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Nebraska economy fares better than most states amid pandemic

May 24, 2020 GMT

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska’s economy has been devastated by the coronavirus outbreak and unemployment has surged, but the state has fared better than most of the rest of the nation.

The state’s unemployment rate for April registered 8.3%, which remains well below the national rate of 14.7%. Nebraska’s unemployment rate was the third lowest in the country in those latest figures because the state relies heavily on industries that haven’t been affected as much by the virus and related government restrictions, such as food processing and insurance. The state also doesn’t have as many jobs tied to the hard-hit tourism and oil industries.

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“When you think about it, Nebraska’s economy produces a lot of necessities,” University of Nebraska-Lincoln economist Eric Thompson said to the Omaha World-Herald. “Food production is essential, and the demand will be there even as people have to cut back.”

The insurance, banking and government sectors have largely been spared job losses. Unemployment figures show that only about one in every 50 workers in those sectors have lost their jobs. In contrast, the downturn from the virus outbreak contributed to the loss of roughly one in every four service jobs.

James Blackledge, CEO of Mutual of Omaha said his insurance company has not had to lay off any workers so far, and it still expects to add roughly 300 employees by the end of the year.

Blackledge said the fact that the company could be adding jobs during the pandemic “is remarkable when you think about it.”

It also helped that Mutual of Omaha has been able to shift most of its employees to working from home instead of coming into the office. Only about 150 of the company’s more than 5,000 employees are currently going into the office.

Officials say Nebraska’s economy may have also fared better overall during the downturn because the state’s social distancing measures weren’t as strict as most states imposed.

Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts was one of only seven governors who never issued a statewide stay-at-home order shutting down all nonessential businesses. Instead, he imposed restrictions on a regional basis throughout the state based on the number of infections and hospitalizations in each area.

“The idea of shutting down businesses deemed to be nonessential arbitrarily created unemployment in other states,” said Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “I think Nebraska did that better.”

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Nebraska has begun to loosen restrictions across the state, which is helping businesses begin to recover.

Krysette Long, who owns two men’s hair salons in Omaha, said business has been so good since she was able to reopen on May 4 that she is employing a few more people than she did before the virus outbreak began.

“We are rebuilding and starting over — that’s what it feels like again,” she said. “We are all super happy to be back at work and taking care of everyone.”

State officials said Sunday that Nebraska has had 11,989 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 147 deaths since the outbreak began. The state Department of Health and Human Services also said that 38% of the state’s intensive care beds and 77% of its ventilators remained available on Sunday.

For some infected people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe illness or death. But for most people, it causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks.