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After ignoring warnings, Israeli ultra-Orthodox hit by virus

BNEI BRAK, Israel (AP) – Early this week, the streets of the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak were bustling with shoppers as ultra-Orthodox residents, obeying their religious leaders, ignored pleas to stay home in the face of the coronavirus threat.

By Friday, Bnei Brak had become the country’ worst hot spot and now resembles a ghost town. One expert estimated that nearly 40% of the city’s population might already have been infected.

The city has become a lightning rod for anger and frustration by some secular Israelis who allege insular Haredi communities – with disproportionately high numbers of confirmed cases – are undermining national efforts to contain the virus.

The pandemic also has threatened to upend deep-seated customs in the religious world, including blind obedience to religious leaders and the belief that religious studies and traditions take precedence over the rules of a modern state.

The crisis is rooted in a combination of factors. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox tend to live in poor, crowded neighborhoods where sickness can quickly spread. Synagogues, the centerpiece of social life, bring men together to pray and socialize in small spaces.

“I am very, very concerned that we’ll see a broader contagion in the ultra-Orthodox community and to the broader Israeli population,” said Hagai Levine, a Hebrew University professor who chairs the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians.

Since Israel’s founding, secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis have viewed each other with suspicion, and tensions have erupted repeatedly over hot button issues such as the military draft. Ultra-Orthodox leaders have used their considerable political leverage to help maintain the community’s insular lifestyle with government grants, feeding secular complaints that the haredim are a burden to the collective.

A new debate erupted Thursday when Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, a powerful ultra-Orthodox politician meant to lead the battle against the virus, was confirmed to be infected.

This forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the ministry’s director general and reportedly the head of the Mossad spy agency, into quarantine because of exposure to Litzman. Netanyahu, who tested negative, went through an identical experience after a previous exposure to an infected ultra-Orthodox aide.

Channel 12 TV said ministry officials were furious with Litzman, who had resisted calls in recent weeks to impose restrictions on gatherings at religious institutions. The channel said Litzman had quietly been breaking the rules and attending prayer sessions at synagogues.

“An outbreak in Bnei Brak is the same as an outbreak in Tel Aviv. Litzman did not just betray his own voters. He betrayed all Israelis,” Zehava Galon, a former leader of the secular Meretz party, wrote in the Haaretz daily.

When Israel began shutting down schools, workplaces and its international airport last month to slow the outbreak, Litzman was not the only religious leader to resist.

Influential Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky of Bnei Brak said closing religious seminaries is more harmful than the virus. “The Torah protects and saves,” he said.

In recent weeks, attempts by police to enforce quarantine orders in Bnei Brak and religious neighborhoods of Jerusalem resulted in standoffs with angry crowds. Some shouted “Nazis” as police arrested or fined violators.

Police say officers have been assaulted multiple times and several paramedics have been injured by ultra-Orthodox crowds.

In recent days, defiance has subsided as the score of the outbreak became clear. Kanievsky, 92, now urges followers to stay at home.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia that can be fatal.

Israel has over 6,800 reported cases, with 36 deaths. Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, home to large ultra-Orthodox communities, have the largest concentrations.

Ran Saar, who runs the Maccabi Healthcare Services, a leading provider, told parliament he estimates some 75,000 people in Bnei Brak, or 38% of the population, could be infected. He said the city has many elderly residents and called for urgent action.

Saar said his estimates were based on test data. He told Channel 12 that he believes thousands of people are refusing to be tested because they don’t want to disrupt next week’s Passover holiday.

The government declared Bnei Brak a “restricted zone” Thursday, limiting movement in and out of the city. Earlier in the day, police patrols were already out in large numbers to make sure residents remained indoors.

Streets normally crowded with Passover shoppers were deserted. Police in white hazmat suits raided a synagogue, sending some 15 worshippers home with fines of over $100 each. One police car broadcast stay-home appeals in Yiddish, a European language still common in ultra-Orthodox circles.

Anshel Pfeffer, a commentator at Haaretz, said the crisis presents a major challenge to the rabbis’ traditional authority and the ultra-Orthodox way of life.

