Ricketts: Public Gatherings Limited To 10 People Statewide, School Closings Loom

(Joe McMullen, NET Nebraska)
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March 16, 2020 - 5:00pm

Public events and gatherings in Nebraska are limited to no more than 10 people, effective immediately for the next eight weeks. Gov. Pete Ricketts announced the change Monday afternoon. 

Latest news & resources: netNebraska.org/coronavirus

Nebraska’s Commissioner of Education is recommending all schools cease normal operations by Friday. The state Commission of Labor says employees who are asked to stay home will qualify for unemployment benefits. And the governor says the state is working toward being able to test more people for COVID-19.

It was a day of fast-moving developments. Early on, Ricketts was ordering public gatherings be limited to 50 people. But that was before the CDC set the limit at 10, which the governor said the state will follow. Previously, Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said it would be up to schools to decide if they should close unless there was community spread of coronavirus. Monday, he had a stronger recommendation.

"I would recommend that by the end of the week that all schools across the state of Nebraska have ceased operation from a normal standpoint and created an operation that's going to help them serve their students and their communities and their families most effectively,” Blomstedt said.

Blomsted said that could include e-learning. He said the goal is to not have students coming into the schools. And he said some school personnel could be redeployed, for example, bus drivers, instead of picking kids up, might deliver meals to them at home.

Labor Commissioner John Albin also announced changes to the state’s unemployment insurance program.

“The biggest one is we're going to waive the requirement to search for work because obviously right now, we're trying to encourage people not to go out in the community any more than they have to, and enforcing a work search requirement during that time isn't consistent with that,” Albin said.

Other changes include waiving a one-week waiting period before people qualify for benefits, and treating people who are told to stay home for reasons related to coronavirus as if they have been laid off.

And Gov. Ricketts said the state is moving to liberalize testing for virus infections. He said between the state public health lab and UNMC, Nebraska can process about 200 tests per day. As of Monday afternoon the state’s department of Health and Human Services reported 18 people had tested positive and 170 negative.

“We’ve been using our screeners to be able to make sure we're prioritizing the people who are going to be… most at risk and are most likely to have it. We haven't hit the capacity, the need, to test that many people,” Ricketts said.

Still, a UNMC spokesperson said test kits are in short supply.

Ricketts said so far, testing has been limited to people in the highest risk categories, like those returning from foreign travel. But he said officials are working on expanding testing, including the use of private labs, which he said have a turnaround time of 3-4 days to provide results.

These developments came on a day when Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer announced the Legislature would suspend meeting for the indefinite future. Scheer added that lawmakers could be called back to make an emergency appropriation to fight coronavirus. Lawmakers are also in the midst of passing a budget, which contains $55 million to pay for flood damage last year. Scheer said lawmakers could be called back next Monday.

The moves are all in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus disease COVID-19. 

The governor's office says in a statement that bars and restaurants will be restricted to takeout-only in regions with community-spread cases. There is currently one community-spread case in the state, located in Douglas County

The threshold for the bar and restaurant change varies by region: 

  • A second community transmission case in Omaha area
  • 1-2 confirmed community transmission cases in Lincoln
  • 1 confirmed community transmission case for other Nebraska communities and Nebraska's Educational Service Units

The State Emergency Operations Center will track cancellations and closures across the state and "develop a common operating picture to keep local officials aware of the evolving situation."

This post has been updated.

Latest news & resources: netNebraska.org/coronavirus



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