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Nebraska is 'ahead of the curve' in slowing the spread of coronavirus, Ricketts says

LINCOLN — Nebraska is “well ahead of the curve” in slowing the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday, while encouraging Nebraskans to continue to practice “social distancing” and other preventive measures.

“We have a plan, we’re working our plan and will continue to work our plan,” Ricketts said at his daily update with news media at the State Capitol.

As of Monday evening, a World-Herald tally showed that Nebraska had 62 confirmed cases of coronavirus.

The governor said that Nebraska’s plan of attack against the virus was developed in conjunction with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which has national experts on pandemics, and that the spread of coronavirus in Nebraska has been slower than in states like New York.

The state’s plan, he said, does not include shelter-in-place orders, like those placed on residents of California, Illinois and other states, and restrictions should get no worse than those imposed in the Omaha area, which have led to the closure of restaurant dining rooms and bars.

Still, Ricketts wouldn’t predict when things might return to normal.

“I know we’re going to get back to normal at some point. I can’t tell you when,” the governor said, adding that slowing the spread of the coronavirus will prolong the period of restrictions.

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Meanwhile Monday, President Donald Trump singled out Nebraska and Iowa, along with other states, as being “very lightly affected” by the virus. He made those comments while saying that parts of the country can soon start to ease restrictions on activities.

“We will be using data to recommend new protocols to allow local economies to cautiously resume their activity at the appropriate time,” Trump said. “We’re going to be opening our country up for business.”

Asked about the president’s comments, Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage did not address what that might mean specifically for Nebraska’s restrictions.

“The governor is grateful for the acknowledgment of all the hard work everyone in Nebraska is doing to slow the spread of the virus,” Gage said.

In the Omaha area, the public health directive will be reviewed on April 30. Restrictions were ordered after two cases of the community spread of coronavirus — in which exposure to the virus could not be traced to travel or contact with infected people — were found in Douglas County, which has 39 of the state’s 62 known cases.

Among comments made by Ricketts and his administration on Monday:

  • The filing, and payment, deadline for state income taxes has been extended from April 15 to July 15, which mirrors the change made for federal taxes.

But Ricketts urged Nebraskans not affected by the coronavirus to file by April 15. Waiting until July would delay tax collections, costing the state up to $385 million in tax revenue for the current fiscal year, he said. That lack of cash could complicate a response to the coronavirus.

“I will be filing by April 15 and I’ve asked my staff to file by April 15,” Ricketts said.

  • He apologized because the state had not updated its website for filing for unemployment insurance benefits with virus-related waivers by the weekend. That confused and frustrated some filers who got the message that their claim had been “denied.” Ricketts said Monday that the fixes have now been made and that if someone got a “denial” message, it would be corrected by the state.

Last week, Ricketts ordered that some unemployment insurance rules be waived, including requirements that a person actively look for another job and that a person wait a week before getting initial benefits.

  • Calls are inundating the state’s phone banks to handle unemployment insurance applications, officials said, leading to long wait times. The state has expanded the number of people taking calls from 34 to 66. The hours for taking such calls also will be increased from the current end time of 4:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.
  • There is no truth to a rumor, circulating over the weekend, that the National Guard is being mobilized and martial law will be imposed, Ricketts said.
  • A Nebraska-based ethanol firm, Green Plains Energy, is donating several hundred gallons of industrial alcohol to the state, which will be turned into hand sanitizer by inmates in Nebraska prisons. The sanitizer will be used in state prisons and by other state agencies.
  • Some state workers are being paid to stay home and be “on call” for work as an added step to prevent the virus from spreading and as a way to ensure their “income security.” Ricketts urged private employers to consider a similar arrangement as a way to retain employees in the state’s tight job market.

“If you’re an employer and thinking long term, I’d be looking at any way to maintain my workforce,” he said.

  • The governor said he is still looking at whether to issue a moratorium on eviction notices. Meanwhile, he urged landlords, on a voluntary basis, to not kick someone out of a rental apartment or home. “This is a public health emergency,” Ricketts said.
  • The state’s coronavirus testing capacity is in the process of being expanded, but still stands at a capacity of 200 a day at two public testing labs, Ricketts said. He said widespread testing was not envisioned in the virus response plan he devised with the Nebraska Medical Center. But, he added, when more tests are available, the priority will be testing first responders, nursing home employees and health care workers so they can remain on the job.
  • Compliance with social-distancing recommendations has been much higher than anticipated. Initially, the state’s virus response plans were predicated on only a 30% compliance rate for things like avoiding public gatherings of more than 10 people and keeping a 6-foot distance from one another, according to Ricketts.

“Nebraskans from all over the state have stepped up to that challenge,” he said.

Photos: Coronavirus affects Nebraska

Cooper: We went on a trip in these times of coronavirus. It turned into a guilt trip

RAPID CITY, S.D. — The first sign that we shouldn’t have been here was the sign.

Outside our Rapid City hotel this past weekend, an electronic billboard flashed rooms as low as $39.99.

This wasn’t some drive-up, park-in-front-of-your-door, musty motel from a Stephen King flick. It was a nice-ish, newly built hotel — with bright colors and a too-generous use of the number 2 in place of the word.

The second sign came from the guy behind the front desk.

He pointed out that the serve-yourself breakfast buffet was from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. He then involuntarily coughed. And then he said it. Yes, he had to say it.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I swear it’s not coronavirus.”

I almost packed up our pack of Griswolds, put us back in the Family Truckster and hit “cancel” on this getaway weekend for our stir-crazy family.

Our hope for a virus-free road trip quickly turned into a guilt trip, the adventure burdened by the undeniable wisdom of epidemiologists: If we’re gonna kick this thing, we all should stay home.

The guilt was compounded when we pulled into the hotel parking lot — and found it absolutely crammed. Suddenly, my wife, Debbie, and I were wondering whether we were the knuckleheaded parents, ancestors of those spring break lugs who were taking on coronavirus as if it were coming out of a beer bong.

Instead of packed beaches, we decided to go to South Dakota. Specifically, to Mount Rushmore, where we’d never had the time to take our three boys when life was busier.

The Cooper boys.

South Dakota has several advantages in that it has few people, few cars and just one city of any size. It has one weird statewide slogan (Nebraskans can relate to weird statewide slogans): “Meth. We’re on it.” And another fortuitously timed campaign: “South Dakota: We put the SD into social distancing.”

No matter how sparse the population, your mind plays with you the minute you step into a hotel room.

“I wonder if Rudy Gobert stayed here the night before,” one of the kids muttered.

That was a not-so-subtle reference to the Utah Jazz player who became the first NBA player to be publicly diagnosed with coronavirus disease and the first to apparently pass coronavirus onto a sports broadcaster who, as it turned out, stayed in the same hotel room the night after Gobert had.

Gulp. Not to worry. Debbie, who is used to travel, scrubbed that room like a crime-scene investigator. Note to others: If anything ever happens to me, check the Clorox wipes. They’ll have my DNA on them.

After she scoured the place — leaving behind the nose-hair-burning smell of bleach — she promptly put the door tag on the handle. No housekeeping required.

And then I opened the blinds. And, holy Moses, what on God’s green earth is that? Glowing next door? It looked like a giant greenhouse.

My youngest explained that it’s a water park! It’s called WaTiki!! Three or four hotels are connected to it!!! It has giant red and green tube slides that, if you look at them the way I looked at them, look like the spokes and tentacles of every microscopic coronavirus photo in every newspaper.

Surely, it’s not open, not during this outbreak?? And then … splash! I see kids with inner tubes climbing the stairway of doom. And all I could think was, someday, scientists will be talking about the WaTiki cluster.

The view of the WaTiki water park from the Coopers' hotel window.

Then I went to the car to fetch the last of our overnight bags — and there, near the soon-to-be-open breakfast buffet, was a kid dressed solely in swim trunks, goggles on his head, having himself a good cry. And two tables down, his 12-year-old sister with her face, her bare cheek, planted firmly on the table.

So, of course, breakfast was out for the Cooper family. And the lobby became a hold-your-breath breeze-through. And the elevator — ah, hecks no. Time to get some steps in.

Back in the room, I pulled the shade on the water park. Climbed into bed. And somehow crashed.

Next morning, we headed up to Mount Rushmore. On our way, we heard the president’s daily briefing. He accused a reporter of a fake-news question about a shortage of hospital masks.

