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State_and_regional
Ricketts vows to 'do what's best' for Nebraska in making decisions on relaxing restrictions

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts promised Tuesday to “do what’s best” for Nebraska in relaxing social distancing restrictions, regardless of what President Donald Trump may say.

But, at his daily briefing, the Republican governor sought to emphasize the collaboration between his administration and the federal government on responses to the coronavirus epidemic. He said they have worked together throughout the outbreak.

“There are people out there who are trying to drive a wedge between the president, governors, public health officials,” Ricketts said. “Let’s not get caught up in that Washington, D.C.-type gotcha politics.

“Let’s focus on the task at hand, which is managing the pandemic we have here in the state. That’s what my team and I are focused on.”

Trump asserted Monday that he is the ultimate decision-maker for determining how and when to lift restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

His assertion drew immediate pushback from some governors, including New York’s Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, who cited the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and states’ rights. Several GOP lawmakers also criticized Trump’s claim.

Trump then called out the Democratic governors in a Tuesday tweet, saying that “Mutiny on the Bounty” was his one of his favorite movies and that “a good old fashioned mutiny every now and then is an invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain. Too easy!”

Ricketts steered clear of any criticism of the president, saying his only focus is on keeping coronavirus patients from overwhelming the health care system in Nebraska. He said he expects to reopen the state gradually and does not have any specific plans yet.

On Friday, the governor announced a push for Nebraskans to stay home through the end of April, except for essential errands. He called for people to avoid social gatherings.

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In other topics:

State relief fund

Ricketts took no position on a letter sent to congressional leaders by the Platte Institute and similar think tanks in 15 other states.

The letter called for Congress to give states more flexibility in using the $150 billion coronavirus relief fund authorized in federal legislation last month. Nebraska could get $1.25 billion, but the money currently is limited to use in responding to the coronavirus, such as purchasing protective equipment and ventilators.

The Platte Institute letter asked for states to be allowed to use the money to offset tax revenue losses or to provide one-time tax relief that could help revive the economy.

Ricketts said those are questions for Congress to address. He said Nebraska can manage revenue losses within its current state budget.

U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer joined 15 other senators last week in raising another concern about the funds. In a letter, they urged the administration to make more of the money available to local governments. Currently, only entities with 500,000 population can get a share of the relief funds. In Nebraska, the only one to qualify would be Douglas County.

State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, the Appropriations Committee chairman, said more flexibility with the relief money would be very helpful. He said he believes that state and local governments could show how much of their revenue losses were caused by the coronavirus, which would address concerns that some states had budget problems before the outbreak began.

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Guard on campus

Troops from the Nebraska National Guard will soon be visible on the University of Nebraska campuses in Omaha, Lincoln and Kearney.

Ricketts said they will be preparing dorm rooms for use by first responders, health care workers and others who need a place to quarantine or convalesce because they can’t do that at their own homes.

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

Money
Where's my money? Here's how and when you'll get your federal stimulus check

As the nation deals with the deep economic fallout from the coronavirus, nearly all Americans should soon be receiving at least $1,200 in cash from Uncle Sam.

In fact, if you’re one of the lucky ones, the money may already be sitting in your bank account.

Not only is this cash intended to help Americans whose lives have been disrupted by the deadly bug, the idea also is that people will spend the money in ways that can help prop up the cratering economy.

Here’s what you need to know about the Economic Impact Payments program, part of the recent $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump.

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Who gets the money?

In general, all U.S. citizens and permanent residents are to receive payments of $1,200 per individual, $2,400 for a married couple, with additional payments of $500 per dependent child under the age of 17.

But there are income limits. Payments are reduced for individuals with incomes that fall between $75,000 and $98,000, and for couples with incomes between $150,000 and $198,000. For those with incomes above those levels, there is no money at all.

If you are going to receive less than the full amount, the Tax Foundation has a calculator that allows you to see what your payment will be.

A young adult age 17 or older who is claimed as a dependent on an income tax return will not receive a payment.

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What do I need to do to receive the money?

People who filed a tax return for tax year 2018 or 2019 don’t need to do anything.

If you had a bank account listed on that tax return for deposit of your tax refund, this stimulus money will be directly deposited into the same account.

