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'Don't expect to be in church for Easter': Ricketts says restrictions will remain in place

LINCOLN — Don’t expect things to be back to normal by Easter, especially in the Omaha and Lincoln areas, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Wednesday.

The Republican governor, at his daily coronavirus briefing, said restrictions imposed in Douglas, Lancaster and five other counties will extend several days beyond Easter, April 12, and that the spread of the virus will dictate when Nebraska officials ease restrictions there and elsewhere.

That’s all despite President Donald Trump’s expressed desire to have churches “packed again” and the country back open for business by Easter.

“Don’t expect to be in church for Easter,” Ricketts said.

He spoke as the number of coronavirus cases in Nebraska continued to climb, and tighter restrictions on social distancing were being prepared for three more counties.

Because community spread cases of coronavirus have now been identified in Lancaster, Dodge and Saunders Counties, those counties are now scheduled to join Douglas, Sarpy, Cass and Washington Counties under state-imposed directed health measures.

Those measures include a mandatory 10-person limit on crowd sizes, as well as the closing of bars, in-house dining at restaurants and elective surgeries. Churches also have suspended services. The purpose, the governor said, is to slow the spread of the potentially deadly virus and make more hospital rooms available in the event of a surge in patients.

Ricketts said there was no way to predict exactly when things could return to normal but said Nebraskans should be prepared for restrictions to last at least eight weeks. In the case of the Omaha area, the directed health measures are to be in effect until at least April 30, when they will be reviewed; in the case of Lancaster, Saunders and Dodge Counties, those restrictions extend until at least May 7.

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On related issues:

  • The governor joined Weysan Dun of the Nebraska Red Cross in urging Nebraskans to donate blood. The Red Cross is critically short of its blood supplies because 150 blood drives have been canceled in the state due to the pandemic, which led to 4,000 fewer donations than expected. Ricketts said that his wife, first lady Susanne Shore, has already donated blood and that he plans to donate during a March 31 blood drive scheduled for state workers in Lincoln. Dun said the Red Cross has implemented new safety measures so blood drives can resume.
  • Ricketts said the state has no plans to provide an early release of any inmates, despite concerns about a coronavirus outbreak in the state’s overcrowded prisons. He said he didn’t think Nebraskans would support that. “(Inmates are) in prison for a reason,” Ricketts said. Neighboring Iowa is among the states that have allowed the release of some inmates who face a high risk of contracting the virus due to age or medical conditions. Some county jails in Iowa are also ticketing some lawbreakers instead of taking them to jail. The ACLU of Nebraska is among the groups in this state that have been urging the “compassionate release” of some elderly and ill inmates.
  • Ricketts said trying to expand Medicaid immediately to give 90,000 more Nebraskans health care would actually delay implementation of the expansion, now scheduled for Oct. 1. That, he said, is because the state would have to amend and refile its waiver application to the federal government. Ricketts, who opposed Medicaid expansion, said expanding Medicaid is a bigger change that most people think, because it requires lining up new physicians and installing new software.
  • The governor said county health departments can supersede the state in ordering coronavirus restrictions, as Douglas County has with hair salons and related businesses. Ricketts said he does not wish to close businesses, including those where it’s necessary for workers to be within 6 feet of a customer. He urged such business to use common sense. The Douglas County Health Department has ordered hair salons, nail salons, massage parlors and similar businesses to close, because they cannot maintain a 6-foot distance from customers.
  • Jessica Kolterman of Lincoln Premium Poultry, the firm operating the huge chicken-processing plant in Fremont that supplies Costco warehouses, said the 1,000 workers there have been supportive of efforts to keep working to maintain the flow of food. Extra cleaning and other precautions have been taken, Kolterman said, and absenteeism has remained normal so far.
  • The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office is joining 32 other state attorneys general in warning Amazon, eBay, Craigslist and others to rigorously monitor price gouging practices by online sellers. Price gouging online is just as illegal as it is for brick-and-mortar stores, Ricketts said. Examples include inflated prices for hand sanitizer and face masks, the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office said.
  • Ricketts urged Congress to provide future aid to the states via block grants, because state and local officials have a better idea of how to spend such money.

World-Herald staff writers Jeffrey Robb and Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.

Photos: Coronavirus affects Nebraska

Ricketts' message to Nebraska businesses: Remain open, but take the virus seriously

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts is urging businesses to remain open, but be flexible amid the coronavirus outbreak.

In his latest live Facebook conversation with Nebraska business owners and entrepreneurs, he urged them to take the virus seriously, given the high mortality rates among those 70 years and older who contract the illness. Those rates are 15% for people ages 80 and older and 8% for those 70 and older.

“It’s a virus that’s much more dangerous than some of its predecessors, such as H1N1,” Ricketts said.

Ricketts made it clear that restrictions on businesses, including a suggested limit on no more than 10 customers at a time and social distancing, will likely remain in effect beyond March 31. The goal, he said, is to avoid a huge spike in cases that would overwhelm the state’s hospital facilities, as has happened in Italy and China.

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On the governor’s Facebook page, there were several questions posed about beauty salons and similar businesses, with one asking for “black and white” directives.

On Tuesday, Ricketts urged them to remain open and take precautions, but in the Omaha area, salons were told by Douglas County health officials to close because workers could not maintain a 6-foot distance from clients.

State Economic Development Director Tony Goins, who was also on the program, urged business owners to “take a step back and take a deep breath and really think through the things we need to do.”

Goins said it was important for business owners to reach out to their bank and landlords to see what can be done to deal with financial issues impacting their business. The governor said he was aware of one Lincoln landlord who has cut rent in half for his tenants.

