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Rural representation, legislative districts focus of first redistricting hearing
  • Updated

GRAND ISLAND — Pleas to protect Nebraska's rural legislative districts dominated the first of three public hearings on proposals for redrawing political boundaries.

The Legislature's Redistricting Committee held the hearing Tuesday at Central Community College, in the eastern third of the sprawling 3rd Congressional District.

Additional hearings are set for Wednesday and Thursday, where changes to the boundaries between the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts are expected to be a major focus.

But the 50 or so people who showed up for the Grand Island hearing focused on the plans for redrawing legislative districts to even out the population among shrinking rural districts and growing urban ones. 

Both LB3, drawn by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn in collaboration with fellow Republicans, and LB4, drawn by Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha working with fellow Democrats, would expand the geographic size of western Nebraska districts.

Both proposed changes drew opposition from testifiers. 

Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg led off the critics of LB3, which would separate Custer and Dawson counties into different legislative districts. District 36, which he represents, now includes both counties and a piece of northern Buffalo County.

Williams, a Republican in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, was joined by banking, education, health care and agricultural leaders from the area, who argued that the two counties have built strong relationships since being grouped together in the last redistricting.

"It would be a shame to break apart something that has been proven to work," said Stuart Fox, president of the Nebraska State Bank in Broken Bow.

Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango took the lead in speaking against LB4, which would split up the counties in his District 44 and move the district itself from southwest Nebraska into the Omaha metro area.

Hughes, also a Republican, and others argued that counties in the Republican River basin need to stay together because of the area's history of water struggles with Kansas and Colorado. LB4 would separate four key counties from the rest of the basin.

"We are a farming, ranching people and the water issue has everything to do with our everyday life," said Kathy Wilmot of Beaver City. "It's critical that we keep a legislator that can speak for us."

Others urged the committee to do as much as possible to maintain strong rural representation in the Legislature.

"Preserving the rural voice in the Nebraska Legislature helps all Nebraskans," said Sherry Vinton, a rancher from Whitman and first vice president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau.

Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, another Republican in the Legislature, suggested what he called a "common-sense approach" under which urban legislative districts would be drawn with slightly more than the target population, while rural districts would be allowed to have fewer people. Wayne, however, said he had attempted to draw such a map but found it was impossible.

Yolanda Chavez Nuncio and others raised issues about how district lines were drawn through Grand Island. She said that LB3 would split off the eastern part of the city, where many residents are Latino or immigrants. She called the division a "blatant attempt" to diminish the clout of Latino residents.

Another speaker objected to LB3 because it would split the city of Hastings, the Adams County seat, from Adams County and put it in a district with Buffalo County.

Downtown businesses face new reality
  • Updated

NEW YORK — Downtown businesses in the U.S. once took for granted that nearby offices would provide a steady clientele looking for breakfast, lunch, everyday goods and services and last-minute gifts. As the resilient coronavirus keeps offices closed and workers at home, some are adapting while others are trying to hang on.

Some businesses are already gone. The survivors have taken steps such as boosting online sales or changing their hours, staffing levels and what they offer customers. Others are relying more on residential traffic.

Many business owners had looked forward to a return toward normalcy this month as offices reopened. But now that many companies have postponed plans to bring workers back, because of surging COVID-19 cases, downtown businesses are reckoning with the fact that adjustments made on the fly may become permanent.

In downtown Detroit, Mike Frank's cleaning business was running out of money and, it seemed, out of time.

Frank started Clifford Street Cleaners eight years ago. Pre-pandemic, monthly revenue was about $11,000, but by last December, when many downtown offices had to close, revenue had dropped to $1,800, Frank said.

Frank had to borrow money from his wife to pay the bills. "It got down to, I was almost ready to go out of business."

Instead of shutting down, Frank adapted. He converted part of his store into a small market with toothpaste, laundry detergent, shampoo, bottled water, soft drinks and other essentials. He also delivered clean laundry and goods from the store.

Eventually, some foot traffic returned. With the combination of retail sales and dry cleaning, revenue is back up to about $4,100 per month, he said. That's enough to keep him afloat, and the figure is improving each month.

In Lower Manhattan, 224 businesses closed their doors in 2020 and 2021, according to the Alliance for Downtown New York. About 100 have opened.

"There's no question, it's hard for business districts like ours, we miss our workers," said Jessica Lappin, president of the Alliance for Downtown New York. "Nobody misses them more than local businesses."

Lappin predicts office workers will come back, but it might be two or three days a week, on different days or in shifts.

"Just in the way we had to adjust so dramatically to being at home all the time, there is an adjustment to coming back," she said.

A block from Wall Street, Blue Park Kitchen used to have lines out the door each weekday as office workers waited to buy one of the grain bowls Kelly Fitzpatrick served as a healthy lunch option.

"Things are completely different," she said.

Online orders now account for 65% of the business — although they are less profitable because the online apps take a cut. Higher-margin catering orders remain non-existent and Blue Park has reduced its staff by nine workers.

"At our peak in July 2021 (before the delta variant surge), we had about 65% of peak pre-COVID business," Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick has seen more offices reopen and hopes more companies return in October, before the slower holiday months of November and December.

Nearby, Aankit Malhotra took over Indian restaurant Benares with his brother in 2019. When the pandemic hit, overnight, their core banking clientele vanished. No one came in for the $13 three-course lunch special the restaurant was known for. Previously, lunch accounted for 95% of Benares' business.

