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Some nations loosen up; others see new peaks
In a virtual town hall, Trump says U.S. economy must reopen 'safely but as quickly as possible'

ROME (AP) — While millions of people took advantage of easing coronavirus lockdowns to enjoy spring weather, some of the world's most populous countries reported worrisome new peaks in infections Sunday, including India, which saw its biggest single-day jump yet.

Second in population only to China, India reported more than 2,600 new infections. In Russia, new cases exceeded 10,000 for the first time. The confirmed total death toll in Britain climbed near that of Italy, the epicenter of Europe's outbreak, even though the U.K. population is younger than Italy's, and Britain had more time to prepare before the pandemic hit.

The United States continues to see tens of thousands of new infections each day, with more than 1,400 additional deaths reported Saturday.

Health experts have warned of a potential secondwave of infections unless testing is expanded dramatically once the lockdowns are relaxed. But pressure to reopen keeps building after the weekslong shutdown of businesses worldwide plunged the global economy into its deepest slump since the 1930s and wiped out millions of jobs.

At a virtual town hall Sunday night, President Donald Trump acknowledged that some Americans are worried about getting sick while others are concerned about losing jobs.

Though the administration's handling of the pandemic, particularly the ability to conduct widespread testing, has come under criticism, the president defended the response and said the nation was ready to begin reopening.

"We have to get it back open safely but as quickly as possible," Trump said.

The president fielded questions from Americans in the town hall broadcast from the Lincoln Memorial and hosted by Fox News Channel.

While Trump increased his projection for the total U.S. death total to 80,000 or 90,000 — up by more than 20,000 fatalities from what he had suggested just a few weeks ago — he struck a note of urgency to restart the nation's economy, saying "we have to reopen our country."

After more than a month of being cooped up at the White House, Trump returned from a weekend at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland for the town hall. He will also begin traveling again, with a trip to a mask factory in Arizona planned for Tuesday.

Many public health experts believe the nation cannot safely reopen fully until a vaccine is developed. Trump declared Sunday that he believed one could be available by year's end.

U.S. public health officials have said a vaccine is probably a year to 18 months away. But Dr. Anthony Fauci said in late April that it is conceivable, if a vaccine is soon developed, that it could be in wide distribution as early as January.

"I'll tell you one thing. We did the right thing and I really believe we saved a million and a half lives," the president said. But he also broke with the assessment of his senior adviser and son-inlaw, Jared Kushner, saying it was "too soon to say" the federal government had overseen a "success story."

Trump noted that states would go at their own pace in returning to normal, with ones harder hit by the coronavirus going slower, but he said that "some states, frankly, I think aren't going fast enough." He singled out Virginia, which has a Democratic governor and legislature. And he urged the nation's schools and universities to return to classes this fall.

Federal guidelines that encouraged people to stay at home and practice social distancing expired late last week.

Debate continued over moves by governors to start reopening economies that tanked after shopping malls, salons and other nonessential businesses were ordered closed in an attempt to slow the virus


Larry Kudlow, Trump's top economic adviser, said on CNN's "State of the Union" that the administration would "pause" to review the effectiveness of trillions in economic relief spending before making any decision on whether additional aid is needed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that state and local governments are seeking up to $1 trillion for coronavirus costs.

The Senate planned to reopen Monday, despite the Washington area's continued status as a virus hot spot and with the region still under stay-at-home orders. The House remains shuttered. The pandemic is forcing big changes at the tradition-bound Supreme Court: The justices will hear arguments, beginning Monday, by telephone for the first time since Alexander Graham Bell patented his invention in 1876.

The leaders of California and Michigan are among governors under public pressure over lockdowns still in effect while states such as Florida, Georgia and Ohio are reopening.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said Sunday that the armed protesters who demonstrated inside her state's Capitol "depicted some of the worst racism" and "awful parts" of U.S. history by showing up with Confederate flags and swastikas.

Despite the opposition of Michigan's Republican-controlled Legislature, Whitmer has extended a state of emergency declaration and directed most businesses statewide to remain closed. Trump on Sunday night singled out her and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, also a Democrat, for criticism even as he praised the federal coordination with most governors.

Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx expressed concern about protests by armed and mostly maskless crowds demanding an end to stay-at-home orders and a full reboot of the economy. Trump has encouraged people to "liberate" their states.

"It's devastatingly worrisome to me personally, because if they go home and infect their grandmother or their grandfather ... they will feel guilty for the rest of our lives," she said. "So we need to protect each other at the same timewe're voicing our discontent."

If restrictions are lifted too soon, the virus could come back in "small waves in various places around the country," said Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"Nothing has changed in the underlying dynamics of this virus," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."


China, which reported only two new cases, saw a surge in visitors to newly reopened tourist spots after domestic travel restrictions were loosened ahead of a five-day holiday that runs through Tuesday. Nearly 1.7 million people visited Beijing parks on the first two days of the holiday, and Shanghai's main tourist spots welcomed more than 1million visitors, according to Chinese media. Many spots limited daily visitors to 30% of capacity.

On the eve of Italy's first steps toward easing restrictions, the Health Ministry reported 174 COVID-19 deaths in the 24-hour period ending Sunday evening — the lowest day-to-day number since the national lockdown began on March 10. Parks and public gardens were set to reopen on Monday.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure to reveal how the country will lift its lockdown. The restrictions are due to last through Thursday, but with hundreds of deaths still being reported daily — twice as many recently as Italy or Spain— it's unclear how the country can safely loosen the restrictions.

Johnson, 55, who spent three nights in intensive care while being treated for COVID-19, told The Sun newspaper that he knew his doctors were preparing for the worst.

"It was a tough old moment, I won't deny it,'' he said. "They had a strategy to deal with a 'death of Stalin'-type scenario'' if he succumbed to the virus.

Another potentially troubling sign emerged in Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul, where a third of the 500 people selected in a random test came up positive for the virus.

Governments have reported that the virus has infected 3.5 million people and killed more than 247,000 worldwide, includingmore than 67,000 deaths in the United States, according to a count by Johns Hopkins University.

Nonprofits depend more than ever on May 20 event

Donna Kush The Omaha Community Foundation leader expects more to donate via Omaha Gives! this year.

Bethlehem House, an Omaha agency that helps pregnant women and new moms, is busier than ever, says Gina Tomes, its family life director.

The organization operates a residence and after-care program for moms who are rebuilding lives after drug abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and other issues. The coronavirus pandemic, with its job losses and uncertainty, threatens to derail those clients, Tomes said.

"They're just vulnerable when (things like) this happen," she said. "It's scary."

At the same time, expenses are up because the house and assistance program are at capacity, and revenue is down, she said.

Those realities — also occurring at other nonprofits —make Omaha Gives! arguably more important this year than at any time in its eight-year history. A 24-hour fundraiser is set for May 20.

More than one-third of the nonprofits in the Omaha area have reported a loss in operating income since coronavirus erupted in early March, said Donna Kush, executive director of the Omaha Community Foundation, the group that coordinates Omaha Gives!

Many have lower revenue because of canceled events, she said.

That's true at Bethlehem House. Officials called off a May golf tournament that raises about $35,000, Tomes said. It gets worse: The Humble Lily secondhand clothing store, a reliable revenue stream for Bethlehem House, had to close. Sales from the store account for about $35,000 a month in the agency's budget.

The picture seems bleak, but Kush is optimistic about this year's drive.

"We anticipate that we may havemore participation this year because people in the community see that the needs are greater than ever," said Kush, who has been with the foundation about a month.

The drive has raised $49 million in eight years. But the number of donors and raising awareness of the area's nonprofits is the main goal, Kush said.

To increase the number of donors, the foundation has lowered the minimum contribution from $10 to $1.

Nearly 1,000 nonprofits from Douglas, Sarpy and Pottawattamie Counties are participating in Omaha Gives! Donations on its website are accepted at anytime. Supporters also can set up "cheer pages" on the site to boost their favorite agencies.

Nonprofits will win awards throughout the day of the drive, including drawings and participation prizes.

In addition to raising the stakes for Omaha Gives! COVID-19 also has changed the way nonprofits celebrate the day. They traditionally have hosted live events, but they're going virtual this year.

The Omaha Area Youth Orchestra, for instance, is putting videos of young musicians online. The executive director of The Nature Conservancy is hosting an online birding event in his backyard.

And the Latino Center of the Midlands will host a virtual happy hour, a way many people have embraced to gather with friends while in isolation.

"I like this one," Kush said.

elizabeth.freeman@owh.com, 402-444-1267

Nebraska official apologizes as jobless workers still awaiting checks feel frustrated, forgotten

LINCOLN — Jessica Wagner feels frustrated and forgotten.

She hasn’t worked for more than a month, not since the coronavirus virtually eliminated the travel industry. It could be months more before the industry gets up and running again.

But she has yet to see any help from the government program that’s supposed to provide a lifeline for people laid off from work. In a Public Pulse letter, the Fremont woman said she has hit only dead ends when trying to call or email the state unemployment program to check on her claim for unemployment insurance.

“If we cannot count on Nebraska to assist with benefits our employers have paid in on during times of crisis, when can we count on them?” she wrote.

Wagner has plenty of company these days, as pandemic-driven layoffs have swamped the state’s unemployment system. Thousands of increasingly desperate Nebraska workers are waiting for unemployment checks more than six weeks after the record-breaking surge in claims began.

John Albin

Nebraska Labor Commissioner John Albin acknowledged that there have been unacceptable problems and delays. He said the State Department of Labor normally tries to get through all first-time jobless claims in 21 days. Now they are aiming to get 75% done in 28 days, yet are falling well short of that goal.

In an effort to catch up, the department has been adding workers, changing tactics and streamlining its processes.

“I apologize if anyone’s been out there waiting a long time,” Albin said. “I don’t know that it’s any comfort, but we’re not meeting our own standards on this.”

Labor Department records show that Nebraska workers have filed 129,309 new unemployment claims since March 8. That’s more than the number filed during the whole of the last three years.

In the same period, the state has processed 96,024 claims, which is more than the number for the last two years combined.

Nebraska jobless claims top 100,000 as state struggles to keep up

A federal report released Thursday showed that 8,197 Nebraska workers filed first-time unemployment claims last week. That was down from the week before but is more than 10 times the number seen before the coronavirus started wreaking havoc on the nation’s economy.

But that leaves a gap of nearly 35,000 claims. In that gap are people like an Omaha-area substitute teacher, who filed on March 29 and has not gotten a check yet. She tried to do the required weekly recertifications but the computer would not accept them.

She tried calling and emailing and using the live chat feature, with little success. At midmorning Friday, she reported, the live chat told her there were 311 people in line ahead of her and the estimated wait time was 3,773 minutes, or more than 62 hours.

“Somebody’s got to help us,” she said.

There’s also the Omaha woman who got one check after filing an unemployment claim on March 17, but none since. She said her online record shows that everything was completed and she has recertified every week. But emails and calls have proved fruitless. One day, she said, she was on hold for five hours before giving up.

“I’m getting a little fed up,” she said. “Our savings is pretty much gone.”

Workers in other states are reporting similar woes as the coronavirus wreaked economic havoc across the nation. More than 30 million people have filed for unemployment over the past six weeks, which marked the worst employment drop in U.S. history.

Included in the total are self-employed or “gig” workers, who became eligible for special unemployment benefits under federal pandemic relief legislation. Those workers normally are not able to claim unemployment.

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A survey by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, examined the problem. It found that for every 10 people who were able to successfully claim unemployment benefits, three or four others tried but were frustrated by the system and two others did not try because they found the system too difficult.

Albin said Nebraska has taken a number of steps to cope with the deluge of claims.

The state’s unemployment system normally operates with 34 claims adjusters. The department doubled that number in mid-March, as businesses began closing or cutting back operations and the number of unemployment claims started shooting up. Now, they have 166 people working on claims.

Officials first drafted employees from other Labor Department programs to help. Then they borrowed people from other state agencies and hired more adjusters. On April 13, the state signed a $1.7 million contract with Nelnet, a Lincoln-based firm, to provide 100 more employees to handle claims.

Albin said the $35 per hour cost of the contract is comparable to having state employees handle the work, once benefits, management, computers, rent and other expenses are considered.

The state also contracted with Omaha’s North End Teleservices for 36 people to help handle phone calls and answer live chat inquiries. The $1.3 million contract was signed at the end of March.

The North End workers initially were instructed to find out what callers needed, then pass on the information so state employees could check on the case and call the person back. But the volume of calls overwhelmed the employees tasked with doing callbacks, Albin said.

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Now, the North End workers have been trained to handle basic questions from callers in hopes of resolving most problems immediately. They too are struggling to keep up. He said the North End group received 6,041 calls on Wednesday alone.

Albin said the state also added about 30 support workers to do such tasks as scan documents needed for claims processing.

Self-employed people and gig workers, such as Uber drivers, faced a different hurdle. Payments were delayed while software changes needed to process their claims, which are paid under the special pandemic unemployment program, were made.

Albin said the changes were completed April 23 and the state made first payments on about 11,000 of those claims. Another 5,500 such claims need more information before they can be approved.

An order signed by the governor on Thursday should help with another group of claims, those filed by people with multiple employers during the past five calendar quarters. Normally, the state has to collect information from each of those employers before approving a claim. The order allows claims to be approved based only on information from a person’s most recent employer.

Other states that took similar steps have seen a dramatic difference in claims processing, Albin said.

He estimated that about 40% of people filing claims have had multiple employers in the time period considered. That includes people who work two or three jobs, as well as those who have moved from one job to another. Contacting past employers has been difficult, especially those that have shut down because of the coronavirus.

Albin also has taken steps to try and address the oldest claims. Two weeks ago, he announced that he had created a task force to check on and resolve claims that had been pending more than 28 days.

“We’re hustling like crazy on this,” he said. “One way or another, we’re going to get there.”

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

What to expect as Nebraska starts to reopen today: No mask, no haircut — and other rules

Ready or not, Nebraska will take its first steps to reopen Monday as Omaha restaurants, salons and dentists move to the forefront.

Even as cases of the novel coronavirus rise in Omaha and a new testing regimen just gets underway, Gov. Pete Ricketts says it’s time to begin loosening pandemic restrictions. He talks of finding a new speed to the economy while managing demands on the health care system.

While some Nebraskans are eager to put people back to work and serve customers again, others are anxious that the state is taking a dangerous step before beating down the coronavirus outbreak.

In this first step, restaurants can resume limited dine-in service in Douglas, Sarpy and Cass Counties, and 56 other counties around Nebraska.

In those same counties, nail salons, beauty salons, barbershops, massage therapists and tattoo parlors can reopen with restrictions, and day cares can expand to 15 kids per room, up from 10.

You’ll have new sets of rules to follow: No mask, no service at salons.

Statewide, churches can reopen services to their congregants as of Monday, setting up the possibility of services on Mother’s Day weekend. Elective medical procedures are allowed again statewide, which gives dentists the option to open their offices to regular dental care.

How the next steps will go is a major question. Even Douglas County’s health director warns people to be careful in the next two weeks, or to stay home if they have any kind of health risk.

Starting Monday, the five restaurants in Omaha’s Restaurant Inc. group — including Stokes and Twisted Fork — will offer dine-in service.

