LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts on Monday announced new, tighter restrictions on public gatherings and asked schools to be ready to empty their classrooms by Friday in response to the widening coronavirus outbreak.

No more than 10 people should gather at once at restaurants, taverns, church services and day care centers, he said, in response to the latest federal guidance to prevent the spread of the virus. Even weddings and funerals should be restricted to only 10 people, Ricketts said.

“Everyone’s just going to have to adapt,” he said. “These are trying times.”

Ricketts also announced emergency steps Monday to help people who are laid off or have to stay home to protect their own health, care for children or family members or because of exposure to the virus.

The governor suggested that weddings get “creative” by holding a small ceremony, then holding a string of “progressive” reception parties at several houses. Some wedding guests could also watch from overflow rooms or via some type of livestreaming.

“I know we’re breaking the hearts of brides,” Ricketts said. “I’m encouraging them to be flexible.”

He encouraged restaurants to stay open so they can provide takeout meals, and emphasized that he wanted grocery stores and businesses to remain operating but to take steps to provide distance between shoppers and employees.

Ricketts said the new steps are designed to stem the spread of the coronavirus to those who are elderly or have underlying health problems that could lead to hospitalization and even death.

Also on Monday, state prison officials announced that visits to inmates were being suspended to limit the spread of the coronavirus to prisoners, of which hundreds are elderly and some are confined in crowded cells.

To emphasize the growing concerns at the State Capitol, “don’t sit” signs were placed on every other chair in the governor’s press conference room to spread out the throng of reporters and enforce the “social distancing” that health officials have been encouraging since the outbreak began.

Ricketts said the new restrictions were in response to new guidance provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designed to prevent the outbreak from spreading.

State officials also announced that they are waiving some requirements on obtaining unemployment benefits to speed benefits to Nebraskans who were laid off or told to go home because of the coronavirus.

The steps include:

  • Waiving a one-week wait time to start collecting benefits.
  • Waiving the requirement that people be looking for work and willing to take a new job.
  • Waiving charges to employers for providing benefits to their former employees.

State Labor Commissioner John Albin said the state hasn’t seen a “huge surge” of requests for unemployment benefits as yet, but an increase is expected.

Albin said the waivers are in effect from March 22 to May 2 in hopes the emergency would have passed by then. But, he said, that could easily change.

Said Ricketts, “This is a fluid situation.”

During the governor’s monthly radio call-in show, he talked to the operator of a small restaurant in Lincoln who identified herself as Lisa from Lincoln.

She said that her doctor told her not to work at this time because of her health conditions. That leaves the business short of help and the family short on funds.

Ricketts encouraged Lisa and other business owners affected by the virus to check with the State Department of Economic Development about loans available from the Small Business Administration.

As if to emphasize the concerns about coronavirus, all but one of the phone calls fielded by the governor during the hourlong call-in show dealt with the outbreak, in contrast to the typical array of calls about road conditions, taxes and other political issues.