By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Restaurants will be allowed to seat guests at tables that may be fewer than six feet apart as of Oct. 1 provided there are barriers.
COVID-19 contact tracing, Trick-or-Treating tips in a pandemic, and more funding for special education students were also part of the news released at Gov. Chris Sununu’s weekly press briefing Thursday.
Sununu is expected to head to Newick’s Restaurant in Dover Friday to meet with members of the restaurant industry for a round table discussion. The industry has been hit economically by the pandemic.
Retailers have also had a tough time, in spite of some federal CARES Act assistance and Sununu said he would look seriously at a proposal to opening up retail to up to 100 percent capacity as the Christmas shopping season approaches.
The retail industry’s proposal would allow businesses to also maintain the current 50 percent maximum capacity if that is their wish, and Sununu said that is a good call for some.
Health officials also announced Thursday that long-term care facilities would transition from the state surveillance of COVID-19 among their residents and staff to a private plan.
The institutions would contract privately and the state would pay $100 per test, which is about what it costs the state, said Lori Shibinette, commissioner of state Health and Human Services.
The transition will occur in October, freeing up state surveillance capacity to do more testing in assisted care facilities, jails, and homeless shelters.
The wide-ranging briefing came as Dr. Benjamin Chan, state epidemiologist said the state passed the milestone of 8,000 cases of COVID-19 since March with 37 new cases of the virus in the state totaling 8,044.
There were no new deaths reported, as has been the case all week. However, 438 residents have died from the coronavirus, so far.
Chan said the nation has lost more than 200,000 people to the virus and that compares to the common flu, in that nationally each year, between 25,000 to 50,000 die from the flu.
There were four new hospitalizations reported for a 732 total.
“We continue to see the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” he said.
New hospitalizations and the census is slowly picking up where there are now at 16 or 17 per day in the hospital compared to 10 or fewer the last month.
Yet the percent positive rate in robust testing remains low at 1 percent or less.
He said the state continues to encourage all with even mild symptoms to be tested as a way to help slow the spread of the virus.
He added that the state continues to urge everyone to practice social distancing, wear cloth masks, and avoid crowds.
The state only has one outbreak at a long-term care facility, Mountain View in Ossipee which is Carroll County’s nursing home.
Each week the state looks at COVID-19 prevalence rates by county and this week three counties can have Level 3 or the highest level of visitation at such facilities, based on their lack of cases. Those counties are Cheshire, Coos, and Grafton.
All other counties are in phase two provided they do not have an outbreak, as is the case at Mountain View in Ossipee. Shibinette said for people to expect there will be movement back and forth between levels, based on cases within the county.
On the surveillance testing at such facilities, Shibinette said the state expects facilities to transition to commercial testing about Oct. 12.
“We will keep our testing schedule through October,” at the facilities and anticipate having all transitioned to private testing by Oct. 26.
She called it a decent timeline to solve any problems and noted New Hampshire is likely the last state in the country to continue the surveillance monitoring for these facilities.
“This is not a hard and fast date. We are very committed to making sure they have good surveillance testing going forward,” Shibinette said noting all will be PCR tests, considered the gold standard with the highest levels of accuracy.
She said in the first week 100 percent of each facility’s staff and residents will be tested and each week thereafter, 10 percent of the population will be tested.
This puts them in compliance with all Center for Medicaid Services guidelines to ensure they are paid.
Dr. Beth Daly, of the state Department of Health and Human Services, gave an overview of the state’s contact tracing efforts to date.
Daly pointed to a spike in community transmission cases seen around July 4 and noted that it is the small family gatherings, the barbecues, and other social events where people may be letting down their guard a bit where transmission is occurring.
She said in the beginning of the pandemic, most of the cases were coming from travel but that waned when there was a shelter order and people stopped traveling.
The state has done research on not only all 8,000 cases but 22,000 they interacted with.
The staff of about 110 will call and over a period of days ensure they have contacted all close contacts of someone who has been diagnosed, including knocking on their door if there is no phone contact.
As people have relaxed social distance restrictions contact has become the primary risk factor in about one-third of all cases, she said.
Another third don’t know how they got the virus and that has increased as people go out into the community more.
That has increased the number of people who need to be contacted from an average of about five to more than that.
These 8,000 cases have mostly impacted long-term care facilities, hospitals, universities, and college campuses while there have been fewer cases at congregate places like at work, child care centers, and k-12 schools.
Daly said testing prior to openings helped reduce the spread.
“We are not seeing any outbreaks from public settings like retail stores and restaurants,” she said. And in most cases, it appears to be spread at home among family members.
Workplaces account for just 6 percent of all cases.
“This is suggesting that many institutional settings have implemented measures to prevent close contact,” and it is working, Daly said.
“We can’t regulate the settings of backyard barbecues or birthday parties but we want to emphasize that these…are high risk,” she added.
“If you can’t social distance, be sure to wear a mask,” she advised of those settings.
Special Ed Money
Sununu announced additions to his ongoing effort to make sure “no one falls through the cracks” with an additional $4 million from the CARES Act to help individuals in schools that need special education.
