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Nebraska imposes 10-person limit on public gatherings

March 16, 2020 GMT
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FILE - In this Jan. 8, 2020 file photo, state lawmakers work in the Legislative Chamber on the opening day of the Nebraska legislative session, in Lincoln, Neb. The Nebraska Legislature suspended its session on Monday, March 16, 2020, to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer said legislative leaders made the decision to protect lawmakers as well as the public. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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FILE - In this Jan. 8, 2020 file photo, state lawmakers work in the Legislative Chamber on the opening day of the Nebraska legislative session, in Lincoln, Neb. The Nebraska Legislature suspended its session on Monday, March 16, 2020, to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer said legislative leaders made the decision to protect lawmakers as well as the public. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Gov. Pete Ricketts on Monday limited public gatherings to 10 people in an effort to keep the coronavirus from spreading, even though the move would likely contribute to painful economic times ahead and cause huge disruptions in people’s lives.

Ricketts’ announcement will force the cancellation of events statewide and many businesses will shut their doors for up two months as people hunker down to try to avoid catching COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

“We want to make sure we don’t overwhelm our health care system, and that’s why there’s the need for all these steps,” Ricketts said at a Capitol news conference.

The limit could force people to postpone weddings, funerals and a broad swath of community events. Grocery stores are exempt from the 10-person limit. Nebraska officials also loosened restrictions on unemployment benefits in anticipation that some workers will face layoffs.

The fast-changing rules also meant additional stress for Nebraska workers and business owners. At Solid Rock Gymnastics in Lincoln, owner Danelle Catlett said she was getting bombarded with calls from angry customers who were demanding refunds and asking why she hadn’t yet closed her doors.

Catlett said she had taken extra steps to sanitize the gym and keep the children in small, separated groups, but that she was worried that the sudden loss of income could force her to lay off employees. She said she tried to compromise with customers by offering credits and allowing them to reschedule, but giving full refunds to everyone could threaten a business she’s owned since 1996.

“It’s just frustrating because I feel like I’m following the guidelines,” she said through tears.

Ricketts warned restaurants and bars that they might be restricted to offering takeout-only services if state health officials confirm additional “community spread” cases, in which officials can’t trace how or where a person got infected. He said he was aligning the state with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued similar guidance on Monday.

One community-spread case has already been confirmed in Omaha, and Ricketts said he would impose the requirement on Omaha-area restaurants if one other case was confirmed and on Lincoln-area restaurants if one to two cases were confirmed.

One of the people previously diagnosed with the virus, a 16-year-old boy from Crofton, improved enough to be released from the hospital Monday after testing negative for COVID-19 three times, the University of Nebraska Medical Center said. But a 36-year-old Omaha woman who was the state’s first case remained in critical condition at the hospital on Monday. Most of the people diagnosed with the disease in the state have been recovering at home.

Separate from the cases identified locally, four Americans who were exposed to the virus on a cruise ship in Japan were released from quarantine at the Omaha hospital. Two other former passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship remained at the hospital in good condition. Their release date will depend on their test results.

Meanwhile, the Nebraska Legislature suspended its session Monday until further notice to keep the virus from spreading. The session had been scheduled to resume Tuesday, but it’s unclear now when that might happen. Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer said legislative leaders made the decision to protect lawmakers as well as the public.

Sen. Adam Morfeld, of Lincoln, said roughly two-thirds of the Legislature’s 49 senators are old enough to be in the high-risk category if they were to catch the virus.

“We will continue to work on solutions,” he said.

Lawmakers have yet to pass a state budget, as they typically do every year. They also haven’t agreed on legislation to lower property taxes, which many of them identified as their top priority. Scheer said lawmakers could be briefly called back into session as early as next Monday to pass emergency funding to help fight the virus.

The Legislature’s decision came as the number of coronavirus cases in Nebraska climbed to 20. Douglas County health officials announced two new cases Monday to bring the number of cases in the county to 18. One of those cases is travel-related and the other sickened person had had contact with an earlier local case.

On Sunday, Susie Buffett, the daughter of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, told the Omaha World-Herald that she was exposed to the virus and had isolated herself at her Omaha home for two weeks. She said she feels fine and doesn’t think she had contracted COVID-19, which is caused by the virus that originated in China. She also said she hadn’t been around her father since her exposure last week.

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

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According to the World Health Organization, people with mild cases recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe ones can take three to six weeks to get better.

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Funk contributed from Omaha.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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