LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts said Wednesday that he feels no pressure to reopen bars, even though people in Omaha will soon be able to take a short drive across the river to grab a drink in Iowa liquor establishments.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Wednesday that in her state, movie theaters, museums and wedding reception venues will be reopening as of Friday, and bars can reopen May 28.
Her decision had Omaha bar owners again pushing for Nebraska's Republican governor to allow them to reopen their doors.
They've also obtained the services of an attorney who says he sees no legal justification for why Ricketts has continued to keep Omaha-area liquor establishments closed while restaurants and sports bars that have liquor licenses were allowed to open more than a week ago.
"This is not a shot across the bow," attorney James Martin Davis said in an interview. "But if they want bars to stay closed, they need to provide some legal justification for doing it."
In the Omaha area, bars and lounges that do not have permits to sell food have been closed for sit-down service since mid-March, and other areas of Nebraska followed suit later.
Ricketts said during his daily coronavirus briefing he still has not decided whether to reopen Omaha bars after May 31, when the current health directive keeping them closed is set to expire. He said he is still reviewing data on infection trends as well as usage of hospital resources.
But he has hinted some relaxation of the current directives could be forthcoming.
“I tell people to just stay tuned,” he said.
During an appearance on a Washington Post webcast earlier in the day, Ricketts said that “if you have too tight of restrictions too long, people will start disobeying them.”
Since allowing restaurants — including those with liquor licenses — to reopen effective May 4, Ricketts has repeatedly justified the decision to keep bars closed by describing the different nature of the businesses.
In taverns, people tend to sit or stand close together, especially at the bar, while in restaurants there is more space between tables, he said. That allows for social distancing. Under guidelines allowing restaurants to reopen, tables must be at least six feet apart and occupancy can’t exceed 50%.
But Davis, who has been retained by a half dozen bar owners, said he sees no legal basis for the line Ricketts has drawn.
He cited several U.S. constitutional provisions, including the equal protection clause. He also questioned whether there's a legal basis for citing bar owners who violate the current directive.
He said he's advised bar owners to comply for now. But he thinks they can open after May 31 unless the state provides a legal justification.
Davis said the bar owners also have a lobbyist who has been talking to the governor's staff, but they have gotten no commitment.
Ricketts said Wednesday that he understands that bars have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic closures. He would not say when he would be announcing his new guidelines, and sidestepped a question about whether he was concerned that Nebraskans might bring back an infection after visiting a liquor outlet in Council Bluffs or elsewhere in Iowa.
In Iowa, Reynolds, who is also a Republican, announced the relaxation of restrictions despite hundreds of new COVID-19 cases being confirmed in the state every day.
Her order will allow state campground restrooms, showers and cabins to reopen in time for the Memorial Day weekend, one of the biggest weekends of the year for state parks. Camping will be allowed for tents and all campers, but playgrounds, shelters and visitor centers will remain closed.
In Nebraska, the Game and Parks Commission announced Wednesday that campgrounds at 35 state recreation areas and Smith Falls State Park will reopen on Friday, though shower houses, beaches and park activities will remain closed.
Bars can reopen next week at 50% capacity in Iowa, which contrasts with Nebraska, where liquor outlets are restricted to carry-out drinks only.
The Iowa governor announced Wednesday that summer school-sponsored activities such as softball and baseball can resume on June 1, and that more details about schools will come on Thursday.
Casinos were not included in the governor’s plans, and Reynolds said conversations were underway with the industry to determine how they might safely reopen.
Dr. Rossana Rosa, a Des Moines infectious disease specialist, said the data she’s tracking indicates that Iowa seems to be at a plateau of about 300 new daily cases. She said the impact of last week’s reopenings won’t be seen until the first week in June, since it can take up to two weeks for people with the disease to show symptoms.
“At this point, I think it would seem that those decisions have been made for the foreseeable future, so many of us in the infectious diseases community have decided that we will continue talking about how can you stay safe when you go out,” Rosa said, referring to the decisions to reopen sectors of the economy. “If you think you’re not going to be able to maintain yourself six feet apart from any other people if you decide to go out, then you’re at risk.”
This report includes material from The Associated Press.