start of the school year.
Some counties in Nebraska have already been scheduled to move into Phase 4, which dramatically relaxes measures, such as allowing 75 percent occupancy at indoor gatherings and allowing outdoor gatherings to operate at 100 percent capacity. Sports, wedding and funeral venues and even churches are also allowed to operate normally.
Counties in the Loup Basin Health Department will move into Phase 4 Friday — Baline, Custer, Garfield, Greeley, Howard, Loup, Sherman, Valley and Wheeler. That announcement was made on July 17.
During Thursday’s call, officials announced that seven new cases have been reported. One case, a woman in her 60s in Box Butte County, has been designated as community spread and exposure of a woman in her 80s in Sheridan County is not known. Five cases involving close contact were announced: two Cheyenne County women, one in her 60s and one in her 80s; and three women in Scotts Bluff County, one in her teens, one in her 40s and one in her 50s.
As Panhandle communities remain in Phase III, officials did issue some reminders. Tim Newman, Region 22 Emergency Management director, said that officials have become aware of some concerns regarding exits at businesses as they try to limit customers to prevent exposure to COVID-19. Some businesses, such as salons, restaurants, and shopping areas have occupancy restrictions and other requirements, but officials have noticed that some have been restricting, blocking or prohibiting exiting.
Items such as ropes, cones and barriers cannot impede the exiting of a building in the event of a fire or other emergency, he said. Also, doors that cannot be opened from the inside, by way of a panic hardware or other means, must remain unlocked. There are also minimum widts of exit doors and paths that have to be maintained, he said. Anyone with questions is urged to contact their local fire department and in Scottsbluff can contact the Scottsbluff fire prevention officer or fire chief at the department, 308-630-6227 or 308-630-6229. An email can also be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.