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special report
News to start your day: Meet the 7 candidates seeking to replace Sen. Chambers; Contact tracing is being bolstered

The latest coronavirus numbers

Nebraska cases: 6,771

Nebraska deaths: 86

Iowa cases: 10,404

Iowa deaths: 219

U.S. cases: 1.26 million

U.S. deaths: 74,347

Nebraska is assembling army of contact tracers to help fight spread of coronavirus

Test. Trace. Isolate.

For weeks, people have been hearing those words repeated as if they were a mantra that could make the novel coronavirus go away.

Increasing attention is being directed toward bolstering that middle step, better known as contact tracing.

The aim is to quickly identify and isolate people who test positive for the disease caused by the virus, track down anyone they might have infected and prevent further spread by quarantining them.

It’s an old tool, one that has been used routinely for decades to halt the spread of diseases such as measles and tuberculosis. And it’s currently one of the few weapons health officials have in their arsenals.

Read more.

Meet the seven candidates seeking to replace Sen. Chambers

Seven candidates, including a former Omaha City Council member and a representative on the board of the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, are bidding to follow a state legislative icon, State Sen. Ernie Chambers.

The 82-year-old Chambers has served 46 years in the Legislature, making him the longest serving state lawmaker in Nebraska history. He is prevented from seeking reelection due to term limits.

The self-proclaimed “defender of the downtrodden” has made it clear who he thinks should replace him representing North Omaha’s District 11.

He’s supporting Terrell McKinney, a 29-year-old former wrestling standout who is a law student at Creighton University, where Chambers earned his law degree.

Read more.

Omaha Farmers Market releases health and safety policies for this year’s season

After delaying the opening dates of the Omaha Farmers Market, organizers are releasing a list of new health and safety guidelines to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The farmers market, which typically starts the first weekend in May, is now slated to start June 6 and run through mid-October. Organizers tweaked the locations for the markets, which are held on Saturdays and Sundays, to allow for more crowd control.

The Saturday market will run from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the Old Market. This year’s location has been moved to the top level of the city parking garage at 10th and Jackson Streets.

The Sunday market runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in a parking lot at Baxter Arena, across from the previous location at Aksarben Village.

Read more.


Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020

How fast can Nebraska's economy come back?

Nebraska jobs lost to the coronavirus pandemic should come back at a rapid pace, but the effects of the bug’s blow to the Nebraska economy will likely linger for some time.

Those are among the conclusions of a new state economic forecast from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Bureau of Business Research, the first it has issued since the worldwide pandemic descended on Nebraska.

“It has been a sharp contraction, but we will also rebound more quickly than we do after a typical recession,” said Eric Thompson, a UNL economist who authored the report.

Thompson said by the end of the year, he expects “a lot of progress” in getting back the thousands of jobs lost in recent weeks. But he said overall employment probably won’t return to where it was earlier this year until sometime in 2021.

The report also suggests nonfarm income for Nebraskans will be down about 1% in 2020. The impact would be much worse were it not for all the government assistance in the form of unemployment and stimulus payments.

And the bureau’s farm income forecast for Nebraska also has taken a big dive — now projected to be down 23% from last year. That’s due to a number of factors, including reduced ethanol production, the impact of COVID-19 on meatpacking plants, and continued trade disruptions.

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Thompson acknowledged that the forecast remains fraught with uncertainty.

Nebraska and a number of other states are taking first steps to loosen restrictions on gatherings and reopen the economy.

But any recovery will depend on how quickly consumers feel it’s safe to go out publicly again and when they regain confidence in their personal finances. And it remains to be seen whether virus cases peak in the coming weeks, as expected, or there is a second wave of sickness later this year.

“This is first and foremost a health crisis,” Thompson said. “The economy is important. But our first concern should be people’s health.”

The Bureau of Business Research twice each year makes an economic forecast for the state in consultation with a panel of state officials and academic economists.