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The following suggestions were offered:

Offer drive-up service to customers

  • Restaurants and bars have moved to takeout, curbside pickup, or drive-thru service.
  • Traditional sit-down restaurants are adding phone lines to handle calls for delivery/pickup orders.
  • Local retailers are posting items for sale online, and then readying orders for curbside pickup.
  • Veterinary clinics have begun to offer stay-in-car services. They will come get the pet from a vehicle, take the pet inside for a checkup, and then deliver the pet back to the vehicle after the exam.
  • Photography stores are offering online sales and giving customers the option to pick up curbside.

Deliver to customers

  • Traditional sit-down restaurant establishments and bars are delivering orders.
  • Consider how you can deliver your product to your customer. Even cigar lounges are delivering cigars to customers.
  • Fitness centers are offering virtual classes. YMCA has classes available on a YouTube channel. Other gyms are offering free classes on demand.
  • Gyms are sending instructors to provide in-home classes to groups of 10 or less.

Modify normal day-to-day operations

  • Businesses are meeting virtually via teleconference or videoconference.
  • Food processing plants are taking temperatures of all workers at the door to ensure the health of their teammates at the work site.
  • Large stores have marked off where customers should stand while waiting to check out. This helps to maintain the recommended social distance between customers.
  • Medical clinics are having patients check in from the parking lot and wait in their vehicles for their appointment. This prevents patients from being bunched together in a waiting room.
  • Fitness centers are spreading out their equipment to allow up to 10 customers to work out at once.
  • Manufacturers are rearranging workspaces to space out their teammates during the pandemic.
  • Restaurants are offering gift cards with more value than the purchase price, while specifying that the cards must be used at a later date. For instance, they’re selling $75 gift cards for only $50, provided that the cards are used after June 1. This is helping their cash flow during the pandemic.
Photos: Coronavirus affects Nebraska

Apartment Association of Nebraska urges 90-day suspension of evictions tied to pandemic

LINCOLN — Two steps aimed at stopping evictions of renters hit financially by the coronavirus pandemic were announced Wednesday by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

The Apartment Association of Nebraska, whose members have 46,000 rental units, has agreed to ask members to suspend evictions for 90 days.

In addition, the governor signed an executive order Wednesday waiving the state law requiring courts to hear eviction cases within 10 to 14 days after a tenant is served with eviction papers. The order is backdated to take effect March 13 and lasts through May 31.

Ricketts said the order could be extended if need be.

He said it’s specifically intended for people affected by the pandemic.

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Photos: Coronavirus affects Nebraska

Nebraska Legislature approves, Ricketts signs into law $83.6 million measure for coronavirus fight

LINCOLN — Nebraska’s fight against the novel coronavirus got an $83.6 million shot in the arm Wednesday.

State legislators passed the emergency appropriations measure on a 45-0 vote and sent it on to Gov. Pete Ricketts, who quickly signed it into law, freeing up the dollars for immediate use.

The governor and Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer of Norfolk praised senators for acting promptly and working together to make sure the state has the resources needed to battle the sometimes deadly virus.

“Here in Nebraska, we know how to get things done,” Ricketts said.

Scheer had a catch in his voice as he thanked colleagues for being willing to meet, despite the risk of large gatherings, to get the appropriations approved.

He suspended the regular legislative session on March 12 because of the risk. Many lawmakers are in high-risk groups because of their age or because of underlying health conditions. Scheer noted that the four senators who did not make it Wednesday were all at higher risk from the virus.

“We’re doing what we need to do in the time it needs to be done,” he said.

The largest portion of the appropriations, $38 million, will be used to buy personal protective equipment for first responders in the state’s communities and to provide support to local health departments as they beef up staffing, expand call centers and add more laptops and other technology.

Other money will pay for additional staffing in the public health division of the State Department of Health and Human Services, especially in the areas of epidemiology, emergency preparedness, communications and contracts with interpreters. Those areas are at the front lines of coronavirus response.

The package will pay for the overtime and additional staff in state care facilities that would be needed if regular staff get sick or need to be quarantined. The facilities include veterans homes, state psychiatric hospitals, the Beatrice State Developmental Center and state institutions for juvenile offenders.

The University of Nebraska Medical Center will get money to pay for equipment, staff and systems needed to expand testing for coronavirus. The money will pay for a sample extraction and detection robot, automated laboratory equipment and ultraviolet light boxes used to clean protective masks for reuse.

Lawmakers also included $25 million to be held in reserve and used as needed. The money gives Ricketts the flexibility to respond quickly to emerging needs.

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Scheer said he does not know when he will try to finish the legislative session. The timing will depend on guidance from health officials and others.

“I want to make sure we are safe when we do come back,” he said.

When the session does resume, he said it would not be business as usual. First on the agenda will be finishing work on the state budget. After that, Scheer said he will put the priority on debating bills that need to be passed this year.

He urged colleagues to work cooperatively and collaboratively during the rest of the session, noting that his plan would not have any of the usual “cooling-off” days. He plans to meet six days a week for two weeks, followed by one five-day week. He promised that he would not schedule those days during the two weeks before the May 12 primary, so incumbent senators would have time to campaign.

But in a sign of things to come, State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, the Revenue Committee chairwoman, filed her latest version of a proposal to revamp property taxes and school aid. And Sen. Ernie Chambers vowed that he would return to his usual form when senators reconvene. He did not speak on the emergency appropriations measure.

Photos: Coronavirus affects Nebraska