And then we had a discussion. What does it take to get on Mount Rushmore? One by one, we went down the accomplishments and attributes of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. My youngest droned on like the guy on the radio in the background … you know, the leader of the free world. About that time, my older sons decided both their little brother and the president would make a good fit for Mount Shushmore.

Pulling up to the majestic mountain, we were confronted with empty toll booths and signs about the virus. From a distance, a ranger looked at us sideways and waved us past, the way you wave away someone with coffee breath. Inhale. “Yes … uh huh … no, it’s free for you crazies … keep it moving … park on 3.” Exhale.

We turn a corner and we’re one of about a dozen cars — three from Minnesota (they have more coronavirus cases than we do), three from Colorado (ditto) and one each from Wisconsin, North Dakota, Nevada, Texas and, cripes, I hope it’s a rental car, New York.

All the cars practice auto distancing — a least a stall between cars. Then a bit later, we arrive back at our car to a sea of empty spaces and a car parked directly beside us, the passenger side open to my driver’s door. Check the license plate and, it figures, Florida.

Mountain goats hoof across a road in Custer State Park. 

We walk the promenade to the presidents. It’s cut off — with a giant backhoe protecting Washington’s “feet.” Completely unrelated to the coronavirus, the pathway is under renovation.

There we meet Ben and Amy from Minneapolis and their two kids, Brooks and Luke. We socialize (distantly) with them. Ben is originally from St. Cloud, Minnesota, and spent a couple of years in my hometown (Omaha), pre-college. I spent a few years in St. Cloud, post-college. Turns out, they’re staying at another hotel connected to the WaTiki virus, er, water park.

Small world. Big question: Is the world too small right now? I ask Ben. That is, are you guilting your way through this trip the way we are?

A little bit, Ben says. But ultimately, he says, it’s in his DNA. He works as a commodities trader. It requires him to, pardon the pun, think against the grain. Which in turn makes him want to take trips when we all probably should stay home.

Just last week, he started working from home. Amy, a second grade teacher, was home because schools were closed for spring break. In turn, the kids were home, too.

The setup lasted half a day. By noon Monday, Ben was googling places they could go. They too figured they should show their boys Mount Rushmore.

And, well, Mount Rushmore is Mount Rushmore. A decade-in-the-making, death-defying feat of planning and dynamite. A work of art that is both awesome and groundbreaking and, well, without the hiking trails or the tours explaining the vision of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, a bit boring.

And on this Saturday, there was an added dimension. The more we looked at Thomas Jefferson, the more it seemed like he was giving us attitude. As in: “I did NOT write the Declaration of Independence for you to act like fools. … Scatter!”

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We take our obligatory photos. And then Ben asks: You guys hanging out at the pool tonight?

“Uh, gosh, we, uh, um … well, all right, I’ll be blunt: Do you think that’s a good idea?”

Ben: “It’s fine. I did some reading, and it doesn’t transmit through water.”

Me: “Yeah, but the CDC says it might live for a day or more on plastic and metal, and besides, did you see the little boy having a meltdown in our lobby and his sister doing the faceplant on the table near the toaster and the guy at the front desk coughing and making COVID-19 jokes … and the housekeeper, the sweet, sweet woman who wasn’t wearing any mask or gloves as she cleaned rooms.”

I should clarify. My mind said that. My mouth simply said: “Yeah. Our boys are kinda past the water-slide age.”

At that, my son Sam, 12, shot me his best Thomas Jefferson glare.

We soon parted ways. Then we loaded the truckster and went to Custer State Park, a gem of winding roads, hiking trails, wooden bridges and one-lane pigtail tunnels in the Black Hills.

A buffalo posed on a hillside. Five mountain goats trotted past us. We got out and hiked, snowmelt from the 59-degree spring day turning a stream into a babbling brook.

A social-distancing buffalo.

The idyllic path was a gentle reminder: Animals, the environment, seem to be thriving. Fewer humans. Less pollution. And, yes, no viruses thinning their ranks, at least not in 2020.

Back at the hotel, the two-legged animals wanted us to stick around. The manager — the front-desk comedian with the coronavirus set — wrote a note on our bill that said we could stay one more night for just, you guessed it, $39.

