By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Hampton Beach on Thursday just got one step closer to opening up.
Get out your sunscreen, face mask, and coordinate that new, three-piece swimsuit now – the one with the face covering. The Governor’s Economic Reopening Task Force unanimously voted to support a Hampton Area Chamber of Commerce proposal that would allow for the first phase of reopening the state’s largest ocean beach.
But it still has to get approval from the state health department and Gov. Chris Sununu.
As the state flex reopens parts of the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sununu has said he is not committed to anything yet on reopening the ocean beaches
While it is called the “Beach Guidance,” and the state has other beaches in Rye and North Hampton, the focus of this guidance is on Hampton Beach where many businesses are located.
The recommended plan is here. https://www.nheconomy.com/getmedia/719735a2-4e5b-45e3-9525-7a6825b1ba22/HamptonBeachTaskForceReport_1.pdf
– Parking would be eliminated along the beach on Ocean Boulevard and would become largely pedestrian from A Street to O Street.
– Only 50 percent of the normal amount of private parking would be allowed in lots.
– People could walk, run, swim, or surf, but in the first phase, they could not sunbath or congregate in groups seated on the sand.
– Restaurants could offer outdoor seating at 50 percent capacity.
– All festivals and events would be canceled.
– Traffic would be directed on Route 101 rather than through Seabrook.
– A coordination open communication with neighboring communities would be urged.
The proposed guidance to open the beach now goes to the state health department to be considered for potential risks to public health, with a particular eye to the pandemic which has killed at least 150 people and sickened more than 3,200 in New Hampshire.
In neighboring Massachusetts, which is next to the beach, the death toll is 5,141 with 174 new deaths Thursday and a total of 79,332 cases.
John Nyhan, executive director of the Hampton Area Chamber of Commerce and a member of the task force, pressed the group to pass beach guidance Wednesday so that businesses could begin the effort of trying to staff and reopen in time for the summer.
The vote was put off to allow for 24 hours of public notice.
On Thursday, he said the town is very supportive and there is a “sense of urgency to move this along.”
While he set a June 1 date for the opening of the beach for the first phase with a hoped-for Phase 2 allowing sunbathing by the Fourth of July, no dates are now part of the recommendation.
Bruce Berke, a member of the task force, argued that no other industry guidance approved by the task force has been sent to Gov. Chris Sununu with a date certain. He suggested a separate communication from the chamber to the governor, which would indicate the hoped-for dates, could accompany the guidance.
Sen. Shannon Chandley, D-Amherst said she agreed with Berke that the task force should be consistent and she noted future industries would be seeking a date certain in their guidances as well.
Task Force chair D.J. Bettencourt said based on the governor’s comments at his press conference Wednesday and a conversation he had with him Thursday morning, “the (chamber) timelines may not be the ones that are ultimately implemented.”
He said people are “passionate about the beach” on either side of its opening in a pandemic.
But ultimately, “it will be a determination by public health and the governor…We all want the beaches open as soon as it is safe to do so,” Bettencourt said.
Nyhan said he would be “happy to strike the date out” to ensure a unanimous vote and would send a separate note to the governor about dates. Bettencourt said he would consider that a friendly amendment and noted that the “what the date indicates to me is that that is when the community estimates it will be ready to start implementing these plans.”
Bettencourt said anyone with concerns about the recommendations should still send emails and comments for the state public health and Sununu to consider before any final decisions are made. The address is email@example.com
James “Larry” Allen, a tattoo artist who owns and operates a studio in Merrimack, offered a plan for a safe reopening of the professional body art industry. That industry also includes professional cosmetics, tattoo and body piercing, he said.
A link to his presentation is here https://www.nheconomy.com/getmedia/8f9db110-f6e3-4671-a668-cd46f2aeadf4/professionalbodyartpresentation.pdf
“We are willing to take guidance,” Allen said. “But it is very important that we be able to return to work as soon as possible.”
There are a few hundred licensed tattoo artists, he said that have been out of work for seven weeks and many have not received a dime from the federal government. This is the beginning of the busy business season for body artists.
“Our industry takes safety very, very seriously,” Allen said. “If we did not it would harm our…reputation.”
The industry already uses disinfectants and surfaces are all non-porous.
“We are dealing with blood and bodily fluid,” he acknowledged, “but COVID-19 is a respiratory virus.”
There would be social distancing allowed in any studio and no “hand-holders,” or family members and friends accompanying the customer getting a tattoo.
