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special report
Ricketts tells Nebraskans not to get their hopes up about relaxation of social distancing rules

LINCOLN — Nebraskans hoping to see social distancing rules disappear after May 1 got a dose of caution from Gov. Pete Ricketts on Thursday.

Don’t count on it, the governor said.

“I don’t want to raise anyone’s expectations,” he said. “We are not going to lift all of these social distancing guidelines all at once.

“In fact, we will probably be doing some social distancing for the foreseeable future, until we have a vaccine.”

The state’s plan, he said, appears to be working to “flatten” and slow the spread of the coronavirus so the state’s health care systems are not overwhelmed to the point that patients can’t get an intensive care bed or a ventilator and health care workers don’t have proper protective gear.

The governor spoke just before joining a conference call with President Donald Trump and other state governors on Thursday afternoon.

Ricketts emphasized that Nebraska would not alter its plan to continue its “protective health measures” until the end of April, regardless of what the president announces.

But, toward the end of the month, the governor said he would use a combination of federal and local guidance, as well as data on use of the state’s health care resources, to decide what guidelines might be lifted on a “step by step” basis.

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Earlier this month, Ricketts mentioned the possibility that the rule against social gatherings of more than 10 people could be amended to 25 people or more.

At his daily press briefing, the governor again defended his approach to the COVID-19 outbreak, which has been criticized by some for avoiding the “shelter-in-place” orders issued in more hard-hit states.

Ricketts pointed to voluntary polls taken by users of Google in Nebraska indicating that people are spending 29% less time at work and 11% more time at home.

“We’re going to continue to stick to the plan we have now, because that plan is working,” he said.

The guidelines Trump released Thursday call for places with declining infections and strong testing to begin a three-phased gradual reopening of businesses and schools, with each phase lasting at least 14 days, meant to ensure that the virus outbreak doesn’t accelerate again.

“I appreciate President Trump’s guidelines for reopening pieces of the economy that have been closed temporarily,” Ricketts said in a statement Friday afternoon. “It is critical that we get people back to work safely and continue to slow the spread of the virus as the country opens up.”

Trump also announced on Thursday a bipartisan task force to work on reviving the economy called the Opening Up America Again Congressional Group. Nebraska Sens. Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse are on the panel, as are Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst.

“I know he wants to open up the country. Everybody does,” Ricketts said. But, he added, it must be done in a way that doesn’t allow the virus to return.

Thursday marked the end of the first week of the governor’s call for Nebraskans to stay home for 21 days in hopes of curbing the state’s coronavirus outbreak.

In other coronavirus news:

  • Fourteen state senators signed a letter Thursday calling on the governor to allow every state employee who is able to work from home to do so and to declare that grocery store employees and workers in food-processing plants be included among the “front-line” emergency workers who get priority for COVID-19 testing.

Ricketts, however, said the current priority system is appropriate. It prioritizes first responders, health care workers and those who work in nursing homes because they are most likely to get the virus, he said.

  • The state has received $625 million from the federal CARES Act but is awaiting guidance from the feds on how the money can be spent. The money represents half of what the state is expecting to receive, Ricketts said.
  • Matt Blomstedt, the state education commissioner, said he’s getting a lot of calls about how schools can conduct graduation ceremonies.

He suggested postponing commencement until midsummer, after the virus peak has been reached in the state.

He said that Red Cloud was able to hold a commencement for its nine graduates, with attendees sitting in vehicles but that not all school districts in the state will be able to do that.

  • Ricketts said the state is providing personal protective equipment to the state’s Native American tribes but has advised them that direct allocations of funds will come from the CARES Act, which allocated $11 billion to the tribes.

A representative of the Omaha Tribe maintained that the state had “withdrawn” its offer of financial aid. The governor said that was a misunderstanding.

World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report, which includes material from the Associated Press.

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

Need for clarity versus fear of 'the heavy hand of government'


The posted speed limit on Interstate 80 near the exit to the Nebraska Crossing mall in Sarpy County is 75 mph.

Drivers, for their sakes and the common good, are supposed to go no faster than that and no slower than 40. Those speed limits are as clear as the black numbers on the white roadside sign, as clear as the digital message flashing "Nebraska Strong" in the mostly empty parking lot of a massive Gretna shopping mall on this sunny still-pandemic April day.

The lot is empty now because of Gov. Pete Ricketts' stay-at-homethrough-April request. But by next week, expect to see more cars outside Nebraska Crossing. The mall's owner, Rod Yates, has decided to speed past the state's voluntary policy, and Ricketts won't stop him.

Some critics see Yates as a lead-footed driver and contend that the governor is too willing to yield. Others support Yates' goal of makingNebraska Crossing the first mall in North America to reopen. A day after the news drew national attention, neither Yates nor Ricketts appeared to change lanes.

