By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – With COVID-19 cases in New Hampshire continuing to increase across the state, it is not likely that there will be any continued flex opening of businesses for now, the governor’s policy director told members of the Governor’s Economic Reopening Task Force on Thursday.
D.J. Bettencourt, chair of the task force, said there is likely to be a “pause” in efforts to return the state to business as usual, though he said he had not spoken directly with his boss, Gov. Chris Sununu about the matter.
His words came after a detailed presentation from a Department of Health and Human Services official that showed some troubling trends in the pandemic for the Granite State.
Last week, at this time there were 507 people sick with the respiratory virus and now there are 823, said Patricia Tilley, deputy director of the Division of Public Health.
In Nashua alone, there are 115 current cases of the highly transmissible respiratory virus which has killed 458. There are active cases of COVID-19 now in every county in the state.
Retail businesses, which are now limited to a 50 percent capacity and are looking to expand that as the holiday shopping season begins, are among churches, the cosmetology industry, bars, performing arts venues, and bowling alleys that are also looking to see a return to normal before the pandemic.
Bettencourt said a number of proposals to flex open areas of the state’s life and economy are still on the governor’s desk and they may likely remain there for a while as he watches the statistics.
“The governor has the final decision on these,” Bettencourt told the task force. “I would not put words in his mouth….but my instinct is he is going to be hesitant on making any major changes for the time being,” he said.
He noted the presentation from Tilley and told members that while he was not committing the governor in any way to a decision his inclination is that Sununu will be “hitting the pause button” on expanding openings.
He urged members as well to take a pause and “see where the data takes us for several weeks.”
Doctors and politicians feared that the fall would bring with it more cases of COVID-19 to a state that has been comparatively less hurt by the virus but New Hampshire’s luck is turning as community spread is expanding and the state has gone, overall to a moderate case of transmission.
Tilley said nationally cases continue to increase with close to 400,000 new cases reported in the past week. The seven-day moving average represents a 14 percent increase in new cases overall in the United States.
In the past 60 times that she has made a presentation to the task force she has always noted that Northern New England was doing comparatively well to the rest of the country.
“Today I will bring your attention to the fact that New Hampshire is looking like a little bit of a darker shade of yellow compared to Vermont and Maine,” she said of her slide showing that the two neighboring states are doing comparatively better right now than New Hampshire in keeping the cases down. “A couple of weeks ago everything was green and last week only two counties in yellow and the map is looking much different now…with moderate transmission.”
Our current numbers are at 70 to 80 cases a day which is similar to what we saw in the spring, Tilley said.
Hospitalizations are going up as well with 19 people hospitalized but there is still plenty of capacity to absorb more patients, she noted. Hospitalization rates are highest among Manchester residents though the highest number of cases in the state in Nashua and the virus has been having a disproportional impact on black and Hispanic residents, she said.
“We’ve seen increases in every county,” she said, “and deaths are creeping up.”
Scott Naismith, president of the New Hampshire Police Chiefs Association gave the task force a snapshot of what was happening with first responders, from police, fire, and medical services personnel. He said he was very proud of them and how they are willing to help their communities.
Noting that the threat of COVID-19 was never taught at the police academy, he said it has added another layer of stress to an already stressful career.
For many, one concern is spreading the virus to their families and loved ones, including those who have health conditions. Issues at the beginning were getting enough personal protective equipment but that is no longer the case.
The second concern was having alternative housing for those who had to quarantine, but that was able to be secured through the help of the State Fire Marshal’s office and the governor.
Also, expedited testing was an issue to allow police or firefighters to get back as soon as possible, particularly in small towns with few first responders. That has also been addressed, through help from the Fire Marshal’s office.
In total, as of Thursday, the number of first responders who had unprotected exposure to a COVID-19 patient is 950. The current number of first responders in quarantine is 60, Naismith said.
Fortunately, he said there have been no deaths.
“We all continue to protect ourselves with PPE, knowing if there is an issue, safeguards are in place,” Naismith said.
Bettencourt thanked him for the presentation and noted that people should be mindful to take the protective measures to protect these men and women who are first to respond and to use a face covering and social distance when possible to help ensure that they are safe and healthy.
New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration’s Assistant Commissioner Carollynn Lear and Melissa Rollins, senior financial analyst, provided information related to dips in the rooms and meals tax revenue related to the pandemic which hit in March and continues to impact the amount of money the state takes in.
Currently, there are over 9,000 licensed operators who pay in. The fiscal year 2020 ended with revenue down 15 percent below plan, with a hefty revenue decline due to the pandemic, Lear said. In this fiscal year which began July 1 and through filings for September revenue is 20 percent below the prior year.
Rollins said it appears businesses are hesitant to open new businesses but there are signs that hotels and restaurants are starting to rebuild.
Economic stimulus money supplemented some of the losses the state thought it was going to see and may have reduced the number of businesses that have closed but there still may be some closures that have yet to be seen, she said.
In total, state coffers in the rooms and meals tax are down $29.2 million.
New Hampshire’s school sports have fared pretty well this fall with only the exceptional cases of COVID-19 outbreaks among teams.
One area which has been a concern has been outside of schools involving hockey academies.
“Hockey academies are presenting a unique challenge,” Bettencourt said. He said he is working with the Department of Health and the Attorney General’s Office on guidelines for such academies which are likely to be completed in the coming days.