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Health
St. Patrick's Day in Omaha to be quiet affair after another whirlwind day in Nebraska

On a normal St. Patrick’s Day at Omaha’s Irish pubs, the bands are playing, the Guinness is flowing and there’s a line out the door of folks clad in green.

But on Monday, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts splashed cold water on such traditional revelry by calling for public gatherings to be limited to 10 or fewer people to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The governor’s announcement, which matched a federal recommendation, capped off another whirlwind day in Nebraska in which bars and restaurants began closing or limiting their service, the Omaha Archdiocese canceled Masses and metro area school districts announced indefinite closures.

Nebraska’s number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, rose to 20. The number of community spread cases remained at one.

Those in the bar and restaurant industry, like Frank Vance, owner of the Dubliner Pub at 12th and Harney Streets, may be among the first to feel the squeeze of restricted crowd sizes. Vance said St. Patrick’s Day is “by far” the biggest day of the year for his bar.

But it will be quiet there Tuesday, as the Dubliner won’t open at all for the festive day.

“Right now, what we’re doing is postponing St. Patrick’s Day,” Vance said. “It makes no sense to open at this point.”

The crowd-size cap in Omaha changed quickly Monday — Ricketts spoke hours after a press conference in which Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert announced a limit of 50 people at restaurants and bars.

Later in the day, Stothert clarified that the city will follow the governor’s direction to limit gatherings to 10 people or fewer for the next two weeks. A statement from the Mayor’s Office noted that the limit applies to day cares, gyms and fitness centers in addition to bars and restaurants. The cap does not extend to airports, malls, grocery stores or private offices.

Crowd restrictions in Omaha will be enforced by the Police Department. Officers who respond to calls about oversize crowds will first ask that owners voluntarily comply with the limit, Deputy Chief Ken Kanger said.

The department is exploring whether criminal statutes exist to enforce the limit. A “worst-case scenario” could result in a forced closure, Kanger said.

“Obviously, the cooperation of our business establishments and owners is what we’re hoping for,” he said.

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Restaurant owners across the state are now having to make business decisions on how they will ride out the limitations. Some are closing altogether; others are staying open for takeout or delivery only.

The Flagship Restaurant Group, which locally operates Blue Sushi Sake Grill, Roja and Blatt Beer and Table, among others, closed its restaurants Monday.

Anthony Hitchcock, chief operating officer of the company, said he made the decision after visiting several Flagship properties in Omaha, where he heard concerns about coronavirus from customers and saw employees “working in fear” as they delivered food and cleared tables.

“I was walking around with a Clorox wipe in my hand and we’re asking employees to pick up plates,” he said. “If we truly say Flagship’s our family, I’m not going to put any co-workers in that position.”

Nicole Jesse, general manager and co-owner of La Casa Pizzaria near 45th and Leavenworth Streets, said the decision had already been made over the weekend to suspend dining operations as of Tuesday. Until further notice, the restaurant will be takeout only.

“We all have to be concerned about public safety, so if this is what we have to do to nip this in the bud, so be it,” she said. “It is crazy times.”

Of course, she’s also concerned about the impact on her hourly staff. She was heartened to hear some of the things officials are talking about doing to ease financial strain.

“I have people who are hourly, and this will impact them,” she said. “Hopefully, it won’t last long. I keep telling people to keep your chin up and we will get through this.”

Stothert said Omaha’s philanthropic community plans to create a fund to provide assistance to workers whose livelihoods have been jeopardized by coronavirus restrictions. People will struggle to pay their rent, mortgages and other bills, she noted.

For now, Stothert directed anyone who is able to give to donate to the Omaha Community Foundation. A separate fund may be created later on.

“They really want to put their money where it’s needed the most,” Stothert said of the philanthropists.

The City of Omaha is expected to offer limited paid time off to any full- or part-time city employee who contracts COVID-19 or is otherwise unable to work because of coronavirus disruptions, Stothert said Monday, the same day Omaha closed its libraries and community centers.

The City Council was expected to vote on the measure at its Tuesday meeting.

“All of these interventions are to try to reduce the spread (of coronavirus),” Stothert said. “There’s a really old saying that says an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — and that’s exactly what (we) are trying to do.”

World-Herald staff writer Betsie Freeman contributed to this report.

