By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Saying it is 20 to 30 percent of its normal size, Gov. Chris Sununu said Bike Week is what he had hoped for and noted that restaurants and bars have responded well to COVID-19 precautions to keep people safe.
Sununu addressed a plethora of issues at his Thursday press conference where state officials announced 35 new cases of the coronavirus for a total of 7,194 cases and one new death of a person who lived at a long-term care facility.
Sununu touched on a virtual hearing Thursday in Massachusetts on taxation of New Hampshire residents who work for firms there, but have been prevented from going to the Bay State for work during the pandemic.
He also addressed upcoming deadlines for federal relief funds for farmers and municipalities, the state’s purchase of new rapid testing devices, drought in the southern tier of the state and UNH partying.
Lori Shibinette, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the state has purchased 25 Quidel Sophia rapid COVID-19 test machines which will be placed at each of the state’s community testing centers to allow access to 15-minute tests for students and other members of the community.
These devices, which will be mostly located in community hospital settings, do not need back-up testing for accuracy and will likely be in the state in October.
Sununu said he visited Bike Week Sunday.
“The crowds really aren’t as big,” Sununu said compared to other years and he estimated attendance at 20 or 30 percent of a normal year. It ends on Sunday but there could be more attendance this weekend, weather permitting.
There were concerns that the event could become a super spreader, as it appears to be the case at another national motorcycle rally this summer, but Sununu said he is hopeful that this will not be the case in New Hampshire.
“I think it is going off the way we want it to go off,” Sununu said noting that it is “a bit limited in size and scope. I have not seen anything so far that gives me concern.”
He said state liquor enforcement has been “a great educator” and working in a proactive way with restaurants and business owners in Laconia to ensure that the events follow guidelines to protect the public from the virus.
While there are 219 residents currently fighting COVID-19 in New Hampshire, that could be going up a bit because of the event in South Dakota.
South Dakota reported 103 new cases of COVID-19 tied to the 80th motorcycle rally at Sturgis, S.D. Aug. 7-16 including six residents from New Hampshire who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
With the 97th Bike Week now underway, and some Sturgis visitors possibly here or heading this way, state health officials are urging all who attended the event in Sturgis to stay clear of this rally.
When returning to New Hampshire, they were urged to quarantine for 14 days, even if they tested negative for the virus.
Anyone coming to New Hampshire from outside New England also needed to have quarantined for 14 days prior to arrival, officials said.
One attendee at Sturgis from New Hampshire, the organizer of the New Hampshire rally, Charlie St. Clair, did not return calls this week asking for comment. South Dakota’s public health officials reported a surge in positive cases with 343 new cases in that state Aug. 27 for a total of 12,194 cases.
Long-term care facilities in three of the state’s counties can go to multiple visitors and more congregate eating and activities now that the number of cases in those counties has remained low the past few weeks.
Shibinette said the nursing homes are in Belknap, Coos, and Grafton counties.
She called it a “great accomplishment” and important to residents and their families to have that social contact that has been lacking for so many months due to the pandemic.
Mass. Tax Hearing
More than 140 residents, legislators, officials from the state Department of Justice and state economic officials testified or provided testimony Thursday in a virtual hearing at the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. The hearing was about a rule that allows Massachusetts to collect income tax revenues for residents of New Hampshire who work for Bay State companies but have to work primarily from home now due to the pandemic.
Sununu said Massachusetts is effectively “picking the pockets” of New Hampshire residents and subjecting them to an income tax even though they are working outside of that state.
“We repeatedly said it is not an accident that New Hampshire is tax-free,” Sununu said. And he said the state “will continue to fight for it every day.”
Regardless of the outcome of the hearing, he said if Massachusetts tries to impose this tax “there are legal remedies.”
Farmers have a deadline coming up to apply for relief through the CARES ACT. The deadline is Aug. 31 and they can get information on that relief at GOFFER.nh.gov/apply.
Also, cities, towns, and counties have until Sept. 15 to apply for $32 million in federal CARES Act relief, which was earlier announced to help provide for COVID-19 losses. Some towns have not yet applied.
Places like Storyland and Canobie Lake Park will be allowed to increase capacity from 25 percent to 35 percent now, the governor said. He said the state looked at a month of data from the parks and the good news was that there were no major outbreaks of COVID-19 to report from their openings.
The attractions asked for an increase to 35 percent and Sununu said it seemed reasonable.
He said he visited Canobie Lake Park and found the staff “did a tremendous job” keeping people safe.
“Knowing we have good partners up and down the state,” he said, allows health officials to increase capacity.
Sununu said that his office is talking with the ski industry in anticipation of the winter and how it would work in terms of opening up in a pandemic.
Rather than looking at limiting capacity on the hill, the issue is more about indoor access.
The governor’s family owns the Waterville Valley ski area and he said he knows that lodges can get very crowded, especially on very cold days.
The industry is looking at what those models look like and it could mean people would reserve space indoors, that restroom access would be separate from dining and there may be more grab and go food service.
“We will be working” at industry suggested guidelines but one thing he promised, “it will be a good ski season.”
Images Sununu saw of parties at the University of New Hampshire caused him to pick up the phone and call officials.
He said he was pleased with the response in breaking up parties where some people were not wearing masks. Students, he said, responded fairly well as far as he knew, and “those are going to happen. No one is going to be perfect but the university has been very strong there.”
He has said that the state should expect to see a rise in the number of positive cases of COVID-19 as schools open.
Sununu said that he spoke with farmers this week concerned about drought conditions particularly in the southern part of the state, though he said he expects the fall harvest to be fine.
He said there are relief funds due to COVID-19 for farmers and there may also be a real relief, in the form of rain, this weekend.