Yates might appear to be flooring it. (After all, Nebraska schools are looking at potential fall-athome contingencies). But he said he's still driving safely. Some of the global brands that fill the 80plus shopping bays at Nebraska Crossing had noted Nebraska's relatively lower coronavirus curve and asked him to be the test case for reopening retail.

Yates, who lives in Omaha, was happy to "do my part as a landlord to help a trillion-dollar industry get back on its feet."

The governor said Wednesday that it was Nebraskans' civic duty to voluntarily comply with his health directives versus "the heavy hand of government coming down on you."

A formal stay-at-home order has been something Ricketts has avoided like — how to put it? — the plague.

Instead, Ricketts has relied on an appeal to common sense in offering a softer — and not ineffective — approach. A World-Herald analysis found the state ranks low in both known coronavirus cases and deaths, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the immunologist on the national stage, said the state is doing a good job.

Ricketts has issued directives summed up by a catchphrase: stay home, stay healthy, stay connected. He has warned that April would be bad. He has said to hunker down. He has told Nebraskans to shop just once a week, alone, and only for essential services.

But when Yates, the mall owner, blew past him in the left lane on Tuesday, the governor let him go rather than pulling him over for speeding. Ricketts wouldn't even address whether the mall qualified as an essential service.

A visit Wednesday to the mall with big names like Nike and North Face showed why Yates would be eager to hit the gas. An empty shopping mall is an especially eerie place with its locked doors and piped-in pop music.

Who wants to be stranded on that shoulder?

Walking through, I yearned for pre-pandemic normal. I walked by closed Vineyard Vines wishing I could take my 14-year-old and a gaggle of her friends there so they could spend (toomuch) on T-shirts. I'd love to see my toddler nephews climbing on the playground. Plus my daily uniform of old yoga pants and a million Christmases-ago sweater could use a change-up. Even as I wearmasks in public and avoid the grocery store and bathe in hand sanitizer, I'm not sure I wouldn't have crossed J. Crew's shiny threshold if it had been open on Wednesday.

But the speed limits aren't just to protect our personal safety by curbing our own risk-taking. They are based on scientific study and intended for the good of everybody.

A speeding driver doesn't just risk his own neck. He risks the lives of others around him.

There were a few people at Nebraska Crossing on Wednesday — a handful of clients of dog trainer Kristin Sandstede's.

Everyone appeared to be properly distanced as they walked their pooches on empty sidewalks in front of locked doors that beckoned shoppers to go online or stay safe. Sandstede said the coronavirus rules were confusing and besides, what is "essential" anyway?

Does it make sense for a Costco to be open with its crowded lines when an open-air shopping mall remains closed? Don't people get to decide for themselves?

"If you don't like it being open," she said of Nebraska Crossing, "then don't come."

Client Lori May was conflicted. She understands the desire to reopen, get life back to normal and restore some business. Her husband's dental practice in Fremont is shuttered right now. But opening a mall seemed, she said, "premature."

Then again, she had gone to Hy-Vee just the day before to get her husband some Mickey Mouse trinkets, including a balloon. They were supposed to be in Disneyland for his birthday and, of course, that's out.

May said she wore a mask but felt guilty getting something as trivial as a balloon, knowing that the clerk who waited on her risks getting sick by having to work during the pandemic.

Without posting a speed limit, Ricketts has relied on people to drive safely. But if Nebraska Crossing reopens too soon, what's to stop other businesses from bypassing the governor's request and following Yates in the fast lane?

Yates is hoping to be a national model. He talks about "best practices" and says he plans a careful soft opening. At first, just a quarter of the stores will be open as store managers figure out how to safely distance employees and customers and make decisions on when to send a potentially sick person home.

People have to get back to work, Yates said, and why not show how to do that correctly?

Stuck in the car with Yates are the mall employees who will have to put their own health on the line when the stores reopen. Yates is offering thermometers, plastic shields and masks. That might feel insufficient, the way a seat belt does for a passenger when the driver starts to speed.

The coronavirus is vexingly invisible, which makes the need for clarity in the response evengreater.

Howwill Yates keep crowds thin enough? How can he make the test case a success story and not put the state on the map for being, as Nebraska State Sen. Adam Morfeld dubbed it, "Covid Crossing"?

Yates said he's encouraging shoppers to follow the grocery rules: Come alone. Don't linger. He also acknowledged that this is an experiment.

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert has shown what clear rules look like. Like Ricketts, Stothert first relied on good will when she asked Omahans to quit going to city parks in groups. But picnickers, soccer teams and others ignored the "directive," so Stothert closed the parks, except for those passing through, including golfers.

