By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Meetings last week on the coronavirus pandemic provided a clear picture of the depth of the unimaginable chaos and misery COVID-19 has inflicted on New Hampshire.
From the death of nearly 40 state residents — about half from nursing homes — to schools closed for the remainder of the school year, the personal tragedy and fiscal damage is staggering and not foreseen nor imagined but four months ago.
The new normal is closed businesses, social distancing, toilet paper searches, cheap gasoline, isolation at home, Zoom meetings, and careful planning for grocery reconnaissance missions.
It is also the President’s daily press conferences often veering into uncharted places, the daily body count similar to the Vietnam War 50 years ago, horror stories from New York City hospitals, photos of empty city streets contrasted with pictures of unhinged protesters in state capitals, and families with loved ones dying in hospitals alone with an inconceivable toll on those left behind.
The focus of the pandemic has been on the human suffering as it should be.
Besides the suffering, people’s lives are changed: restrictions on travel, loss of work, teaching children at home and more upheaval caused by the virus and attempts to halt its spread.
One of the largest segments of the state’s economy is tourism and travel. The virus has already devastated the hospitality sector and more damage to the industry is expected this summer. How much is unknown.
The financial stakes are very high, but so is concern for the public’s health. Who is going to come to New Hampshire if the virus continues to spread easily come July?
This is an election year, and the president and members of his party had hoped to ride the thriving economy into a second term in the White House, but the virus changed that.
To offset the economic damage, national elected leaders inaugurated a free flow of cash from the federal treasury to buttress the economy and prevent it from plunging into a depression.
New Hampshire will benefit from the infusion of money that is expected at the end of the month.
Gov. Chris Sununu created the Governor’s Office for Relief and Recovery (GOFERR) to oversee the state’s use of more than $1.25 billion in federal money from the CARES Act and other federal coronavirus relief bills.
The GOFERR began work last week with the Legislative and Stakeholders advisory committees meeting to hear from state, county and local officials.
The office created a rift with leaders of the Democratically controlled legislature who believe it violates the constitution and state laws governing spending and receiving unappropriated state and federal money.
Sununu claims a 2002 law passed after the September 11 terrorist attacks gives governors the authority to take action without legislative approval, but legislative leaders say the law requires the “advice and consent” of the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee.
A court hearing is scheduled Monday on the lawsuit brought by Democratic legislative leaders.
The same legislative leaders constitute half the legislative advisory committee that heard from key state agencies like Health and Human Services, Safety, Employment Security, Transportation, Corrections, and Business and Economic Affairs last week.
The tales were stark and revealed how uprooting the crisis has been, not only citizens, but public workers who have had to adjust to new jobs while learning new skills.
The expenses the state and local governments have incurred is not the only issue. For example the Department of Safety has not been able to train new firefighters so eventually communities will have fewer than they need, and some regions of the state do not have the electronic infrastructure needed for remote learning.
And there are obvious needs the federal money should address like hospitals.
Unlike other states, New Hampshire’s hospitals are not overflowing with COVID-19 patients, but have had to lay off or furlough hundreds of employees as the elimination of elective surgeries and other non-emergency procedures reduced revenues by $150 million, Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette told the legislative advisory committee.
It is not only the hospitals that have suffered, more and more health care providers either stopped seeing patients or moved to telemedicine environments.
Shibinette highlighted some health care providers “you don’t usually see” who keep people healthy in the communities saying they will also need financial help.
The number of people who filed unemployment claims is more than the last three years combined Employment Security Commissioner George Copadis told the advisory committee, as the department paid $31.7 million in benefits last month, hoping the federal government will reimburse most of the drain on the state’s reserve fund or employers will be paying higher premiums next year.
Across state and local departments, exposed or infected workers have been quarantined reducing the workforce at a time when more and more people are needed.
Workers’ illnesses increased overtime costs, and for self-insured health plans like the state’s or Manchester’s or Nashua’s, one ill worker with serious COVID-19 complications can spike costs, the committee was told.
A New Hampshire Municipal Association survey of a little more than half its members anticipate $27.2 million in unanticipated costs for the remainder of the year. The additional expenses coupled with declining revenues from auto registrations, parking and recreational fees, greater property tax payment delinquencies, abatements and the uncertainty of state aid, could increase property taxes significantly next year, local officials said.
Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig said the city expects a $25 million revenue shortfall this year, while the state braces for a shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars over the next year.
Department of Safety officials told the advisory committee gas sales in March were 50 percent of what they were a year ago, meaning the Highway Fund, which pays for the state roads and bridges, law enforcement’s highway activities and helps communities, will have a significant shortfall.
The financial needs across the state are enormous, with everyone from the governor to selectmen to family budgeters, having incredibly difficult decisions to make.
And if you have a family member in the hospital with COVID-19 complications, or at home recovering and hoping he or she does not infect the rest of the family, or if you lost a loved one to the disease, those decisions will be made through a dark veil of grief and anxiety.
An old Chinese curse is “May you live in interesting times.”
Although most of us prefer to live in uninteresting times with chaos at a minimum and misery only a memory, we do not.
These times call for innovative solutions, working together, finding common ground, and being our brother’s and sister’s keeper.
There is no other “fix” for this.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.
InDepthNH.org is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to reporting ethical, unbiased news and diverse opinions and columns.