Rotunda

The view from the fifth floor of the Nebraska State Capitol Rotunda, where a Memorial Day vigil will be broadcast.

LINCOLN — With social distancing restrictions making traditional Memorial Day observances impossible, state officials Friday announced an online alternative.

Veterans Affairs Director John Hilgert said the state will recognize veterans with a daylong vigil in the State Capitol Rotunda. The vigil will be streamed online, so it can be incorporated into smaller observances around the state.

Hilgert made the announcement while joining Gov. Pete Ricketts at the daily coronavirus briefing. The governor said it is important to commemorate Memorial Day, even if groups of more than 10 people are banned.

“We want to recognize the sacrifices the men and women who put on that uniform have made,” he said.

The observation will begin at 8 a.m. with Monica Alexander lighting a single candle in the Rotunda and Mel Alexander extinguishing the candle at 8 p.m. The Alexanders are the parents of Army Cpl. Matthew Alexander of Gretna, who was killed May 6, 2007, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle in Baqubah, Iraq.

Hilgert said the candle will be surrounded by flowers, with a line of service flags on one side. Two honor guard sentinels will stand watch in half-hour shifts.

The honor guard members will be drawn from veteran service organizations. Local posts can sign up online for the different time slots, with one time slot per post.

For information about the event, go to: veterans.nebraska.gov/memorialday.

In a related announcement, Hilgert said his agency is now offering a live chat service for veterans who need to talk with a service officer. Those officers have been working from home since late March, making it more difficult for people to get help.

Hilgert said the live chat feature will be available from 8 a.m.-8 p.m., rather than typical office hours. He said he expects the live chat service and the longer hours will continue even after the pandemic dies down.

In other topics:

Testing. Ricketts said a total of 1,730 tests had been done through the TestNebraska initiative as of Thursday. So far, 968 test results have come back, with 30 people testing positive for coronavirus.

The governor said the rate of positive tests was low for this group because TestNebraska put the priority on testing health care workers, first responders and food processing workers. Tests done by public health departments, hospitals and others have prioritized people showing symptoms of the disease.

Of all tests done in Nebraska through Thursday, 17.8% had come back positive for coronavirus. When testing began, fewer than 5% tested positive.

The first two TestNebraska sites were in Omaha and Grand Island. A site in Lincoln was added Friday and a fourth site is set to open in Schuyler on Monday. Tests are offered by appointment only. People must take an online assessment to get scheduled.

Ricketts said the state now is doing about 1,500 tests per day, apart from those done by TestNebraska. That’s up from the 600 to 800 daily tests being done three weeks ago. He said the state may get to the point eventually where anyone who wants a test can get one, but it is not there yet.

Mothers. Coronavirus precautions mean that families may have to forgo some kinds of Mother’s Day celebrations, Ricketts said. In particular, he said people should avoid visiting nursing homes and assisted living facilities, where residents are at high risk from the virus.

In time for Mother’s Day, Jason Jackson, the state’s chief human resources officer, announced four initiatives aimed at making state employment more friendly for mothers and families. He said women compose 54% of the state government workforce.

First, he said the 20 state buildings larger than 5,000 square feet will have nursing rooms that will be lockable, with electricity, running water, a refrigerator and comfortable seating. Rooms will be added or upgraded over the coming year.

Second, the state will reduce out-of-pocket costs for maternity and delivery care to $500 for state employees choosing the WellNebraska health insurance option. Third, he said expectant and new mothers will get preferred parking spots, even if they do not have state parking currently.

Finally, Jackson said the state will launch a pilot Babies and Children at Work program for Department of Administrative Services employees. Participating employees will be able to bring their children to work with them. Jackson said other states have implemented similar programs.

Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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