If you don’t have an account linked to your return, you are currently set to receive the money in the form of a check, which will take longer. (There will soon be an opportunity to do something about that. More on that later.)

Those who receive Social Security or railroad retirement benefits but don’t file tax returns also will receive the payments with no further action needed. The money will be sent by direct deposit or check, just like their normal benefits.

Low-income people who don’t file tax returns are also eligible for the payments but need to let the IRS know where the money should be sent. The IRS has set up a portal for them to input that information.

Those who receive veterans benefits or Social Security disability benefits and don’t file a tax return may want to use that non-filers portal as well, though the IRS is eventually hoping to find a way to make those payments without such a need.

Additionally, those who receive Social Security or railroad retirement benefits who have dependent children under age 17 can use the non-filers portal to receive the extra $500 per child.

When do I get the money?

The first round of payments started to go out over the weekend, so the money may already be there if you check your account. And the Treasury Department has said it hopes to get most of the direct-deposited money out within two weeks.

For those who will receive the money as an actual check, it could take a while. Word from Congress last week is you could be waiting until August. But since the money is intended to stimulate the economy now, the Treasury Department has said it’s working to get the money out as quickly as possible.

By Friday, the IRS hopes to have a new “Get My Payment” online tool available. There, people will be able to check the status of their payment, including the date their payment is scheduled to be deposited or mailed.

People who filed a tax return but did not have a bank account number on it can also use the Get My Payment portal to provide the IRS with their account information. That should make direct deposit available and speed their payment.

Regardless of how you are supposed to get your money, the Treasury Department says people should receive a letter at their last known address within two weeks of when the payment is made. If you get such a letter and haven’t seen a payment, you can then contact the IRS.

'The first glimmer of hope': Omaha small businesses, laid-off workers optimistic about stimulus bill

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act includes billions in aid to small businesses, with financial incentives for them to keep workers on the payroll. For those out of work, it offers enhanced unemployment benefits that for most of the jobless could more than replace their lost wages. It probably won’t keep the country out of a recession. Many economists think that’s already a foregone conclusion. But it will certainly blunt economic fallout that would otherwise have grown even more apocalyptic.

Do I have to pay taxes on my stimulus check, or do I have to pay the money back later?

No and no. It is not considered taxable income and it won’t have to be repaid.

The reason there’s confusion on those questions is that — technically — the payment is structured as a credit on your 2020 taxes. But according to the Tax Foundation, no one will have to pay the money back no matter what happens with your 2020 tax return.

In fact, some people may receive more money next year when they file their taxes. For example, the Tax Foundation says, if you receive a reduced check or nothing this year because your income is too high, and then your income drops in 2020, you could receive a credit when you file your 2020 return next year. That credit would make up for the amount of stimulus you didn’t get this year.

So will this help stimulate the economy?

The program is injecting billions of dollars into state and local economies, which can’t help but ease some of the major economic disruption being caused by COVID-19.

“It’s kind of an immediate income injection that in the short term will bridge the gap and help people keep their lives going,” said Brian Payne, a University of Nebraska at Omaha finance professor. “We are trying to keep the economy going until we get to the other side of this thing.”

Payne said that for those who have had the economic rug pulled out from under them, the dollars can help them keep food on the table and pay bills. Many of those same people are also eligible for the enhanced unemployment benefits that are part of the stimulus bill.

For people who haven’t lost their jobs but are concerned they could, the dollars could help them create a bit of an emergency fund. To the degree that gives them confidence to continue to spend their regular income, Payne said, that also will help the economy.

“There’s a piece of mind element here that is important for people’s confidence going forward,” Payne said.

The biggest bang for the country’s economic buck would come if people who have the ability to spend the money do so.

People could choose to spend it on the latest electronic gizmo they’ve been thinking about, which would help the broader economy. But if people want to help the local economy, Payne said, perhaps the best thing would be to spend on takeout from their favorite restaurants or at other small businesses they support.

Small businesses are a big part of the local economy, Payne said, and right now many are struggling.

Payne said he’s spoken to people who already are making deliberate efforts each week to support their favorite restaurants. This stimulus money could provide significant funding for Nebraskans to do more of that.

