By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – A bill that would forgive business owners hundreds and in some cases thousands of dollars in fines for violating Gov. Chris Sununu’s COVID-19 emergency orders was heard before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee Wednesday.
The proposed legislation, House Bill 63-FN-A, provides that the state shall not enforce, and shall reverse, any prior finding of a violation of the governor’s emergency orders regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill also provides for the annulment of an arrest or criminal conviction for violation of an emergency order issued in response to COVID-19.
Wendy Richardson, who owns a small business in Conway, called the fines unconstitutional and said they are not helping businesses in the state to thrive.
“Our voices are not being heard,” Richardson told the committee.
Businesses have been fined for violating orders relative to mask wearing, allowing sports teams into the state without quarantining, allowing people to karaoke without a mask, and others.
Richardson said the “ridiculous mandates are not common sense,” and they do not align with science.
But state Rep. Timothy Horrigan, D-Durham, said the governor was doing his Constitutional duty to protect the public in a time of terrible pandemic in issuing the orders. And while “I am not a big fan of the governor,” Horrigan said he supported Sununu’s decision to create emergency orders and for the Attorney General’s Office to enforce them with fines.
On Aug. 13, Sununu issued the order that provides for fines to be levied for businesses and individuals that do not comply with his orders. A copy of the order is here. https://www.governor.nh.gov/sites/g/files/ehbemt336/files/documents/emergency-order-65.pdf
Joe Bodge and Dorene Heselton closed Roselynn Homemade Ice Cream Breakfast and Lunch in Epping in October of 2020 rather than comply with the governor’s mask mandate.
“Whatever happened to live free or die,” Bodge told NBC News in an interview at the time.
State Rep. Cody Belanger, R-Epping, said he co-sponsored the bill for the restaurant which he said was “greatly affected by these orders.”
Emergency Order 65 also produced a $500 fine for Nashua’s What a Bagel shop after the Attorney General’s Office said it was warned no less than five times about workers violating the governor’s mask mandate.
Chris Weier, the owner of What a Bagel, told New Hampshire Public Radio that it was particularly hard for his workers to be near the hot ovens wearing masks.
New England Flag Football of Beverly, Mass., was fined $2,000 for allowing teams from outside New England to come and compete in New Hampshire without first quarantining.
State Rep. Melissa Blasek, R-Merrimack, a sponsor of the bill, said she spoke to about six businesses asking them to testify but none would because they were all afraid of their government.
Blasek said the fines, ranging from $500 to $2,000 could mean the difference between closing the business and keeping it open.
The bill would void and refund, if already paid, any such fines if it passes the House, Senate and is signed by the governor.
The hearing was held at the Legislative Office Building with some members present and others attending virtually.
Some members of the committee did not wear masks during the hearing in person at the Legislative Office Building including Reps. John Burt, R-Goffstown, Dave Testerman, R-Franklin, and Scott Wallace, R-Danville. Wallace is a co-sponsor of the bill.
Wearing a mask, however, during the hearing in the Legislative Office Building were Reps. Daryl Abbas, R-Salem, and Casey Conley, D-Dover.
House Clerk Paul Smith clarified the mask rules in the House.
“Members of the House must wear masks when entering the LOB, walking around in hallways, utilizing facilities, etc. Members can only remove their masks if they are sitting in their assigned committee seats and are socially distanced; this is done in conjunction with the air purifying machines installed in every room,” Smith said in an email.
The State House and Legislative Office Building are still closed to the public because of COVID-19. Members of the public who testify at committee meetings must do so remotely.