Photos: Coronavirus affects Nebraska

Education
OPS, Millard, Papillion-La Vista and Bellevue close indefinitely to slow spread of coronavirus

UPDATE: Officials with the Elkhorn Public Schools and Ralston Public Schools said Tuesday that they are extending the closure of all schools. Both districts do not have a tentative return date but will evaluate the situation every two weeks.

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The Omaha Public Schools and the Millard, Papillion-La Vista and Bellevue school districts on Monday closed indefinitely in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Westside officials said district schools will remain closed through April 12.

The announcements from the districts came after Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt recommended that Nebraska schools lay plans for alternative operation — without students — by the end of the week.

OPS Superintendent Cheryl Logan said she would evaluate conditions every two weeks, as recommended.

Millard Superintendent Jim Sutfin said in an email to parents that the district will begin remote learning March 24 and that officials expect this to be a six- to eight-week closure of the district’s buildings. “We will reopen as soon as we are confident we can safely do so,” he wrote.

Blomstedt on Monday that said he is not issuing a mandate to schools. However, he said he expects that by Monday, Nebraska schools will not have any students in class.

Blomstedt recommended that school districts work regionally, by educational service unit, to develop an orderly plan to transition to an alternative learning environment by Friday, unless told to do so sooner.

Schools should be prepared to operate in the alternate learning environment for six to eight weeks, he said, with a review of operations every two weeks, including plans for reopening.

Blomstedt’s statement is the strongest yet that the school year is about to change dramatically for Nebraska school kids, teachers and parents.

Gov. Pete Ricketts still could initiate a mandatory closure for any districts that haven’t closed. Ricketts has outlined the following triggers: two confirmed community spread cases in the Omaha metro area, one or two in Lincoln and one in a rural region.

The governor has said that a closure could last six to eight weeks.

Michael Ashton, superintendent of Archdiocese of Omaha schools, issued guidance to Catholic schools that they are expected to follow Blomstedt’s recommendation.

He said schools may need some time to prepare for an indefinite closure.

In addition, Blomstedt announced Monday that he has suspended annual statewide academic testing this spring.

The six-week testing window for the Nebraska Student-Centered Assessment System was supposed to open Monday.

The battery of math, science and English language arts tests — and the ACT for high school juniors — are used for state and federal accountability. The State of Texas similarly suspended its state testing.

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Blomstedt said earlier in the day that individual Nebraska school districts already had closed temporarily. He said the results from testing would not be valid or reliable for the end of this school year.

The Nebraska Department of Education indicated that it was working with the ACT organization to determine whether all public high school juniors, who normally would take the ACT as a state assessment, can have the opportunity to take the test free of charge at a later date.

OPS has rolled out a home-learning program that provides lessons for students. But the lessons won’t be graded and are intended only to keep kids engaged while they’re at home.

Blomstedt said he hopes that if schools are required to close, they still would be able to reopen yet this year.

Ricketts said the state still has just one known community transmitted case of coronavirus disease, in Douglas County.

Early Monday, parents of children in OPS were downloading lessons online or picking up packets of lessons in person at their children’s schools.

Kristen Lightfoot, a first grade teacher at Gilder Elementary, picked up packets of printed lessons for her children who attend the school — Jack, a fourth grader, and Allie, a first grader.

They contain three weeks of lessons.

“I can’t wait to have my class back,” she said. “I hope everyone stays healthy.”

JOE DEJKA/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Kristen Lightfoot leaves Gilder Elementary School on Monday morning after meeting with Principal Cassie Schmidt, who is in the doorway. Lightfoot, a first grade teacher at Gilder, picked up packets of printed lessons for her own two children, Jack, a fourth grader, and Allie, a first grader.

All elementary students were to receive packets. The packets are grade-specific and provide lessons on reading, writing and math. District officials asked that families complete the packets for the duration of the closure.

Once a student has completed the lesson for the day, parents were encouraged to have their student read a great book. The packets do not need to be returned to school.

OPS’s middle and high school students were to get their home lessons digitally. Those lessons won’t be graded either.

Logan said some people have asked why the lessons aren’t graded. She told the school board Monday night that district officials aren’t sure whether staff will be available if they get sick or have to care for a loved one. The district doesn’t want to make promises it can’t keep.

Logan said parents can ask teachers questions about the home learning curriculum via email if needed.

OPS spokesman Jeremy Maskel said Monday the home learning is going well.

“I’ve talked to several schools, and interactions with families as they pick up the materials have been positive. We know our teaching and learning staff worked very hard on these resources to support student engagement through a closure. And families have been very receptive.”