“They may think, ‘I’m fortunate to be employed and working from home, and when I get that stimulus I will spend it on the people who need it,’ ” Payne said. “There are a lot of ways this can indeed directly stimulate the economy.”

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

Money
Owner of Nebraska Crossing Outlets plans to reopen mall this month amid pandemic

Nebraska Crossing Outlets will reopen to the public before the projected peak of coronavirus cases in Nebraska, the outdoor mall’s owner and developer said Tuesday.

Rod Yates said Nebraska Crossing has an opportunity to be a leader in the retail community and praised Gov. Pete Ricketts for “keeping the community on top of mind and working to get businesses open again.”

“We’re looking at the great opportunity to set some best practices and help our retailers open their portfolios across the country,” Yates said. “We are going to be the first shopping center that opens in North America.”

The president of the Nebraska Hospital Association, which represents 93 hospitals, said Tuesday that the action could “nullify our efforts to this point.”

“This move is in direct contradiction with public health guidelines and poses serious risks to the health of all Nebraskans,” Laura Redoutey said in a statement. “Quite simply, it’s irresponsible for a nonessential retailer to open its doors to the public in the middle of a pandemic.”

The outlet mall plans to have a “soft opening” on April 24 — only 15 days into Ricketts’ plea from earlier this month for Nebraskans to stay home for 21 days, a time period that would end April 30. Officials have said the state isn’t expected to reach the peak of COVID-19 cases and deaths until the end of April.

A “formal grand opening” would be in May, potentially as early as May 1, according to correspondence sent Friday to the more than 80 retail stores and restaurants in the mall, which sits along Interstate 80 near Gretna.

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But Nebraska Crossing initially had decided on an earlier date for the soft grand opening — discussing the matter with Ricketts Thursday night.

“We have kept in close communication with the governor, and based on these conversations, we are taking steps to soft-open stores beginning the 18th of April,” according to an update sent to general managers Friday.

“Our governor, Pete Ricketts, has done a phenomenal job trying to create a safe community environment and ultimately setting goals to get businesses back to work,” an official letter said. “We have had weekly calls with the governor personally.”

When asked Tuesday about the outlet mall’s plans to open April 18, Yates said the soft opening date had been pushed to April 24. He provided The World-Herald with an updated letter sent to retailers on Tuesday that deleted the line about weekly calls with Ricketts.

At his daily coronavirus press conference, Ricketts on Tuesday said Nebraska Crossing leaders reached out to him to tell him of their plans.

“I did not ask them to open, but I said if you do, just follow the guidelines,” he said. “If companies are looking to be able to get prepared for some point down the road when those restrictions are loosened, that’s OK, but anybody who’s operating still needs to continue to follow all the guidelines.”

Ricketts referenced his “Six Rules to Keep Nebraska Healthy” decree and asked people to follow that until April 30. The rules advise staying at home, “no nonessential errands” and to “shop alone and only shop once a week,” among other things.

He declined to say whether the stores at Nebraska Crossing were essential or nonessential and didn’t acknowledge the disconnect between his rules and the outlet mall’s plans.

“We don’t make that distinction here in our state. That’s not something we’ve done,” he said. “We’re asking people to make that distinction as they look at their own needs.”

Yates said the soft opening date was pushed back a week because of retailer feedback. He said those companies wanted to open their stores at Nebraska Crossing as a “case study” to figure out how the rest of their stores can safely reopen.

Yates also said Nebraska Crossing was an attractive pick for a test case because of the variety of businesses at the shopping center. He also said Nebraska has fewer coronavirus cases than other states and is one of few states not under a government stay-at-home order — meaning employees still could go to work.

Nebraska Crossing never officially closed because of the pandemic, but nearly all the stores closed to customers because their corporate officials closed stores throughout the United States. Uniform Destination is one of the only stores that stayed open to the public, but it has a limit of three people in the store at one time.

Some stores still were open and providing curbside pickup for online orders, said Johanna Boston, the chief strategy officer for Nebraska Crossing.

For the soft and grand openings, stores are not required to open, Boston said, and the date could be pushed back depending on additional virus cases.

“If tomorrow our numbers jump and we have a conversation with the governor, it could change,” she said. “But right now, we’re doing what we’ve been asked to do, which is to start getting people back to work in the safest environment we can create.”

