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Jobless claims rise as cutoff of extra $600 benefit nears

WASHINGTON — The nation got another dose of bad economic news Thursday as the number of laid-off workers seeking jobless benefits rose for the first time since late March, intensifying concerns the resurgent coronavirus is stalling or even reversing the economic recovery.

And an extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits, provided by the federal government on top of whatever assistance states provide, is set to expire July 31, though this is the last week recipients will get the extra funds. It is the last major source of economic help from the $2 trillion relief package that Congress approved in March. A small business lending program and one-time $1,200 payment have largely run their course.

With the count of U.S. infections passing 4 million and the aid ending, nearly 30 million unemployed people could struggle to pay rent, utilities or other bills, and economists worry that overall consumer spending will drop, adding another economic blow.

“I’m going to be broke,” said Melissa Bennett, who was laid off from her job at a vacation time-share in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “I’ll be broke-broke. I want to go to work, I want health insurance, I want a 401K. I want a life; I have no life right now.”

Without the extra unemployment benefits, Bennett will receive just $200 a week, and she’ll have to decide whether to pay her mortgage or her utilities first.

More than 1.4 million people applied for jobless benefits last week, the Labor Department said Thursday, up from 1.3 million the previous week. That is the first increase since March and 18th straight week that it has topped 1 million. Before the pandemic, applications had never exceeded 700,000. An additional 975,000 people applied for aid under a separate program that has made self-employed and gig workers eligible for the first time.

The news sent stocks slumping on Wall Street, with the S&P 500 recording its worst loss in nearly four weeks. Uncertainty across markets helped gold touch its highest price in nearly nine years.

The weakening of the labor market has raised fears the economy will shed jobs again in July, after two sharp hiring gains in May and June.

Analysts say the economy can’t improve until authorities can control the spread of the virus, a need that is complicating the reopening of businesses and schools.

Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of health and a member of the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force, even suggested another shutdown might be necessary. He noted that nearly universal mask-wearing, sharp restrictions on restaurant occupancy and shutting down bars were nearly as effective in controlling the virus as another shutdown of all nonessential businesses.

“Now, if you don’t do that, and people don’t achieve those goals, particularly mask-wearing, there may be no alternative,” Giroir said on MSNBC.

Congress is negotiating another aid package that could extend the extra unemployment support, though likely at less than $600. With the extra $600, roughly two-thirds of the unemployed are receiving more than they earned at their former jobs, research has shown. Republicans argue that it’s discouraging people from returning to work.

On Thursday, Senate Republicans unveiled a $1 trillion package that would replace the $600 with an amount that would bring a laid-off worker’s jobless benefits to 70% of their previous income. Both parties have agreed on another $1,200 stimulus check.

Democrats in the House approved a $3 trillion package last month that would extend the $600 through January. Given the limited time available, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin urged a bill dealing with jobless benefits and aid to schools be considered next week. Democrats say the Republican plans are not enough.

The economic woes come as outbreaks worsen, particularly in the South and West. Florida officials reported 173 new virus deaths Thursday, a daily high that brings the overall number to more than 5,500. With cases surging, President Donald Trump scrapped plans for a Republican National Convention celebration in the state.

California saw a record 157 new deaths, raising its toll to 8,027. An additional 89 deaths in Arizona pushed its total to 3,000, with over 1,000 deaths reported in the past 15 days.

Desperate to stop the spread of the virus and its resulting economic impact, more states are adding or broadening mask requirements. A new survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research says three out of four Americans, including a majority of Republicans, favor requiring people to wear face coverings outside their homes.

In a small step toward normalcy, many Americans eagerly welcomed baseball’s opening day, which arrived four months late.

In contrast to the U.S., the outlook has brightened for some other major economies. Europe is forecast to rebound next year after it managed to shrink its coronavirus caseload. Unemployment in the 19 countries that use the euro has remained contained, reflecting aggressive government efforts to keep workers on payrolls.

