By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Just when and how the state reopens its economy from the COVID-19 pandemic was the subject of the first meeting Wednesday of a new task force appointed by Gov. Chris Sununu.
Meeting by phone were the 19 members of the Governor’s Economic Re-Opening Task Force and the 500 people who were listening in. The meeting met the maximum number of people who could call-in and all others were unable to connect.
Sununu sent out a change in the call-in number four hours before the meeting started at 4 p.m. The email notice said the meeting was being held “pursuant to RSA 91-A:2, this meeting is open to the public.”
Sununu and Attorney General Gordon MacDonald didn’t respond to email questions from InDepthNH.org asking if it would be considered a legal meeting if callers were turned away.
Organizers said the meetings – which now begin daily for at least the next few weeks from 3 to 5 p.m. – will be public and will include a listen-in line that can handle more listeners than 500. Minutes of the meeting will also be available to the public, organizers said.
Recommendations made by the task force will go to the Department of Public Health for consideration and then the governor.
The overall goal, Sununu told the task force, is to minimize adverse impacts on public health while finding ways to return to a “new normal.”
He called for “a smart, phased approach that is rooted in science and data” and is unique for New Hampshire’s unique situation, but also considers neighboring states and impacts.
Members are Taylor Caswell, Commissioner, New Hampshire Department of Business and Economic Affairs; Lori Harnois, director of the office of State of New Hampshire Travel & Tourism; Phil Bryce, director of state parks; DJ Bettencourt, the governor’s policy director; Democratic State Senators Kevin Cavanaugh of Manchester and Shannon Chandley of Amherst, Republican State Senators Sharon Carson of Londonderry and Bob Giuda of Warren; Democratic State Representatives Ed Butler of Hart’s Location and Mel Myler of Contocook; Republican State Reps. Bill Marsh of Brookfield and Tim Lang of Sanbornton; John Nyhan of the Hampton Area Chamber of Commerce; Mike Somers, president, and chief executive officer of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurants Association; Steve Ahnen, president of the New Hampshire Hospital Association; Timothy Mone, president, New Hampshire Police Association; Nancy Kyle, president and chief executive officer of the NH Retailers Association; Chris Emond, chief executive officer of the Central New Hampshire Boys & Girls Club; and Bruce Berke of the New Hampshire Travel Council and New Hampshire Chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
The plan is for the task force to begin on Thursday to hear from the food service and accommodations industries first. It has been one of the most impacted industries.
On Friday, the task force will hear from retail, manufacturing, recreation, and the arts communities. Next Monday, the health care and social assistance communities will address the task force. Next Tuesday, the construction and trades will speak, and next Wednesday the hair and cosmetology industry will be consulted, and other industries will also be added as the days go on.
A new email firstname.lastname@example.org was established to collect data and the public was urged to use that, and legislators were urged to forward mail they have received to help inform the recommendations.
The first meeting was convened by Bettencourt who was at the State House with Sununu.
The guidance for the task force would be to look toward a phased reopening of various segments of the economy after 14 days of a sustained reduction in new COVID-19 cases in the state or a reduction in hospitalizations.
The Trump administration offered states some loose guidance in its three-phased, White House Open Up America Again plan announced last week, but Sununu said he wants a hybrid of that which is tailored to New Hampshire.
Sununu thanked the group for their time and said they would have a lot of work ahead.
“We want to be very granular about how we do things,” Sununu said. “This is not a binary valve” that can simply be opened. He said the task force will need to look at various business categories, the regionality of impacts in the state and impact their recommendations may have on neighboring states.
Massachusetts, the governor said, still has incredibly high rates of infection right now and the virus knows no borders. “Transparency is absolutely critical,” Sununu said, to “ensure the public trust” and time, he said, is of the essence. He warned that the state will likely see another COVID-19 surge this summer or fall.
“That does not mean we go back to clamping down everything again,” he said. But the goal is to make sure that the task force works on something lasting and can be a guidance document for future pandemics.
Bettencourt said the interest in the task force has been overwhelming.
Consideration of subcommittees to work on various sectors maybe something down the road, but the initial plan is for all members to hear input from the various impacted sectors.
InDepthNH.org’s Nancy West contributed to this report.