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Nebraska is 'ahead of the curve' in slowing the spread of coronavirus, Ricketts says

Nebraska is 'ahead of the curve' in slowing the spread of coronavirus, Ricketts says

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LINCOLN — Nebraska is “well ahead of the curve” in slowing the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday, while encouraging Nebraskans to continue to practice “social distancing” and other preventive measures.

“We have a plan, we’re working our plan and will continue to work our plan,” Ricketts said at his daily update with news media at the State Capitol.

As of Monday evening, a World-Herald tally showed that Nebraska had 62 confirmed cases of coronavirus.

The governor said that Nebraska’s plan of attack against the virus was developed in conjunction with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which has national experts on pandemics, and that the spread of coronavirus in Nebraska has been slower than in states like New York.

The state’s plan, he said, does not include shelter-in-place orders, like those placed on residents of California, Illinois and other states, and restrictions should get no worse than those imposed in the Omaha area, which have led to the closure of restaurant dining rooms and bars.

Still, Ricketts wouldn’t predict when things might return to normal.

“I know we’re going to get back to normal at some point. I can’t tell you when,” the governor said, adding that slowing the spread of the coronavirus will prolong the period of restrictions.

Meanwhile Monday, President Donald Trump singled out Nebraska and Iowa, along with other states, as being “very lightly affected” by the virus. He made those comments while saying that parts of the country can soon start to ease restrictions on activities.

“We will be using data to recommend new protocols to allow local economies to cautiously resume their activity at the appropriate time,” Trump said. “We’re going to be opening our country up for business.”

Asked about the president’s comments, Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage did not address what that might mean specifically for Nebraska’s restrictions.

“The governor is grateful for the acknowledgment of all the hard work everyone in Nebraska is doing to slow the spread of the virus,” Gage said.

In the Omaha area, the public health directive will be reviewed on April 30. Restrictions were ordered after two cases of the community spread of coronavirus — in which exposure to the virus could not be traced to travel or contact with infected people — were found in Douglas County, which has 39 of the state’s 62 known cases.

Among comments made by Ricketts and his administration on Monday:

  • The filing, and payment, deadline for state income taxes has been extended from April 15 to July 15, which mirrors the change made for federal taxes.

But Ricketts urged Nebraskans not affected by the coronavirus to file by April 15. Waiting until July would delay tax collections, costing the state up to $385 million in tax revenue for the current fiscal year, he said. That lack of cash could complicate a response to the coronavirus.

“I will be filing by April 15 and I’ve asked my staff to file by April 15,” Ricketts said.

  • He apologized because the state had not updated its website for filing for unemployment insurance benefits with virus-related waivers by the weekend. That confused and frustrated some filers who got the message that their claim had been “denied.” Ricketts said Monday that the fixes have now been made and that if someone got a “denial” message, it would be corrected by the state.

Last week, Ricketts ordered that some unemployment insurance rules be waived, including requirements that a person actively look for another job and that a person wait a week before getting initial benefits.

  • Calls are inundating the state’s phone banks to handle unemployment insurance applications, officials said, leading to long wait times. The state has expanded the number of people taking calls from 34 to 66. The hours for taking such calls also will be increased from the current end time of 4:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.
  • There is no truth to a rumor, circulating over the weekend, that the National Guard is being mobilized and martial law will be imposed, Ricketts said.
  • A Nebraska-based ethanol firm, Green Plains Energy, is donating several hundred gallons of industrial alcohol to the state, which will be turned into hand sanitizer by inmates in Nebraska prisons. The sanitizer will be used in state prisons and by other state agencies.
  • Some state workers are being paid to stay home and be “on call” for work as an added step to prevent the virus from spreading and as a way to ensure their “income security.” Ricketts urged private employers to consider a similar arrangement as a way to retain employees in the state’s tight job market.

“If you’re an employer and thinking long term, I’d be looking at any way to maintain my workforce,” he said.

  • The governor said he is still looking at whether to issue a moratorium on eviction notices. Meanwhile, he urged landlords, on a voluntary basis, to not kick someone out of a rental apartment or home. “This is a public health emergency,” Ricketts said.
  • The state’s coronavirus testing capacity is in the process of being expanded, but still stands at a capacity of 200 a day at two public testing labs, Ricketts said. He said widespread testing was not envisioned in the virus response plan he devised with the Nebraska Medical Center. But, he added, when more tests are available, the priority will be testing first responders, nursing home employees and health care workers so they can remain on the job.
  • Compliance with social-distancing recommendations has been much higher than anticipated. Initially, the state’s virus response plans were predicated on only a 30% compliance rate for things like avoiding public gatherings of more than 10 people and keeping a 6-foot distance from one another, according to Ricketts.

“Nebraskans from all over the state have stepped up to that challenge,” he said.

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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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