Most students in the metro area haven't been inside a classroom since concerns over the coronavirus closed schools in March.
Starting June 1, one of Omaha’s great traditions can resume: People can take a Fab Four pizza from Sgt. Peffer’s across North Saddle Creek Road to the Homy Inn and enjoy it with a nice pale ale, or if it’s a special occasion, champagne on tap.
They can have their pie and drink with it too because of loosened anti-coronavirus restrictions that Gov. Pete Ricketts announced this week. Effective June 1 in 89 counties, including the Omaha area, bars and lounges can reopen under the same rules that now apply to restaurants — including operating at 50% capacity, with parties spaced out by at least 6 feet.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Terry Finkel, owner of Homy Inn. “It’s going to be tough only having 25 people, and nobody’s supposed to sit at the bar, but I mean, it’s better than nothing.”
Several bar owners similarly welcomed the news of relaxed restrictions. They’re glad to be able to open taps and tabs again, but the pandemic and its restrictions are still around, so they’re not exactly breaking out the bubbly.
“It’s great that everybody’s open, as long as everybody kind of adheres to the rules,” said Bret Schnittgrund, who with his wife, Cindy, owns The Session Room in downtown Omaha. “For sure, we’re going to be following all of them.”
He said the restaurant and bar could have opened May 4, when in-person dining was allowed to resume, but they decided to wait until June 1. They’ve been preparing.
“All the tables are 6 feet apart,” Schnittgrund said. “We can’t use any of the games … like the dartboard. Those are all off limits. You can’t have more than six people at one table. And supposedly you can’t stand. So we’ll have somebody that will seat people, and we’re just going to monitor as best we can.”
Regulars are hungry, and thirsty, for The Session Room to reopen. The Schnittgrunds have been hearing from them, and will be happy to see the happy hour usuals and the construction workers from nearby projects for lunch again.
“I’m grateful that we can reopen, and hopefully everything works out,” Schnittgrund said.
Angela Honig, owner of Sippin’ Sirens Neighborhood Bar at 42nd and H Streets, sees her regulars as family.
“We’re really a neighborhood bar,” she said, “and it went from being elbow to elbow on the weekends to nothing.”
Honig hopes that with the loosened restrictions, her regulars will return.
She said everyone coming together again is something to look forward to.
Another neighborhood bar owner, Nancy Kendall, said that it may take awhile for the Kendall Tavern, near South 23rd Street and Gilmore Avenue, to bounce back from the financial strain of the past two months.
“Hopefully I can do it,” Kendall said. “(Regulars) are raring to get back here so they can see people.”
George Robinson, the owner of the Grown Folks Social Club, is optimistic but cautious about reopening.
“I want to open with a lot of caution because I don’t think anyone really knows how things will end up in 31 days, if the virus will spike again,” he said.
Robinson’s club at 3713 N. 24th St. opened in November. He said business was just ramping up when the coronavirus shut things down.
“Hopefully everybody stays safe, and let’s get back to operating at full capacity,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”
Ice House, a popular west Omaha spot for watching sports and for rehydrating parents and coaches after sporting events, has been open since May 4 for food. If its experience is indicative of the future, bars can expect to be buzzing with cooperative patrons.
“I was expecting it to be busy, but it has been just as busy as before,” general manager Samantha Suiter said. “Obviously at half capacity, we can’t have as many customers in here, but all the customers have been great. … I’ve had some people that have come in that are upset about the (no) darts or pool, but that room’s completely closed down, so they can’t even go up there.”
Suiter said all the Ice House servers and kitchen workers must wear masks. Workers immediately sanitize tables, menus and even pens immediately after each use, she said. Customers have been good about following social distancing rules.
“I feel like that contributes to how busy we’ve been because they feel comfortable coming here because they see how much of an effort we’re putting into (safety),” Suiter said.
Mike Colvin, an occasional patron of the Homy Inn, said he will wait a bit before visiting a bar.
“If the bars and restaurants open up and we don’t see any real spike in cases, then I’ll start to consider it,” he said. “I’ll let someone go in first.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has put together a better picture for how the return to school should look.
Students and teachers wearing masks. Physical distancing in the classroom. Daily temperature and symptom checks for staff and students.