Since the last forecast in December, thousands of Nebraskans have at least temporarily lost their jobs due to business restrictions intended to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Since mid-March, more than 100,000 Nebraskans have filed new unemployment claims.

The bureau’s forecast does not track employment peaks and valleys but expresses employment on an average annual basis. With the recent disruptions, the state forecast has gone from modest 1% job growth for this year to an average 2.4% decline.

That projected job loss is about half what is forecast nationally, as Nebraska does not have as many jobs in particularly hard-hit industries like travel and hospitality, oil production and automobile parts and assembly.

While the virus initially had a big impact in Nebraska’s retail and service sectors, the job losses have since been seen across all sectors, including manufacturing.

For the year, retail employment will be down an average of nearly 4%, services 3.6%, nondurable manufacturing about 3% and durable manufacturing about 2%, the forecast projects.

The financial services, construction, local government and transportation sectors should be much more stable, all down about 1% for the year on average, and they should likewise see quicker recoveries.

There will also be big variances within broad sectors.

Inside the services sector, professional and business services have been lightly affected because employees can more easily work from home.

Health care, another component of the services sector, should recover quickly as workers thrown out of jobs because of restrictions on nonemergency medical procedures get back to work, Thompson said.

In retail, some jobs may take much longer to recover — if ever — especially if consumer responses to recent store closures help accelerate the long-term national trend toward online retailing. Some stores probably won’t survive the crisis, Thompson said.

On personal income, the biggest hit is lost wages because of unemployment.

With the recent agricultural disruptions, the 2020 state farm income forecast went from a gain of 7% over past year to a decline of 23%. The projected hit would be much more if not for government safety net programs, which are forecast to account for more than 50% of farm income in Nebraska.

By 2022, the bureau’s forecast projects average annual employment in every sector except for retail to be above 2019 levels.

But that does not mean Nebraska will escape a long-term impact from the coronavirus.

Overall, the cumulative job growth from 2019 to 2022 is forecast to be about half what was projected before the virus hit the state.

Our best staff photos of May 2020

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020

Nebraska trucker who lost fingers from firework blast sought workers' comp payout

Like the small mortar that nearly destroyed his hand, a workers’ compensation claim has backfired on a Lincoln man.

The Nebraska Court of Appeals summarily rejected a truck driver’s claim that he should receive workers’ compensation after he blew off the ends of his fingers while trying to entertain a warehouse manager in Omaha.

The truck driver, Gregory J. Webber, had appealed a Workers’ Compensation Court judge’s decision that it was Webber’s fault for lighting the fireworks device and that setting it off was not related to his job duties.

Webber called himself a “dumbass” for the explosion but nonetheless argued that he should receive workers’ compensation from his insurance carrier.

Webber, an independent trucker, said his use of the explosive that June 2016 day was part of his rapport-building with a warehouse manager with whom he worked as part of his job providing moving services.

The appellate court, in a decision released Tuesday, called that a stretch.

“Lighting a firework at a warehouse where he was scheduled to pick up a trailer load … was not within the scope of Webber’s job,” Judge Riko Bishop wrote on behalf of the unanimous three-member court.

Webber had argued that, as the owner of his moving company, he decided what constituted his job duties, including whether his work involved lighting off fireworks.

Webber described his job as doing “everything there is in the capacity of moving — taking everything apart, packing stuff up, loading it, moving it and then putting everything back together.”

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A contractor for Mayflower Transit, Webber said he received work through Select Van & Storage, which has a warehouse near 80th and J Streets in Omaha.

According to the appeals court decision:

On June 27, 2016, Webber drove his semi from his Lincoln home to the warehouse to pick up a customer’s load.

Upon arrival, he saw warehouse manager David Tilley — a man he described as a fellow fireworks enthusiast.

He got out of the cab with an artillery shell that was about the size of a golf ball. The problem: the fuse was about the size of a broken tee.

Webber said he showed Tilley the fireworks device, asking if he wanted to light it off.

Tilley declined, telling Webber: “The wick is too small.”

