By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Masks are now required for any gatherings of 100 or more people in New Hampshire effective immediately.
After resisting calls for mandatory mask-wearing at events including a scheduled and postposed rally for President Donald Trump, Gov. Chris Sununu said the state Department of Justice is working to establish how fines would be leveled, and indicated it would be directed at the event organizers rather than individuals who do not wear masks.
This would not include schools per se but would include religious events, such as one being planned this weekend in New Ipswich expected to attract as many as 500.
After seeing photos of thousands of mask-less motorcyclists this week in Sturgis, S.D. for the 80th rally there, Sununu said that scene was a factor in his decision.
He noted that the 97th Bike Week in Laconia, one of the nation’s historically largest gatherings, will be impacted by this requirement when more than 30 events are held across the state Aug. 22-30.
Charlie St. Clair, executive director of Laconia Motorcycle Week Association, who is in Sturgis this week for the national rally, said, “It’s the governor’s call.”
He said though bikers in Sturgis are not wearing masks as a general rule, they are not required to and in places where they are required, they are wearing masks.
“Everyone’s got one in their pocket,” he said.
The requirement will likely impact other planned events across the state which are still scheduled to go on, including the Highland Games in Lincoln.
Sununu said existing universal guidance on bars and restaurants would be now enforced by the state’s liquor commission to ensure that people stay in their seats, cannot mingle or hang at the bar and said earlier curfews in bars could definitely be on the table to manage those types of activities.
Sununu said such places have led to aggressive spreads of the virus in other states. He said the penalties could involve the pulling of a liquor license noting “that is a serious thing” as a penalty.
No New COVID Deaths
For the past week, there has only been one death in New Hampshire from COVID-19 and none since last Thursday.
The state continues to see ups and downs in the number of new cases but overall the state is doing well and is not facing surges like much of the rest of the country, said Dr. Benjamin Chan, state epidemiologist.
He noted there have been more than 20 million cases globally, 5.1 million in the United States and on Tuesday, an additional 21 cases in New Hampshire to total 6,861.
There was one new hospital admission for a total of 705.
Still, he noted, there have been 419 deaths in New Hampshire attributed to the new coronavirus.
“We continue to see daily numbers go up and down,” Chan said, noting the state bumps along at about 25 to 30 new cases each week, on average.
The state continues to have a low percent positive rate on its PCR tests at 1 percent the past few weeks but now dipping below and hospitalizations remain low at about 23 people on any given day.
“We believe (COVID-19) continues to circulate in our communities,” Chan noted and he said people need to protect themselves and their communities from the virus.
He urged that large gatherings “be avoided” and people should continue to practice good hygiene.
Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said the state is seeing an improved turn-around time on testing. Several weeks ago it took an average of seven days to get a test. But with changes in providers to focus on in-state, turn-around times are as low as a single day to the longest about three days.
Sununu said he was on a call today with officials from Laconia and surrounding communities to discuss Bike Week.
Asked if he was concerned about the photos from Sturgis at the press conference, he said “absolutely.”
But he noted that the new mask mandate for gatherings of 100 or more has evolved also coming out of data from Florida, Texas, Arizona and other states where there have been large events and new cases of the virus.
“Sturgis was a clear warning to us,” Sununu said.
He said the Department of Justice is working on a plan to ensure there is the law behind any fine or penalty.
“Going after individuals is a tough one but if there is an organizer,” of an event, Sununu said, and masks are not worn, they would be held liable.
He corrected that he did not create a bike week “task force,” but created a “team” and said he was on that first call Tuesday.
Bike Week and Laconia officials told InDepthNH.org Monday they had heard nothing from the task force, or team as Sununu called it Tuesday. The event starts Aug. 22.
Asked what he would say to residents concerned about Bike Week, which draws thousands, historically from out of state, Sununu said, “If folks in the event or after the event, concerned about COVID, they can go get a test. We have some of the best guidance provisions in the country,” and he noted there seemed to be little guidance in South Dakota where the Sturgis rally is being held.
Sununu said Bike Week is actually not an event but a series of 20 or 30 events. He said the state and local governments would be working with people well ahead of time to get ready for the rally.
Mass. Rule on Taxes
Sununu said the NH Attorney General’s Office is looking internally at a new rule that Massachusetts has imposed. It involves Massachusetts collecting income taxes on out-of-state employees who have worked from home, such as many in New Hampshire.
He said the attorney general is looking to challenge that rule on a variety of issues including constitutionality, consistency, and the fact they these workers were forced to work from home. Sununu said it makes sense to do that before going to court or taking other actions.
“And based on that we will figure out the next steps. You can’t just rush to court before you know,” Sununu said.
Sununu said he was working to see if the state could come up with a 25 percent match for an executive order of the president which would allow $300 in federal money to be paid to the unemployed provided there is a $100 state match for a $400 total.
He said the question is finding how those matched dollars may be spent and where that money could come from. Sununu said the $600 additional money which began in March and has expired proved to be a disincentive for people to return to work. This is an attempt to find some middle ground, he said.
He noted at one time the state had 117,000 people on unemployment and this week it is at about 60,000 and dropping much faster than the national average.
Nonprofits Get Funding
Nearly 500 nonprofits got news this week that they will share in almost $40 million from the CARES Act, Sununu said.
“We want to ensure they have the resources needed,” to serve the state going forward.
Substance Use Disorder Services
Sununu outlined funds from the CARES Act which will go to help those struggling with substance use disorder during the pandemic.
Money from the CARES Act will go to Equity Outreach and Harm Reductions (about $625,000,) about $700,000 to closed-loop referrals, about $725,000 into the Recovery Friendly Workplace program, about $750,000 in Substance Use Disorder nonprofits, about $1.4 million for respite beds and $1.8 million for recovery housing.
Last month the state announced $10 million for private colleges to help them get through this crisis, using federal funds.
He announced that Colby-Sawyer College will get $750,000; about $900 to Antioch; $1.2 million to Rivier College; $1.5 million to Franklin Pierce University and $1.9 million each to New England College, Southern New Hampshire University and St. Anselm’s College.