We all yearn to get the family roadster back on the open highway.

But right now, the time calls for taking it slow — and that requires unambiguous traffic signs.

Here's one I saw on I-80, heading back home after my trip to Nebraska Crossing. The overhead sign pointed drivers to a state website on quarantine directives.

Wouldn't it have been clearer to just flash two words? Stay home.

erin.grace@owh.com, 402-444-1136

special report
Grand Island's rate of COVID-19 cases is higher than Michigan's, close to Louisiana's

The Grand Island area — by far Nebraska’s biggest coronavirus hot spot — now has rates of illness comparable to some of the hardest-hit states in the country.

Not only does surrounding Hall County now have more cases than any county in Nebraska, its per capita case rate is almost 12 times that of Douglas County and more than 25 times that of Lancaster County, a World-Herald analysis found.

The Hall County rate is also now about equal to that of Louisiana, which ranks among the top states nationally in both cases and deaths. It’s also higher than the per capita rate in Michigan, a state that has been in such a significant state-ordered lockdown because of the virus that it has spawned public protests.

And as eye-popping as such numbers are, Grand Island, Nebraska’s third-largest metro area, is still likely weeks away from its peak of cases and deaths. The sixth death in the local three-county health district was reported Thursday.

“Our expectation is that every day we will see large numbers of new cases and every day we will see a number of deaths,” Central District Health Department Director Teresa Anderson said Thursday. “If we take our lessons from what’s been happening in other parts of the country, I’m going to say the writing is on the wall.”

Despite such numbers, Gov. Pete Ricketts continued to say Thursday that the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is working.

Ricketts said the state has provided Grand Island help with testing and with tracing the contacts of people who test positive. And he said he has been on the phone with Grand Island employers to make sure they are taking steps to reduce the spread of the virus.

“We are paying attention to Grand Island,” he said during his daily coronavirus briefing.

He and Dr. Gary Anthone, Nebraska’s chief medical officer, also noted that the health care system in Grand Island has been up to the task of handling the surge of patients.

As of noon Thursday, there were 13 patients in St. Francis hospital’s 16-bed intensive care unit, including 11 on ventilators. There are more than a half-dozen additional ventilators available and still more within the CHI network.

Down the road at Mary Lanning Healthcare in Hastings, four of the 10 ICU beds are occupied by coronavirus patients.

“All in all, things seem to be fairly well under control in Grand Island,” Anthone said of the health care landscape.

Hours later, the local health agency reported 61 new coronavirus cases in Hall County, bringing the total there to a state-leading 339. That’s despite the fact that Hall has one-ninth the population of Douglas County.

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The number of cases in Hall County is essentially doubling every four days. That’s more than twice the rate of Nebraska as a whole, which is currently doubling every nine days.

Overall, Nebraska as a state continues to rate well nationally in coronavirus cases and deaths. On Thursday, it ranked 42nd among the 50 states in cases per capita and 44th in deaths.

But the story is different on a county-by-county basis, as Hall, Kimball, Adams and Custer Counties have all emerged as hotbeds for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Each of those counties has seen cases at three or more times the state average rate.

Hall County’s rate, when measured per 10,000 people, has also reached a point that is comparable to the rates seen in states hit hardest by the pandemic.

As of Thursday morning, while Hall County’s rate was still less than half the astronomical rate seen in New York, it was almost equal that of Louisiana, which has the nation’s third-highest rate overall and No. 4 death rate. And it was much higher than Michigan’s rate.


Confirmed coronavirus cases in Nebraska, per 10,000 people.

CountyCasesRate per 10,000 people
Scotts Bluff174.8
Box Butte10.9

Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health, said the figures in Hall County are “cause for caution.”

The doctor declined to say whether additional measures are needed, saying he wasn’t aware of all that are already in place in the county. The Ricketts administration has adopted a system of county-level directed health measures to control the virus. But Khan said people there clearly need to heed state and local officials’ stay-at-home message.

“The bottom line is everyone should be staying at home, and we should clearly be helping this community,” Khan said.

Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Ricketts, questioned comparisons with statewide rates elsewhere, saying it would be more appropriate to look at similar-sized counties or other hot spots across the country.

“Grand Island is a hot spot,” he said. “The regional and state hospital systems are strong, and we are closely managing hospital-related cases in conjunction with local health officials.”

In Grand Island, local health director Anderson said the high numbers are occurring “despite our best efforts.”

She said the county is getting much-needed additional testing and will continue to advise residents to follow social distancing guidelines.

There have been a number of cases in Grand Island centered on large employers, including a meatpacking plant. And there also are a large number tied to nursing homes and long-term-care facilities, with 40 workers and residents at nine facilities having already tested positive.

