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The recent surge in Lincoln’s coronavirus cases was most likely served at a bar, or a party, or at some other gathering of young adults.

More than half — 53% — of COVID-19 cases in the past three weeks have been among those between 21 and 29, though they only make up 18.5% of the population. And they’ve told public health contact tracers that they were often out with others.

“In general, that’s what they’re reporting,” Pat Lopez, interim director of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, told the Journal Star on Tuesday. “They’ve been to parties or to bars or other events.”

But when officials try to drill deeper, to match a number of cases to a specific source, event or establishment, their jobs get more difficult. Because young people are often on the move.

“They go from one bar to another bar to another bar,” Lopez said.

The health department did take action over the weekend, ordering three venues to close for 24 hours — Longwell's and the Railyard commons in the Haymarket; and Iguana’s Pub near 14th and O streets — after violations of the latest directed health measure.

The latest rules, which went into effect July 20, require business owners to ensure customers wear masks when they can’t maintain 6 feet of separation with non-family members, to limit groups to eight people, to limit capacity and to keep at least 6 feet between tables.

"We have no interest in targeting people in an unfair way," Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird said during a news conference Tuesday. But "we are also sending a signal that we are taking this serious and that this could happen to you, too."

Shutting down all of the bars in Lincoln is "an option that has been on the table" if they cannot comply with health measures, Gaylor Baird said. 

The city's environmental health staff has tried to educate owners and employees of bars and restaurants on the new requirements, and informed them it would be conducting surveillance to make sure they were complying, Lopez said.

Her employees were out late Friday and early Saturday, and witnessed the violations.

“We want the businesses to be open; we want those bars to be open. That’s their livelihood, as long as they do that responsibly and while following the health measures,” she said. “The ones who aren’t, we’re going to deal with them directly and immediately.”

Since the department enacted the directed health measure mandating the use of face coverings last week, there have been 121 complaints made to city officials over lack of compliance, with 105 of those relating to the wearing of face masks, Lopez said. 

Lopez called this a critical time to try to control the spread of the virus, because a dramatic increase in cases could affect the plan for students to return to school next month.

In addition to working with K-12 schools, the local health department has been working closely with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to coordinate measures, including quarantine and rapid testing to mitigate the spread of the virus, as college kids return to Lincoln for the fall semester, Lopez said during the news conference. 

On Tuesday, Lancaster County reported 58 new coronavirus cases, pushing the community total to 2,895. But just nine Lancaster County residents with COVID-19 are hospitalized in Lincoln.

Since COVID-19 reached Lancaster County in March, asymptomatic cases have accounted for 11.3% of all coronavirus cases in the county, Lopez said.

Meanwhile, the county's death toll holds at 14.

Lopez cautions that her department is prepared for an increase in cases stemming from last weekend’s belated high school graduation parties. She hopes families and friends kept their distance and wore masks.

But if they didn’t, those cases will start surfacing in the next couple of weeks.

Photos: Lincoln during the pandemic

Reporter Sofia Saric contributed to this report.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter

This article originally ran on journalstar.com.

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