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HALLOWEEN HAPPENINGS

Grave Grabbers Screametery at 6025 S. 41st St. is a popular Halloween display. It took weeks to make, and the 11-foot witch entailed more than 100 hours of work. All the decorations are handmade, put together with PVC pipe and old animatronics. 


Misc
editor's pick alert top story
Lincoln resident debuts ‘zombifying’ website in time for Halloween
  • Updated

In a way, Josh Brown Kramer did the monster mash.

Just in time for Halloween, the applied mathematician at Lincoln-based Ocuvera set up a website that allows people to upload an image of themselves and zombify it for free.

Makemeazombie.com uses StyleGAN2, a set of machine-learning frameworks that allows computers to analyze photos and recreate the facial features of humans. Brown Kramer was able to set up his own program to take a photo of a human and turn it into a zombie with eerie similarities.

For the site, Brown Kramer hand-filtered more than 300 images of zombie makeup and masks from Pinterest and Google, curating the data so images put through the program would come out crisp and quite zombie-like.

“I think my favorite (picture) is the one my wife did," he said Thursday. "She put Betty White through, which kills me.”

Although the system isn’t programmed for canines, he still sees a lot of furry pets being zombified as well.

Although spooky in nature, the California-born mathematician wasn’t working on the software with Halloween in mind. It just kind of worked out that way.

“I was working on it with a buddy last year and felt the push to get it out about two months ago,” he said.

Part of his motivation comes from showing other professionals in the computer-science industry that he's capable of studying and producing something that uses “hard-core machine learning.”

It’s almost like a calling card to other mathematicians and computer scientists, he said.

“But I also think it’s just super cool to create something that people like and want to use,” he said.

Since debuting the project, the site has seen a lot of activity from Twitter users, with more than 100,000 interacting with the site.

“I also just love Halloween,” he said.

As such, this isn’t the first time he’s used computer science and math to create something spooky. In 2017, Brown Kramer decked out his house for Halloween with an ode to the Netflix series "Stranger Things."

With decor that looked like the living room of one of the main characters and Christmas lights strung to a false wall with painted letters, Brown Kramer connected the lights with an app, Twilio, that allowed trick-or-treaters and passersby to text a message through the app and see the lights reflect that message.

But with the coronavirus pandemic, Brown Kramer is opting for safety this year.

“I thought about, like, a candy launcher or an Alexa-controlled mechanism to drop candy without having contact, but it’s probably a bad idea to draw a crowd,” he said.

So he’ll wait until next year. He’s not sure if he’ll go all-out — he wants to have a good idea first.

“I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying to one-up myself and then mess up the execution," he said. "I don’t want to be the guy who makes people look like zombies and then doesn’t follow through.”

Watch Now: Walking through Boo at the Zoo in Lincoln
Lincoln-area kids in costume, 2020 edition

Politics
AP
Rivals enter final stretch
  • Updated

WATERFORD TOWNSHIP, Mich. — President Donald Trump dangled a promise to get a weary, fearful nation "back to normal" Friday as he looked to campaign past the political damage of the devastating pandemic. It was a tantalizingly rosy pitch in sharp contrast to Democratic rival Joe Biden, who pledged to level with America about tough days still ahead after Tuesday's election.

In a campaign that has been dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 227,000 Americans and staggered the economy, the candidates' clashing overtures stood as a reflection of their leadership styles and policy prescriptions for a suffering United States.

Trump and Biden both spent Friday crisscrossing the Midwest, the hardest-hit part of the nation in the latest surge of virus cases. Trump was in Michigan and Biden in Iowa before they both held events in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

With four days until the election and more than 86 million votes already cast, time is running out for Trump and Biden to change the contours of a race framed largely around the incumbent’s handling of the pandemic. Biden is leading most national polls and has a narrow advantage in many of the critical battlegrounds that could decide the race.

Trump, billing himself as an optimist, says the nation has "turned the corner" from the outbreak that still kills about 1,000 Americans each day. He speaks hopefully of coming treatments and potential vaccines that have yet to receive approval. Biden dismisses Trump's talk as a siren song that can only prolong the virus, and pledges a nationwide focus on reinstituting measures meant to slow the spread of the disease.

"He said a long, dark winter," Trump scoffed Friday at a rally in Michigan. "Oh, that's great, that's wonderful. Just what our country needs is a long, dark winter and a leader who talks about it."

Trump's rallies, which draw thousands of supporters, have served as representations of the sort of "reopening" he has been preaching. With spotty use of masks and a lack of social distancing, they flout state and local guidelines that he deems too onerous as he speaks as though the virus has largely disappeared.

Attendance at the president’s final campaign stop in Rochester, Minnesota, was capped at 250 people at the insistence of state and local officials. The Minnesota Department of Health has linked 28 coronavirus cases to other recent Trump campaign events in the state.

Biden, for his part, referenced Trump’s comments last summer that the virus “is what it is.” He told supporters in Des Moines, Iowa, that “it is what it is because he is who he is! These guys are something else, man.”