“The community was already facing challenges before the coronavirus crisis,” he said. “But this is certainly bringing a lot of these challenges to a head.”

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Boost the schmooze? Trump wants tax dining deduction back

WASHINGTON (AP) – It may be an odd gesture at a time of social distancing, but President Donald Trump is leaning into his plea to Congress to restore full tax benefits prized by business for fine dining and schmoozing. Trump is seizing on the pandemic crisis to push for an item on his economic wish list: full tax deductions for business meals in restaurants and for other entertainment expenses.

Tax relief for fine dining and the like clashes with the reality of social separation urged by the government as a critical measure to contain the coronavirus. Restaurants and sports stadiums, with their corporate boxes, sit empty across the country.

But Trump argues that restoring the corporate tax deductions could help shore up the pulverized restaurant industry. It was Trump’s own tax law in 2017, which sliced the tax rate for corporations from 35% to 21%, that reduced or eliminated those same deductions. It was a rare provision that wasn’t business-friendly.

The deductions tend to favor higher-end restaurants, the part of the industry that’s been hardest hit by the economic dislocation. Mass-market eateries and fast food and pizza chains have been more likely to hold things together with takeout and delivery business.

“This is a great time to bring it back,” Trump said of the tax break during a White House briefing Wednesday. “Otherwise a lot of these restaurants are going to have a hard time reopening.”

If the tax relief comes, the president said, it will “open up” the restaurant business, and, “in fact, I think the restaurant business will be actually bigger and better than it is right now.” Trump has repeatedly predicted that the economy will rebound robustly, lifted by consumers’ “great pent-up demand.”

Restoring the dining deduction could help at least the tonier part of the restaurant industry – but down the road and depending on the strength of the recovery and consumer spending, some experts believe.

“Do I think it’s a massive help? I don’t,” said Jonathan Maze, editor-in-chief of Restaurant Business magazine. “In theory, you could see it help as business travel picks backs up. Maybe it gets a few people into restaurants who might not have done so before.”

By far the biggest factor, Maze noted, will be the money that goes into consumers’ pockets, including from direct cash payments from the government. Whether they remain too frightened to go to restaurants is an uncomfortable question.

“While the restaurant industry sorely needs federal assistance, restoring deductibility is an action that should fall further down the priority list,” said Kevin Schimpf, senior manager for industry research at Technomic. “With so many business people and office staff working remotely for the foreseeable future, it’s unlikely this action would have much short-term benefit.”

Congressional leaders haven’t weighed in yet on Trump’s proposal.

Trump’s 2017 tax law, whisked through by the then-Republican majority in Congress, cut the 100% deduction for business meals in half and eliminated it entirely for most entertainment expenses at venues like sporting and cultural events.

From pricey corporate boxes at sports stadiums to Double-A baseball games in small towns, the entertainment deduction was a prized perk for companies. Some companies continued to spend without the tax incentive, seeing the benefits from entertaining as a payoff in future revenue. But the tax change had a bite.

There’s also a psychological effect. When something’s deductible, even in part, people think it’s less expensive; the government, in effect, is picking up part of the cost.

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Jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli dies from coronavirus

SADDLE RIVER, N.J. (AP) – Jazz guitarist John “Bucky” Pizzarelli, who was inducted to the New Jersey Hall of Fame, has died at the age of 94.

The virtuoso who had played for presidents at the White House during his long and esteemed career died Wednesday at his home in Saddle River, New Jersey.

His family tells The New York Times they believes the cause of death was the coronavirus. And the Bergen Record reports that Pizzarelli tested positive for the virus on Sunday.

“There will be some kind of tribute as soon as we can all get within 6 feet of each other,” his son John Pizzarelli, also a renowned jazz artist, told the Bergen Record on Thursday.

Pizzarelli was born in Paterson, New Jersey, and had a career that spanned eight decades. He showed off his musical chops for former presidents like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and played alongside musical icons like Frank Sinatra.