Two general managers at Nebraska Crossing stores told The World-Herald that they’re worried about the pressure on corporate offices to reopen the stores and the risk of coronavirus exposure to employees and customers.

“There’s been absolutely no regard to Nebraska Crossing employees. None of us signed up to be guinea pigs,” one manager said. The World-Herald is not naming the managers because they feared retribution for speaking out. “We all have family. I’m not willing to bring that to my family. I’m not willing to be a test subject for you guys, and neither are my employees.”

Even a May opening seemed too soon.

“We haven’t even hit our peak in Nebraska yet,” the manager said. “That’s ridiculous. I understand it’s going to be a long time, but there has to be a protocol set in place that needs to be tested before we open to the public.”

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The other general manager was concerned about out-of-state visitors that the outlet mall usually attracts, which could lead to additional exposure from elsewhere.

Ricketts said that’s a problem the state faces, and he has asked people who come here from out of state to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“I gotta tell you, I just don’t think you’re going to see a lot of traveling this time when everybody knows we’re supposed to stay at home,” Ricketts said.

Yates said officials are taking several precautions for the scheduled opening.

The mall has purchased 100 “infrared non-contact instant-read thermometers” — one for each store — that employees will use to check their temperature upon arrival for their first shift. Store managers can decide whether to offer the thermometer to customers before they enter the store, Yates said.

They also have bought 200 shield guards that will be installed at registers between customers and employees.

KENNETH FERRIERA/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Nebraska Crossing, which plans a soft opening April 24, was empty Tuesday.

Officials also are encouraging customers and employees to wear masks and gloves and will recommend that shoppers shouldn’t walk around in groups. Also, the janitorial staff is using misting disinfectant to clean all bathrooms, storefront entrances, kiosks and common areas, and will add additional wipe stations in common areas.

“Anything we do is going to be very controlled,” Yates said. “We’re not going to do any mass events that attract hundreds of people. We’re going to slowly ease ourselves into the process of getting ourselves open.”

Sarah Schram, the health director of the Sarpy/Cass Health Department, said she was unaware of Nebraska Crossing’s plan to reopen until she saw news media reports about it. She said the wording of the state health directive does not include retail stores in the definition of gatherings. Therefore, she said, retail stores in Sarpy and Cass Counties do not have to adhere to the 10-person limit, but people would have to stay 6 feet away from one another.

“We’re really encouraging people to limit those public interactions if you are out and about,” she said, adding that people should continue to wash their hands, keep a 6-foot distance, avoid gathering and stay home. “Those are the small steps that everyone can do to really help limit the spread in our community.”

Chief Deputy Sarpy County Sheriff Greg London said his office won’t station a deputy at the mall but would respond to calls of people breaking the directed health measure, if that occurs.

Boston said people will need to decide if they are comfortable going to the outlet mall to shop.

“Some people are going to say, ‘Great’ and other people are going to say, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” she said. “The bottom line is, everybody has to use their best judgment.”

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

Crime
Grace: What's happening behind closed doors? Domestic violence calls spike on Easter

It’s the silence that has Amy Richardson worried.

Hotline calls to the Women’s Center for Advancement, the main resource for domestic violence services in Omaha, are way down over the past six weeks from the same period last year. So are the number of protection orders and hospital visits arranged by the agency.

The Shelter, which Catholic Charities runs for victims of abuse, is down to two families. It has a capacity of eight. Methodist Health System’s emergency response for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence also has seen its numbers fall off.

All of this is occurring more than a month into the coronavirus shutdown — a time when victims’ advocates, police leaders and public officials are warning about a spike in domestic violence. People cooped up at home, the stresses of the pandemic itself, the economic toll from record job loss and the lack of outlets like jobs, gyms and parks: All are predicted to be contributors to escalating domestic tensions.

The fact that the agencies’ official numbers show a drop belies what advocates believe is happening behind closed doors.

“It gives us goosebumps,” said Richardson, president and CEO of the midtown-based Women’s Center. “You know it’s not stopping.”