Biden, who also campaigned in Milwaukee and St. Paul, Minnesota, on Friday, has seized on comments by Trump's chief of staff that the virus can't be controlled and that the administration is focused instead on vaccines and therapeutics. By contrast, Biden is promising to step up the fight to contain the spread, including a mask mandate on federal property and pressure on governors to apply it in their states, and pledging to follow the advice of public health professionals on potentially strict safety rules.

Still, Biden appeared sensitive to Trump's closing cry that the Democrat would impose draconian measures more damaging than the virus itself.

“I’m not going to shut down the country. I’m not going to shut down the economy," Biden tweeted Friday, responding directly to Trump's attack lines. "I’m going to shut down the virus.”

Trump's closing appeal to "Make America Great Again, Again" paints a halcyon image of the nation's condition during pre-coronavirus times that contrasts with Biden's charge to "Build Back Better." The president's focus on returning the nation's economy to the boom times of 2019 resonates with some voters, but overlooks the divided and rancorous politics that swirled around impeachment and the persistent problems of inequality.

As the nation set new records for confirmed cases, Wall Street closed out a punishing week Friday with the S&P 500 posting its first back-to-back monthly loss since the pandemic first gripped the economy in March.

In other developments:

* More than 9 million ballots had been cast as of early Friday in Texas, exceeding its 8.9-plus million votes during all of 2016's race, according to an Associated Press tally of Texas early vote data.

* Georgia officials say they don't expect power outages caused by severe weather that swept through parts of the state to interrupt Election Day voting. The remnants of Hurricane Zeta, which hit southeastern Louisiana as a Category 2 storm Wednesday, swept across northern Georgia, knocking down trees and leaving more than a million residents without power early Thursday. But power crews quickly sprang to action, working nonstop to restore electricity.


Lincoln Christian's Jonas Burgher celebrates his interception against Gothenburg's Jake Burge next to teammate Josh Free (54) during a Class C-1 first-round playoff game Friday at Lincoln Christian.


Govt-and-politics
editor's pick alert top story
Lincoln keeps risk dial in orange despite rising COVID-19 numbers
  • Updated

Lincoln's COVID-19 risk dial stayed in the high-orange range Friday, despite rising local case numbers and hospitalizations, and despite other large health districts moving their dials into the severe-risk category.

In the past week, the health departments that include Omaha, Grand Island and Kearney all moved their dials into the red, which indicates a severe risk of spread of the disease.

But Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Director Pat Lopez said that Lincoln's rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths are lower than all of those cities, as well as Sarpy County.

For example, even though 21 of Lancaster County's 45 COVID-19 deaths have occurred this month, the death rate in the county is still less than 0.5%, while it's 1% in Douglas County and 1.9% in Hall County.

As for case numbers, Lincoln has had about 2,800 per 100,000 residents so far, compared with per-capita rates of 3,900 in Douglas County and 4,200 in Hall County.

However, Lopez said Lincoln is "on the verge" of going into the red category and will likely be there next week if some of the individual metrics, all of which are currently in the orange or red range, don't change.

"Being on the edge of going into the red on the risk dial is not a good place to be," she said.

Lincoln added 83 COVID-19 cases Friday and now has 593 for the week with one day left. The city set a weekly record last week with 741 cases. Lopez said 53% of Lancaster County's total cases have occurred since the beginning of September.

Local hospitalizations hit a record of 76 Friday, with 45 of those patients from Lancaster County. That's up from 61 hospitalizations a week ago.

"Our local hospitals are telling us that they are concerned about being able to maintain enough staffed beds if our community situation continues to worsen," Lopez said.

Bryan Health on Friday said it will cut back on elective surgeries that require an overnight stay by 10% starting next week to free up beds.

Local health officials also have expressed concern about high levels of COVID-19 hospitalizations going into flu season. Lancaster County this week recorded its first flu case of the season.

Statewide, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services reported its second straight day of record hospitalizations. On Friday, there were 584 virus-related hospitalizations.

The state reported 1,495 new cases — slightly down from Thursday — and nine deaths. There have been 69,645 virus cases in Nebraska since March and 646 deaths.

Locally, Lopez said she believes Lincoln would be in worse shape without its mask mandate and other local mitigation measures, but she also blamed the steady climb in news cases on "the lack of consistency of wearing masks and physical distancing."

She also said there continue to be some clusters of cases. She mentioned two at businesses that are not open to the public, instances she said have been addressed. She also said the department has been getting reports of large gatherings and is investigating those.

Overall, Lopez said what's happening in Lincoln is similar to what's happening around the state and nation: "People kind of have let their guard down as we've opened up a little bit more."

She said it's important for residents to stay focused on mitigation measures such as washing their hands, keeping their distance and wearing masks.

Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird echoed that sentiment, saying Lincolnites "can be better than COVID if we continue to make the smart choices to stay safe."

Gaylor Baird emphasized that with Halloween on Saturday, people need to limit gatherings to eight people or fewer, stay outside and wear masks. She also encouraged trick-or-treaters to avoid clustering on porches and in doorways.

Starting Sunday, a new directed health measure goes into effect for Lancaster County. Among other things, it extends the mask mandate at least until the end of November, reducing capacity in gyms and similar facilities to 50% and also requires youth sports organizations to submit plans before holding practices and competitions and limiting spectators at events to 25% of rated capacity.

Also Friday, Gov. Pete Ricketts signed an executive order that allows local elected officials to once again attend meetings virtually, but only if they are under a quarantine or isolation order. That order lasts through the end of the year.

Images of Lincoln during the COVID-19 crisis

Photos: The scene in Lincoln with much of city shut down

National
AP
What's new with ACA plans
  • Updated

Facing a pandemic, record unemployment and unknown future costs for COVID-19 treatments, health insurers selling Affordable Care Act plans to individuals reacted by lowering rates in some areas and, overall, issuing only modest premium increases for 2021.

"What's been fascinating is that carriers in general are not projecting much impact from the pandemic for their 2021 premium rates," said Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Although final rates have yet to be analyzed in all states, those who study the market say the premium increases they have seen to date will be in the low single digits — and decreases are not uncommon.

That's good news for the more than 10 million Americans who buy their own ACA health insurance through federal and state marketplaces. The federal market, which serves 36 states, opens for 2021 enrollment Sunday, with sign-up season ending Dec. 15. Some of the 14 states and the District of Columbia that operate their own markets have longer enrollment periods.

The flip side of flat or declining premiums is that some consumers who qualify for subsidies to help them purchase coverage may also see a reduction in that aid.

Here are a few things to know about 2021 coverage:

It might cost about the same

Despite the ongoing debate about the ACA — compounded by a Supreme Court challenge brought by 20 Republican states and supported by the Trump administration — enrollment and premium prices are not forecast to shift much.

"It's the third year in a row with premiums staying pretty stable," said Louise Norris, an insurance broker in Colorado who follows rates nationwide and writes about insurance trends. "We've seen modest rate changes and an influx of new insurers."

That relative stability followed ups and downs, with the last big increases coming in 2018, partly in response to the Trump administration cutting some payments to insurers.

Those increases priced out some enrollees, particularly people who don't qualify for subsidies, which are tied both to income and the cost of premiums. ACA enrollment has fallen since its peak in 2016.

Charles Gaba, a web developer who has since late 2013 tracked enrollment data in the ACA on his ACASignups.net website, follows premium changes based on filings with state regulators. Each summer, insurers must file their proposed rates for the following year with states, which have varying oversight powers.

Gaba said the average requested increase next year nationwide is 2.1%. When he looked at 18 states for which regulators have approved insurers' requested rates, the percentage is lower, at 0.4%.

Another study, by the Kaiser Family Foundation, of preliminary premiums filed this summer had similar findings: Premium changes in 2021 would be modest, only a few percentage points up or down.

Worth it to shop around

Actuaries and other experts say premiums vary by state or region — even by insurer — for a number of reasons, including the number and relative market power of insurers or hospitals in an area, which affects the ability of insurers to negotiate rates with providers.

Because subsidies are tied to each region's benchmark plan, and those premium costs may have gone down, subsidies also could decrease. (Benchmark plans are the second-lowest-priced silver plan in a region.)

Switching to the benchmark plan can help consumers maintain how much they spend in premiums.

Enrollees should update their financial information, particularly this year when many are affected by work reduction or job losses. "They might be eligible for a bigger" subsidy, said Myra Simon, executive director of commercial policies for America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry lobbying group.

Enrollees can update their information online, or call their federal or state marketplace for assistance. Insurance brokers, too, can aid people in signing up for ACA plans. When shopping, consumers should check whether the doctors and hospitals they want to use are included in the plan's network.

Premiums are just one part of the equation. Consumers should also look closely at annual deductibles, because the trade-off of going with a lower-cost premium may well be higher annual deductibles that must be met before much of the coverage kicks in.

"We encourage people to consider all their options," said Simon.

What's behind the variation

Enrollees in some states next year will see premium decreases, according to Gaba's website: Maine, for example, shows a 13% drop in weighted average premium prices, while Maryland's is down almost 12%. At the same time, Indiana's average is up 10%. And Kentucky is up 5%.

Both Maine and Maryland attribute the decrease to state programs that provide reinsurance payments to health insurers to help offset high-cost medical claims.

In Florida, regulators say insurance premiums will rise about 3%, while the state exchange in California is reporting just more than a half-percent increase, its lowest average increase since opening in 2014. Officials in California cite factors that include an influx of healthier enrollees and a reduction in fees that insurers pay.

Most insurers did not cite additional COVID treatment or testing costs as factors in their requested rate increase, Gaba said. Even those that did, however, mainly found them unnecessary because of reduced expenditures resulting from patients delaying elective care during the spring and summer.

Indeed, many insurers in the second quarter posted record profits.