On a normal St. Patrick’s Day at Omaha’s Irish pubs, the bands are playing, the Guinness is flowing and there’s a line out the door of folks clad in green.
But on Monday, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts splashed cold water on such traditional revelry by calling for public gatherings to be limited to 10 or fewer people to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The governor’s announcement, which matched a federal recommendation, capped off another whirlwind day in Nebraska in which bars and restaurants began closing or limiting their service, the Omaha Archdiocese canceled Masses and metro area school districts announced indefinite closures.
Nebraska’s number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, rose to 20. The number of community spread cases remained at one.
Those in the bar and restaurant industry, like Frank Vance, owner of the Dubliner Pub at 12th and Harney Streets, may be among the first to feel the squeeze of restricted crowd sizes. Vance said St. Patrick’s Day is “by far” the biggest day of the year for his bar.
But it will be quiet there Tuesday, as the Dubliner won’t open at all for the festive day.
“Right now, what we’re doing is postponing St. Patrick’s Day,” Vance said. “It makes no sense to open at this point.”
The crowd-size cap in Omaha changed quickly Monday — Ricketts spoke hours after a press conference in which Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert announced a limit of 50 people at restaurants and bars.
Later in the day, Stothert clarified that the city will follow the governor’s direction to limit gatherings to 10 people or fewer for the next two weeks. A statement from the Mayor’s Office noted that the limit applies to day cares, gyms and fitness centers in addition to bars and restaurants. The cap does not extend to airports, malls, grocery stores or private offices.
Crowd restrictions in Omaha will be enforced by the Police Department. Officers who respond to calls about oversize crowds will first ask that owners voluntarily comply with the limit, Deputy Chief Ken Kanger said.
The department is exploring whether criminal statutes exist to enforce the limit. A “worst-case scenario” could result in a forced closure, Kanger said.
“Obviously, the cooperation of our business establishments and owners is what we’re hoping for,” he said.
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Restaurant owners across the state are now having to make business decisions on how they will ride out the limitations. Some are closing altogether; others are staying open for takeout or delivery only.
The Flagship Restaurant Group, which locally operates Blue Sushi Sake Grill, Roja and Blatt Beer and Table, among others, closed its restaurants Monday.
Anthony Hitchcock, chief operating officer of the company, said he made the decision after visiting several Flagship properties in Omaha, where he heard concerns about coronavirus from customers and saw employees “working in fear” as they delivered food and cleared tables.
“I was walking around with a Clorox wipe in my hand and we’re asking employees to pick up plates,” he said. “If we truly say Flagship’s our family, I’m not going to put any co-workers in that position.”
Nicole Jesse, general manager and co-owner of La Casa Pizzaria near 45th and Leavenworth Streets, said the decision had already been made over the weekend to suspend dining operations as of Tuesday. Until further notice, the restaurant will be takeout only.
“We all have to be concerned about public safety, so if this is what we have to do to nip this in the bud, so be it,” she said. “It is crazy times.”
Of course, she’s also concerned about the impact on her hourly staff. She was heartened to hear some of the things officials are talking about doing to ease financial strain.
“I have people who are hourly, and this will impact them,” she said. “Hopefully, it won’t last long. I keep telling people to keep your chin up and we will get through this.”
Stothert said Omaha’s philanthropic community plans to create a fund to provide assistance to workers whose livelihoods have been jeopardized by coronavirus restrictions. People will struggle to pay their rent, mortgages and other bills, she noted.
For now, Stothert directed anyone who is able to give to donate to the Omaha Community Foundation. A separate fund may be created later on.
“They really want to put their money where it’s needed the most,” Stothert said of the philanthropists.
The City of Omaha is expected to offer limited paid time off to any full- or part-time city employee who contracts COVID-19 or is otherwise unable to work because of coronavirus disruptions, Stothert said Monday, the same day Omaha closed its libraries and community centers.
The City Council was expected to vote on the measure at its Tuesday meeting.
“All of these interventions are to try to reduce the spread (of coronavirus),” Stothert said. “There’s a really old saying that says an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — and that’s exactly what (we) are trying to do.”
World-Herald staff writer Betsie Freeman contributed to this report.