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Gov. Ricketts predicts a 'tough' April as state records 153 coronavirus cases, third death

Gov. Ricketts predicts a 'tough' April as state records 153 coronavirus cases, third death

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts on Monday urged Nebraskans to redouble their efforts at social distancing while warning that April is “going to be a tough month.”

“The name of the game is slowing the spread of the virus,” he said. “The way we do that is by avoiding large public groups.”

On Monday, the state recorded its third death from the virus, a Lincoln County man in his 90s with underlying health issues.

Speaking at his daily coronavirus briefing, Ricketts said people should expect cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, to peak in mid- to late April.

As of Monday evening, the number of cases reported by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services had hit 153, more than double the 61 cases reported a week earlier.

The number of confirmed cases is expected to rise as the state starts getting results from expanded testing.

Dr. Gary Anthone, the state’s chief medical officer, said about 20 people with positive tests were hospitalized as of Monday morning. But hospitals also are treating a number of people presumed to have the virus but who do not have test results yet. Omaha’s three major hospital systems each reported between 10 and 20 such cases, he said.

Those numbers mean Nebraskans need to be diligent about avoiding large groups, keeping their distance from others and washing their hands, Ricketts said. People with symptoms of the disease, as well as their household members, should stay home until they can check with a health care provider.

Social distancing also needs to apply to outdoor activities and shopping, Ricketts said, warning about the crowds of people who headed to parks and trails over the weekend to enjoy the beautiful weather or flocked to big-box stores to shop.

He said parents should not be inviting all of their kids’ friends to come over or playing organized sports. He said people should go out shopping only when they need to go and maintain their distance from others.

“We need every Nebraskan to be participating in our social distancing guidelines,” he said. “This is the way we’re going to keep Nebraskans, particularly the most vulnerable Nebraskans, healthy and safe.”

As of Monday, Nebraska had earned a “C” grade for social distancing in an analysis of cellphone data by Unacast, a New York-based technology company. Company data showed that state residents decreased their travel by 20% to 30% since the epidemic started.

Following social distancing steps will slow the spread of the coronavirus so that health care resources are not overwhelmed, Ricketts said.

Toward that end, Ricketts has imposed directed health measures on 18 counties encompassing 70% of Nebraska’s population. The measures include orders to close all sit-down dining in restaurants and bars and enforceable limits on the number of people at gatherings.

He has asked people in other areas of Nebraska to voluntarily limit gatherings to 10 people or less. In keeping with President Donald Trump’s weekend announcement, the voluntary guidelines will remain in place until April 30.

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Among other topics:

Takeout Tuesday

Some eateries have shifted to deliveries and takeout service, though many have closed in response to governor’s orders. To help those that are trying to survive, Ricketts declared every Tuesday through the end of April “Takeout Tuesday.”

He said ordering takeout meals from local restaurants would help the state’s restaurant industry. Under an executive order that Ricketts joked was “probably the most popular thing I’ve done as governor,” those meals can include takeout mixed drinks in containers with lids.

Unemployment benefits

State Labor Commissioner John Albin said it may take two weeks to install and test the software necessary to process checks under the federal stimulus bill.

But he urged anyone who believes they may be eligible for the unemployment programs included in the bill to get their application in soon. That includes people who are self-employed or “gig” workers, who are not usually eligible for unemployment benefits.

Those self-employed people could qualify for the new pandemic unemployment assistance program if they are unable to work because of the coronavirus and cannot qualify for any other unemployment program. Albin said they may get an initial message saying that they are not eligible for unemployment but that their application will still be considered.

Under another part of the federal bill, people qualifying for both traditional unemployment and the pandemic unemployment will get an extra $600 weekly benefit. The maximum benefit otherwise is $440 weekly.

The federal bill also allowed people to draw unemployment benefits for an additional 13 weeks beyond the usual 26-week limit.

Snowbirds

Ricketts called for people returning to Nebraska after wintering in warmer states to quarantine themselves for the first 14 days. He issued a similar call for people who are coming to the state to visit a vacation cabin or to see family over Easter, if they are coming from areas where the coronavirus has spread in the community.

April Fools’

Reports that children will have to repeat a grade in school because of coronavirus closures are false, Ricketts said. He called the reports an early April Fools’ joke. Last week, both he and Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said he expect children will be able to advance as usual.

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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: 402-670-2402

Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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Dr. James Lawler, head of the Global Center for Health Security at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said it’s difficult to predict when the coronavirus will “peak” in the state or when things might begin returning to normal. “I think we’ll know better once we have more widespread testing,” he said. “Right now, we’re guessing, we’re looking through a keyhole trying to determine what’s going on.”

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