The capitalist gods, no doubt desperate in these times, were trying to pack their germ-infested quarters with more suckers like us. But the truth is: it’s not worth it. WaTiki can wait. And Mount Rushmore? I promise you, those four dudes aren’t going anywhere.

We piled back into the truckster.

“Where we going next, family?”

The answer was unanimous.

Home. Please. For as long as it takes.

Photos: Coronavirus affects Nebraska

Trump wants to move faster to reopen businesses
President, in shift from reliance on health experts, sides with those in his orbit who stress danger to economy

President Donald Trump. GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham urged Trump to stick with the advice of public health officials.

WASHINGTON (AP) — As cases of coronavirus continue to rise, President Donald Trump said Monday that he wants to reopen the country for business in weeks, not months, claiming that continued closures could result in more deaths than the pandemic itself.

"We can't have the cure be worse than the problem," Trump told reporters at a briefing, echoing a midnight Sunday tweet. "We have to open our country because that causes problems that, in my opinion, could be far bigger problems."

Health experts havemade clear that unless Americans continue to dramatically limit social interaction — staying home from work and isolating themselves — the number of infections will overwhelm the health care system, as it has in parts of Italy, leading to many more deaths. While the worst outbreaks are concentrated in certain parts of the country, such as New York, experts warn that the highly infectious disease is certain to spread.

But with the economic impact now snapping into focus and millions out of work, businesses shuttered and the markets in free fall — all undermining Trump's reelection message — the chorus of backlash is growing louder, with Trump appearing to side with them.

"Life is fragile and economies are fragile," Trump said, insisting that he could protect both.

While he acknowledged there were trade-offs — "there's no question about that" — he claimed that, if closures stretch on for months, there would be "probably more death from that than anything that we're talking about with respect to the virus."

The comments were further evidence that Trump has grown impatient with the pandemic, even before it has reached its expected peak. In recent days, tensions have been rising between those who argue that the country needs to get back up and running to prevent a deep economic depression, and medical experts who warn that, unless more extreme action is taken, the human cost will be catastrophic.

"We can't shut in the economy. The economic cost to individuals is just too great," Larry Kudlow, Trump's top economic adviser, said in an interview Monday on Fox News. "The president is right. The cure can't be worse than the disease, and we're going to have to make some difficult trade-offs."

It's an opinion that has been echoed by others in the White House, some Republicans in Congress and on Fox, where host Steve Hilton delivered a monologue Sunday night that appeared to have, at least partially, inspired Trump's tweet.

"You know that famous phrase, the cure is worse than the disease? That is exactly the territory we're hurtling towards," Hilton told his viewers, describing the economic, social and human impact of the shutdown as an "even bigger crisis" than the virus.

"You think it's just the coronavirus that kills people? This total economic shutdown will kill people," he said, pointing to growing poverty and despair.

Trump, who for the past two weeks has largely allowed doctors to lead the administration's response, seemed to be shifting away from that.

"I'm not looking at months, I can tell you right now," Trump said Monday, when asked about easing federal recommendations urging Americans to limit social contact and stay home. He said states with large case loads could continue to enforce stricter measures, while other parts of the country return to work.

Even as Trump tweeted that he would be waiting until the end of the current 15day period of recommended closures and self-isolation to make any decisions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was exploring new guidance making it possible for people working in "critical infrastructure" jobs who have been exposed to the virus to return to work faster "by wearing a mask for a certain period of time," Vice President Mike Pence said.

It's a change in tone that is drawing criticism from public health experts, who suggested that Trump risks making a dangerous mistake if he sets up a conflict between public health and the nation's economic well-being, given how unlikely it is that the threat posed by the virus will subside in another week.

Twelve states have issued state-at-home orders effective Wednesday or earlier, and Britain's Boris Johnson ordered a virtual lockdown Monday hoping the stem the crisis there.

If the U.S. stops social distancing too soon, "you will have more deaths and more dives in the stock market," warned Lawrence Gostin of Georgetown University, a lawyer with extensive public health expertise.

And the outbreak could come surging back once people return to their normal routines of commuting, working, dining out and socializing — further stressing the economy.

John Auerbach, president of the nonpartisan Trust for America's Health, which works with governments at all levels to improve preparedness for public health emergencies, said widespread illness and death would also have a powerful economic impact that's impossible to ignore or play down.

