By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The state will allow solo artists to return to performing live indoors.
This comes at a time when the state is seeing an increase in the novel coronavirus mostly through community transmission and particularly in the cities of Nashua and Manchester which have more than 120 cases per 100,000 residents over 14 days, said Patricia Tilley, deputy director of the New Hampshire Division of Public Health on Thursday.
The rest of the state has a moderate level of cases with 53 cases per 100,000 over 14 days, she said. Coos County does not have a single case.
The positivity rate in the state has jumped up a bit from under 1 percent in the past few months to as high as 3.5 percent in Nashua, where transmission is considered “substantial,” she said.
The same is true for Manchester while the statewide seven-day PCR positive rate is 1.2 percent, Tilley said.
State Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, said she is hearing from a number of parents of students in Merrimack about an outbreak there.
Bettencourt said four students who have been involved in sports tested positive for the virus and a large number of students were exposed. There are about 170 currently in quarantine.
COVID-19 silenced the stages inside restaurants, bars, and hotels across the state in March and it has been particularly hard on those who make their livings on playing these gigs.
D.J. Bettencourt, Gov. Chris Sununu’s policy director and chair of the Governor’s Economic Reopening Task Force, told members during its weekly virtual meeting that the announcement expected Thursday is to allow such live indoor performances. It would be “a first step.”
The task force unanimously supported the move and it will move forward today with the approval of the governor and the Department of Public Health announcing the change, Bettencourt said.
The limitations will be that the solo artist must maintain a distance of eight feet from a table or person and the audience would need to be seated at tables during the performance.
Brad Bosse, a gig performer who called into the task force’s public input session, thanked them and said this would be “a huge help.”
“I will sleep much better this evening,” Bosse said.
Jared Steer, a musical educator, said he received unemployment assistance but recently got a note that stated he needs to return thousands of dollars that he received. He said he appealed the decision but was told he was given too much money.
Matt Mayberry of Dover, who was a Republican candidate for U.S. Congress before losing the primary in September to Matt Mowers, also called to the task force on the subject of opening up solo acts indoors and when he heard Bettencourt’s announcement he said simply, “Thank you.”
Rep. Tim Lang, R-Sanborton, criticized health officials saying they are “sowing fear” rather than focusing on the positive.
He said the department should be emphasizing how many recoveries the state has rather than talk about the new cases when they meet with the press. Tilley thanked Lang for his input, and said she would share it with her team. She agreed with the “fact not fear” approach.
“We are at 89 percent of those who have recovered, but there are areas in our state which have experienced an increase in transmission,” Tilley said.
She stressed that this virus is not going away, nationally with 300,000 new cases reported across the country this week with seven states reporting 10,000 cases each.
New Hampshire and northern New England still compare very favorably to the rest of the country, however, she said, New Hampshire is showing a trend line that has been growing for several weeks.
“Our current numbers are similar to what we saw in June,” she said.
On Wednesday, there were 71 new reported cases with a daily positivity rate of 1.1 percent including 43 by PCR the gold standard test, and the others by rapid testing, which are newly being included.
Those rapid tests formerly were not included until a backup PCR test result was recorded. There are 507 active COVID-19 cases in the state, while last week it was 405, she said. The state is not monitoring any school’s clusters.
Last week, she said a cluster related to a Nashua church was reported with seven new cases identified.
She said the state and nation have seen a pattern with cases related to religious worship. “We all understand the value of fellowship,” she said but she encouraged faith communities to “follow the science.”
“The pandemic is not over,” Tilley stressed. “The numbers are increasing. We are anxious to get back to socializing but we know if we let our guard down we put our friends, family, and ourselves at risk.” Tilley ended her presentation with advice to “get a flu shot.”
State Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, asked for some health data to back up what religious organizations should do to prevent outbreaks among their congregations. Tilley said there have been a number of small outbreaks at churches that have not been announced because it was a small group where all individuals could be counted.
“We want to make sure we are doing it with the best science possible,” Tilley said. “I know the churches want to be protective.”
Giuda said: “Your lack of communication is forcing churches to seek out litigation. We do not need a Constitutional challenge.”
Bettencourt said he will work on the issue this week.
“It needs to be this week. We have already waited for three,” Giuda said.
Rich Lavers, deputy commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Employment Security went over the improved employment statistics, current efforts to assist people transitioning back to work, and what the state trust fund for unemployment looks like.
The first in-person job fairs since the pandemic are planned with dates to be announced in the next week, he said. They will be offered regionally with one for the Concord area and southern New Hampshire, one for the Seacoast region, and an early event for the Keene area.
He said those looking for work can go to nhjobs.nh.gov where there are 1,700 openings and Lavers said additional employers are being added to the site.
New weekly claim requests through Thursday were 1,518, Lavers said. At one point in the pandemic the weekly new claims were as many as 600,000 a week, he noted. Just over 32,000 are now unemployed, compared to about 4,000 before the pandemic.
The unemployment rate has seen a sustained, consistent drop, going down 5 to 15 percent per week, he said. Payment totals also continue to drop, he said, and the state has now dropped to a payout below $10 million weekly. At peak during the pandemic, the weekly payout was $26 million.
Some states have emptied their funds and are loaning money to make payouts, he noted.
An official for the state’s campground operators sent a letter of thanks to the task force for working on a guidance plan to open the campgrounds in late spring. Members said they had a record busy summer.
Next Thursday, the task force will hear from the state Department of Revenue Administration and an update from first responders, and they are expected to hear about reopening the regional Department of Motor Vehicle offices. Bettencourt said the state is working on a proposed plan which is in its final stages with the DMV.
He noted that Sununu would be addressing changes to child care guidance during his press conference on Thursday. He also noted he would be reaching out to state athletic directors to see how things are going with high school sports, with a little over a month into the fall sports season.
He said there have been a few incidents involving COVID-19 and sports and public health officials may want to discuss some suggestions for them. Bettencourt said it is good to maintain open lines of communication.
To listen in or give public testimony to the task force next Thursday at 11 a.m. call 1-800-356-8278 and use PIN # 194499 to listen in.