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Many unprecedented events have taken place over this past week. In my March 13 newsletter, I wrote about the Legislature giving first-round approval to the budget bills. Since then, COVID-19 has completely overshadowed everything else. Terms such as “community spread” and “social distancing” have become part of our daily language. The Legislature postponed its session beginning March 17 until it is safe and necessary to call members back into session. However, the speaker may call us back in soon to approve COVID-19 emergency funding. The Governor has requested $58.6 million for public health, testing, staffing, equipment, and programming needs to fight the spread of COVID-19.
On Monday, March 16, the Governor announced restrictions on public gatherings of more than 10 people for the next 8 weeks. Since these are guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they can’t be enforced by law enforcement officers. However, the Governor strongly urged compliance by Nebraskans.
At the time of this writing, the Chief Medical Officer with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has ordered Directed Health Measures (DHM) for Douglas, Cass, Sarpy, and Washington Counties through April 30, 2020. These DHMs contain the prohibition on gatherings of more than 10 people and further restrict bars and restaurants from serving customers on site. The prohibition of more than 10 people includes churches, schools, daycare facilities, fitness centers, libraries, theaters, sporting events, concerts, weddings, and funerals. It does not apply to such places as airports, bus stations, healthcare facilities, offices, shopping malls, grocery stores, retail stores, and courts. Any person violating a DHM ordered by DHHS is guilty of a Class V misdemeanor for each offense.
Also on Monday, the Nebraska Education Commissioner announced that state education officials recommended that all 244 school districts in the state transition to remote learning by Monday, March 23. The state Education Department received approval from the federal government for schools to get waivers so they can continue to serve breakfasts and lunches to students. Education leaders are working to determine if legislation is needed due to the suspension of state rules regarding testing, attendance, and the required number of school days.
The Department of Labor announced resources available to Nebraskans who are unable to work or are working reduced hours due to this health crisis. Employers can apply for the Short-Time Compensation program, which allows employers to uniformly reduce affected employees’ hours by 10-60% while permitting the employees to receive a prorated unemployment benefit. Beginning March 22, through May 2, the waiting week for benefits and the work search requirements have been waived. Furthermore, benefits will not be charged against individual employers accounts. Money will be paid out of the general trust fund as the job losses are not the fault of individual employers. Callers to the department may want to leave a call back number, as wait times could be rather lengthy.
At a Governor’s press conference, the grocery industry assured Nebraskans that there is no food shortage. Some items may not be available because people purchased more than needed. The Governor issued an executive order last week to waive the weight restrictions on food delivery trucks and the restrictions on hours worked by drivers, to help with the shortage of drivers in the grocery industry.
Although the vast majority of cases are from the Omaha area, two cases have been reported from Knox County. The number for the North Central District Health Department covering Boyd, Holt, Knox and Rock Counties is (402) 336-2406 and the number for the Northeast Nebraska Public Health Department covering Cedar and Dixon Counties is (402) 375-2200. Another number residents can call is 2-1-1. Calls will be answered 24/7 and staff will assist callers with questions about the virus, current recommendations, or resources available in the community.
During this time, my staff will be in and out of the office, as it has been suggested that they work from home as much as possible. However, my staff and I are monitoring emails and answering telephone calls. My contact information is firstname.lastname@example.org, my telephone number is (402) 471-2801 and my mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509.