"If you don't flatten the curve and minimize those who are getting infected, the amount of sickness will cripple business," said Auerbach.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close Trump ally, urged Trump to stick with the advice of public health officials.

"There is no functioning economy unless we control the virus," he warned on Twitter. "Try running an economy with major hospitals overflowing, doctors and nurses forced to stop treating some because they can't help all, and every moment of gut-wrenching medical chaos being played out in our living rooms, on TV, on social media, and shown all around the world."

But Stephen Moore, a former Trump economic adviser, said it's time now "to start thinking about what kind of dramatic costs to society are we absorbing from the shutdown," including tens of millions unemployed and potential spikes in drug overdoses and suicides.

He said he has been urging his former colleagues to selectively open the economy in ways that minimize the public health risk with more testing and, for instance, taking people's temperature in public places, as they are now doing in other countries.

"There's no good solutions here. There's just bad solutions," Moore conceded. "And to me, the worst solution is to just grind our economy to a halt."

Other economists warned that if Americans return to work too soon, there could be recurring outbreaks that would only worsen a recession. But if the period of isolation continues for too long, there will be a steep cost in trying to restart and sustain economic growth.

Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at the consultancy RSM, said lifting restrictions after 15 days would be "potentially a profound policy mistake" because it could lead to a second or third wave of outbreaks that would do even more harm to economic growth.

"We got one shot to get this all right," Brusuelas said, noting that Trump has a great deal at stake personally, given the coming election in November. "The last thing one would want to do from an economic policy perspective is to elevate one's electoral interests above that of the economy or, most importantly, public health."

Analysts at Morgan Stanley estimated Monday that the economy will shrink at a record-breaking annualized pace of 30% in the second quarter. The unemployment rate would surge to 12.8%— the highest level ever in data that go back to the 1940s. But this forecast assumes that the outbreak peaks in late April, after which there would be fewer reasons to restrict economic activity.

Lawmakers quickly advance $83.6 million emergency appropriation to help battle coronavirus

LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers advanced an $83.6 million emergency appropriation to battle the novel coronavirus Monday with no dissent and virtually no debate.

The 44-0 vote on the appropriation came after State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, the Appropriations Committee chairman, urged his colleagues to show unity in support of the state.

“It’s our turn to lay down our partisan politics and pass the bill,” he said.

Senators are slated to take a final vote on the measure Wednesday. If approved with the emergency clause, it would take effect as soon as it is signed into law by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

As originally announced, the package includes money to boost the state’s testing capability, make protective equipment more available and augment staffing in state and local public health departments and in state care institutions, including the state veterans homes.

Over the weekend, Ricketts added $25 million to the request, raising the total to $83.6 million. The additional money is to be held in reserve for use if needed.

Stinner said the total appropriation will go into the governor’s emergency fund and be earmarked for coronavirus response. He said that approach will allow the money to be tracked more easily and will not increase the ongoing budget for any state agency. The money would be drawn from the state’s cash reserve fund.

Another portion of the governor’s emergency fund holds money earmarked for the state’s response to last year’s flooding and other weather disasters. Two weeks ago, lawmakers had been debating changes to the state budget that included $55 million for flood recovery efforts.

Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer of Norfolk suspended the session last week in light of state and federal guidance to limit gatherings of people. Several lawmakers are at greater risk from the potentially deadly virus because of age or underlying health problems, such as heart disease, lung disease or diabetes.

On Monday, 44 of the 49 state lawmakers showed up in the legislative chambers at the State Capitol but with a few new twists.

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Only essential staff members and a limited number of student pages were allowed on the floor with lawmakers. Senators kept their distance while talking, instead of huddling together. A few wore face masks. And a page distributed packages of sanitizing towelettes to each desk.

Scheer thanked colleagues for being willing to put themselves at risk to get the appropriation approved.

On Saturday, Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln had requested that the Legislature reconvene electronically to avoid the risks of gathering so many people together in person.

A legislative rule requires senators to physically be present in the legislative chamber to vote. Pansing Brooks argued that the speaker could use his discretion to implement a temporary rule that could be confirmed by lawmakers during their electronic session.

Photos: Coronavirus affects Nebraska