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Iowa bars to reopen next week; Nebraska bars ask: Why not us?

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts said Wednesday that he feels no pressure to reopen bars, even though people in Omaha will soon be able to take a short drive across the river to grab a drink in Iowa liquor establishments.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Wednesday that in her state, movie theaters, museums and wedding reception venues will be reopening as of Friday, and bars can reopen May 28.

Her decision had Omaha bar owners again pushing for Nebraska's Republican governor to allow them to reopen their doors.

They also have obtained the services of an attorney who says he sees no legal justification for why Ricketts has continued to keep Omaha-area liquor establishments closed while restaurants and sports bars that have liquor licenses were allowed to open more than a week ago.

"This is not a shot across the bow," attorney James Martin Davis said in an interview. "But if they want bars to stay closed, they need to provide some legal justification for doing it."

In the Omaha area, bars and lounges that do not have permits to sell food have been closed for sit-down service since mid-March, and other areas of Nebraska followed suit later. 

Ricketts said during his daily coronavirus briefing he still has not decided whether to reopen Omaha bars after May 31, when the current health directive keeping them closed is set to expire. He said he is still reviewing data on infection trends as well as usage of hospital resources.

But he has hinted some relaxation of the current directives could be forthcoming.

“I tell people to just stay tuned,” he said.

During an appearance on a Washington Post webcast earlier in the day, Ricketts said that “if you have too tight of restrictions too long, people will start disobeying them.”

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Since allowing restaurants — including those with liquor licenses — to reopen effective May 4, Ricketts has repeatedly justified the decision to keep bars closed by describing the different nature of the businesses.

In taverns, people tend to sit or stand close together, especially at the bar, while in restaurants there is more space between tables, he said. That allows for social distancing. Under guidelines allowing restaurants to reopen, tables must be at least six feet apart and occupancy can’t exceed 50%.

But Davis, who has been retained by a half dozen bar owners, said he sees no legal basis for the line Ricketts has drawn.

He cited several U.S. constitutional provisions, including the equal protection clause. He also questioned whether there's a legal basis for citing bar owners who violate the current directive.

He said he's advised bar owners to comply for now. But he thinks they can open after May 31 unless the state provides a legal justification.

Davis said the bar owners also have a lobbyist who has been talking to the governor's staff, but they have gotten no commitment.

Ricketts said Wednesday that he understands that bars have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic closures. He would not say when he would be announcing his new guidelines, and sidestepped a question about whether he was concerned that Nebraskans might bring back an infection after visiting a liquor outlet in Council Bluffs or elsewhere in Iowa.

In Iowa, Reynolds, who is also a Republican, announced the relaxation of restrictions despite hundreds of new COVID-19 cases being confirmed in the state every day.

Her order will allow state campground restrooms, showers and cabins to reopen in time for the Memorial Day weekend, one of the biggest weekends of the year for state parks. Camping will be allowed for tents and all campers, but playgrounds, shelters and visitor centers will remain closed.

In Nebraska, the Game and Parks Commission announced Wednesday that campgrounds at 35 state recreation areas and Smith Falls State Park will reopen on Friday, though shower houses, beaches and park activities will remain closed.

Bars can reopen next week at 50% capacity in Iowa, which contrasts with Nebraska, where liquor outlets are restricted to carry-out drinks only.

The Iowa governor announced Wednesday that summer school-sponsored activities such as softball and baseball can resume on June 1, and that more details about schools will come on Thursday.

Casinos were not included in the governor’s plans, and Reynolds said conversations were underway with the industry to determine how they might safely reopen.

Dr. Rossana Rosa, a Des Moines infectious disease specialist, said the data she’s tracking indicates that Iowa seems to be at a plateau of about 300 new daily cases. She said the impact of last week’s reopenings won’t be seen until the first week in June, since it can take up to two weeks for people with the disease to show symptoms.

“At this point, I think it would seem that those decisions have been made for the foreseeable future, so many of us in the infectious diseases community have decided that we will continue talking about how can you stay safe when you go out,” Rosa said, referring to the decisions to reopen sectors of the economy. “If you think you’re not going to be able to maintain yourself six feet apart from any other people if you decide to go out, then you’re at risk.”

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

Photos: Nite Owl adds a personal touch to curbside service

Omaha Gives charity drive raises over $8 million for nonprofits in metro area

It was only one hour into this year’s 24-hour Omaha Gives charitable fund drive and Nancy Williams already felt like she had won the lottery.

At 1 a.m. Wednesday, Williams, president and CEO of No More Empty Pots, got an email: Her nonprofit, which fights food insecurity and promotes self-sufficiency, had received enough donations to win the first hourly prize of $1,000.

“It has been an incredibly graceful day,” Williams said. “I’m incredibly grateful.”