“Jazz guitar wouldn’t be what it is today without Bucky Pizzarelli,” said jazz guitarist Frank Vignola. “He and Freddie Green were responsible for a style of rhythm guitar playing that has lasted until 2020.”

Pizzarelli died with his wife, Ruth, his son Martin, and his caregiver at his side.

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Cardboard cutouts pose as guests for wedding amid COVID-19

DOWAGIAC, Mich. (AP) – Cardboard cutout wedding guests will make for a not-so-cookie-cutter wedding as a Michigan couple prepares to tie the knot during the coronavirus pandemic.

After Amy Simonson and Dan Stuglik’s wedding plans were disrupted amid the outbreak, a packaging company donated more than 100 cardboard cutouts to pose as stand-ins for the family and friends who couldn’t attend the wedding this Saturday because of Michigan’s stay-at-home order.

Menasha Packaging Co. in Coloma made cutouts to resemble guests tall and short, young and old, with long hair, short hair and ponytails.

“(Stuglik) was just looking for a general person shape, but I was able to make a little bit more realistic audience for them,” Ted Harris, customer service and design manager at Menasha, told The Herald-Palladium.

Stuglik, a Coloma Township police officer, said he’ll forever be thankful to Menasha for helping him do something special for his fiancée.

“I wanted to do something (creative) so she wouldn’t walk down the aisle to an empty church,” he said. “That was a painful part, that her wedding was being stripped away from her, but Menasha helped bring a little back.”

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You’ve just lost your job? Here’s what you need to know

WASHINGTON (AP) – Nearly 10 million Americans have lost their jobs and applied for unemployment benefits in the past two weeks – a stunning record high that reflects the near-complete shutdown of the U.S. economy.

Job losses related to the coronavirus are sure to rise further in coming weeks, with economists saying the U.S. unemployment rate could reach as high as 15%, well above the 10% peak during the Great Recession. As recently as February, the unemployment rate was just 3.5%, a 50-year low.

For those who have suddenly lost jobs, it’s a frightening time. Bill need to be paid. Do they qualify for unemployment benefits? How fast will the money arrive?

Here are some questions and answers:


Workers who have lost their jobs or income through no fault of their own should immediately file a claim for unemployment aid through their state labor departments. The benefit program is administered by state agencies. Most states are encouraging people to request benefits online or, if necessary, over the phone.


Yes, some state websites have crashed. Phone lines have been jammed as the number of people seeking jobless aid has far surpassed all previous records. And the eligibility guidelines have changed. New York state, for example, received 8.2 million calls last week – more than 150 times the usual volume.

Still, people who have lost jobs or whose income has been hurt by coronavirus should keep trying. Many states are bringing on extra workers to handle the crush of applications and are expanding the hours when they accept calls. While it may take several weeks to process a claim, benefit payments will be retroactive: Eligible workers will receive benefits from the date they lost their jobs, regardless of when they file.


Have all your information ready. This includes contact information for all your employers from the past 18 months, your Social Security number and documentation of your income, such as from tax forms or pay stubs.


They vary sharply by state. Mississippi provides the lowest amount, $235 a week. Massachusetts pays $823 a week, the highest.


Yes. But because that additional money is being paid by the federal government through a new program, rather than by the states’ regular benefits program, you may not receive it as quickly. And state unemployment offices may not be able to answer questions about it just yet.


Yes, that is one of the changes made by the $2.2 trillion economic rescue package signed into law by President Donald Trump last week. If you are self-employed, a contractor or a gig worker, you are now eligible to claim unemployment benefits. Still, some states, like New Mexico, are not yet set to process claims from groups of people who didn’t qualify in the past.


Yes, you should apply. State rules differ, and it depends how large your income loss is. But in some states, workers whose hours have been sharply cut may be able to claim benefits that would make up for at least some of the lost income. Generally, if your lost pay exceeds what you would receive in unemployment benefits, you may be eligible for aid.


You can potentially receive benefits, too. The U.S. Labor Department said states can make unemployment benefits available to people who are quarantined, who left work because of risk of exposure or to care for a family member.

