Like everything else, school bond elections May 12 for two metro area districts will occur in the shadow of the pandemic.
Even the relatively modest proposals that voters will decide in the Millard Public Schools and Springfield Platteview Community Schools are no longer a sure thing in light of the economic chaos.
The Millard school board president, Linda Poole, said officials are sticking to their forecast that passage of their $125 million bond issue will require at most a one-cent increase in the property tax levy.
That would mean a $20 annual hike for a $200,000 house.
Poole said that if voters approve it, officials will keep an eye on the financial picture to adjust the timetable for using the bonds if necessary.
“We can monitor the situation our communities are in,” Poole said.
The proposed projects list has been in planning for more than a year, and the projects are “needs not wants,” she said.
Despite the economic uncertainty, the Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom confirmed last week that the watchdog group is still backing the bond issue — a rare step for the group.
It has called the projects practical and necessary.
Doug Kagan, the group's founder, said that even before COVID-19 arrived on the scene, district officials assured him that if the economy were to slide, the projects could be spaced out over time to reduce the financial impact on taxpayers.
Kagan said he wonders, though, if the economic situation will hurt its passage.
Millard’s bond issue doesn’t include new schools, focusing rather on maintenance and renovation.
Officials say the expenditures would be spread across the district’s buildings, but four schools are targeted for multimillion-dollar upgrades.
The district would spend $53.4 million on major renovations, $45.5 million on summer maintenance projects, $9 million on safety and security, and the rest on energy-efficiency projects and replacing furniture and capital equipment.
The most costly project would be $14.5 million in renovation and repairs at Central Middle School. The school built in 1960 would get a major overhaul: everything from windows, flooring and cabinets to lighting and heating systems.
Two elementary schools built in 1964, Cody and Norris, would see renovations and repairs of $8 million and $6.8 million, respectively.
Millard South High School would get a more secure vestibule-type entrance, similar to the one at Millard North, as part of $7.3 million in repairs and renovations.
In all, 22 schools would see improvements of at least $750,000 each.
Millard voters last approved a bond issue in 2013. That one totaled $79.9 million, more than a third of which was spent on improving school security.
More recently, Millard voters in November 2017 authorized the school board to exceed the state’s property tax levy limit for general fund expenditures.
Springfield Platteview Superintendent Brett Richards said it’s been hard to get the word out about his district’s bond issue.
The usual ways — forums and community meetings — are limited by the coronavirus restrictions on gatherings.
District officials are looking to build a new elementary school in Springfield and add on to an existing one.
Richards said his district’s proposed $28.5 million bond issue, if passed, would not require a property tax levy increase. He points to significant valuation gains from new businesses in the southern Sarpy County district, particularly along the Highway 50 corridor.
But he still isn’t sure voters will approve it.
It’s tough, he said, to get a bond issue passed in the district, and Richards expects a close vote.
Spurred by growth, the district is looking to build a bigger Springfield Elementary School to replace the existing one. The new one would be built on 10 acres in the Springfield Pines housing development.
The old school, officials say, is outdated and short on classroom space, has no fire sprinklers or storm shelter, and costs too much to renovate. Its kitchen is not made for cooking and serving, they say.
The bond issue would also pay for additions to Westmont Elementary School, which officials say has some of the same challenges as Springfield Elementary. The classrooms and library were renovated a few years ago. The district wants to finish up the renovations and add a gym and a kitchen space.
Each elementary school will get a more secure entrance and a storm shelter.
Richards said that if the bond issue passes, he’d like to get started on construction in the fall, with a goal of opening both by 2022.
Gladys Harrison answers her phone while sitting in a borrowed car in the bank drive-up lane.
The 52-year-old restaurant owner and congressional candidate is ready to deposit a much-needed check from the online food delivery service GrubHub. But it’s a wait, and Harrison explains, “there’s a line.”
Harrison is referring to the literal line of cars in front of her at the North Omaha bank branch where, at this moment, she is idling behind the wheel of her daughter’s Kia Soul. Harrison’s own 2001 Ford pickup needs engine repair, which she’s had to put off as the novel coronavirus pandemic has turned life upside down. She can’t afford to fix it right now.
But the bank isn’t the only place where she’s waiting for her opportunity.
First, Harrison’s restaurant, Big Mama’s Kitchen, is shuttered like the rest of the city’s restaurants to prevent virus spread. Harrison served takeout as long as she could in order to keep paying her laid-off employees. Now she’s one of the many local business owners whose livelihoods hang in the balance as they wait to reopen.
Her other waiting line is in politics, where she’s trailing two better-funded, better-known Democratic contenders in a three-way race to unseat Republican Don Bacon in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District.
Harrison entered the race last year, after Democrats Kara Eastman and Ann Ashford had filed to run. Eastman narrowly lost to Bacon in 2018. Ashford’s husband, Brad, held the seat one term, losing to Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general, in 2016.
Eastman and Ashford signs dot Omaha yards, and their total fundraising has eclipsed the $29,601 Harrison raised and mostly spent between July 2019 and March 31.
Eastman has raised nearly $756,000 and had about $138,000 on hand at the end of March. Ashford has raised nearly $285,000, with $15,202 on hand and $45,000 in debts.
Harrison’s cash on hand as of March 31, which was six weeks before the May 12 primary: $1,275.
So the line to Congress seems pretty long for Harrison. She knows the odds are against her.
But Harrison feels strongly about her potential to represent a broad electorate and the common person. If elected, she would be the first African American to represent Nebraska in Congress and the first woman to do so from District 2, which represents Omaha, the rest of Douglas County and part of Sarpy County.
She’s less interested in that history-making role than in bringing the perspective of a small-business owner, grandmother and single mother who has dealt with loss and struggle.
“There’s a skill set and a frame of reference that I come from that you don’t find in Washington,” she said. “There’s not many people (in Congress) like me.”
She knows this fact about lines: They do move. Once people hear her story, Harrison says, she hopes her life experience will propel her to the front. Plus, she’s figuring that with so many early voting requests, people at home will take time to Google candidates and learn more about them.
Harrison is an Omaha native who grew up with both racism and opportunity. When her parents moved the family from their mostly black northeast Omaha neighborhood to a then mostly white one in Benson, Harrison said someone scrawled the N-word on her father’s car and egged the family home.
She remembers, as a 5-year-old, watching her family scrape the egg off. They stayed put. Gladys attended public and Catholic schools, seemingly on an upward trajectory. She was in the Future Business Leaders of America while attending Marian High. She traveled to Washington, D.C., and basked in the glow of her grandmother’s praise.
“You’re going to be the next Barbara Jordan,” said her namesake, grandmother Gladys Harrison, referring to the history-making congresswoman from Texas.
But Harrison got pregnant her senior year and, the month she graduated from Marian, she had a baby who would later die of congenital heart disease. She later lost a second baby to SIDS.
She was married briefly and had three more children. She declared bankruptcy in 1997 and struggled with medical bills.
She said her life experience and firsthand knowledge of struggle make her especially attuned to the needs of the district’s residents.
One constant has been work. Harrison has always had a job, starting with counter service at a Runza when she was 14 and later at the old U.S. West, which became Qwest Communications during her 22 years there. Harrison was union steward for the Communication Workers of America, Local 7400, which impressed upon her the power of collective, organized action.
In the latter part of her phone company career, Harrison worked two jobs, helping her late mother, Patricia Barron, run Big Mama’s. She went full time to the restaurant in 2009 and ran it during her mother’s illness and after her death in 2018.
Harrison coordinated a move from the old Nebraska School for the Deaf campus near 45th Street and Bedford Avenue to the slick-looking 75 North development at 30th and Patrick Streets. Harrison had completed the move in January, and the soul-food restaurant was settling in when the coronavirus hit.
Harrison had to lay off her staff in March and kept the business open for takeout to make enough to meet her last payroll obligation. The takeout income wasn’t enough, she said, to keep the restaurant going through the pandemic. She closed on April 4.
On April 12, she was in line to make that last — for now — restaurant bank deposit.
While in line she discussed her priorities: health care and jobs.
On health care, Harrison wants to let people keep the employer-based or private insurance plans they have but add a public option for people like her. Harrison can’t afford private health insurance on the Affordable Care Act exchange, so she goes without.
Having stood in union picket lines to protest changes to health insurance, Harrison believes it’s unwise “to force people into insurance they may not feel is best for them.”
“However, we can’t continue to have people in the richest country in the world not have affordable, quality health care,” she said.
She also wants reform in how people of color are treated in health care systems. She has known of people of color who get disparate treatment and seen evidence that whites get better care because of racism and fewer health care options.
On jobs, Harrison said tax breaks for job creators don’t create enough pathways for disadvantaged people who need jobs but lack supports. She said companies need to do more than set up shop in communities in order to benefit from government tax incentive programs that lure them to town.
She said the coronavirus has laid bare long-existing gaps in both areas. She criticized her Democratic opponents as having Band-Aid approaches to North Omaha’s long-standing challenges with poverty.
Harrison doesn’t have a political background and every once in a while, when considering serving in Washington, she catches herself wondering, who do you think you are?
Then she realizes why she threw her name in.
“I can tell you from what I lived,” she said, “how the things we do poorly in this country on a federal level, how they affect people. I can tell you because I’m living it.”
Harrison has secured a small-business federal stimulus loan that will help her resume Big Mama’s Kitchen in some form. Even if sit-down dining doesn’t return soon, Harrison plans on making more to-go, take-and-bake items and even seeing about doing her own deliveries.
And she did make it through that bank line.
“You were quick today. Thank you,” she told the bank clerk as she reached her spot. At the front.
Restaurant owner Kesa Kenny has recently been painting patio furniture.
The tables and chairs invite people to eat outdoors at her intimate cafe, Finicky Frank’s, on Calhoun Road off Interstate 680. She says the task is giving her lots of time to think.
And she has lots to think about.
“I am out here trying to think of ways to change our menu to improve it for takeout,” Kenny said. “It has been a game-changer.”
Kenny, who has owned and operated Finicky Frank’s since 2007, is not alone. Chefs and restaurateurs across the city have been adjusting to offering only takeout food during the coronavirus pandemic.
In mid-March, Gov. Pete Ricketts mandated that gatherings be limited to 10 people, effectively closing their dining rooms. On Friday, he said restaurants could reopen starting May 4 at 50% capacity if they limit parties to six or fewer and seat them 6 feet apart.
But takeout is expected to remain a major part of restaurant business under those circumstances. Restaurants, which had to revamp operations almost overnight, will face challenges as they change course again.
And not all will reopen next week. Chef David Utterback of Yoshitomo announced on Facebook on Saturday that the dining room at his Benson sushi restaurant will remain closed and he will continue with only takeout and delivery as long as it is financially possible.
A survey conducted April 1 through 10 indicated that 78% of Nebraska’s restaurants remained open for carryout, delivery or both and that the same number planned to remain open the next 30 days, said Zoe Olson, executive director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association.
The change was difficult, especially for those who primarily were dine-in only.
They had to figure out staffing and how many to-go containers they would need. They faced cost increases and minor food shortages and had to adjust food orders. Chefs were forced to retool menus for expedience, which often meant omitting signature items and compromising their vision for the food.
Chefs we talked with reported varying success. Some started offering takeout and then closed, and others, such as Blue and Roja, launched takeout late in the game. Restaurants in the Hal Smith Group (Charleston’s, Mahogany and Smitty’s Garage) plan to reopen with curbside pickup and delivery this week. Virtuoso Pizza by David Losole had been open, but a message on its answering machine now says it’s closed until sometime in May.
Kenny said she has been selling out of her popular pan-fried chicken dinners on Saturday nights but the rest of the week is sporadic. She recently quit serving lunches because traffic was so low.
“Takeout is barely paying for itself,” she said.
She cut her staff to herself, her husband and one other person who occasionally comes in to help.
Finicky Frank’s, in a small strip mall near the Mormon Bridge, doesn’t have the counter space to easily handle multiple takeout orders. Preparing for the Saturday night dinner special is a nightmare because it requires several separate containers to maintain the food’s integrity.
“You know that episode of ‘I Love Lucy’ where she’s working in the candy line? That’s my world,” Kenny said.