Amy Richardson

Richardson believes victims of domestic violence feel more trapped than ever. Their abusers are most likely around more, have more control over victims’ phones or devices and are limiting their ability to call for help. The shutdown might lead victims to believe that help is not available when it still is.

Police data on domestic violence calls are mixed.

Lincoln police reported a 20% drop in domestic disturbance calls and a 10% drop in domestic abuse calls in the past six weeks compared to the five-year average.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office reported that its domestic violence call load doubled in March, from 35 last year to 78 this year.

Omaha police reported little change in domestic violence calls for the month of March, when the first local cases of community spread were reported and when restaurants, schools and many businesses were closed to halt the spread of the highly contagious virus.

Omaha police responded to 1,060 domestic violence calls last month, compared to 1,059 in March 2019. Yet, figures for April show that the number of calls ticked up, by an average of five of day, from 38 per day in the first two weeks of April last year to almost 43 this year.

Some days saw big jumps. On Easter, Omaha police responded to 53 domestic violence calls, up from 40 on April 12, 2019.

Police Capt. Anna Colón, who oversees the department’s special investigations section that includes domestic violence, said she believes that early in the pandemic response, people were hunkered down, “really afraid of the virus” and that may have led to fewer calls. She said victims might have been afraid to go to the hospital, too.

Now, she said, calls are ticking up along with household tensions and worries about finances, health and the lack of an end date to the pandemic.

She urged victims to arrange a backup system for help — such as using code words or putting distress signs in windows to signal neighbors to call. She also said the public should be aware of the heightened risk for victims and to call 911 if they see or hear anything amiss.

She said that the pandemic does not change the police responsibility and that officers will make arrests if they think it’s justified.

“Just because we have a pandemic going on, we’re not going to forsake the law,” Colón said. “I don’t foresee not taking people to jail.”

Catholic Charities says it has plenty of room in its shelter, but victims might not realize it’s still open. The nonprofit saw a 300% jump in families seeking food from North and South Omaha pantries it runs, indicating the need is growing. Its domestic violence hotline is staffed 24/7.

“We are open, and services are running,” said Theresa Swoboda, vice president of program services.

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The Methodist Health System’s sexual assault nurse examiner program reports that its numbers are down from last year. In March 2019, the program saw 34 patients, eight of whom had injuries from intimate partner abuse. This March, the total was 19 patients, four with intimate partner abuse injuries.

Methodist offers the specialized assistance at its two Omaha hospitals: Methodist at 83rd and Dodge Streets and Methodist Women’s, near 190th Street and West Dodge Road.

“We’re here and ready,” said Jen Tran, team leader in forensic nursing. “We still maintain the same level of care.”

That’s the message Richardson of the Women’s Center wants to deliver loud and clear. Yes, the agency based at 3801 Harney St. might be closed to foot traffic. But people remain ready to help.

The main office phone goes to trained staffers during business hours, and the hotline is answered 24/7.

“We’re trying to get the word out,” Richardson said. “It’s a really dangerous situation.”

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The WCA hotline calls are down by one-third this year for the period of March 1 through April 9 compared to the same time in 2019. Last year, the WCA hotline logged 1,050 calls during that almost six-week period. This year, the WCA has received 698 calls.

Last year, the WCA helped 84 victims get protection orders between March 1 and April 9. This year during that period, the number was 33.

Victims’ stories paint a dire picture and show the complications of dealing with domestic abuse during the pandemic. Without naming clients, the WCA offered up three examples.

The first involves a woman whose underlying health conditions put her at higher risk of complications from coronavirus exposure. She needs a protection order but can’t risk leaving her house to be exposed to the virus in order to have the protection order notarized, as is required. The Women’s Center is working to get its notaries eligible for online notarization, which is allowed under a recent executive order issued by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

The second woman was able to call for help only after her abuser was hospitalized. That gave her a chance to get a protection order and make a safety plan.

A third woman fled from her abuser, becoming homeless in the process. She tested positive for COVID-19. Her diagnosis meant that she needed a place to stay where she wouldn’t put others at risk, so the Women’s Center had to find alternate housing.

Richardson said the actual number of domestic violence cases is not known, but she’s banking on this: There are probably more cases than have been reported.

“It’s definitely a dangerous time,” she said, “and we better be prepared.”

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus