Daily Roundup: First cases in Sarpy, Knox, Lincoln Counties; Bars and Restaurants Prepare for Possible Closures

March 17, 2020 - 4:55pm

The first cases of COVID-19 were announced in Sarpy, Knox and Lincoln Counties, along with three more in Douglas County, though none of them are considered community spread. And new rules for public gatherings are affecting bars and restaurants, as well as people getting married.


Latest news & resources: netNebraska.org/coronavirus

First cases announced in Sarpy, Knox and Lincoln Counties; separately, a doctor at a Bellevue hospital is one of three additional Douglas County residents to test positive.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services says the Sarpy County resident who tested positive for COVID-19 is a man in his 30s who had close contact with an out-of-state business traveler who tested positive.The Knox County case is a man in his 30s who traveled to a state where there is community transmission. And the Linocln Couty case is a man in his 50s who was on a cruise and recently traveled to California. All three are self-isolating, the department says. Three more cases were also confirmed in Douglas County.

Nebraska  Medicine spokesperson Taylor Wilson said  one of the Douglas County cases was a doctor who  worked at the Bellevue Medical Center over the weekend. In a statement, Wilson said "It is believed this case is related to a recent visit to Florida. All patients and staff members who came in contact with this person have been contacted and advised on proper precautions they should take in light of the presumptive positive test. After a thorough investigation, nine patients who had contact with this doctor have been notified. The test result must be verified by the CDC in order to be considered official. However, we are taking precautions as if that were already the case.The doctor developed symptoms after working at the hospital this weekend and was immediately tested. He/she is now at home in isolation, experiencing mild symptoms at this time."

Hospitals Worried About Strain

As the number of COVID-19 cases increases in Nebraska, the healthcare system is starting to see signs of strain. Officials in Omaha say the strain comes from the normal flu season combined with residents worried that they have been infected. Many hospitals still doing elective surgeries now, but that could change.

Dr. Adi Pour is the Douglas County Health Director. She said hospitals in Omaha are not near capacity yet, but do have more patients than usual.

“We still are at high levels, now with influenza A and influenza B,” Pour said. “So now suddenly we are starting to overwhelm the system by everyone wanting to go the emergency room. That’s not what it’s all about. We don’t want healthy people to go to the emergency room.”

In Lincoln at Bryan Health, officials said they practice for this type of event. They hope to begin drive-through testing soon for those who have been pre-screened.

Grocery Stores Affected by Panic Buying

Dramatic images have shown grocery store shelves empty of things like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Changes to people’s buying habits are affecting grocery stores big and small.

Bob McKinney is the owner of McKinney’s Grocery in Gretna. He usually gets two warehouse shipments a week, but he hasn’t had one since the middle of last week. McKinney is expecting a shipment later this week, but he’s not sure it will come.

McKinney’s store is running low on eggs, canned goods, toilet paper and cleaning products. He’s placed a limit on purchases of certain items, like cleaning supplies and some staple foods. He says a shortage of drivers is making things worse, and he expects the impacts of coronavirus to last.

“I’ve been in this business for 50 years or more, I’ve never seen it like this,” McKinney said. “You get a snow storm, you might be down a day and a half, but another day and a half everything starts to trickle back to normal. I think this is gonna be something that’s gonna go on for a while.”

Restaurants and Bars Prepare for Possible Closures

On Monday Governor Ricketts announced that public gatherings will be limited to 10 people or less. That includes restaurants and bars.

The manager of restaurant here in Lincoln who spoke under condition of anonymity said it’s a scramble trying to make sure staff is taken care of, because he says hourly employees don’t have a safety net. He’s trying to figure out how to best set up his employees for unemployment benefits, including the potential of short-term layoffs. His restaurant usually employs about 50 people. They are currently still welcoming dine-in guests, and complying with the 10-person limit on gatherings.

If restaurants are ordered to close, this restaurant will move to what the manager called a skeleton crew. He said they would be lucky to break even each month in that scenario, and estimated restaurants in Lincoln’s Haymarket area spend at least $25,000-$30,000 a month on overhead costs like rent and heating. He hopes there will be government intervention to prevent establishments from going out of business.

Unlike restaurants, bars can’t rely on making deliveries to help defray expenses. Matt Taylor owns The Other Room and Tavern on the Square, two bars in Lincoln. Together they employ around 14 people. Both bars closed Monday. Taylor moved all employees to salaried positions. Employees will not work their usual full-time hours, but will come in a few hours a week to help paint, clean, and make sure the bars are in good shape. They may also make social media videos about how to make cocktails served at the bars.

Taylor has taken himself off the payroll and will likely have to inject some personal funds into the business.

“The margin on zero dollars coming in is pretty nasty, right?” Taylor said. “If we’re open, we’re doing okay, the business margins are alright. But yeah, we’re gonna roll for an unknown amount of time with zero dollars coming in.”

So far the state has not recommended that bars and restaurants close, but they are limited to 10 people.

Weddings Cancelled and Rescheduled Among Coronavirus Concerns

Many local brides and grooms are rescheduling their weddings, and some are holding smaller ceremonies to stay under the 10 person limit. Rescheduling requires working with venues, as well as other vendors like photographers and florists. Dates are limited. Cancellation is harder than rescheduling, with some vendors not able to give a refund for deposits.

Some couples are planning on still getting officially married as planned, but moving the party. Others say they want their friends and family there, and will wait to get married until it’s safe to have a bigger gathering

Josephine Reed lives in Omaha and was planning to get married April 4th. She and her fiancé were planning on 200 guests for a church wedding and big reception. Now they’re planning on holding a small ceremony at home on the scheduled date with just immediate family present.

Reed said most people have been understanding about the change, but it’s still uncomfortable.

“It’s been very awkward to uninvite people to a wedding,” Reed said. “To say ‘yeah, you’re family, you mean a lot to us, but you’re not immediate family, so we’re sorry but you just can’t be there.’”

Reed and her fiancé plan on renewing their vows next year with more of their friends and family present, and will move their vendors to that date.

The limits on gatherings will also affect venues, many of which are small businesses.

Matt Rogge is owner of the Talon Room in Lincoln, which hosts weddings. He said it’s a hectic time, with clients cancelling or postponing their events. They’re not charging people to reschedule for this calendar year. They’re willing to talk about refunds, but Rogge says it’s difficult because the venue is just coming out of their slow season.

Rogge also said scheduling may become difficult, as there are not many Saturdays left, and their venue is limited by Cornhusker football games. They’re trying to be flexible with Friday and Sunday dates for weddings. He said this could be an existential threat to the business if they are asked to go six months without income, and he hopes for government assistance.

Fonner Park in Grand Island Cancels Live Racing

Grand Island cancelled live racing at the Fonner Park horse race track, meaning hundreds of workers will experience lost wages.

Chris Kotulak is CEO of Fonner Park. He said the impact goes beyond horse-racing.

“That's not just our horse racing,” Kotoulak said. “That's the Heartland Event Center with all of the events that we have scheduled that are now being canceled. The influx of tourism into the city, the hotel, the food and beverage, the fuel that people buy, all of that tax revenue is gone now with the cancellation of these events.”

Kotoulak said it’s too early to tell the long-term impact of the cancellations.

Latest news & resources: netNebraska.org/coronavirus

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