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State_and_regional
special report
Coronavirus recess to end for Nebraska Legislature; session to resume July 20

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts warned Monday that when the Nebraska Legislature resumes its session in July, lawmakers might need to adjust their expectations because of the economic hit delivered by the coronavirus.

That goes for two of the top issues being debated before lawmakers suspended their work in March — property tax relief, and replacing the state’s main business incentive program.

“We’re going to have to adjust expectations,” Ricketts said. “There’s not going to be as much money in the near term to be able to do the things we thought we would be able to do.”

Earlier Monday, State Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk, the speaker of the Legislature, announced that state lawmakers will be called back to work on July 20 to resume the 2020 session, which was suspended on March 17 because of COVID-19 concerns.

Scheer said he picked July 20 because of the “current belief” that the state would be past its peak of COVID-19 cases by then. But the speaker said he would amend the schedule if there is a resurgence of the virus in midsummer once restrictions have been loosened.

Before the session was abruptly halted, senators were moving toward a high-stakes showdown over the perennial issue of high property taxes — a key priority of farm groups. That issue had been linked with a bill that would replace the state’s business incentive program, the Advantage Act, which was a top priority of the state’s business groups.

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A key player in the battle over the two issues, State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, said she agrees with the governor that “we have to live in reality land” when it comes to spending, but she thinks it’s too early to say that expectations need to be lowered. By July, Linehan said, the state will have a much better idea of the hit on tax revenues delivered by COVID-19.

“It’s silly to guess now,” she said.

One rural senator, Tom Briese of Albion, said he’s willing to consider paring back the main property tax proposal before the Legislature in the first year, but the goal — to produce $300 million in property tax relief by year three — needs to remain the same.

“I’m not lowering my expectations,” he said.

The two senators, as well as the governor, said lowering property taxes remains a top priority, and might be more urgent now. As for business incentives, the Advantage Act is scheduled to expire at the end of the year, which economic development officials have said would leave Nebraska as one of the few states without tax breaks to spur business investments.

The rise in unemployment, coupled with plummeting prices for grain and livestock, caused by the coronavirus crisis has state fiscal officers bracing for a shock. In April, state tax receipts plunged 46%, though officials said much of that was caused by moving the deadline for paying state income taxes from April 15 to July 15, so the actual impact won’t be known until later.

Scheer, in an email to state senators on Monday, included a warning about the need to reduce or eliminate the fiscal impact of lawmakers’ priority bills.

“It will be to your benefit to look for a way to eliminate or minimize the general fund impact given the uncertainty of the economic forecast picture in mid-July,” he said.

Nineteen days were left in the 60-day session when it was suspended on March 17. Lawmakers returned during the week of March 23 to pass an $83.6 million emergency appropriation for the state’s response to COVID-19.

Scheer, in his email, said the rescheduled session would end on Aug. 13.


Meet the Nebraska state senators

Meet the Nebraska state senators

Articles
Iowa officials closed inquiry as outbreak at pork plant grew

IOWA CITY (AP) — Safety regulators declined to inspect an Iowa pork plant after receiving a complaint alleging that workers were exposed to the coronavirus in crowded conditions — a decision that critics said allowed a burgeoning outbreak to grow unabated.

An April 11 complaint to the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleged that employees at the Tyson Foods processing plant in Perry, Iowa, were spreading the virus as they worked "elbow to elbow." The complaint asserted that social distancing wasn't taking place in any of the production areas or the cafeteria.

Workers and regulators had reason to be alarmed. The Tyson plant in Columbus Junction had been idled days earlier because of a coronavirus outbreak that infected hundreds of workers and was rerouting some of its hogs to Perry for slaughter. Other meat plants nationwide were reporting outbreaks and closures.

But Iowa OSHA took nine days to seek a response from Tyson, and eight more to get one, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press under the open records law. The agency determined April 28 that Tyson's voluntary efforts were "satisfactory" and closed the case without inspecting the plant.

State Sen. Bill Dotzler, a Waterloo Democrat, said Monday that the agency's handling of the complaint failed vulnerable workers who were facing a choice between risking their health and keeping their jobs.

"It's shameful when you think about the amount of people that have become additionally infected," Dotzler said. "They should have been in there and taken a look at what was going on, instead of asking an offender if they did something wrong."

Gov. Kim Reynolds asserted April 17 that Iowa OSHA was being proactive in protecting meatpacking workers and that "all complaints are being investigated."

She said Monday that she didn't know how the Tyson complaint was handled but that state employees are working hard to protect residents. "But, you know, there are times we fall short," she said. "If that's the case and we can do better, we're going to do better."

A week after OSHA closed its file, the Iowa Department of Public Health announced May 5 that 730 workers at the Perry plant had tested positive for the coronavirus — 58% of its 1,250 employees.

The failure to investigate showed "complete contempt" for workers and allowed the virus to continue spreading, said 23-year-old Jorge Soto, a native of Perry, a city of 7,500. "I find it very disappointing," Soto said.

U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne demanded an investigation Monday into Iowa OSHA's handling of the complaint. Axne, a Democrat, said she was "profoundly distressed" that the inquiry moved slowly, failed to uncover the outbreak and was quietly closed.

An aide to Iowa Commissioner of Labor Rod Roberts said the complaint was handled in accordance with interim federal guidance that said routine complaints of coronavirus exposure would "not normally result in an on-site inspection," in part to protect inspectors.

An Iowa OSHA document listed the reason for not inspecting the Perry plant as "COVID-19."

Soto started a Facebook page April 23 to advocate for workers in Perry and give them a platform to voice their concerns. His aunt, a longtime employee in her 50s, started showing symptoms days later and has been hospitalized since.

Her condition has improved but she still has an abnormal amount of fluid in her lungs, he said.

Nine days after getting the complaint, an Iowa OSHA official called Tyson and sent a letter the same day requesting a response within a week, records show.

Plant manager Mike Grothe responded in a letter received April 28 that acknowledged that social distancing was difficult in food plants but that Tyson had implemented "creative solutions." He said the plant was installing partitions to separate workers on the production line and supplying face masks beginning April 23.

Grothe's letter didn't mention that Tyson workers were summoned to the plant for mass testing April 25 or that it would suspend production that week while awaiting results. He repeated Tyson's claim that it was "making every effort to ensure the safety of its team members and protect the country's food supply."

"We also want to thank you for your efforts to keep our community, and our Tyson team members who live and/or work here, safe, particularly during this unprecedented time," his letter to Iowa OSHA said. The matter was closed the sameday.

Tyson released a statement Monday saying it took action to protect workers before the complaint was filed.


Local
special report
Erin Grace: Stories play an important role in our lives, but this chapter is ending

The words high up in the email pitch were gripping: “My story is a wild one.”

Was I interested?

Boy do I love a good story. And this one sounded so promising: A dramatic beginning, a redemptive, hopeful end. The latter is especially important. We know bad things happen, but triumphing in spite of them is such a vital thing to remember. People survive and can even thrive. The human spirit is strong.

This type of story has touched me over almost 22 years at The World-Herald: Finding the good through the bad and ugly. Finding the human in the interesting. Finding myself, somehow, while lost in the varied experiences of others.

Telling stories became part of my own personal story. Telling stories was a way to answer a nagging call to seize the day, see the world and rack up life experience. This chapter comes to an end today, my last at The World-Herald. I will be writing a new story for myself next week, when I start a job at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

You don’t have to be a newspaper columnist to appreciate the importance of stories. We all crave a good yarn. We all peer into the window. We all wonder what it would be like, if ... . And we all are able to step into someone else’s shoes, walk around for a while and be changed because of that.

The coronavirus crisis shows why it’s critical to support local journalism

The role that stories play in our lives is as old as time. From when the first human began to draw a story on the wall of a cave, humanity’s answer to the dangers, complexities and joys of the moment has been to say them out loud. This happened! I was here! See?

Together these stories become our history and our mirror. The collective voices and experiences weave together into one single story of all of us.

While this story serves a lot of purposes — to inform, entertain, challenge, change — most of all, it is meant to connect.

In this moment of our collective human experience, when division and isolation are big drivers of this story of us, there are efforts to the rescue to remind us to look at the cave wall and see what we share.

One comes from Humanities Nebraska, the Lincoln-based nonprofit that is streaming stories into our homes, including a very compelling one coming at 4 p.m. Wednesday on Facebook Live. Joe Starita, once called “the ultimate storyteller,” will be talking about Chief Standing Bear and Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte. Viewers can hear from Starita, an award-winning author and journalist and journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, about the Ponca chief and civil rights hero and the first Native American doctor and social reformer who worked with the Omaha Tribe.

These are Nebraska stories. They are human stories. And right now, the resilience and courage of the characters make them timely stories.

Chris Sommerich

Humanities Nebraska helps people tell their stories. Executive Director Chris Sommerich described a program in which veterans find relief from post-traumatic stress disorder in telling stories of their experiences. One handed Sommerich a note saying, “Thank you for my life back.”

This isn’t just feel-good.

There is science behind it, something Jody Koenig Kellas is examining in her role as incoming chair of the Department of Communication Studies at UNL. Her work is separate from UNL’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications, which teaches how to tell stories professionally for news and other outlets. This professor’s department is about how humans communicate and interact, from family units to public culture.

JODY KELLAS 

Jody Kellas

Kellas runs a lab measuring storytelling’s effects on well-being. It’s called Narrative Nebraska.

The stories we tell aren’t just ways to process or pass time or entertain. We tell stories, she says, to create identity, to socialize, to cope, to simplify. Telling difficult stories, like the one in the email pitch I received, allows for emotional release for the storyteller. Telling a hard story gives the teller emotional control over events that had offered no control for the person in the moment.

Stories have an important function for the listener. They humanize and connect, putting faces to issues and creating, as Kellas said, “a lasting impact on how we think about ourselves and behave.”

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the degree to which Kellas can study stories, but she created a creative way for people to tell them. Kellas encourages people to tell stories focused on themes and to share them on social media for “QuarAndTell.” Last week’s storytelling prompt was on gratitude, which she notes is linked to our psychosocial health.

“In the face of darkness, we can always find something to be grateful for, especially the people in our lives,” she said. “This week, tell someone ... a story about something that makes you grateful for them.”

It’s a great exercise and one that has the potential to stretch our thinking, change our approach and make us better able to withstand today’s challenges.

We are in a tough time: A pandemic with no real end in sight. A terrible economy. Bitter political divisions.

But humanity’s collective story has been about the push-pull of setback and triumph, of challenge and change, of moving forward, through the darkness to light.

Speaking of which, that story in my inbox.

I want desperately to tell that story, but it came Thursday, too late to do the deep dive required on a triumph over a childhood right out of Charles Dickens: Suffering abuse, witnessing a murder, bouncing around foster homes, attending 11 public schools in 13 years. It was the kind of traumatic beginning that would seem to beget a sad end. But the writer, Brandon McDermott, said he turned out OK — and is doing better than OK because he’s now able to tell this story.

JARED KENNEDY 

Brandon McDermott, morning host of NET Nebraska.

On Monday, I called Brandon to urge him to tell this story himself, as loudly and as often as he can. Brandon just graduated from UNO with a degree in storytelling. Officially, he earned a Bachelor of Science in multidisciplinary studies, with a concentration on journalism and political science.

Given the trajectory of his childhood, when his father once wrote him from jail calling him “Abandoned Brandon,” Brandon is a living, breathing example of resilience and hope. He is 34. He is married. He and his wife are expecting their first child in October. They own a home in Lincoln.

Storytelling saved him as a child in foster care. He listened to the radio and was glued to the TV for Husker games. He saw himself someday telling other people’s stories, and now he does. Brandon is a paid storyteller, working as morning host of Nebraska’s NPR station, NET.

It’s only been recently that Brandon began telling his story, and the response he’s getting tells him that it isn’t just personally healing for him. Others see themselves reflected in his struggles. They don’t feel as alone.

“When I tell people my story, they’ll say, ‘I had no idea, Brandon,’ ” he said. “That’s good, but it’s also a light on the fact you never know what people are going through.”

Until you hear their story.

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My story includes being a wife and a mother to three amazing children. The oldest starts high school in whatever form that is supposed to take this fall. My story includes being the daughter of two wonderful and healthy parents, thank God, and big sister to four younger siblings and aunt to 19 nieces and nephews, almost all of them here in Omaha.

My story includes being a high school teacher in the Deep South. Starting next week, it will include helping launch a national program on counterterrorism studies based at UNO.

But for the past two decades or more, I have rooted my story in your stories. And I’m so thankful for that. Telling your stories made me a better person. And the people who helped in that effort, editors, designers, photographers, artists and fellow writers, did so as well.

Thank you to all who dared to share. Thank you to all who read and walked, however briefly, in the experiences of others.

I am looking forward to participating in the story of us unfolding every hour on Omaha.com and every day in The World-Herald. Please join me as a reader of this historic, relevant and important source for stories. Please support the storytellers, from folks like Brandon with a personal story to share to the hardworking journalists striving every day to hold up the mirror.

If we look closely, we can see how our collective story fits and what we might need to do to change the narrative so that the story of the future is one of promise.


Our best staff photos of May 2020

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020

Omahadines
special report
It's more than just pie: Omahans share their stories about Village Inn, tell us why they love it

When Brad Kirshenbaum was a kid, he loved to eat at Village Inn.

Brad, his dad, Bill, and sister, Anna, frequently had breakfast for lunch or dinner at the ubiquitous Omaha restaurant, once known as the city’s premier pancake house.

“Mom was a flight attendant, and Dad wasn’t exactly a gourmet cook,” Kirshenbaum said. “It was an easy thing because my sister and I could get what we wanted.”

He’s more than a little nostalgic about the restaurants with the large and garish orange signs.

“The food was good, the butter was good — everything about it felt homemade,” he said.

The atmosphere was also comforting to Kirshenbaum, who now lives in Chicago. He visits the orange palace when he returns to see family.

“It had our own little homey feel,” he said. “It feels very Nebraska. I mean that in the best possible way. It feels like it belongs to you and your community.”

You might think this was a rare reaction to a middle-of-the road restaurant, but it wasn’t. When news broke last week that another three Village Inns had closed in Omaha, it caused a buzz on social media and lured tens of thousands of readers to Omaha.com.

See our interactive map of takeout locations in Omaha

That’s almost as popular as the Huskers. What’s up with that?

Is it the pie (free on Wednesdays and found on many holiday tables)?

Memories of late-night food comas after binges of a different sort?

Family nostalgia like Kirshenbaum’s?

Yes, yes and yes. And more.

Somehow, with its fluffy pancakes, crispy bacon, yellow-and-green décor to complement all that orange, and yes, that pie, Village Inn has become a significant crease in the fabric of our lives.

It appears there are several reasons for that. For starters, it’s a home for firsts.

Edward Jessen met his wife, Heather Bey, for the first time at Village Inn. They had been conversing on an Internet dating site and decided that it was time to take the next step.

Neither could decide where to eat after he picked her up, so they went to the closest place, the now-closed location near 90th and Maple Streets.

They shared a lot of first moments in their vinyl-covered booth.

“She was quick with a pun, very funny and very smart,” the 27-year-old Omahan said. “We bonded over our mutual love of breakfast.”

They moved in together with other roommates about a month later and married in 2018.

“It was unconventional, but it worked for us.”

Now they’re talking about starting a family.

A Village Inn menu from 1972, when it served a narrower range of items. Nine locations remain in the Omaha area.

The restaurants are also a home for first jobs. One woman tweeted that she started there as a pantry girl in high school and worked up to being a server. News of the three local closings gave her an opportunity for a shoutout to her former boss, Gary Wasinger, who tweeted that he worked at Village Inn from 1967 to 1974.

It was about the only place to go after the bars closed, he said, and the bar rush “was always a wild time.”

Village Inn also contributes a fair amount to the community, perhaps fostering the “one of us” sentiment.

It has offered free meals to teachers, first responders and veterans; served as a drop-off site for coats for the needy; hosted parking lot blood drives and supported the Boys and Girls Clubs and the Food Bank for the Heartland, according to articles in The World-Herald’s digital archives.

Diners at the restaurants are generous as well. Over the past several years, numerous people have written to The World-Herald’s Public Pulse thanking anonymous people who have paid for their meals.

During the holiday season in 2018, Shirley Schmidt said the gesture touched her so much that she immediately went home and wrote a check to the Siena Francis House, an Omaha homeless shelter.

This phenomenon didn’t surprise Kirshenbaum.

“It’s a family place,” he said. “You’re not going to be buying a $150 meal, so it would be an easy place to do a random act of kindness.”

The food is indeed reasonably priced and plentiful. And the pies are beloved.

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

A handful of Village Inn locations have closed in the Omaha area.

When he heard about the three closings, Omahan Larry Sparks reacted with mock horror on Facebook: “We already have a meat shortage. Now we are facing a pie shortage.”

Some followers were suitably distressed.

“It just keeps getting worse,” one responded.

Sparks, a technical writer, organized a couple of pie days for his fellow employees when he worked at Strategic Health Solutions. About 70% of those who contributed pies bought them at Village Inn. Pumpkin and fruit were predominant.

They’re well above the quality of grocery store pies for just a few bucks more, said Sparks, who has been known to bring a commercially made pie to the party.

“I don’t make pie, for sure,” he said, and he’s not about to start.

Lemon meringue is his favorite at VI.

Not to worry, guys, at least not yet. As of Monday, there were still nine Village Inns in the Omaha area. The restaurants’ parent company, America Blue Ribbon Holdings, filed for bankruptcy in January, but some outlets are hanging on.

Village Inn has its detractors, as you would expect when you’re talking about something as subjective as food and its purveyors. They contributed to the social media debate about recent closings, and to the raft of online readers.

“The service had gone downhill,” one said. “The food is not as good as it used to be,” said another.

“They make a good breakfast and even weirder is that they make a great hamburger and fries and coleslaw,” someone countered.

None of the back-and-forth would sway Jessen, who seemed sincerely jolted when he realized he could never again visit the site of his first date with Heather.

Or Kirshenbaum, who believes that the restaurant is so quintessentially Nebraska that he was surprised to learn that it is part of a chain with locations in multiple states.

He lived in Omaha for a while after attending college in Chicago, then moved back to the Illinois city in 2018 when his wife, Alexandra, got a job there.

When he came home not long after the move, the family was tossing out restaurant ideas one evening.

“You know what sounds good? Village Inn,” he said. “I haven’t been there since we moved back to Chicago.”

His mom and sister weren’t at all enthusiastic. But Dad was.

“That sounds great,” he said.

Some traditions just won’t die.


Here are the city’s 38 essential restaurants

Omaha Dines: Here are the city's 38 essential restaurants