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Group hopes to spur quiet railroad crossings

A group of downtown citizens are hoping to help drive progress toward establishing railroad quiet crossings, funding for which was approved by voters three years ago.

Dave Rippe, a member of the city’s quiet crossing committee, called a meeting Wednesday afternoon in Central Park to start a discussion about organizing a citizens’ group to help the Hastings City Council move forward with the project. Around 15 people attended.

He said there is some disagreement on the best way to start. There are multiple options to consider with each crossing and multiple crossings through town.

“This is a way to communicate our opinion to the City Council,” Rippe said.

“Quiet crossings” refer to railroad crossings where locomotive horn blasts aren’t needed as a warning to vehicular traffic and pedestrians. Many Hastings residents have expressed support for quiet crossings for the community, but offsetting safety measures would be required to make them possible.

Council President Paul Hamelink, who serves on the city’s quiet crossing committee, said the cheapest and easiest way to quiet a crossing is to close it, but that may not be what people want. He said several changes to city staff over the last three years have created a situation in which no one is in charge of the project.

“I think the biggest issue is that nobody has taken this bull by the horns,” he said.

The quiet crossings are being paid for as part of the city’s half-cent sales tax, which was renewed in September 2017. Collection began in April 2018.

A quiet crossing diagnostic review is planned for 10 a.m. Nov. 7.

The diagnostic review of all railroad crossings in Hastings is the next step in the quiet crossing process and includes a decision on what needs to happen, followed by issuance of a notice of intent to install quiet crossings.

The diagnostic review includes the on-site participation of stakeholders: the city of Hastings, Nebraska Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration and the railroads.

In approving the city’s one- and six-year street improvement plan, the Hastings Planning Commission and Hastings City Council both identified 2020 as the year for work to begin on quiet crossings.

Hamelink said it will be best to complete the changes in stages to spread out costs. He believes the first phase should focus on the crossings downtown.

“Doing it incrementally is also important,” he said.

Cold weather means new challenges for struggling restaurants

U.S. restaurants are moving warily into fall, hoping their slow recovery persists despite the new challenge of chilly weather and a pandemic that’s expected to claim even more lives.

New York opens indoor dining on Wednesday, restricting capacity to 25%. San Francisco may do the same as early as this week. Chicago is raising its indoor capacity from 25% to 40% on Thursday, but says restaurants still can’t seat more than 50 people in one room.

It’s a dose of reality for an industry that was able to stem at least some of its losses by pivoting to outdoor dining this summer, setting up tables and chairs on sidewalks and parking lots and offering some semblance of normalcy.

But as temperatures start to slide across the country, restaurants will have to coax patrons to come back inside, and it’s anyone’s guess how many actually will. That could spell trouble for an industry that has already lost nearly 100,000 U.S. restaurants — or 1 in 6 — since the start of the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association. The future remains uncertain for thousands more.

“We’re all a little apprehensive, but that was the case when we started outdoor dining, too,” said Samantha DiStefano, owner of Mama Fox, a restaurant and bar in Brooklyn.

Mama Fox can only seat 18 people inside at 25% capacity, so DiStefano will still rely heavily on her 14 outdoor tables. She thinks many New York restaurants won’t open indoor dining until the limit reaches 50% because they can’t cover their costs at 25%.

In the meantime, Mama Fox and others are trying to figure out how to extend the outdoor dining season using space heaters, tents, temporary igloos and even blankets. Heat lamps are already in short supply.

Restaurants are also promoting delivery and carryout. Nearly 70% of 3,500 restaurants surveyed in September by the National Restaurant Association said they added curbside takeout during the pandemic; 54% added delivery.

Philip Moseley, co-owner of Blue Oak BBQ in New Orleans, said carryout demand has risen from 10% of sales before the pandemic to 50% now.

Blue Oak BBQ’s dining room is open at half capacity, or about 20 people. But a tent in the parking lot seats 80. That’s enough traffic that the restaurant was able to hire back all 50 employees.

“You do anything you have to do to make the food work, to make the experience work, to get butts in seats,” Moseley said.

Although fall in New Orleans is ideal for outdoor dining, tourists are scarce and the usual round of festivals won’t happen this year.

“Every day has a new set of struggles,” co-owner Ronnie Evans said.

Seventy percent of U.S. restaurants are independent, but chains are hurting too. NPC International, the largest franchisee of both Pizza Hut and Wendy’s, filed for bankruptcy protection in July.

