As relaxation to some restrictions in Washington County related to COVID-19 have allowed barbers and hair stylists to return to work, churches to begin welcoming worshippers inside and restaurants to serve dine-in customers, information from the Nebraska Department of Labor, a statewide business survey and economic professionals suggest March and April were hard months for workers and businesses and a full recovery is months away.

In Washington County, the preliminary unemployment rate in March was 4.3 percent, according to the Nebraska Department of Labor. In February, before restrictions began to be put in place, the unemployment rate was 2.9 percent. In March 2019, the unemployment rate was 3.5 percent.

Statistics from the Nebraska Department of Labor also indicate a rise in unemployment claims in Washington County from mid-March to mid-April. On March 21, 116 unemployment claims were made by county residents. That number rose to a peak of 217 claims by April 11, but has since been decreasing. Thirty-six unemployment claims were made by county residents May 9.

The rise in county unemployment may be reflected, to a degree, in a Business Response Survey developed by the state, the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce, the University of Nebraska at Omaha and several local entities. Available on several of the developing partners websites, the survey results calculated from responses from April 15 to 24 indicate 1,229 responses came from the Omaha metro area. Within the survey, Washington County is included in statistics for the Omaha metro area, and a map of where responses came from suggested several surveys were completed by county businesses.

According to the survey, 1,069 businesses from various industries in the Omaha area said they had been negatively impacted by COVID-19. As a percent of their full employment, around 270 businesses, or 42.9 percent who answered this particular survey question, said the coronavirus had impacted their employment by 50 to 100 percent. Sixty-three businesses, or just under 10 percent who answered, said their was no impact on employment.

As a percent of their total revenue, 594 businesses in the Omaha area, or 52.2 percent who answered the question, said they'd experienced a 50 to 100 percent decrease to revenue due to the coronavirus. Forty-five businesses, or 4.4 percent who answered, said they'd experienced no impact to revenue.

Along with work safety, decreased customer confidence and going out of business, financial impact was a top concern for businesses statewide.

According to a study on the economic impact of COVID-19 statewide, the financial impact on Nebraskans wages and salaries from March 14 to April 4 was nearly $257 million, with an impact of more than $30 million on self-employment income and a loss of 96,147 jobs.

Mike Rooks, executive director of Gateway Development, said, in his opinion, the overall impact to Washington County could take some time to recover from.

"It's going to affect the greater Omaha area probably for the next year, year and a half before we fully come out it," he said. "Yes, we're coming out of it now a little bit, but again I don't know about those smaller businesses what's going to happen."

Rooks said with Gateway he's been seeing interest from larger companies wanting to move into the Omaha area, but he hasn't seen smaller or medium-sized businesses looking to expand into Washington County. For businesses already in the county, Rooks said some businesses that might have been looking to expand have likely been unable to do so.

"As far as what we've seen personally with the smaller businesses, they're trying to weather the storm right now. They're not really looking to expand," he said. "That could be based on COVID, that could be based on other factors as well because there's meeting that haven't been happening or things haven't been approved by the state, county or city. Some of those got deliberately pushed back, but they're still going to happen."

Rooks said he will work with the Greater Omaha Chamber in any capacity necessary for the chamber's economic recovery plan, which is using COVID-19 data from the University of Nebraska Medical Center to inform various stages of recovery and reopening. Gateway is associated with the Greater Omaha Chamber.

The recovery plan, called "We Rise Together," indicates a number of less than 8.37 new cases of COVID-19 a day as a key metric for fully, safe reopening to commerce. As of May 20, UNMC metrics indicated this confirmed case metric was 145.

In Washington County, Rooks said he is available for any business and owners to discuss plans to safely reopen, though he said business decisions are ultimately up to the businesses themselves. He said, for example, that restaurants who need to operate over the 50 percent occupancy restriction to make a profit could consider if they can continue to do deliveries or take out to still generate some profit.

"Everyone has to make their own decisions for themselves," he said. "I'm always there for Washington County to help in any way, shape or form."

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