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By late Wednesday afternoon, No More Empty Pots had raised more than $20,000 — enough to provide 5,000 individual meals to area residents and 375 bags of fresh farm produce through its Community Supported Agriculture program. The group’s goal for the fund drive had been a much lesser amount of $10,000.

More than 1,000 metro area nonprofits registered for the fundraiser, which focuses on small donations. This year, the minimum for donations was set as low as $1, down from the normal $10, so that it would be easier for people to participate given the hardships caused by the coronavirus.

Despite those hardships, or perhaps because of them, the fund drive this year has collected more than each of the last three years.

The charity drive raised $8,528,221 for local nonprofits.

“This is a tremendous response to the need in the community,” said Kali Baker, spokeswoman for Omaha Gives.

A record breaking 65,160 donations were made, an indication that people were giving to multiple organizations. The drive also broke records with number of participating nonprofits (1,010) and unique donors (23,375).

Baker, who is with the Omaha Community Foundation, said she wasn’t sure how the fund drive would go this year. After all, not only are people without jobs, but those with resources already had been donating heavily to local charities for the past two months since the coronavirus struck.

“It’s great to see this level of giving … after a tremendous amount of giving in the last two months,” Baker said. “That speaks volumes about our community.”

Our best staff photos of May 2020

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020

Update: 6 residents at Life Care Center of Elkhorn die; facility cited in past for deficiencies

Thursday update: Another resident of Life Care Center of Elkhorn has died, officials said Thursday, bringing the total number of deaths among residents at the center from COVID-19 to six.


An Omaha nursing home struggling to control a deadly coronavirus outbreak has been dinged by state and federal inspectors in the past — and was visited by a state inspection team on Monday.

In the three weeks since the Life Care Center of Elkhorn discovered its first coronavirus case, the virus has spread quickly within the facility, among both residents and staff.

Five residents have died since May 15 and 10 are currently hospitalized, according to a Wednesday update from the care center.

The facility, at 20275 Hopper St., tested all 79 residents on May 11. A majority — 52 — tested positive for the virus.

On Monday, the facility announced its first two deaths; three more were reported Wednesday. Sixty-one residents remain at the facility.

“We immediately separated all residents who are positive into their own area of the building,” the facility said in a statement. “We are doing everything we can to provide the best care for residents and to safeguard staff.”

Twenty-six staff members, out of 140, have been infected, and 24 are currently out sick. Fifty-nine employees tested negative.

That means 78 people total with ties to the facility — staff or residents — have contracted the virus.

“We mourn the loss of our residents,” the statement said. “We are deeply saddened that despite our best efforts, this deadly outbreak has reached our building. We have been following all guidelines from both federal and state health authorities.”

The center is owned by Life Care Centers of America, a national chain that also owns the facility in Kirkland, Washington, where the first major outbreak of COVID-19 at a long-term care facility occurred in early March.

A spokeswoman from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that a team inspected the facility on Monday.

Spokeswoman Leah Bucco-White said employees from the department visited the nursing home “and conducted an inspection based upon information received by the department.”

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“DHHS is in the process of reviewing the findings,” she said.

A team from the University of Nebraska Medical Center/Nebraska Medicine’s National Emerging Special Pathogen Training and Education Center also visited the facility, along with a state infection prevention specialist.

HHS, UNMC/Nebraska Medicine and the Douglas County Health Department are working together “to help protect the health and safety of those living and working at the facility,” an HHS press release said.

For now, no plans have been made to move residents from the facility, unless they need more care at the hospital, said HHS and Michelle Yosick, the facility’s executive director. When an outbreak struck a Blair assisted living facility in March, 17 residents were moved to an unused floor at CHI Health’s Midlands Hospital in Papillion.

Yosick previously said the facility has enough workers to care for its residents, even with some sidelined by COVID-19.

The coronavirus has swept through nursing homes across the country and throughout the state, jeopardizing older or sicker residents who are more vulnerable to the virus and complications from it.

Tuesday, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said 89 long-term facilities in Nebraska have been affected, with either residents, workers or both testing positive for the virus.

Sixty-two residents in nursing facilities have died, accounting for about half of the state’s coronavirus-related deaths, and 380 have contracted COVID-19. On the staff side, 280 employees have tested positive.

Ricketts has said the state will not name specific facilities with outbreaks.

The Elkhorn facility is certified for 135 beds, although the current patient count shows that it’s about half-empty. And it has gotten in trouble with state and federal inspectors before.

Inspection reports for the facility from 2018 and 2019, from the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, detail a number of deficiencies, including complaints about infection control, wound care and the mishandling of an investigation into a sexual assault of a female resident in February 2019.

After a resident was admitted to the hospital, injuries were found that suggested she was assaulted.

“When asked how the facility residents were being protected after the allegation of sexual assault … the facility administrator reported being instructed not to discuss the issue with anyone and had not implemented interventions to protect the facility residents,” the report says.

The report notes that police were notified but does not provide details about the criminal investigation.

That incident prompted the state HHS to place the facility’s license on probation for 180 days, starting in March 2019, records show. During that period, no new residents or patients could be admitted without HHS approval.

Probation was lifted in October 2019. The federal report notes that the facility instituted several measures to protect residents, including not allowing male staffers to care for female residents unsupervised in patient rooms or other nonpublic settings.

The federal group also fined the facility $62,072 in February 2019.

The federal reports also noted a resident not receiving care for a foot wound, residents who had not received baths or showers for weeks and a resident who urinated in bed several times after pushing the call button for help several times and being ignored by staff.

In June 2019, inspectors found infection control problems: a nurse did not wash his or her hands or use hand sanitizer before dispensing medication or testing residents’ blood sugar. A glucometer, which typically uses a finger prick to test blood sugar, was used on multiple residents without being cleaned off in between tests.

On the federal group’s Nursing Home Compare website, which allows people to look up nursing facilities, the overall rating for Life Care Center of Elkhorn was two stars — below average. Life Care Centers of America, which includes more than 200 facilities in 28 states, operates another facility in Omaha near 60th Street and Hartman Avenue with a one-star rating.

For quality of resident care, the Elkhorn facility received the highest rating from the group — much above average. But the facility received the lowest rating of one star for its health inspections.

A Life Care Centers of America spokeswoman did not respond to questions about the inspection reports and ratings, but in the Wednesday update, the facility said “our staff have been vigilant to practice all necessary procedures of infection control.”

The June 2019 federal inspection turned up six health citations — lower than the state and national average. But a February 2018 inspection resulted in 32 citations.

In March 2018, the Nebraska HHS put the facility’s license on probation status for 90 days for not helping a resident go to the bathroom, resulting in accidents. Eleven regulation violations were noted, and the facility was ordered to submit several plans and reports.

Probation was lifted in July after the facility met the state’s requirements, records show.

An investigation by the Washington Post found that over the past six weeks, as the nationwide death toll among the elderly soared, government inspectors discovered breakdowns in infection control and prevention in at least 10 Life Care nursing homes that underwent COVID-19 inspections overseen by the federal group.

At other Life Care nursing homes, inspectors have since discovered staff members who did not wash their hands or enforce social distancing guidelines, according to the inspection reports. At one home in Denver on May 5, staffers left open the door of an isolation room, allowing a patient with COVID-19 to slip into the hallway without a face mask and sit next to a room with two healthy residents.

The Tennessee-based Life Care has said that no amount of preparation could have kept the virus at bay and that administrators worked early and often with health authorities to contain the spread of infection.

Since the outbreak in Kirkland, the privately owned company has seen at least 2,000 cases and 250 deaths among residents and staff, according to a Post tally of state data and local media accounts. Five Life Care nursing homes have experienced outbreaks of 100 or more cases.

There is no comprehensive national data available to determine whether the rate of infections and deaths at Life Care facilities is higher than at other chains — or how often other chains have been cited for violations after the pandemic began.

This report includes material from the Washington Post.

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020

Workers cheered as they enter Smithfield pork plant in South Dakota

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Employees at a Smithfield pork processing plant in South Dakota where a coronavirus outbreak infected more than 800 people were greeted at work Wednesday with thank-you signs, cheers and waves from about a dozen area residents.

“They’re putting their health at risk just like the hospital workers are to continue on with this work, so I hope they feel appreciated,” said Becky Olson, a Sioux Falls resident who held a sign outside Smithfield’s entrance.

The plant has instructed many workers to return to work this week as it looks to scale up operations by the end of the month. Masked employees streamed into the factory entrance as trucks carrying pigs rumbled past.

The Smithfield plant, which produces roughly 5% of the nation’s pork supply, gave an early warning of how quickly the virus can spread in meatpacking plants, which are key to the nation’s food supply. Two employees at the plant were among more than 20 meat and poultry workers nationwide to die from COVID-19.

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Dave Tesphay, an employee who was reporting to the plant on Wednesday, said working there during the pandemic “was really scary at first.”

Smithfield shut the plant down for three weeks and has installed plastic barriers between workstations to prevent infection from spreading. The company is also spreading employees at least 6 feet apart when possible.

Tesphay said the plant’s closure and safety measures gave him confidence to return. The people who showed up to cheer him on made him feel that the community cared, he said.

The event was organized by a group of friends who wanted to give meatpacking workers, many of whom are immigrants, a show of support similar to what health care workers have received during the pandemic. Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken also got behind the idea.

Photos: Nebraska's coronavirus helpers