John Wade, director of operations for the group and president of the Nebraska Restaurant Association, said he’s excited to open the restaurants even to limited capacity. But he said every restaurant owner must make a personal decision whether the time is right to reopen.

“As far as what comes this next week, I think it’s a really big question mark for everybody,” Wade said.

The Garden Cafe in Rockbrook is another restaurant that will open on Monday to diners.

Owner Freddy Hensley said he’s comfortable with the situation and wants to be loyal to the restaurant’s customers.

But Hensley said he wants customers to come back as they feel comfortable. He said he realizes that won’t be everyone right away, and if someone’s health is normally at risk, he encouraged them to stay home.

Hensley said he expects the reopening to go well.

“I think we all have to get back to normal life when we can,” he said.

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The restaurant will look different. Some tables have been removed so diners can be spaced 8 to 10 feet apart. Instead of sitting in the waiting area if there’s a line, customers will give their cell numbers so staff can contact them when a table is ready.

Even as some restaurants adjust for dine-in service, others will stay closed or stick with carryout business.

With the required physical distancing of tables, Dave Utterback, owner of Yoshitomo in Benson, said it would be tough to make the seating and staffing work at his restaurant.

Utterback also said he’s simply not trained to make health decisions for people. “I’m a chef,” he said.

Utterback said he can keep offering takeout service, which his customers continue to support. But he acknowledged that his situation could change if people stop eating takeout as much or more restaurants open.

“It’s really tough,” Utterback said. “We want to open.”

Zoe Olson, executive director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association, said the feelings among the association’s members are “very mixed.”

How many restaurants will open Monday?

Even Olson wasn’t sure.

“We don’t know what this is going to look like,” she said. “We just have no idea.”

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Here’s a rundown of the rules:

Restaurants, bars, taverns, private clubs and dine-in establishments: Limited to 50% of the rated occupancy maximum. Seating must be at an individual table — no counter or bar seating. Dining parties must be a minimum of 6 feet apart, and each group can have no more than six people. All self-serve buffets and food bars are prohibited. No sharing any items between different dining parties or tables. Carryout, drive-through and delivery are allowed. Alcohol is permitted, but only when it’s sold and consumed with a meal.

The Nebraska Restaurant Association is promoting what it calls the “Nebraska Restaurant Promise.” That promise includes: All staff will pass a health check and survey before each shift, and potential customers will not come into a restaurant if they were exposed to COVID-19 recently or have COVID symptoms.

Guidelines from the State of Nebraska also call for restaurants to disinfect tables and chairs after every use, have every worker wear a mask and implement touchless payments if possible.

Nail salons, barbershops, beauty salons, massage therapy services and tattoo parlors: Masks covering the mouth and nose are required for all staff, practitioners and customers. Those establishments cannot have more than 10 customers at one time.

Churches: Group religious services, weddings and funerals are allowed statewide, but limited specifically to the ceremony or service itself. Each family or individual party in attendance must stay 6 feet away from the next party. No sharing of items between different parties, so no Bibles, hymnals or missals in the pews and no passing of the collection plate.

The Rev. Christopher Kubat, pastor at Hastings’ St. Cecilia Catholic Church, said every other pew might be taped off to help keep people 6 feet apart, and there will be no hand holding or sign of peace. Holy water fonts will be dry, and ushers can dismiss people pew by pew to avoid a collection of people leaving.

Dental offices: Expect a “different world” for how visits are handled, said Ken Tusha, a Knox County dentist and past president of the Nebraska Dental Association.

Employees will be screened daily, and patients will be screened, too, Tusha said. Guidelines from the Nebraska Dental Association suggests that patients call in from the parking lot, get screened and have their temperature taken as they enter the office.

Offices will eliminate contact between patients in waiting rooms, Tusha said. The guidelines even call for removing magazines.

Dentists and assistants should wear a surgical mask and face shield during procedures.

Videos: Feel-good moments in Nebraska amid the pandemic