Tilley later told attorneys: “I didn’t want the firework going off in my hands.”

“If you want to light it,” Tilley said, “go ahead.”

At that, Webber moved toward an exit door of the warehouse so he could launch it out the door after lighting it. Standing about 6 feet from the exit, he flicked his lighter and, well, boom.

“As soon as it lit, it went off,” Webber said.

Webber, then 40, suffered burns to his stomach and lower legs and both hands, resulting in partial amputations of several fingers. He also suffered severe, permanent hearing loss.

The accident led Webber’s sister to start an online fundraiser, which raised $5,000 of its $15,000 goal. She titled it “a father and friend in need” and displayed pictures of his hands in various stages of healing.

One post read: “Feeling highly motivated today check it out i have a hand it’s smaller than it used to be but it’s still a hand.”

Another: “I feel like a dumbass to even ask for help, when what I did was all my own fault and just a bad decision, but unfortunately I still need help.”

He eventually tried to get help through a creative workers’ compensation claim. Workers’ comp, as it’s known, can be used to recover money for lost work time due to illness or injury incurred while on the job “if the employee was not willfully negligent at the time of receiving such injury.”

In filing the claim, Webber argued that lighting fireworks played a role in building rapport with people in his industry, including the warehouse guys.

“You want people to like you and get along with you, and you find a common ground with another individual and boys being boys,” Webber said.

The appellate court put it this way: “He thought that, as his own employer, it was appropriate to be using fireworks for what was referred to as client promotion.”

Webber’s attorneys also unsuccessfully argued that he should receive compensation under a theory that allows worker’s comp for work-related horseplay. In 1998, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that a worker was entitled to compensation after he injured himself while arm-wrestling a co-worker who alleged that he wasn’t pulling his weight on the job.

“In the present case, Webber’s actions in lighting a firework did not arise spontaneously out of work-related banter,” the appellate court concluded. “Rather it was a personal pursuit intended to impress another fireworks enthusiast.

“As explained by Webber himself, his purpose was ‘just to say you guys thought you had some loud ones; well, I have an even louder one.’ ”

Weird World-Herald headlines from the archives that leave you wanting more

Weird World-Herald headlines from the archives that leave you wanting more

Erin Grace: How this North Omaha program is reaching kids even while it's closed

Scott Hazelrigg parked his Jeep in a North Omaha driveway, pulled out three camp chairs and a box of Krispy Kremes and set up in the front yard of a 15-year-old boy he hadn’t seen in a while.

“Mr. William!” the 51-year-old announced jovially as William Sherrod, roused by his mother earlier than usual on this Wednesday morning, took a seat and reached for a doughnut. It was about 8:30 a.m.

“What have you been doing since school’s been out?” Hazelrigg asked.

Under normal circumstances, William would be sitting in class at North High during the day and then spending his after-school hours at NorthStar, a unique enrichment center for boys that Hazelrigg runs near 50th Street and Ames Avenue. He would be playing lacrosse for NorthStar and getting plugged into the college prep and tutoring that NorthStar offers along with meals, games, a high ropes course and an indoor climbing wall. He’d have a chance at other opportunities like a summer Outward Bound overnight camping trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

But with the pandemic keeping youths like William at home, places like NorthStar have gotten creative. NorthStar, for instance, is serving some 200 boxed dinners on Monday nights. Families go through a socially distanced assembly line to pick up food to take home. NorthStar also provides food pantry boxes on Wednesdays and breakfast and lunch on Fridays. Soon, Hazelrigg is going to distribute Clorox wipes, toilet paper and other nonfood essentials.

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He’s also making home visits, popping into the front yards of youths NorthStar serves with camp chairs and doughnuts. He calls it a “touch point,” a way to stay connected at a time of terrible disconnect. Not only is social isolation hard, it also can be dangerous to children and youths who may lack supervision, structure and safety in their homes or neighborhoods. Hazelrigg is especially worried about this summer.

“If it’s really hot, there are no jobs and people haven’t had structure,” he said, “bad stuff happens.”