That said, someone who receives paid sick leave or paid family leave is often still receiving full pay. So according to the Labor Department, that person is not “unemployed” and does not qualify for unemployment benefits.


The federal rescue package provides a one-time payment of $1,200 for all Americans earning less than $75,000 a year. This money is totally separate from unemployment benefits – and for the jobless, will be in addition to unemployment aid. It will likely be a critical lifeline for many Americans.

The payments begin to phase out at above $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for couples filing jointly and drop to zero for individuals above $99,000 and couples earning $198,000. For heads of household with one child, the benefit starts to decline at $112,500 and falls to zero at $146,500. Even those who just receive Social Security or other government benefit programs can receive a check.

A congressional memo obtained by the Associated Press said about 60 million Americans will receive the checks through direct deposit, starting the week of April 13. Those payments will go to households that have filed taxes in 2018 or 2019 and that provided the IRS with direct deposit information. For everyone else, checks will be mailed beginning May 4. The paper checks will be issued at a rate of about 5 million a week, which means it could take up to 20 weeks to distribute all the checks. That timeline would delay some checks until the week of Aug. 17.


The duration varies by state. But the federal relief package adds 13 weeks of coverage for people who have exhausted their existing jobless benefits. Under the emergency legislation, people who exhaust both regular and extended benefits will become eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. People can receive a maximum of 39 weeks of benefits this year from all three sources combined.


It might. Small businesses will be eligible for loans that will be forgiven if they keep or rehire people they have laid off. Those loans will be available starting Friday, according to the Treasury Department. Airlines should also receive financial aid that is intended to prevent layoffs.


Sell reported from Portland, Oregon.

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Patriots use team plane to help Mass., fly N95 in from China

BOSTON (AP) – Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker found himself in need of an assist to help the state fight the coronavirus pandemic.

He called on the New England Patriots.

The team’s private plane was on schedule to return to Boston from China on Thursday evening carrying more than one million masks critical to health care providers fighting to control the spread of the virus..

Baker secured the N95 masks from Chinese manufacturers but had no way of getting them to the U.S. He reached out to Patriots team owner Robert Kraft, who loaned the Boeing 767 painted in the team’s colors and logo that is usually used to carry the team to and from NFL games.

Baker confirmed the joint venture in a news conference Thursday.

“The Krafts were terrific,” the Republican governor said. “They were a phone call away and immediately went to work on the logistics associated with this and did not stop until they could make it happen. This was a total team effort on every level.”

Kraft Sports and Entertainment chief operating officer Jim Nolan said in an interview on radio that the Chinese government didn’t officially sign off on the trip until March 27. Nolan said the hurdles included legal logistics that were only cleared thanks to cooperation involving multiple state, U.S. and international entities.

Chinese technology company Tencent was a huge help in the process, Nolan said. It agreed to gather the masks, got them through the inspection process, stayed with them to ensure their security and eventually their movement on to the Patriots’ plane.

“This isn’t in their wheelhouse, but they thought it was the right thing to do,” Nolan said.

There was little margin for error once the airplane arrived in China, which granted the Patriots three hours to fill the plane with the masks. They were on the ground for 2 hours, 57 minutes according to flight tracker data Nolan monitored.

Tencent looked after approximately 1.7 million masks. The Patriots’ plane took on 1.2 million, Nolan said. They are working with Tencent to bring additional equipment back from China via a cargo plane

The masks will be going into Massachusetts’ stockpile for distribution to medical personnel.

Nolan said 300,000 of the masks will also be going to New York to help medical personnel there. Baker said Rhode Island will also receive some of the masks.

Patriots running back James White said in a conference call Thursday that he wasn’t surprised Kraft stepped up to help.

“As soon as you step into the building, you see how much the Kraft family does helping out not only the Boston community but the community across the world and it makes you want to help others,” White said.


Associated Press writers Steve LeBlanc and Mark Pratt contributed to this report.


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Pressure mounting for Iowa stay-at-home order from governor

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) – Pressure from medical experts and politicians mounted Thursday on Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, despite her repeated insistence that such a move isn’t necessary.