Steve Nikolakakos closed one of his three Manhattan restaurants because his landlord wouldn’t give him a break on the rent. Another, Gracie’s Diner, closed for two months in March after two employees died of the coronavirus.

Even with outdoor seating, the diner is only making 65% of what it did before the pandemic, he said. Still, that’s better than May, when he was doing only 30% of his usual business.

“This is the worst thing I have ever seen,” said Nikolakakos, a 40-year veteran of the industry.

Il Carino, a tiny Italian restaurant in Manhattan, is reopening its dining room with just 12 seats. Outdoor seating has recaptured only about 30% of the restaurant’s business, and it has had to lay off 13 workers, said Giolio Alvarez, the restaurant’s manager.

Alvarez said customers are asking for heat lamps, but the restaurant doesn’t know if they’re worth the extra money. And increasing menu prices is off the table.

“How are we going to increase prices?” he said. “Everyone is broke.”

Monthly U.S. restaurant sales hit their lowest point in April, when they plunged to $30 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That was less than half the amount restaurants made a year earlier. Sales steadily improved as lockdowns ended, carryout demand picked up and states allowed to-go alcohol. U.S. restaurant sales hit $55 billion in August, but that’s still $10 billion less than last year.

Some waiters and kitchen staff have gone back to work. Restaurant employment rose by 3.6 million people over the four months ending in August, according to government data. Still, there were 2.5 million fewer U.S. restaurant workers in August compared to February. September’s unemployment numbers are due out Friday.

Mario Sandoval, an unemployed server from Las Vegas, appeared before a U.S. House committee last week to urge lawmakers to restart monthly stimulus checks. He also wants a guarantee that he can return to his job when his restaurant reopens.

“I’m worried about the economy crashing again,” he said.

On Wednesday, some restaurant workers in Washington planned to strike, saying they can’t survive on subminimum wages and tips that are a fraction of what they used to be because of capacity limits. The workers, backed by the group One Fair Wage, want lawmakers to guarantee minimum wages for restaurant workers.

But even if restaurants rehire staff, reopen dining rooms or shell out $1,000 for a fiberglass igloo, there’s no guarantee customers will return.

Nancy Chapman used to eat out often, at restaurants near her College Grove, Tennessee, home and on the road when she traveled to horse shows. But Chapman, 70, who recently retired from her CPA and business management practice, said she isn’t going to restaurants until she is satisfied there is a better understanding of COVID-19 and a clear path to its resolution.

Juliana Gonzalez, 31, of Howard Beach, New York, is also trying to stay safe. She limits her contacts to her parents and her boyfriend, and she has walked out of dining rooms in New Jersey when she felt they were too crowded. But she’s also ready for some normalcy, and she’s eager for dining rooms to reopen in New York.

“I feel that most restaurants are trying to stay open, so most of them are trying their best to be safe,” Gonzalez said.

Expanded Medicaid begins in Nebraska after years of dispute

OMAHA — Nebraska will officially offer expanded Medicaid coverage to low-income people starting Thursday after years of wrangling over it in the Legislature, a statewide ballot campaign that led voters to approve it and a nearly two-year rollout that left some people in health care limbo.

The state will provide coverage to 10,288 residents who have signed up so far, a number roughly in line with the state’s projections. State officials expect expanded enrollment to rise to about 90,000 within a few years.

“This expansion is an excellent opportunity” for people who are now eligible, said Dannette Smith, executive director of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

Nebraska was among several conservative states where state lawmakers and governors declined to expand Medicaid, only to see the issue go to voters. Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and his GOP predecessor, Dave Heineman, both argued that expansion would be too costly for the state, and lawmakers rejected six attempts in as many years to adopt it as an optional part of President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care law.

The expansion became law in 2018 when voters approved citizen-led measures in Nebraska, Utah and Idaho. Utah and Idaho officials later attached work requirements to their programs.

In Nebraska, the Ricketts administration implemented two tiers of coverage: a “basic” plan available to all newly qualified recipients and a “prime” plan available to people who are working, in school, volunteering or caring for a relative. The prime plan includes coverage for dental and vision care and over-the-counter drugs.

State health officials have defended the expansion’s slower-than-typical launch and their two-tiered approach, calling it a massive undertaking that required numerous layers of federal approval.

Even so, the delays caused a good deal of uncertainty and stress for people who were waiting to enroll, said Molly McCleery, health care access program director for the group Nebraska Appleseed.

“It was extremely difficult for the folks we worked with,” said McCleery, whose group played a major role in bringing the issue to voters. “A lot of people we worked with had long-standing health needs that they needed to get addressed.”

