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Blue Hill voters give green light for new pool

BLUE HILL — Voters in the city of Blue Hill on Tuesday approved a bond issue that will allow progress on construction of a new municipal swimming pool to move forward.

According to unofficial primary election results from the Webster County Clerk’s Office, Blue Hill voters approved the ballot question by a vote of 206-74, or 74% to 26%.

The city of Blue Hill now will be able to move ahead in its efforts to build a new pool by putting out a request for bids from contractors, accepting a bid and working toward completion of the project according to a timeline agreed to by the city and the chosen contractor, though city leaders hope construction will be started by late fall 2020 or early spring 2021.

The bond issue passed by a landslide even though less than half of the 660 registered voters in Blue Hill made their choice known, even with the option of voting by mail, according to Webster County Clerk Liz Petsch.

sdanehey / Susan Danehey/Tribune  

A sign along U.S. Highway 281 in Blue Hill lends support to the proposed city bond issue approved by voters in Tuesday’s primary election.

The maintenance and location of the present pool, originally built in 1964 and dedicated in 1965, has long been a problem, with the aging pool prone to leaking and not handicapped-accessible and with a pool house that is out of date and is in poor shape.

These issues, along with a location along Nebraska Highway 281 that causes young swimmers unnecessary risk to get to the pool, caused local citizens to look at other options.

In 2013 the pool committee first formed, said Marisa L’Heureux, local nurse practitioner and committee member who was part of the driving force behind the movement to get a new pool.

The pool committee worked to draw interest to the project, which led up to a Blue Hill Pool and Park study in February 2016 to establish need and level of support for a new pool in the community. A half-cent sales tax was approved by voters in November 2016 to help fund the new pool.

Through a collaboration of the Blue Hill Pool Project Committee, the Blue Hill Foundation, and the city of Blue Hill, $1.09 million was collected through fundraisers, grants, donations and sales tax proceeds.

During this time a new building site was chosen and purchased. The new site for the swimming pool will be in the center of the town on the grounds of the previous Blue Hill grade school building, allowing safer access to the pool.

The question on the May 12 primary ballot asked for a $1.2 million bond issue to reach toward the total budgeted project amount of $2.5 million. The group has additional fundraising planned to meet the additional costs for the pool, including a street dance on the Fourth of July if directed health measures allow that to proceed, along with other fundraising efforts as needed.

Besides property tax, a portion of the half-cent sales tax revenue is to be available on an ongoing basis to help cover the debt service related to the pool bond issue.

Diane Karr, grant writer and board member of the Blue Hill Community Foundation, is excited that the new pool will become a reality, and feels it will be a win for the whole community.

“Swimming instruction, fitness, social time, safer access, summer jobs, are just a few of the ways that the community will benefit,” Karr said. “The new facility will offer more recreational choices, more shade structures, complete handicap-accessibility, zero entry, water therapy, and will be located right next to the basketball courts. The location should bring more traffic to our downtown in the summer. I can’t wait to see it completed and full of kids and families.”

Mayor Keri Schunk was pleased with the vote and the support for local citizens.

“The pool bond passage opened so many doors not just for the pool project, but for future projects in Blue Hill,” Schunk said. “The energy and dedication that the Blue Hill Pool Committee and foundation put into this issue to assure its passage says a lot about the future of Blue Hill. It’s another example that together, we will continue to make Blue Hill the best part of the ‘Good Life.’ ”

Museum programming switch intended to provide value

It was tough for Hastings Museum officials to cancel Summer Fun classes that had been planned for June, but they believe the replacement provides even more value.

The museum announced last week that instead of Summer Fun classes it would offer what it is calling the Digital Learning Lab.

Families can sign up and have access to all five weeks of classes from June 1 to July 3.

Each day of the week is a different theme:

  • Masterpiece Monday (art)
  • Try It Tuesday (science)
  • Wilderness Wednesday (nature)
  • Throwback Thursday (history)
  • Freebie Friday (random)

Participants can register online or over the telephone. There is no limit to the number of families that can sign up, and there are no restrictions on the ages of kids.

More information is available at hastingsmuseum.org.

The cost per household is $90 for members and $100 for non-members.

Each one-hour class will begin 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Because everything will be recorded and all the information and resources are provided, participants will get all five weeks of classes, regardless of when they sign up.

Students don’t have to be present when classes are taught live. Everything will be recorded and participants will have access to the recordings, as well as lesson plan resources, to do at their leisure.

“We have been following everything from the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the city, South Heartland (district health department) and the governor pretty closely,” Russanne Hoff, museum curator of education, said during an interview Monday morning. “We started looking at how the (directed health measure) was extended. With the uncertainty, May 31 is the deadline. Who knows what will happen after that? We knew that we couldn’t make that much of a last-minute decision with it. Parents need to plan, the museum needs to plan; so we thought it’s going to be in the best interest of everybody regardless if things open up in June to do all digital and then reassess halfway through June for July based on how things are going.”

While Gov. Pete Ricketts announced Monday afternoon directed health measures will be relaxed for the South Heartland District Health Department beginning May 18, social distancing requirements would still make in-person classes difficult.

Traditional Summer Fun classes include 20 students, five volunteers and a couple instructors.

“You’re looking at almost 30 people in a room,” Hoff said. “Are we allowed to have 30 people? Is that the safest thing to do?”

Museum officials will make the determination for July’s Summer Fun classes as the time draws closer.

Summer Fun classes in July may return in the traditional format, or continue with a digital platform.

The daily themes of the Digital Learning Lab represent the themes of different Summer Fun classes. By participating in the Digital Learning Lab, students will receive a comprehensive education.

Museum Marketing Director Becky Tideman said the distance-learning aspect of the Digital Learning Lab provides value for families, as well as a way to connect.

“You know what kids can do this summer? They can connect with cousins,” she said. “Because if their cousins are in Norton, Kansas, or North Platte, Grandma could pay for three families of grandchildren to all do this together and share. We like that idea of not only connecting friends across Hastings but across the Tri-Cities and maybe, like I said, maybe even cousins and families across the country because anyone can take advantage of this service.”

Hoff said the classes will be as interactive as possible. In preparing Digital Learning Lab content, Hoff looked at online classes provided by other museums.

“A lot of the museums are just lecturing at kids, and that is not at all what we want to do,” she said.

For instance, she said, if a teacher is leading an invisible ink activity, both teacher and students participating live will be mixing ingredients and add the ink to the paper at the same time. Students can share their work among the classes.

“We want it to be as close to as in-person and interactive as our classes normally are at the museum,” Hoff said. “We want it to be as close to that on Zoom as we can.”

All of the activities will use common household items.

Material lists will be available a week ahead of time.

The Digital Learning Lab will use Zoom as the platform and Google Drive to share information.

The program is suitable for unlimited participation.

“We could have 500 families sign up, or we could have 50 families,” Hoff said. “We have made sure our Zoom account is set up for a large number of people if that is what we get.”

She has created classes suitable for a variety of ages, providing additional resources and activities allowing students to delve deeper into the given topics if needed.

Hoff loves interacting with the public, especially children.

“If I could just be in a classroom with kids all the time that is my happy place,” she said.

It’s hard to know she won’t get that interaction.

“Man, I cannot wait to get kids in this building again and just hang out with them,” she said. “I get paid to play with glitter and teach kids about nature and science and art and history. Who doesn’t want a job like that?”

Still, museum officials are excited about the potential of the Digital Learning Lab.

“We still really wanted to serve our audience,” Hoff said. “So we thought ‘OK. This will be a way we know we can serve our audience even if they can’t come for whatever reason.’ ”

Adams County sees election turnout bump

During a primary election on Tuesday that saw a lot of early mail-in voting to minimize the threat of spreading the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, Adams County saw a voter turnout of 40.3%.

That is an increase over the 38.07% turnout seen for the 2016 primary election.

There were 7,787 votes cast during the 2020 primary election in Adams County, which has 19,322 registered voters.

Adams County published complete, unofficial primary results at 9:33 p.m. on Tuesday. Adams County Clerk Ramona Thomas, who doubles as county election commissioner, said the timing was comparable to 2018.

“It was really fast,” she said. “We had so many early votes that we were able to get counted and release shortly after 8 p.m. What came in from the actual polling sites was minimal. That didn’t take very long to count. We do have new equipment, which does count faster, but mostly it was because we had so many ballots in ahead of time, ready to go.”

The office sent out 7,519 early voting ballots for voters who requested them before May 1. The office had 6,304 ballots returned as of Monday afternoon.

Thomas said for those who didn’t vote early, polling place operations went well.

“We had a lot of first-time workers,” she said. “There were some bumps, nothing that was unfixable. We appreciate them stepping up and working. Hopefully they enjoyed it and will come back. Traffic was minimal, so issues were minimal.”

Thomas’ office can walk workers through most issues over the telephone.

She visited polling places in the morning. She also had two precinct inspectors.

The county canvassing board met Wednesday morning to verify election results.

“We have minimal provisional to go through but those will be counted today,” Thomas said.

Virus spikes could emerge weeks after US economic reopenings

U.S. states are beginning to restart their economies after months of paralyzing coronavirus lockdowns, but it could take weeks until it becomes clear whether those reopenings will cause a spike in COVID-19 cases, experts said Wednesday.

The outbreak’s trajectory varies wildly across the country, with steep increases in cases in some places, decreases in others and infection rates that can shift dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood.