Governors in most states have issued such an order, but Reynolds has argued that data shows the move isn’t needed in Iowa even though she has imposed other restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

State public health officials reported Thursday that there were 66 new cases in Iowa of COVID-19, the diseased caused by the virus. That brought the state’s total count to 614 and 11 deaths, including two new ones that happened in Linn County.

Iowa Workforce Development officials also announced Thursday that there were 58,453 claims for unemployment insurance filed last week, a galling figure that came a week after Iowans filed 42,000 claims. Before the virus hit Iowa, jobless claims typically were around 2,200 a week.

One of the most outspoken critics of Iowa’s approach to fighting the outbreak has been Eli Percenevich, an epidemiologist and physician who oversees a group of researchers studying infection prevention at the University of Iowa and Iowa City’s VA Hospital.

He has called on Reynolds to issue a shelter-in-place order, saying many Iowans aren’t getting the message that they need to stay home.

“Many citizens are hearing that as if they don’t need to shelter at home and maybe only certain people do like older people,” he said. “The messaging really needs to improve. Until all of us take this seriously it’s going to be a longer process for us to come out of our current social distancing interventions.”

Percenevich said the metrics used by the Iowa Department of Public Health to recommend stricter or relaxed social distancing interventions are inadequate. The agency has said that those factors include the percentage of older people infected, the number of hospitalizations, the rate of cases over the last 14 days and outbreaks in long-term care centers.

“By the time you are waiting for specific disease metrics that are not targeting exponential spread, you are many weeks behind the virus,” he said. “You are intervening too late.”

Governors in more than three dozen states have issued statewide stay-at-home orders.

Asked Wednesday about whether she would follow suit, Reynolds deflected, pointing to steps she has taken to close businesses and restrict gatherings but saying she thinks that it’s ultimately up to individuals to choose wisely.

“I can’t lock the state down,” the Republican governor said.

Democratic legislative leaders joined the call for Reynolds to issue a statewide stay-at-home order. In a letter released Thursday, state Sen. Janet Petersen and state Rep. Todd Prichard said such an order would send a clearer message about the serious nature of the pandemic.

Democratic Iowa Congresswomen Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne said they also have sent Reynolds letters calling on her to issue such an order.

For most people, COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are among those particularly susceptible to more severe illness, including pneumonia.


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‘Lost Children’ author: Writers must ‘document’ pandemic

NEW YORK (AP) – Cooped up at her Bronx home with her daughter and a niece because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli says she has lowered the “volume and speed” of her life. She is arranging books in alphabetical order, planting legumes on her balcony and listening to old recordings from Argentinian author Julio Cortázar.

Her rhythm has slowed but not the accolades and awards for her latest novel, “Lost Children Archive,” which last week was honored with the British Rathbone Folio Prize. The book, Luiselli’s third novel, is part fiction part documentary: A family’s American road trip mixed with the stories of migrant children along the Mexico-U.S. border.

Luiselli accepted the prize at a ceremony held online because of the global coronavirus outbreak. In a phone interview with The Associated Press, the 36-year-old writer said she’s sad that she could not be in London to receive it in person but grateful to see people keeping the faith in books.

“The fact that the literary community is still in full swing, even from their homes, and behind their screens, is moving and encouraging,” she said, speaking in Spanish.

“I think it is my duty, and the duty of every writer, whether is a science-fiction writer, a journalist, a poet, each at their own pace and within their own capacities, to document this moment,” she said.

“Lost Children Archive” has also won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and a Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature. It is a finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

Luiselli’s inspiration came from the immigration crisis of 2014, when thousands of children were trying to enter the U.S. in search of asylum, fleeing poverty and violence in Central America. The author said she started paying attention to how that story was being told, both in the media or at casual conversations in diners in Arizona.

“I started asking myself how (the migrant) children of this generation were going to eventually tell this story, what were they going to say about this reality – that on one hand was very real but on the other seemingly implausible – about thousands of children in a migratory limbo,” she said.

