Basketball games without most fans. A doubling in the number of Nebraska cases.
The coronavirus hit Nebraska hard Wednesday, with stunning developments that show the societal reach of the outbreak.
The NCAA announced that its upcoming championship events, including first- and second-round men’s games scheduled March 20 and 22 at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, will be limited to staff and family members. Similarly, organizers of this weekend’s high school boys state tournament in Lincoln announced that its games will not be open to the public, only to family members.
On the same day, the World Health Organization declared the global coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, meaning that the virus is causing sustained outbreaks in multiple regions of the world. On Wednesday evening, President Donald Trump announced that he’s suspending most travel from Europe to the U.S. for 30 days beginning Friday. The NBA announced that it was suspending its season indefinitely.
Nebraska health officials late Wednesday announced five more cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, bringing the total number of cases in the state to 10. It was just Friday that Nebraska’s first case was announced.
Wednesday’s basketball announcements show how quickly plans involving the coronavirus can change: At a morning press conference, Omaha officials said they expected the NCAA tournament games to go forward as planned, though they remained in contact with the NCAA. By midafternoon, the NCAA had decided to curtail attendance.
“Certainly it will be unlike anything we’ve done before,” said Kristyna Engdahl, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, which manages the CHI Health Center.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said in a statement Wednesday evening that the NCAA made “the tough decision to play without fans in the arenas.”
She said the city looks forward to welcoming the players, coaches and families of the athletes who will play in Omaha.
The March Madness decision is sure to send a major economic ripple through Omaha, which was counting on thousands of people to attend the games, stay in hotels and eat in restaurants.
The change will affect concession revenue, and MECA will adjust its concession staffing for the games, Engdahl said. The organization will still receive a rental fee related to the games.
Schools on Wednesday also responded to the coronavirus. All three of Iowa’s major public universities announced that they will move to online classes beginning March 23, as will Drake University, a private college in Des Moines.
The spread of the coronavirus has prompted questions about other large-scale events, such as Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting, which brings thousands of people from across the world to Omaha. The event is scheduled for May 2.
Stothert said at the press conference that she recently spoke with Berkshire chief Warren Buffett, who told her that he plans to wait until early April to evaluate the meeting’s future.
And while some communities across the nation have called for cancellations of events larger than 1,000 people, that hasn’t happened yet in Nebraska. In Lincoln on Wednesday night the hip-hop star DaBaby performed, and in Omaha two major concerts are still scheduled this week.
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State statutes give Gov. Pete Ricketts and local health officials the authority to cancel events or order closings. Omaha city codes about disaster preparedness and health and sanitation give Stothert the authority to act in “limited and extreme” circumstances, she said.
Elsewhere in Nebraska, several schools canceled classes after it was announced Tuesday evening that a 16-year-old Crofton High School student had tested positive for the virus.
The teen attended the girls state basketball tournament in Lincoln last week; he was listed in serious condition Wednesday in the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit on the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus.
The boys high school tournament action begins at 9 a.m. Thursday in nearly empty venues.
“We do realize that this is the best thing to do,” NSAA Executive Director Jay Bellar said.
World-Herald staff writers Jeffrey Robb and Stu Pospisil contributed to this report.