She says she doesn’t know how fast-food restaurants cope.
“I would love a week’s lesson at Taco Bell,” she said. “I need an education.”
Yoshitomo’s Utterback said his business is down about 50% since his dining room closed but it’s enough to keep his staff of 20 employed. His conversion to takeout and delivery wasn’t as onerous as Kenny’s because he already was doing it on a small scale.
Perhaps the biggest drawback for Utterback — a 2020 nominee for the prestigious James Beard Award — is that he had to pare his menu to the most basic sushi. There’s little room to be creative when you need to make money, be efficient and can’t get exotic ingredients such as flying fish from Japan.
“Our focus has been on casual fine-dining. A restaurant that gets nominated for the James Beard Award isn’t a restaurant that sells California rolls all day,” he said. “I am infinitely thankful for the support, but I feel like I am just making cheeseburgers.”
Chef Nick Strawhecker of Dante said he’s also had to compromise on his menu, creating fewer specials than usual. He’s still serving locally sourced entrees such as roasted Plum Creek chicken and porchetta, pork belly rolled up with fennel and black pepper and roasted in a wood oven.
The transition to takeout has been smooth except for the first weekend, he said. It’s successful enough that he has retained all his staff and hired two more people, and made roughly as much revenue in March 2020 as he did in March 2019. Alcohol sales have been especially brisk.
That’s tempered, however, by the temporary closure of his other restaurant, Forno, in the Blackstone District, he said. He had to lay off 20 people there.
He credits the success of takeout at Dante to an early plan and constant communication with customers through email and social media.
Paul McCrae, owner of The Corner Kick Street Tacos and Tequila Cantina in Millard, is using the web in a similar way to promote a weekly drive-in theater in his parking lot. That has increased visibility but not necessarily revenue.
“All we did is push the dinner hour back. People are eating right before the movie,” he said.
The restaurateurs are taking special measures to ensure the safety of employees and customers, and they no doubt will remain in place when dining rooms reopen, beginning May 4. Each day, Dante workers take their temperatures as soon as they arrive and sign a document that they haven’t knowingly put themselves at risk of catching COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Both Utterback and Strawhecker said third-party delivery services are necessary but can cause problems when customers order through their websites and not through the restaurants. It’s hard to manage workflow when it’s interrupted by unexpected orders, especially when they’re supposed to be done with a short turn-around, they said.
“That’s why we don’t do it (delivery) on weekends anymore,” Strawhecker said.
Delivery services also charge restaurants between 20% and 30% commission.
Restaurant owners interviewed said they think takeout will remain important even as things start to open up again.
Utterback said carryout was becoming more popular even before the pandemic and that dining habits will continue to evolve.
“Some of these changes are going to be permanent,” he said. “It’s not the last time we’ll do this. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) is talking about it (coronavirus) coming back.”
Strawhecker said he was more worried about how to handle reopening than he was about takeout. The switch back, he said, “will be like opening a restaurant again.” He sees carryout as a component of his operation for the foreseeable future.
For Kenny, Ricketts’ announcement ended weeks of wondering how long the dining room would be out of service. Now she’s pondering how much staff to bring back and what will happen when she reopens.
She’ll take it day by day, the same way she has handled it up to now.
“I wanted to go home and just wait it out, but my husband said, ‘Nope, you’ve got to show them you’re still here,’ ” she said. “A lot of my customers are older people, and I appreciate their thank-yous, kindness, caring and compassion. They are risking their health by coming in to get a Reuben.”
WASHINGTON — Some form of social distancing will probably remain in place through the summer, Deborah Birx, the White House's coronavirus task force coordinator, said Sunday, the same day several governors expressed optimism about the course of the virus and outlined their plans for a piecemeal reopening of their economies.
Last week, Vice President Mike Pence predicted that "we will largely have this coronavirus epidemic behind us" by Memorial Day weekend in late May.
But on Sunday, Birx said in an interview on NBC News' "Meet the Press" that "social distancing will be with us through the summer to really ensure that we protect one another as we move through these phases." She cited the need for further testing to be developed after a potential scientific "breakthrough."
The mixed messages come as Americans are entering a confusing and uncertain new phase in the coronavirus crisis. After weeks of being told to simply stay home to halt the spread of the virus, individuals and business owners are now facing more complex decisions about how to proceed.
In places where restaurant dining rooms are reopening, is it safe to go? Is it a good idea to return to the hair salon for a much-needed trim? And for business owners facing a litany of new guidelines about how to reopen without endangering their workers or customers, are the risks worth it?
Emily Landon, chief infectious disease epidemiologist at University of Chicago Medicine, said those calculations are tricky for people in states that are beginning to reopen because of the continued lack of widespread testing and the inability to effectively track people who might have been infected.
"It's hard for me to know what I'd do" in one of the states where governors have announced that spas and salons are able to reopen, Landon said. "I wouldn't go. And I wouldn't recommend that my family went. I would recommend that people stay home."
Landon said that in her view, it's still not safe for states to fully reopen — or for Americans to try to resume their lives as they were before the pandemic hit.
"This is a brand-new virus, and we have to do these things in a measured way," she said. "Without requirements for things like PPE (personal protective equipment), social distancing and really thoughtful policies for how to do these openings, it's not the time to do them."
In its broad guidelines for states to follow as they begin a phased reopening, the White House earlier this month recommended that a number of criteria, such as increasing capacity for testing and contact tracing, should be met before proceeding.
Across the country, however, some states are already relaxing their social distancing restrictions amid pressure from protesters, business groups and others.
On Sunday, several governors argued that their states' closures have successfully achieved their goal of building hospital capacity, acquiring personal protective equipment and reducing the spread of the pandemic's growth.
On CNN's "State of the Union," Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, defended his decision to partially reopen his state and maintained that he is focused on social distancing measures that are sustainable for the coming weeks and months.
The debate over reopening in the United States comes as another hard-hit country, Spain, allowed children under 14 to go outside for the first time in six weeks. The country, which has had more than 207,000 coronavirus cases and 23,190 deaths, has been in the midst one of Europe's strictest lockdowns since last month.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, meanwhile, is set to return to work Monday after more than three weeks battling a coronavirus infection. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who has been standing in for Johnson, told Sky News on Sunday that the prime minister is "raring to go."
In the United States, the steps being taken toward reopening vary by state. In some places, such as Florida, beaches have reopened on a limited basis, with police urging visitors to keep moving and avoid congregating.
In Montana, some churchgoers returned to Sunday services as a stay-at-home order expired.
In Oklahoma, salons, barbers and pet groomers got the green light to resume business late last week, and restaurants will be allowed to reopen their doors Friday.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said Sunday that construction and manufacturing businesses outside of the New York City region might be able to reopen after May 15, when the state's stay-at-home order expires.
In Georgia, businesses including bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, gyms and hair salons have already been allowed to reopen, with movie theaters and dine-in restaurants expected to follow suit Monday.
On Sunday, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the state is opening up too early.
"Georgia is certainly jumping the gun, I think here, getting started too early relative to where they are in the epidemic," Gottlieb said on CBS News' "Face the Nation."
Asked whether he thinks states such as Georgia and Oklahoma are reopening too quickly, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, chairman of the National Governors Association, said he was "going to be very cautious" in making decisions about his own state but declined to criticize other governors.
"Certain states are in different points of the curve, and they've got different situations on the ground, and I don't want to second-guess my colleagues in different states," Hogan, a Republican, said on ABC News' "This Week."
While Pence and President Donald Trump have in recent weeks voiced optimism about the speed with which they expect the country to be able to reopen, Birx and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have voiced caution.
After his suggestion at Thursday's coronavirus task force briefing that injecting disinfectants into the human body might help fight the coronavirus, Trump did not appear in public over the weekend. On Saturday night, he questioned in a tweet whether the task force briefings were worth his time, saying, "They get record ratings, & the American people get nothing but Fake News."
In China, the state-run media said hospitals in Wuhan, the original epicenter of the disaster, no longer have any COVID-19 patients, after a crisis in which the city recorded nearly 3,900 deaths.
The official death toll from the virus topped 205,000 worldwide, with over 2.9 million reported infections, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.