In New York, she started volunteering with nonprofits as an interpreter in immigration court, writing down the interviews she did with migrant children so attorneys could help them out. That experience led to an essay about immigration, “Tell Me How It Ends,” in 2017. “Lost Children Archive” came in February 2019.

Born in Mexico City, Luiselli grew up in South Korea and South Africa, among others, because of her father’s work in nongovernmental organizations and later as a diplomat. She speaks both English and Spanish and can write in either language. In addition to writing during her seclusion, she’s reading out loud to her family and taking photos.

“We are going to need this narrative fabric, some sort of fabric for us to lay down once we overcome this.”

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Review: Reissue of 1982 Nina Simone disc a work of contrasts

Nina Simone, “Fodder On My Wings” (Verve/UMe)

Nina Simone’s “Fodder On My Wings” is an album of contrasts and extremes – personal traumas and world sounds, joy and despair, harmony and defiance, the carnal and the spiritual.

Recorded in Paris in 1982, as Simone’s enduring restlessness and creeping mental illness kept her life seemingly barely tethered to anything but her music, it’s a considerable triumph of personality and genius.

The album opens with the gleeful “I Sing Just To Know That I’m Alive,” a horn-filled tune in which Simone bids farewell to the year gone by while fondly recalling Trinidad, one of the many places – Barbados, Liberia, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands among them – where she lived after leaving the U.S. in the early 1970s.

“Fodder In Her Wings” appears to depersonalize the album title, but the references to self are clear and the weariness deeply intimate – “fodder in her wings” and “dust inside her brains” as “she flitted here and there.” With an African-inspired introduction ceding to harpsichord and piano, her worlds appear together but separate. “Oh, how sad” – indeed.

The repetitive, direct approach of “Vous etes seuls, mais je désire etre avec vous” – You are alone, but I want to be with you – leaves no room for doubt, while “Il y a un baume à Gilead” and “Heaven Belongs To You” are the spiritual expressions in the equation

“Liberian Calypso” is another sparkling composition recounting a carefree night of dancing, followed in brutal contrast by one of the bonus tracks, a bitter yet stately reworking of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally),” more depressing even that the original.

Narrating her father’s agonizing death, it rails against bad but lasting marriages, betrayals and childhood deceptions, yet includes a most understandable lament: “I loved him then and I loved him still/That’s why my heart’s so broken.”

The string of ups and downs continues with another horn-driven dancefloor filler – the caustic and empowering “I Was Just a Stupid Dog to Them,” which claims that “now everything will change.”

At the end, the brief “Stop” and the even briefer “They Took My Hand” are in playful, Mose Allison mode, the former undressing the tragedy of “Send In the Clowns” and the latter a rollicking Bob Marley salute.

“Fodder On My Wings” is not an album for casual listeners or day trippers but one which shows how clearly Simone could fold her inescapable anguish and raw honesty into her art.

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State reports 5th Nebraska COVID-19 death; cases total 214

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – A Madison County resident has died of COVIS-19, raising Nebraska’s death toll to five, the state said.

The woman was in her 70s and had underlying health conditions, the Nebraska Health and Human Services Department said Wednesday night in a news release. The state’s total number of confirmed cases rose to 214, the department said. Nearly 3,600 people have tested negative.

For most people, COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are among those particularly susceptible to more severe illness, including pneumonia.

Earlier Wednesday, Gov. Pete Ricketts warned Nebraskans that they must help keep COVID-19 from spreading, but he reiterated that he won’t impose a stay-at-home order as many other states have done.

It appears social distancing rules are preventing even larger case increases, Ricketts said, but “we have to do more” to avoid overloading the state’s hospitals.

Statewide, officials have urged residents not to have any social gathering larger than 10 people, but that request isn’t legally enforceable.

However, Ricketts has ordered more restrictive “directed health measures” to dozens of Nebraska’s 93 counties, including 15 more he added Wednesday. The directed health measures impose the same 10-person limit, but people who refuse to comply can be charged with misdemeanors. The orders also require restaurants and bars in those areas to close their dining areas, but they can still offer takeout and delivery.


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