But in the end, Anderson said, the disease has now spread so much that it can’t really be linked to any one employer, facility, family or part of town.

“What do (cases) have in common?” she said. “At this time, we can tell you they really have nothing in common. That leads us to believe the virus is truly everywhere.”

World-Herald staff writers Paul Hammel and Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

She once dreamed of a gold medal; her parents now hope she survives former Marian coach's assault

The 14-year-old girl and her parents had dreams.

She trained and competed in track and field, earning a spot on a prestigious Junior Olympics development team. She would go on to earn a full-ride track scholarship to a major college, her sights set on Olympic gold.

Then the ghosts of her recent past started haunting her.

In 2012-13, as a freshman at Marian High School, the girl had met Andrea Lightfoot during basketball tryouts. Lightfoot, then an assistant basketball coach who’d had a stellar basketball career at Marian and Idaho State University, groomed the then-freshman by text and phone call. Over a monthlong relationship with her, she sexually assaulted the girl at least twice.

Thursday, eight years after the assault, after marrying and recently giving birth, Lightfoot’s bill came due.

Douglas County District Judge Gary Randall sentenced the 34-year-old mother of a toddler to 20 to 30 years in prison for sexual assault.

The rare hearing — conducted by videoconference software because of coronavirus precautions — gave a live, split-screen view of the toll of the case.

Lightfoot, who now goes by her married name, Andrea Knecht, appeared via videoconference from her attorneys’ conference room. She buried her face in her hands and began crying after absorbing the net effect of the sentence: She will have to serve 10 years before she is eligible for parole; absent parole, she will serve 15 years. She also must register as a sex offender for the next 25 years. The judge ordered her to report to the Douglas County Jail on Friday morning.

On another screen, the mother of the now-22-year-old woman Knecht victimized read a devastating statement. She wept as she began, gasped and eventually gathered herself, her voice breaking throughout.

The mother said her daughter once was an Olympic prospect. She’s now a college dropout.

“I used to hope she would be an Olympic athlete who would change the world,” her mother said. “Now I hope she just survives.”

The girl is in therapy — and deals with constant anxiety. Her siblings and parents walk on eggshells for fear they will set her off. She hardly talks to her dad, a father who loved to roadtrip with her to all of her competitions.

“The child we raised no longer exists — our exuberant, extroverted, overachieving child is gone,” Mom told the judge. “She is a shell of her former self.”

Like many abuse cases, prosecutor Molly Keane said, the abuse was a fissure that the girl kept hidden for years. It didn’t crack completely open until the young woman, then in college, came across a tweet.

Last year, Marian officials were promoting the all-girls private school on Twitter. “Marian High School covered up the fact that I was sexually assaulted,” the woman replied to the tweet. “Who took a stand for me?”

That prompted current Marian High School President Mary Higgins to dig into personnel files, find documentation of the relationship and report the matter to authorities. It also prompted questions as to why Marian officials didn’t report the matter in 2013.

A former Marian official, Susan Toohey, told The World-Herald that she terminated Lightfoot immediately for improperly communicating with the student — a resolution that she said was acceptable at the time to the girl’s parents. However, Toohey has said, she didn’t report the relationship to authorities because no one suggested that it was sexual in nature.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine has stressed that any adult, especially school officials, must report improper relationships to law enforcement. If Marian had, Kleine said, the abuse could have been uncovered and addressed much sooner. No administrator was prosecuted for failing to report in this case because the statute of limitations had run out.

A sullen Knecht apologized Thursday.

“As the adult,” she said, “I take full responsibility for my mistakes and actions. I’m extremely sorry for the pain I may have caused.”

Her attorneys, Mallory Hughes and Sean Conway, emphasized that she has lived a changed life. Before her arrest, she was working, had married and she and her husband have been raising a 1-year-old boy.

“She has lived not only a law-abiding life but a productive life, an empathetic life,” Hughes said.

In her statement Thursday, the young woman’s mother noted that she and her husband went to Marian officials after discovering that their then-14-year-old daughter was getting texts and emails at all hours of the night. At one point, the parents took away her phone and blocked Knecht’s number. But Knecht replaced it with a burner phone that looked exactly like her previous phone, her mother said.

Marian administrators fired Knecht but apparently didn’t ask to look at the text or email exchanges.

The survivor listened to the hearing but chose not to speak.

Her mother said the betrayal still burns.

“We truly hope that she will be able to rebuild her life,” she said. “Andrea Knecht caused so much pain and anguish. Our daughter is like a ticking time bomb. I don’t think (she) will ever fully recover.

“We just hope she finds a way to heal and to cope with the ups and downs of society.”