“Part of the challenge is although we are focused on the top-line national numbers in terms of our attention, what we are seeing is 50 different curves and 50 different stories playing out,” said Thomas Tsai, assistant professor at the Harvard Global Health Institute. “And what we have seen about COVID-19 is that the story and the effect is often very local.”

A handful of states started easing their lockdowns about two weeks ago, allowing reopenings by establishments ranging from shopping malls in Texas to beach hotels in South Carolina to gyms in Wyoming. Sparsely populated Wyoming, which has some of the lowest infection numbers in the United States, plans to reopen bars and restaurants Friday. Georgia was one of the first states where some businesses were allowed to open their doors again, starting April 24 with barber shops, hair salons, gyms, bowling alleys and tattoo parlors.

But it may be five to six weeks from then before the effects are known, said Crystal Watson of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“As we saw early in the year, epidemics of COVID-19 start slow and take some time to build and become evident,” Watson said in an email.

The outbreak’s trajectory can vary greatly around the country, according to an Associated Press analysis of confirmed cases. For instance, steep increases in daily new cases are occurring in Hennepin County in Minnesota and Fairfax County in Virginia, while in others, such as Bergen County, New Jersey, and Wayne County, Michigan, there’s been a steady decline.

The AP analyzed case counts compiled by Johns Hopkins University, using a rolling seven-day average to account for day-to-day variability in test reporting.

In Geneva, meanwhile, a top World Health Organization official warned that it’s possible the new coronavirus may be here to stay.

“This virus may never go away,” Dr. Michael Ryan said at a press briefing. Without a vaccine, he said, it could take years for the global population to build up sufficient levels of immunity.

“I think it’s important to put this on the table,” he said. “This virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities” like other previously novel diseases, such as HIV, which have never disappeared, but for which effective treatments have been developed.

It can take three to five days for someone newly infected with the coronavirus to feel sick, and some infected people won’t even have symptoms.

Since testing is mostly reserved in the U.S. for those with symptoms, it can take two weeks or so — the time for one group of people to spread the virus to another — to have enough testing data to reflect a surge in cases.

“If you are doing adequate testing, it will take two to three weeks” to spot an increase, Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, said Wednesday as he prepared to speak to a congressional subcommittee on the crisis.

He urged a dramatic increase in testing.

“It was the failure of testing that caused our country to shut down,” Jha said. “We need federal leadership on the level of testing, guidance on whom to test and federal help on the sheer capacity, the number of tests that can be done. We still do not have the testing capacity we need to open up safely.”

New coronavirus clusters have surfaced around the world as nations struggle to balance restarting their economies and preventing a second wave of infections.

Authorities in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the pandemic first began late last year, reportedly are pressing ahead to test all 11 million residents for the virus within 10 days after a handful of new infections were found.

South Korea confirmed 29 more coronavirus cases over the past 24 hours as it battles a spike in infections linked to nightlife spots in Seoul, threatening the country’s hard-won progress in the fight against pandemic.

And Lebanese authorities reinstated a nationwide lockdown for four days beginning Wednesday night after a spike in reported infections and complaints that social distancing rules were being ignored.

In the U.S., as in many countries, the lockdowns have resulted in catastrophic levels of job losses. The U.S. unemployment rate soared to 14.7% in April, the highest rate since the Great Depression. There are roughly 30 million Americans out of work.

In Washington, U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell warned Wednesday that a prolonged recession could cause extensive damage to the economy and urged Congress and the White House to act further to prevent long-lasting harm.

The Fed and Congress have already taken immense steps, but Powell warned that numerous bankruptcies among small businesses and extended unemployment for many people remain a serious risk.

While costly, more assistance in government spending or tax policies would be “worth it if it helps avoid long-term economic damage and leaves us with a stronger recovery,” he said.

Powell spoke a day after Democratic leaders proposed a $3 trillion aid package that would direct money to state and local governments, households, and health-care workers. That would come on top of roughly $3 trillion in earlier financial assistance. The Fed, for its part, has cut interest rates to near zero and created numerous emergency lending programs.

But Trump administration officials have said they want to first see how previous aid packages affect the economy, and were skeptical about allowing more spending right now.

The tension in balancing people’s safety against severe economic fallout is playing out across the world. Italy partially lifted lockdown restrictions last week only to see a big jump in confirmed coronavirus cases in its hardest-hit region. Pakistan reported 2,000 new infections in a single day after crowds of people crammed into markets as restrictions were eased.

The U.S. has the largest coronavirus outbreak in the world by far: 1.39 million infections and over 84,000 deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 4.3 million people and killed some 297,000, according to the Johns Hopkins tally. Experts say the actual numbers are likely far higher.