China has become the first major economy to grow since the start of the pandemic. Economists say China will likely recover relatively fast because of the Communist Party’s move to impose early and intensive anti-disease measures.

In the U.S., applications for unemployment benefits declined in many states hard hit by the virus, including Texas, Florida, Georgia and Arizona. But claims rose in other states seeing increases, including Louisiana, California and Tennessee.

The U.S. government said the total number of people receiving jobless benefits fell 1.1 million, to 16.2 million. It’s a hopeful sign that even as layoffs remain high, some companies are recalling workers. Yet that figure is still roughly 10 times what it was before the pandemic.

Unemployment aid accounted for 6% of all U.S. income in May, a greater share than even Social Security. Economists say it’s one reason why retail spending rebounded as quickly as it did in May and June.

The end of the added benefit coincides with the expiration of a federal moratorium on evictions Saturday. Without it, about 22 million people are at risk of losing their federally subsidized housing.

“It’s scary, it’s really scary,” said Victorita Raaen, 46, who was laid off in March from her job as a light and sound technician in Boise, Idaho.

The extra payments helped her build a thin financial cushion, but once it goes away, things will get significantly tighter. She figures she can live on ramen, hot dogs and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a while but might not be able to pay for gas.

“I want to go back to work,” she said. “I’d rather go back than sitting here earning unemployment.”

Real-time measures of the economy suggest companies are pulling back on hiring and more small businesses are closing permanently. Credit card spending has been stuck at about 10% below year-ago levels for nearly a month, according to JPMorgan Chase, after having risen steadily from mid-April to mid-June.

Data from the consumer-review website Yelp, which tracks millions of small businesses, shows more such companies are permanently shutting down.

Nearly 73,000 small businesses have closed for good since the pandemic intensified in March, up 28% from mid-June.

“Every time a business closes, that makes the recovery longer and harder, so that worries me,” said Ernie Tedeschi, an economist at the investment bank Evercore ISI.

Development in Hastings benefiting from 'blighted and substandard' designation

When a homeowner’s property is included in a “blighted and substandard” area, the term can be misleading.

The Hastings Planning Commission recommended on Monday designating 154.6 acres in southwest Hastings as blighted and substandard. This doesn’t mean any specific home or property in that area is blighted and substandard, and it doesn’t change property values.

“There are a lot of really nice homes not only in this area but in other areas that have been given that blighted and substandard tag,” said Randy Chick, executive director of the Community Redevelopment Authority.

Instead of “blighted and substandard,” Chick likes to emphasize the term redevelopment area.

Those 154.6 acres, shaped like a squat J, are the 16th redevelopment area in Hastings.

Borders of the area include West B, D and E streets to the north, West F Street to the south, South Baltimore Avenue to the West and South Lexington Avenue to the east. Although South Baltimore Avenue is the western border on the north half of the area, the south half extends west and includes Brickyard Park.

Redevelopment Area 16 fits like a puzzle piece between existing redevelopment areas 9, 2, and 4.

According to Nebraska statute, up to 35% of a community may be designated blighted and substandard.

Chick said less than 30% of Hastings is blighted and substandard.

State statutes also specify redevelopment and development activities associated with the Nebraska Community Development Law should be used to promote the general welfare and enhance the tax base, as well as promote the economic and social well-being of a community.

Redevelopment areas have the potential for development by building streets and housing.

There are four factors that go into the substandard designation and 12 that go into the blighted area designation.

Among the factors for the terms are site dilapidation, age of buildings, poor street layout and unsafe conditions.

While individual homes within the blighted and substandard area might not meet those factors, the designation means there are a substantial amount of homes that do.

“Primarily that has to do with the age of our housing stock,” Chick said. “That’s been identified in our housing studies. We have a lot of older houses in our community.”

Hastings is lacking in quality, affordable housing, he said.

“This would allow the CRA to use the tools it has at its disposal to help redevelop existing property, or help a developer develop vacant land,” he said.

The CRA has used tax levy dollars to acquire and demolish condemned properties.

Several of the lots where Habitat for Humanity homes now stand came from the CRA.