He said online engagement has been very high. He said many families have gone online to download lessons and materials.

The coronavirus also threatens to disrupt Advanced Placement courses and testing. AP courses are high-level high school courses that can earn students college credit.

Jaslee Carayol, director of media relations for the College Board, said officials are working on the situation.

They are developing resources to help schools support learning during extended closures, she said. They also are working on a solution that would allow students to test at home, she said.

The College Board will post more information Friday.

Concerns over the virus also have prompted rescheduling of ACT and SAT exams.

ACT has rescheduled the April 4 national ACT test date to June 13, 2020.

The ACT organization said it would communicate directly with all students registered for the April test date. Those students will receive an email in the next few days informing them of the postponement and instructions for next steps.

“ACT is committed to making every effort to help those students impacted by this test date change, particularly those high school seniors who are facing deadlines for fall 2020 college admission,” ACT CEO Marten Roorda said in a statement.

The College Board, which administers the SAT exam, announced that it was canceling the May 2 SAT test. Makeup exams for the March 14 testing date also are canceled. Registered students will receive refunds.

The College Board indicated that it would provide future testing opportunities for students as soon as feasible.

Logan said this is a scary time for students who are experiencing a catastrophic and unprecedented event while they’re young. She encouraged students to reach out to friends, family, teachers or professionals if needed.

“We look forward to the day we can return to normalcy,” she said.

Photos: Coronavirus affects Nebraska

Health
Ricketts announces tighter restrictions on public gatherings, emergency steps to aid laid-off workers

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts on Monday announced new, tighter restrictions on public gatherings and asked schools to be ready to empty their classrooms by Friday in response to the widening coronavirus outbreak.

No more than 10 people should gather at once at restaurants, taverns, church services and day care centers, he said, in response to the latest federal guidance to prevent the spread of the virus. Even weddings and funerals should be restricted to only 10 people, Ricketts said.

“Everyone’s just going to have to adapt,” he said. “These are trying times.”

Ricketts also announced emergency steps Monday to help people who are laid off or have to stay home to protect their own health, care for children or family members or because of exposure to the virus.

The governor suggested that weddings get “creative” by holding a small ceremony, then holding a string of “progressive” reception parties at several houses. Some wedding guests could also watch from overflow rooms or via some type of livestreaming.

“I know we’re breaking the hearts of brides,” Ricketts said. “I’m encouraging them to be flexible.”

He encouraged restaurants to stay open so they can provide takeout meals, and emphasized that he wanted grocery stores and businesses to remain operating but to take steps to provide distance between shoppers and employees.

Ricketts said the new steps are designed to stem the spread of the coronavirus to those who are elderly or have underlying health problems that could lead to hospitalization and even death.

Also on Monday, state prison officials announced that visits to inmates were being suspended to limit the spread of the coronavirus to prisoners, of which hundreds are elderly and some are confined in crowded cells.

To emphasize the growing concerns at the State Capitol, “don’t sit” signs were placed on every other chair in the governor’s press conference room to spread out the throng of reporters and enforce the “social distancing” that health officials have been encouraging since the outbreak began.

Ricketts said the new restrictions were in response to new guidance provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designed to prevent the outbreak from spreading.

State officials also announced that they are waiving some requirements on obtaining unemployment benefits to speed benefits to Nebraskans who were laid off or told to go home because of the coronavirus.

The steps include:

  • Waiving a one-week wait time to start collecting benefits.
  • Waiving the requirement that people be looking for work and willing to take a new job.
  • Waiving charges to employers for providing benefits to their former employees.

State Labor Commissioner John Albin said the state hasn’t seen a “huge surge” of requests for unemployment benefits as yet, but an increase is expected.

Albin said the waivers are in effect from March 22 to May 2 in hopes the emergency would have passed by then. But, he said, that could easily change.

Said Ricketts, “This is a fluid situation.”

During the governor’s monthly radio call-in show, he talked to the operator of a small restaurant in Lincoln who identified herself as Lisa from Lincoln.

She said that her doctor told her not to work at this time because of her health conditions. That leaves the business short of help and the family short on funds.

Ricketts encouraged Lisa and other business owners affected by the virus to check with the State Department of Economic Development about loans available from the Small Business Administration.

As if to emphasize the concerns about coronavirus, all but one of the phone calls fielded by the governor during the hourlong call-in show dealt with the outbreak, in contrast to the typical array of calls about road conditions, taxes and other political issues.

Photos: Coronavirus affects Nebraska

Articles
Strange new normal is likely to last for months
How many months? It depends on whether, in a week, 'we look like Italy or South Korea,' epidemiologist says

How long are we going to have to keep this up? The closed schools, work from home, 6 feet of personal space and empty streets?

It's the question now preoccupying America as millions of parents silently scream it into the void. But it is an especially hard one for science to answer.

The best and most honest reply, according to epidemiologists and virologists, is simply: "It depends." They say it's not going to be over anytime soon — a matter of months rather than weeks. And these are the key factors that will determine just how many months:

It depends on when U.S. cases finally reach their peak.

In recent days, the rapidly increasing number of confirmed U.S. cases has begun to resemble the beginning exponential curves of other countries such as Italy. While the virus continues to spread in Italy, the new daily cases of COVID-19 in other countries like China and South Korea are finally tapering off — a sign that they have passed the peak of their immediate crises.

"It depends if a week from now, we look like Italy or South Korea," said Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

It took China roughly two months from beginning of its outbreak — and a month from the time the gravity of the situation was understood — for the country to reach its peak. And it took SouthKorea roughly half amonth.

It is impossible, however, to say when that peak will arrive in the United States for many reasons— chief among them the fact that we don't yet know the true number of cases because of the limited testing in America.

The U.S. situation, one epidemiologist said, is the equivalent of someone asking an exterminator what it will take to get rid of rats in a basement they've been too afraid to enter for weeks. You have turn the lights on and examine the droppings first to figure out the scope of the problem. And the nation's response in the absence of that knowledge has been sluggish compared to other countries.

Even after the peak, we may need drastic actions to keep the virus at bay.

Two and half months after the virus emerged, China has partially lifted its draconian lockdowns in many areas. Schools have started reopening, and authorities have taken down the makeshift hospitals built in Wuhan at the height of the outbreak.

But new cases continue popping up. And the government has continued its use of temperature checkpoints and pervasive digital surveillance programs that track people's movements. The streets even in its megacities are not as crowded as before.

The risk of new outbreaks still looms. That's why Chinese authorities introduced new restrictions on incoming travelers — just as some countries once banned Chinese travelers — to prevent the virus from coming back into China and starting new brush fires of transmission.

"We haven't seen how this plays out all the way yet in China," Rivers said.

We could see such second or third waves of outbreaks in countries still recovering from the first. Some experts think the virus will eventually infect 40% to 70% of the world's population.

So it is possible, even likely, that after U.S. cases peak, Americans will still have to maintain some measures — such as isolating the infected, constant hand-washing, even some degree of social distancing — until a viable vaccine is developed, which could take 12 to 18 months.

It depends on unknown characteristics of the virus.

So much is still unknown about this virus.

Some have expressed hopes that the coronavirus, like the flu, will be affected by the change of seasons, with the flu waning with warmer weather in the spring and summer. But no one knows whether the coming spring will slow the spread of illness.

Additionally, scientists still don't know for sure if surviving a COVID-19 infection means you gain long-lasting immunity and, if so, for how long. There have been a few reports of possible reinfections, but many experts think those may be due to testing errors or a resurgence of the virus in patients who hadn't completely recovered.

Much also depends on how much we're willing to do, for how long.

How well America is able to flatten and bend its epidemiological curve of infections depends largely on how willing people will be to sacrifice individual conveniences and their desire to save the lives of others.

In Britain, for example, leaders last week said they were holding off on social distancing, bans on large gathering and school closures, in part out of fear that citizens would quickly get tired of it.

"If you move too early, people get fatigued," Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, said Thursday. That decision, however, was scorned by experts because a lot of epidemiological studies show the earlier you enact such interventions, the bigger their effect.

Even with the action being taken now in the United States, experts say hospitals will most likely run out of beds and ventilators and be forced to ration care, choosing which patients to save.

"I don't know if people are ready now for how long they're probably going to have to keep up this social distancing. But as they see the hospital situation get more extreme, I think that attitude will change," said Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida, who is working on coronavirus vaccines with the World Health Organization and testing problems with Florida's health department.

As she spoke to a reporter Sunday night, Dean multitasked, taking her two kids on a walk around the block, with her eldest competing — loudly — at times for her attention.

"It's stressful. It's going to take adjustment for a lot of families. But to be honest, it's too early given what's still ahead to be asking 'how long?' " she said. "It's like asking a fireman when you can move back in, but your house is still on fire."