A provider fund is aimed at families with students with disabilities.
Currently, Sununu said, schools do outstanding jobs taking care of these individuals. But the pandemic has added challenges.
“We want to make sure the (schools) have the opportunity to allow these students to get on a path for a more independent life.”
He singled out one school, the Monarch School in Rochester, as a great example of working toward addressing the challenges with the state.
“I want to give them a lot of credit,” Sununu said.
Officials talked directly to the state about their financial challenges.
“And they really worked with us to understand their barriers. The state remains very focused on helping them provide those needs,” Sununu said.
The additional money will be there for 21 schools and 750 students who will participate in that additional funding.
The opening has come slowly for restaurants but Sununu said it has been a key to the state’s success in keeping cases low.
He said we have not seen drastic outbreaks like in other parts of the country which opened restaurants too soon and too freely.
Currently, all restaurants can open up to 100 percent capacity indoors but many are having difficulty with a provision that requires that they maintain a six-foot buffer from table to table and person to person.
And as things get colder, and outdoor seating becomes limited, restaurants are in a squeeze.
Effective Oct. 1 there will be an easing of the six-foot distance as long as they enact protective barriers, Sununu said.
This can be a clear plastic sheet between tables.
The data shows restaurants are not an area of concern for transmission currently, he noted.
#DON’T GO VIRAL Campaign
A state ad campaign to #DON’T GO VIRAL this summer to prevent the spread of the virus is now being transitioned into a fall phase, Sununu said.
The new focus will be on young adults, college campuses and it will be extended through November.
The message to them is “What they do can have a domino effect in a very negative way.”
A favorite holiday for many in New England, Trick-or-Treat is coming up and many cities and towns are not sure how to handle it in a pandemic.
The state is issuing a safety tip sheet for the celebration, Sununu said.
An additional effort will be made to ensure trick or treaters and people who are interacting use face coverings, maintain six feet of distance from those at the door, and other measures which will make this year’s Halloween a bit of a mixed bag.
More information and a tip sheet for cities and towns will have access to state information at the NH.gov website.
Sununu said every city and town is different and it is “100 percent optional” for kids and adults to partake in the activities involved with Halloween.
No FEMA Funds for PPE in Schools
Many schools were hoping to get reimbursement coverage for personal protective equipment.
Sununu said the state would be there in some way or another to fill in for FEMA’s reneging, and that CARES Act may be on the table.
It is also possible that the state could tap its PPE stockpile.
Schools should first draw down their funds before reaching out to the state for help, he advised.
No Pool/Darts in Bars
Sununu is not playing games with bars on the subject of allowing people to play darts or pool right now, saying it is too risky.
He said only in extreme circumstances where a business is dependent on those games and it is not ancillary to the business would he allow it.
“I think it is a small sacrifice to ask,” he said. “Until we get through the COVID crisis.”
“That is exactly what got people in a lot of trouble across the country,” when the state’s allowed bars to open too early.
The governor will receive an industry request to open retail establishments to 100 percent capacity, where it is now at 50 percent.
It would also allow for retail to stay where they are if they choose.
He said having that option is good for both the retailer and consumer confidence.
“Maintaining a smaller capacity can allow customer confidence,” he said.
Unemployment, he said, is now well below 5 percent where weekly filings for unemployment is now about 36,000.
Trump On Transfer of Power
Sununu responded to a question about President Donald Trump, a fellow Republican, qualifying whether there would be a smooth transfer of power if he was not re-elected.
He called it “a very inappropriate comment.” Sununu said in all political contests up and down the ballot “there is a winner of an election and a loser.”
The governor said Congress is in session for one more week and they have the opportunity to extend flexibility on spending down federal CARES Act funds.
The money needs to be spent by Dec. 31 and in some cases, limits what the state can do, for example, extend broadband internet to rural areas.
“I will still be the eternal optimist,” and hope that the Congress changes the law and allows for more time for the funds to be used, and more flexibility.
Sununu said he will weigh a recommendation from the ski industry and his economic reopening task force on how they proceed with a ski season this winter during a pandemic.
The industry is recommending a lot of changes that focus on limiting indoor activities in the lodge and a more touchless approach to business.
He said he will weigh in, despite the fact his family owns a ski area, Waterville Valley. He said he is no longer involved in its operation and feels he does not need to recuse himself from enacting such guidance.
He said the guidance should be flexible enough to allow children to come inside on freezing cold days when they might get frostbite.
Although he had not seen the final document headed to his desk he said he believed the guidance has wide industry input.
The death last week of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and words from Trump that he will announce a replacement on Saturday had Sununu concerned about civility and politics and bringing the nation together.
Whatever happens, he said, it has to be Constitutional and it has to be civil.
He noted his own issues as he attempted to seat a NH Supreme Court Chief Justice but has backed off on bringing any names forward because he accused the majority of Democrats on the Executive Council, which vote on such nominations, of playing politics, which they deny.
He said he does not believe in litmus tests for judges.
“I nominate the people best for the job,” and he, and hoped Washington takes a play out of “our playbook.”