The CRA also has a few different loan funds.

One of the most common economic development tools used to aid larger development projects in blighted and substandard areas is the use of Tax Increment Financing.

TIF is primarily designed to finance the public costs associated with a private development project. Property tax increases resulting from a new development are used to repay the public investment required by a project.

TIF projects may be commercial, residential, industrial or mixed use. Generally, TIF funds can be used for land acquisition, public improvements and amenities, infrastructure and utilities.

“This (blighted and substandard) designation allows us the opportunity to possibly help development, which hopefully takes away from that blight designation, or reduces the number of factors,” Chick said.

Chick said the last two Habitat houses have dwelling values of more than $100,000.

The property taxes generated from those homes are a lot more than the vacant lots or condemned properties that were there before.

“Our goal is to make something good happen that will add to our community’s tax base,” he said.

Establishing Redevelopment Area 16 came out of a meeting Chick had last year with First Ward Hastings City Council representatives Ginny Skutnik and Jeniffer Beahm. Chick asked what more the CRA could be doing to help grow or redevelop the First Ward.

Skutnik thanked Chick at the July 13 council meeting for his work helping establish Redevelopment Area 16.

“I think it’s going to be a very useful tool for our area to promote development, which the south side definitely needs,” she said.

In other business during the commissioners’ meeting Monday:

  • Voted 9-0 to recommend updating the planning commission’s rules and procedures. Among changes is moving the commission’s meetings from the third Monday of the month to the third Tuesday.
  • Unanimously recommended ratifying all actions taken at videoconference meetings held as authorized by the governor in response to the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, pandemic.
  • Unanimously recommended approval of Ordinance 4637 to clarify and amend Hastings City Code regarding residential accessory structure requirements for all zone districts and related exterior design requirements for accessory structures in each district.

South Heartland COVID-19 risk level nears 'elevated' range

A recently developed COVID-19 risk dial indicates that the South Heartland Health District is nearing the top end of “moderate” risk for spread of the novel coronavirus disease and, unless factors improve, soon may move into the “elevated” risk category.

The risk dial was explained Wednesday evening in a news release from the South Heartland District Health Department, which serves Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties.

The purpose of the dial is to provide a summary of current COVID-19 conditions in the district.

“The needle on the risk dial moved up from 1.7 last week to 1.9 this week, which moves our district to the top of the ‘moderate’ risk level,” said Michele Bever, health department executive director.

The dial features four levels of risk for COVID-19 spread: low (green), moderate (yellow), elevated (orange) and severe (red). The district’s current risk level is determined weekly using a variety of indicators, including overall positivity rate, weekly positivity rate, trend in number of cases, health system capacity, ability to trace contacts, average number of contacts per case, availability of COVID-19 testing, and availability of vaccine.

“The risk level also takes into account other factors, such as compliance to social distancing requirements and use of face coverings in public settings,” the South Heartland news release states.

The “positivity rate” is the number of new positive cases of COVID-19 confirmed in the health district each week as a percentage of the total number of test administered during that week.

“There are several reasons for the shift up from the previous week,” Bever said of the increase in the district’s risk dial reading for the week of July 12-18. “The weekly positivity rate for last week increased from 4.4% to 7.5%, continuing an upward trend that we’ve seen in four of the past five weeks since our lowest rate of 0.7% the week of June 7-13. In addition, we saw 19 new cases last week, which was a 27% increase over the number of new cases the previous week.”

Bever had explained in a previous news release that the availability of a COVID-19 vaccine, or lack thereof, originally hadn’t been a factor in the risk rating, but that it had been added recently. Potential vaccines are under development but aren’t yet available anywhere.

Each time a new positive case is confirmed in a South Heartland district resident, health department representatives conduct an investigation to identify individuals who have been “close contacts” of the new patient and may have been exposed to the virus. The more that the patient has attended gatherings and failed to observe social distancing guidelines, the more “close contacts” he or she is likely to have, and the more likely it is that the virus has spread accordingly.

In Wednesday’s news release, Bever said the number of close contacts per positive case had improved last week from the week before that. On the other hand, the time it took for test results to come back had increased, and the hospital intensive care bed availability in the health district had decreased compared to the previous week.

“In addition, social distancing and use of cloth face coverings in public are not widespread practices,” Bever said. “All of these contribute to a rise in the overall risk level.”

According to online COVID-19 statistics posted to the South Heartland website, the health department recorded a total of eight new cases Tuesday through Thursday — six in Clay County, one in Webster County and one in Nuckolls County. Adams County recorded no new cases.

The eight new patients range in age from childhood (one case) to the 60s (one case).

“The trend up in our weekly case counts (new positive tests) is concerning,” Bever said in a news release Thursday night. “We had just six cases in our health district during the week of June 14-20, and seven cases the following week (June 21-27). By comparison, we had 19 cases reported last week (July 12-18) and we have 16 cases already this week. That’s about 3 times more cases per week than last month at this time.”

Since March 18, a running total of 389 cases have been recorded in the health district: 325 in Adams County, 46 in Clay County, 11 in Webster County and seven in Nuckolls County. Of the 389 total cases, 353 are classified as “recovered.” Eleven of the patients — all Adams County residents — have died.

A total of 22 district residents have spent time in a hospital related to COVID-19. When an Adams County man in his 50s was admitted to the hospital on July 17, the number increased for the first time since May 29.

Bever is reminding the public of key preventive steps they can take to reduce the spread of the virus. They include staying home when experiencing even mild symptoms consistent with COVID-19; keeping 6 feet of distance from other people; wearing face coverings, especially in situations where physical distancing is impossible; washing hands frequently with soap and water; and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces regularly.

The South Heartland COVID-19 Data Dashboard is updated daily and may be viewed on the health department website,

A total of 971 new COVID-19 cases were recorded across Nebraska Tuesday through Thursday, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Statewide, 34% of all hospital beds, 35% of intensive care beds and 80% of ventilators were available for new patients as of Thursday.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services provides daily updates to Nebraska’s COVID-19 cases on its Data Dashboard at

Board: Nebraska revenue drop won't be as sharp as expected

LINCOLN — Nebraska tax revenue will likely dip below earlier projections because of the coronavirus, but the state’s budget picture won’t be as bad as previously expected, a state board predicted Thursday.

The Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board lowered its outlook for state tax collections in the current fiscal year, which began July 1.

Their estimates will reduce the amount of revenue available to lawmakers this year by $48.5 million, from $138.6 million down to $90.1 million. Nebraska will collect an estimated total of $5.125 billion this year.

National forecasting services had suggested the state would see a much sharper decline.

But board members said Nebraska’s economy appears to be stronger than other parts of the country because it relies less on hospitality services that were devastated by the pandemic. They also pointed to a still-strong housing market and the federal assistance that businesses received to soften the virus’ impact.

“Nebraska is really a shining star and has done really well,” said board member Thomas Henning.

Board member Steve Seline, an Omaha attorney and radio executive, said his company’s station in Illinois has seen a roughly 50% drop in revenue because of the pandemic and the cancellation of local concerts, but its Nebraska stations have only experienced a 10% decline.

“I’m probably more optimistic than I should be,” he said, noting that he suspects Nebraska is faring better than other states.

Other board members said they were concerned about the impact of widespread layoffs and employees who have seen their work hours cut. Board member Richard McGinnis said he was worried about “people who are living paycheck to paycheck” and a possible increase in personal bankruptcies.

“Until these things play out, it’s all still a guessing game,” McGinnis said.

In a statement, Gov. Pete Ricketts said the forecast reflects the strength of Nebraska’s economy. He argued that it should clear the way for lawmakers to lower property taxes and approve new tax incentives for businesses.

But Sen. John Stinner, chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said he plans to take a cautious approach to the rosy predictions.

“In my mind, I think we need to be as conservative as we possibly can because of the uncertainty,” he said.