Now, Benares has about 10 lunch orders a day, down from 100. But locals, grateful that the restaurant kept its pre-pandemic hours of 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day, are keeping the brothers afloat.

Business is back to about 70% of pre-pandemic levels, helped by delivery and dinner meals. The clientele has changed from workers to younger people and families from nearby Battery Park City.

"It's nice to see not just corporate people downtown. It's becoming more of a family-oriented place."

Jorge Guzman, assistant professor of business management at Columbia University, said the shift of economic activity away from downtowns is likely to last. There has been a boom in entrepreneurship in non-downtown New York areas such as Jamaica, Queens, and the South Bronx.

"Downtowns are not going to die, exactly. It's not like Midtown's going anywhere. But it's going to be a little bit more of a mix, more residential and mixed-use concepts."

In some downtowns, while the workers are still remote, the tourists are back and providing a boost to businesses.

In Atlanta, Kwan's Deli and Korean Food is doing just about as much summertime business as it did before the pandemic, said Andrew Song, whose family owns the restaurant.

At the height of the pandemic, Kwan's had lost about 80% of its business, reduced its hours and cut staff. But the deli has bounced back thanks to tourists from the Georgia Aquarium and events at a nearby convention hall.

Still, the delta variant surge is creating uncertainty about the fall. Song said he has heard that some businesses have relocated permanently or downsized.

"It's sort of hard to imagine what it will look like with office regulars not returning or being more remote," he said.

In Nashville, Lyle Richardson, chief operating officer for restaurant operator A. Marshall Hospitality, said he has seen the city's restaurant industry ravaged by the coronavirus epidemic. He sits on the board of the Tennessee Hospitality Association trade group and estimates that hundreds of restaurants have had to close.

Those who stayed open made adjustments. Richardson stopped serving lunch at one restaurant, Deacon's New South, to focus on dinner after office workers went remote. But he kept his other restaurant, Puckett's Grocery & Restaurant, open from 7 a.m to 11 p.m. to attract the tourists flocking back to the city.

"The normalcy we called pre-COVID, that no longer exists," he said. "We have to be prepared, on our toes, to adapt."

editor's pick alert
Lincoln's COVID-19 case decline could be start of positive trend
  • Updated

Lancaster County saw a significant drop in COVID-19 cases last week, and local officials are hoping it's the start of a trend.

The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department recorded 770 cases for the week ending Saturday, a 25% drop from the previous week and the lowest number of weekly cases since mid-August.

Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Director Pat Lopez said officials are seeing "a sign of improvement" with local COVID-19 numbers, which she called "very encouraging."

But Lopez said it's still too early to tell if the decrease will continue.

Dr. Bob Rauner, president of the Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln and chief medical officer of OneHealth Nebraska, said he believes the local mask mandate has played a role in bringing cases down, and he believes the decline will continue.

"I think we are seeing a true drop in cases due to the mask ordinance and K-12 masking in most schools," Rauner said.

The Health Department reinstituted the mask mandate Aug. 26 after a sharp rise in cases that began in late June. It requires anyone 2 and older to wear a mask in most indoor spaces when they can't maintain at least 6 feet of distance.

Lincoln Public Schools and most other schools in the county had been requiring masks for students and staff only in grades K-6 before the mask mandate but expanded the requirement to all grades Aug. 26.

The mask mandate is scheduled to expire Sept. 30, and Lopez said it's too early to tell whether that will happen or it will be extended. She said there needs to be a sustained drop in COVID-19 case numbers, as well as the test positivity rate, for officials to consider letting the mandate expire.

"That's why the next week or so is going to be critical for us," she said.

Ricketts slams Biden vaccine mandates as abuse of power

In a press release Ricketts called Biden's order that will require businesses with 100 or more employees to have their employees vaccinated or undergo weekly testing "a stunning violation of personal freedom and abuse of the federal government’s power.”

Rauner said another reason he believes masks are working is that COVID-19 hospitalizations for Lancaster County residents are leveling off, while the number of out-of-town residents in local hospitals continues to go up.

On Tuesday, there were 119 COVID-19 patients in Lincoln hospitals, the highest number in nine months. However, only 72 of them were Lancaster County residents, the same as on Friday. The number of patients from other counties stood at 47 on Tuesday, up from 32 on Friday.

Even though hospitals have postponed a number of elective surgeries per an order from Gov. Pete Ricketts, they are still extremely full. Bryan Health reported that as of midnight Sunday, it had 51 intensive care patients for its 50 ICU beds.

On Friday, Bryan transferred two non-COVID-19 patients from Lincoln to Crete Area Medical Center, which it also owns, to free up beds, said spokesman Edgar Bumanis.

Lopez said local hospital capacity continues to be a "serious concern."

The decline in cases is not specific to Lancaster County. Douglas County saw 26% fewer cases last week, while cases declined 62% in the Sarpy/Cass County Health District.

Cases statewide did not see a similar drop, however. According to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nebraska had 5,313 cases in the seven-day period ending Friday, down less than 0.5% from the previous week's total of 5,329.

That ended a span of 11 straight weeks of rising cases in the state.

Lopez said she's not confident that cases are leveling off statewide because of a lack of COVID-19 testing options in rural areas.

"There's really very little testing available outside the Omaha and Lincoln area," she said.

Nebraska numbers show COVID-19 vaccine still working

Though more vaccinated people are winding up in the hospital due to the surge in cases caused by the delta variant, health officials say the vaccine is still keeping the vast majority of people from getting ill.