The industry already has an appointment-only, client-only business model for those 18 and over, Allen said, and could limit treatments to New Hampshire residents-only if that is the guidance.
He said underground body art is growing through COVID-19 and it worries him. These unlicensed artists are working at private residences, he said, in unsanitary conditions.
“There is no way to control mass gatherings and social distancing when it is being done underground,” he said. The longer the industry is shuttered the more that will happen.
A petition signed by 3,100 has circulated to open up tattoo and “cut off underground tattooing,” Allen said.
Bettencourt said he will likely convene a working group on the subject.
The weddings could be back on this summer if Sununu would allow for venues to reopen.
Amy LaBelle, who with her husband owns and operates LaBelle Winery in Amherst, said her event business is in peril after building it over the years due to the COVID-19 crisis. And she is not alone.
She said about 400 event locations operate in New Hampshire which are all now shuttered. Normally, she said the $3.5 million LaBelle earns a year in hosting more than 330 weddings a year will be likely $1 million or less because of cancellations and closures due to the novel coronavirus.
Her presentation is here https://www.nheconomy.com/getmedia/b38a260b-0823-4f78-bcf0-52ee03e9657f/Wedding-VenuesTestimony_1.pdf
She said outdoor events should be able to go on so long as social distancing can be achieved. Farms, vendors, and local suppliers who rely on the venues to open are also suffering as a result of the closures.
She said brides are calling to cancel or are anxious what the situation will be this summer and many vendor businesses from photographers, to bakeries, to florists to jewelry and clothing stores – there are thousands of providers also counting on a date certain so that the invitations can go out.
Taskforce members, including Bettencourt and Chandley, said outdoor events/weddings might perhaps be allowed under the current restaurant phase one flex opening that will allow for outdoor dining as of May 18.
Bettencourt said he would investigate that and clarify with the governor’s office on those events. A separate working group will be formed by the task force to look at guidance that LaBelle said she would be willing to work on.
Margaret Byrnes, executive director of the New Hampshire Municipal Association, said cities and towns have been suffering like businesses from COVID-19. But unlike businesses, they have not had a seat at the governor’s task force table.
Byrnes said they are on the front lines of enforcing the rules and implementing the guidelines being made by the governor, and they are the ones who receive complaints that reopening is going both too fast and too slow.
Byrnes said they have concerns about impacts and how that may expose their first responders to COVID-19.
“I know that enforcement is not within the task force’s charge,” she said. “But it is an important part of the picture at the local level.”
Although towns and city governments were exempt from the stay-at-home orders, they have had to make decisions on summer parks, pools, events and more. And now they are implementing restaurant guidelines for reopening, which just was approved by Sununu under his “Stay At Home 2.0” flex opening guidance.
She offered this letter https://www.nheconomy.com/getmedia/3c3386b4-b08b-42ea-865c-a37b7e0c0b6d/NHMA-Task-Force-Testimony.pdf and said she would ask the task force to use the NHMA for consultation in reopening guidance.
Chandley asked who would Byrnes suggest to fill that void? Byrnes said the NHMA has been asking for a municipal official on the task force.
Even a non-voting seat, she said, would be better than nothing for drafting the guidance going forward on reopenings.
Mike Somers, president and chief executive officer of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, and a task force member, said he is receiving reports that municipalities are coming up with “wildly different interpretations” of the restaurant guidelines that leave businesses scratching their heads.
Bettencourt said the guidelines are uniform and the BEA business hotline could be a place to start to get answers from the state government.
Byrnes said she is simply asking for a municipal perspective of what it is like to be on their end of the reopening process. She said she is not looking to get task force guidance on individual ordinances and regulations for each community.
Bettencourt said he has spoken to the governor on it and he is receptive to some addition involving municipal input.
In the meantime, any municipality can use the public comment email of the task force at firstname.lastname@example.org to provide input.
He asked her to help with a list of about 12 frequently asked questions and answers municipalities get and she said she would be willing to do that.
Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, suggested municipal ombudsmen for the task force instead of another member.
The task force will open up the phone lines for public input on Friday from 1 to 3 p.m. instead of a daily meeting.
Next week, the task force will address summer camps, daycare for adults, bowling alleys, movie theaters, spas, and possibly church guidance.
A voting session is set for Tuesday.
The task force meets weekdays from 1:30 to 3:30 and is open to the public for listening by phone. For information on listening in, commenting and draft reopening guidance by industry so far visit https://www.nheconomy.com/reopeningtaskforce
The phone number is 1-800-356-8278 and the code is 600744.