Hazelrigg pulled out a flyer for NorthStar’s summer school, an e-learning program in conjunction with Metropolitan Community College. It’s designed to help high school students make up the academic time lost during this coronavirus school closures. The flyer cites “the COVID-19 slide,” which predicts that low-income students will be hit hard by the school disruption, losing 30% of the school year’s reading gains and half of any math gains.

That would increase the organization’s challenge in getting boys from the high-poverty North Omaha ZIP codes 68104 and 68111 to graduate from high school on time. Citing longitudinal studies of Nebraska high school dropouts, just half of all boys from North Omaha who enter ninth grade will finish 12th grade on time. Summer learning loss is a factor already, and Hazelrigg worries about a deeper slide given the closure of Omaha schools in early March.

Photos: NorthStar is closed, but its leader is still making time for kids

To mitigate academic losses that compound over time, the nonprofit starts with high-risk third graders and designs programming to boost reading levels. Only 12% of Nebraska’s low-income black male student population is reading proficiently by fourth grade. Better reading acumen translates into better academic success and positions boys to attain more in the future. Not completing high school is associated with poor lifetime outcomes including unemployment and incarceration.

NorthStar offers tutoring, college and ACT prep, serving an average of 180 boys in third through 12th grades every day with after-school and weekend programs.

A new $20 million building addition, currently under construction, will double capacity. The eventual goal is to serve 850 boys, counting summer programs. The new spaces, which are scheduled for completion this fall and next spring, include:

  • A dedicated high school wing with two classrooms, six study rooms and program offices, designed to give better separation between age levels; and an elementary and middle school wing with an expanded parent waiting area and mindfulness classroom.
  • A new dining hall featuring a restored vintage Piper Cub aircraft, hanging from the ceiling. Its purpose is to inspire. When boys return to NorthStar, Hazelrigg plans to teach them about America’s first licensed black male pilot, James Herman Banning.
  • An “innovation hub” to support STEM activities; a patio and garden plaza; a “store” with gently used and new clothing; and showers.

William, now in his fifth year at NorthStar, might have gotten to watch all this work unfold. But stuck at home like everyone else, he’ll have to wait until it’s safe to see the progress.

William is the only child in a tidy gray home near 44th Avenue and Fort Street. He lives with his mother, Rhonda Scott, his grandfather and uncle. In week eight of quarantine life, online school has gotten old. His teachers have told him that his third-quarter grades hold for the rest of the year, removing any incentive to do much book work these last few weeks.

Hazelrigg nods. He hasn’t come to scold. What’s been hard, William?

William works on a chocolate cake doughnut and considers the question. He actually misses school, he said. He definitely misses lacrosse, and shows Hazelrigg the T-shirt under his hoodie. It says NorthStar Lacrosse. He misses his dad, who lives in Iowa. His PlayStation 4 is broken, and William feels a little stir-crazy.

“I’m running out of things to do,” he said.

William’s mother came out and sat on the porch. She chimed in that quarantine is hard on parents, too. She misses watching William on the lacrosse field.

And she misses NorthStar, which was a lifesaver when William was in fifth grade. At the time, she said, his elementary school announced that sixth grade was moving to junior high instead of staying in the building with the younger children. She got William enrolled in NorthStar to give him a safe place after school and experience being with older kids. He has stuck with it since.

Hazelrigg makes a plug for summer learning. NorthStar is going to hand out 100 iPads for boys who enroll in that online summer school NorthStar is doing with Metro.

“Take a class,” he urges William. “Think about it. Keep your brain going. When you go back to school in August, you’ll have thought about something other than doughnuts and PlayStation 4.”

William doesn’t just like video games. He’s into puzzles, board games and Legos. He ran into the house to fetch proof — an intricate Lego school bus he built with hundreds of pieces, including passengers who slide out.

William likes to build things. NorthStar likes to build Williams. No pandemic is going to get in the way of that.

Our best staff photos of May 2020

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020