McCleery said that based on the experience of other states that expanded Medicaid, Nebraska is now likely to see a reduction in personal bankruptcies caused by large medical debts. People who aren’t saddled with huge debts are also able to spend more on other goods and services that help the economy, she said.

State officials said they faced several other challenges in expanding Medicaid, including computer system upgrades for processing applicants; hiring more workers; and negotiating new contracts with the private, managed-care companies that will serve Medicaid recipients. The contractors will administer the program, dubbed Heritage Health, with a financial incentive to provide health care services while keeping costs low.

“There was a lot of work that had to go into this,” said Ricketts, who opposed the expansion but promised to follow the will of voters.

Jeremy Brunssen, the state’s interim Medicaid and Long-Term Care director, said state officials also took steps to provide enrollee information in seven different languages.

Brunssen said the state has also hired more than 100 new employees to answer questions and process applications, and processing times are averaging around seven days. State officials have also held public meetings throughout the state to raise public awareness about the expansion.

“Our teams have been very hard at work making sure that we work together with community partners and community stakeholders who often have the closest contact with Nebraskans who might eligible for Medicaid,” he said.

Advocates note that similar Medicaid expansions took less than six months in Louisiana and Virginia and less than two months in Alaska, although critics argue that those states faced problems because they went too quickly. Expansion took longer in Maine, primarily because of opposition from elected officials.

Coverage in Nebraska is now available to adults ages 19 to 64 who earn up to 138% of the federal poverty level — about $17,609 for one person and $36,156 for a family of four. The federal government will pay 90% of the program’s cost in 2020 and subsequent years.

South Heartland risk dial needle moves up again

The South Heartland Health District’s COVID-19 risk dial reading moved upward within the “elevated” range for this week after 54 new cases of the novel coronavirus disease were recorded among district residents Sept. 20-26.

The risk dial communicates the likelihood of additional spread of the novel coronavirus in Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties. The disease caused by infection with the virus is commonly known as COVID-19.

The risk dial needle moved to 2.3 — up from 2.1 last week. Both values are within the risk dial’s elevated zone, color-coded orange. The dial includes low (green), moderate (yellow), elevated (orange) and severe (red) zones.

While public health guidelines corresponding to the yellow and orange zones are much the same, upward movement on the dial always is unwelcome.

Besides the confirmation of 54 new positive cases last week (compared to 53 for the previous week), the district saw its case positivity rate for the week increase week-over-week from 10.1% to 14.5%.

“The current trends in new cases and increasing positivity are definitely heading in the wrong direction,” said Michele Bever, South Heartland health department executive director, in a news release Wednesday evening.

The risk dial, which takes into account several factors, is one tool the health department uses to assess current conditions related to COVID-19. The South Heartland district encompasses Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties, with health department headquarters in Hastings.

Some of the risk dial factors include availability of hospital beds, intensive care beds and ventilators within the health district. Bever reported that as of Monday 64% of district hospitals’ intensive care beds and all of its ventilators were available for new patients.

A total of four patients were hospitalized for treatment of COVID-19 as of Monday, but none were in critical care, Bever reported.

Meanwhile, the disease continues to pose challenges for senior living establishments in the South Heartland district.

“There are currently four long-term care facilities in our district with either residents or staff or both that have tested positive in the past two weeks,” Bever said. “The totals are 13 staff and 28 residents who tested positive for COVID-19, with two of the residents requiring hospitalization in area hospitals.”

School systems in the health district also continue to see absenteeism related to the virus.

In pre-kindergarten through 12th grade schools in the four-county area, a total of 128 students and staff members were absent on Tuesday for reasons related to the virus. The absentees included 103 students and 14 staff members who were in quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure, plus six students and five staff members who were in isolation after testing positive for the disease. On top of those numbers, an additional 46 students were self-monitoring for symptoms and were required to wear masks in lieu of quarantine, following updates to state directed health measures that took effect last week.

In the lexicon of the COVID-19 pandemic, the test positivity rate refers to the number of new confirmed cases in a week’s time as a percentage of the total number of test results received for that week.

Bever said South Heartland residents have the ability to push the positivity rate downward through precautions such as mask use, social distancing, diligent hand washing and cleaning of frequently touched surfaces.

“We had seven straight weeks in late May through mid-July when our positivity was below 5%, and one week in mid-June when our positivity was below 1%,” Bever said. “This shows that we are able to manage the spread of the virus when we take precautions and focus on prevention in our communities.”

For more South Heartland statistics and information visit www.southheartlandhealth.org.