No playgrounds for recess. No cafeterias. No shared devices, books or supplies.
It’s clear that school will look a whole lot different in the continuing pandemic.
But the head of the Nebraska teachers union, who’s also a former Nebraska teacher of the year, said the guidance coming out of the CDC doesn’t recognize the reality of teaching.
Maddie Fennell, executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association, said Nebraska would be better served working with the University of Nebraska Medical Center and its in-house experts, who are willing to talk with teachers.
Fennell said the return to school will take creativity and some discussions with teachers that have not happened yet.
“We’re going to have to think way outside the box,” she said.
Planning for next school year was already underway across the state when the CDC released its guidance.
The Nebraska Department of Education has started an effort called Launch Nebraska to support school systems as they plan to restart schools.
State Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said different groups are having regional discussions on the issue. He cited discussions in the Omaha metro area, in Lincoln and Lancaster County, and with Nebraska’s rural schools association, which has some 100 superintendents in eight working groups discussing scenarios.
Blomstedt said he’s seen huge progress the last two weeks. But he said the discussions still involve “getting people organized to have the right conversations.”
Last week, the CDC came out with a “Schools Decision Tool” to help guide how and when to reopen schools. It was a generic tool that asked a series of yes-or-no questions.
On Tuesday, the agency followed up with a longer list of more specific guidance. They are guidelines, not requirements; the CDC specified that implementation should be guided by what’s feasible, practical and tailored to each community.
Among the more basic suggestions: Teach and reinforce hand-washing and encourage students to cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue.
But even the basic ideas could combine with a complicating wrinkle. If students cough into a tissue, for instance, they should then immediately wash with soap and water for 20 seconds, or at least use hand sanitizer.
Some of the other guidance:
» Wear cloth face coverings as feasible.
» Avoid sharing electronic devices, books, learning aids, gym equipment, art supplies or games.
» Space desks 6 feet apart when feasible and turn desks the same direction.
» Close cafeterias and have students eat in the classroom, with their own meals or plated food in disposable wares.
» Go virtual for activities, including field trips, assemblies, performances and parent meetings.
» Stagger school arrival and drop-offs.
Most students in the metro area haven't been inside a classroom since concerns over the coronavirus closed schools in March.
Fennell said she saw some problems in the suggestions.
One guideline was: Ensure that students and staff stay as static as possible by having teachers stay with the same children. That could be all day for younger children or “as much as possible” for older children, the CDC advised.
Asked how that would work in high school, Fennell replied, “It doesn’t.”
If the idea is to keep younger students in place all day, Fennell said that’s bound to cause depression and behavioral problems, along with “not a lot of learning.”
Blomstedt said he’s still going through the CDC guidance. In some cases, he said, the blanket statements won’t work, but he’s more interested in the intent behind them.
Blomstedt said the actual goal of keeping groups of students together might be to make contact tracing easier if someone becomes infected.
Blomstedt said decision-makers will need to rely on their understanding of what makes people safe, then work hard to address those items.
“There are no grand answers,” he said.
Three metro area school districts say they don’t have answers yet, either.
Jeremy Maskel, a spokesman for the Omaha Public Schools, said the district has a team preparing for a range of possible scenarios for next school year, and it has seen the CDC guidance. But as the pandemic continues to evolve rapidly, it’s too early to say specifically what school operations might look like, he said.
Said Rebecca Kleeman, spokeswoman for the Millard Public Schools, “We know next year will be different, and we will work through whatever adjustments are needed to continue education for students.”
The Westside Community Schools will hold community information sessions to share more details on June 25, July 16 and July 30. The meetings will be held at 6 p.m. at Westside High School and streamed online.
But for now, Superintendent Mike Lucas said the district doesn’t yet know “what August and beyond could look like.” He said Westside is planning on multiple scenarios.
“Providing a safe learning and working environment is of extreme importance as we forge ahead,” he said.
The Nebraska State College System has agreed to pay $900,000 to settle lawsuits related to the suicide five years ago of a Chadron State softball player.
Fatima Larios, 19, killed herself in a Chadron State dormitory closet on Jan. 31, 2015.
Her parents, Lissette Larios Roohbakhsh and Nelson Larios, alleged in lawsuits in state and federal courts that Chadron State College and its Title IX office failed to intervene adequately in an allegedly abusive relationship between the young woman and her boyfriend from high school, who had become a Chadron State football player.
One of the lawyers for the parents, Christopher Welsh of Omaha, said the settlement agreement is “unique” because of the nonmonetary measures agreed to by the college.
Besides the payout, Chadron State said it would install a campus memorial for the young woman, valued up to $25,000; award a “Fatima Larios Spirit Scholarship” to a member of the women’s softball team for at least the next 10 years; and conduct annual suicide prevention training for students and staffers for at least the next 10 years.
The state college also will accept technical assistance with regard to Title IX policies and procedures; send the parents a letter of condolence from Chadron State President Randy Rhine; allow the mother and two other family members to see the room where the woman died; and continue looking for Larios’ missing softball glove and jerseys.
Larios’ parents and the Nebraska State College System signed the agreement last month.
George Martin III, one of the attorneys representing the college, said the defendants had reason to feel confident about winning a jury trial. But Martin said if the college had lost, it would have been responsible for exorbitant attorneys’ fees. Further, he said, neither the college nor the family cared to endure the trauma of a trial.
Martin, of Omaha, said of the nonmonetary concessions: “We were happy to do that and again, that was aimed at bringing some closure for the family.”
Welsh said the plaintiffs also felt confident about taking the matter to trial. But neither side wanted it to go that far.
The parents agreed in the settlement not to hold the college liable for their daughter’s death. Under the terms of the settlement, Chadron State acknowledges no wrongdoing. Another of the family’s attorneys, Adele Kimmel of Washington, D.C., said it is “exceedingly rare for any defendant to admit wrongdoing as part of a settlement.”
Larios, who was 19, was in her sophomore year at Chadron State. She took her life in a closet in her boyfriend’s dormitory room. She had played four sports for her Catholic high school in the Monterey, California, area.
Judi Yorges, spokeswoman for the state college system, said in a written statement: “Like many colleges and universities, we have also been confronted with issues of dating violence and suicide. We commit significant resources to meet those challenges, and this settlement offers us the opportunity to work with the family to not only honor Fatima but to continue to bring awareness to the issues.”
Lawsuits filed in state and federal courts in Nebraska said some of Larios’ teammates noticed bruises on her and reported this to coaches, who reported it on up. Teammates also allegedly said Larios told them she was being beaten.
Students in the dormitory had heard loud altercations numerous times between the couple, the suits say. The Title IX office attempted to reach Larios but failed to meet face-to-face with her, the suits say.
World-Herald staff writer Paul Hammel contributed to this report.
The Drover can’t seem to catch a break.
The popular Omaha steakhouse caught on fire in late December 2018 and reopened in August of last year. Before too long, general manager Daryl Leise said, “we were going at full speed,” with the return of hourlong waits on weekends.
Then came another catastrophe, one with a weird name: COVID-19. Gov. Pete Ricketts told restaurant owners to close their dining rooms because of the pandemic. Some turned to takeout and delivery while others, like the Drover, went dark for the seven-week duration.
Ricketts gave restaurants in much of the state, including Omaha, the OK to reopen dining rooms at 50% capacity on May 4, with other restrictions.
Leise took him up on it, the memory of the yearlong break still fresh in his mind.
He’s in the minority. Zoe Olson, executive director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association, estimated that only 30% to 40% of eligible restaurants are serving customers in their dining rooms.
Restaurateurs who opened are reporting mixed results: Crowds are down, though most say they’re slowly picking up; and revenue, though improving, is still below pre-coronavirus levels.
“I have heard restaurant owners say losses are less now than they were,” Olson said this week. “Sales are down 50% to 60% of normal instead of 80% to 90%. Nobody is back to 100% of what they were a year ago.”
The dining room reopening process was an adventure, said Omaha restaurant owners, chefs and managers contacted by The World-Herald. They had to reconfigure seating for social distancing, deep clean their buildings, devise ongoing sanitization regimens and rehire employees, among many other tasks.
“We came in with a tape measure to make sure tables are 6 feet apart,” said Tammy Dean, daytime manager at Shirley’s Diner in the Millard area. Like workers at other restaurants, she and her staff also created extended sanitization stations with bleach buckets.
Health officials provided a detailed list of steps restaurants must take to ensure the safety of diners and employees. Owners with questions about the guidelines have been consulting by phone with the Douglas County Health Department, said Joe Gaube, supervisor of food safety compliance.
For now, he said, restaurants are on an honor system because inspections have been suspended temporarily. Workers throughout the department have been deployed to help with anti-coronavirus efforts such as testing and contact tracing.
Gaube expects inspections to resume within a few weeks.
Restaurateurs opting to reopen May 4 were pinched for time. When Ricketts announced his decision, they had only eight days, including two weekends, to clean buildings and convert operations.
At Spezia, a high-end Italian eatery near 72nd Street and Mercy Road, owners were getting ready to launch takeout when they found out that they could serve customers in their dining room in a few days.
“We did everything on the fly,” dining room manager Joshua Diaz said.
Now Diaz and his peers have shifted to making sure that employees follow safety guidelines. The most notable rule is mandatory masks for all workers.
A World-Herald spot check indicated that they’re taking the rule seriously.
People waiting for takeout at the Pacific Eating House near 132nd and Pacific Streets this week could see each worker inside wearing a mask.
Deb Reese, an Omahan who was eager to return to her favorite restaurants, said employees were wearing masks at both Firebirds and Oscar’s when she recently visited.
“Everyone at Oscar’s had personalized Oscar’s masks,” she said.
Owners and managers said their employees see masks as a necessity, though they’re sometimes annoying.
“We have to do what we have to do,” said Mo Tajvar, owner of Omaha Prime in the Old Market, where masks seem incongruent with the fine-dining experience. “It’s not ideal, but we do have to keep ourselves and our guests safe.”
A part-time manager at Shirley’s said he thinks that the masks make his interaction with diners, some of whom are regulars, less personal.
Restaurant personnel also had to come up with plans in the event of waiting lists.
“We tell people to bring their cells, and if there’s a wait for tables, they can stay in their cars, and we will text them when a table becomes available,” said Dean, at Shirley’s.
So far, that hasn’t been a problem. Aside from Reese, who said she encountered a three-party waiting list at Firebirds, no one interviewed for this story said crowds had been at that level, except perhaps on Mother’s Day.
With parties seated 6 feet apart, capacities range from 130 at Spezia to 100 at Omaha Prime to between 70 and 80 at Shirley’s, Cunningham’s and the Drover.
Some restaurateurs may have been wondering if all the preparation was worth it.
At Cunningham’s, a west Omaha bar and grill that reopened May 13, business is double what it was when it was takeout-only but still “10 times less” than it was before the pandemic, said assistant general manager Danny Offner.
Leise, at the Drover, said he’s doing perhaps 40% of his former business.
But, all said, it’s not entirely about the bottom line. It’s about connections with longtime customers, providing jobs for employees who are like family, meeting new diners and offering hospitality.
“Many people have said how grateful they are that they’re able to sit down and have a meal and a glass of wine,” said Spezia’s Diaz. “There’s value in being able to do that for somebody.”
For Tajvar, it’s not just about feeding people.
“Our job is to make a difference in people’s evenings,” he said. “It’s a special-occasion place, and people come to celebrate. When they choose us, it makes us feel good about who we are and what we do.”
None of the people interviewed said they had thought seriously about giving up. Olson, of the Nebraska Restaurant Association, said a state-by-state breakdown of a National Restaurant Association survey in April indicated that 2% of Nebraska restaurants had closed permanently and 4% expected to close.
The May survey is being conducted this weekend, Olson said, so she hopes to have updated figures by the end of next week.
In Omaha on Friday, owner Kathleen Jamrozy said she was shuttering the Flatiron Cafe for good. She blamed the closing on the coronavirus.
Olson thinks the pandemic will change the restaurant industry. It’s too soon to tell how, she said.
Leise, at the Drover, admitted to pondering such existential matters. He thinks that some restaurants will fail in the next year or so through no fault of their own.
“There’s always the question in your mind as far as how are we going to survive this? More so, though, is how is our restaurant industry going to survive and what will it look like on the other side?” he said.
For now, he’s staying the course, even as he faces a second straight year without the usually phenomenal crowds from the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting and the College World Series.
“We’re just looking ahead, looking forward and being positive,” he said.