By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Summer concerts, weddings, and indoor performing arts centers now have a voice on the Governor’s Economic Reopening Task Force.
On Friday, the task force also heard a statewide COVID-19 health update that shows the virus on a continuing decline.
Members were also told the state may see as many as 40,000 vaccines enter the state next week, up from about 28,000 this week. That would be if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approves a new vaccine.
Gov. Chris Sununu told the public Thursday to expect him to begin to relax some restrictions for businesses in the coming weeks following advice and input from health officials who are looking particularly at hospitalization rates, death rates and new case rates as the primary metrics.
All of those statistics are now going down.
Charyl Reardon, representing the New Hampshire attractions industry and president of White Mountain Attractions, told the task force that some are suffering from last summer’s occupancy levels and loss of not only income but employees due to the pandemic.
She said the industry is hoping for capacity restrictions to be lifted, noting about 30 percent of a loss of jobs last year for people working at those attractions. But she said given the health crisis, the limitations on the industry were totally understandable.
The task force also welcomed two new representatives of outdoor venues and performing arts centers Friday and are expecting another new member from the wedding industry to help shape recommendations for how the summer business with COVID-19 will look this year.
Sununu has named R.J. Harding of the large concert venue Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion in Gilford and Nicolette Clark, executive director of the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord, to represent their respective fields and the governor has not yet announced a representative from the wedding industry.
Both Clark and Harding attended the virtual meeting by phone Friday. The hope is that the individual to represent the wedding industry will be named in time for the next meeting of the Governor’s Economic Reopening Task Force.
Public comments to the task force Friday included information that a petition to open the bar industry’s darts and billiards, bar entertainment, and games is being distributed and submitted to the governor. Those are limited right now by the governor to prevent the community spread of COVID-19.
The commission has recommendations on reopening these recreational opportunities in the pandemic and are waiting on the governor’s approval, said D.J. Bettencourt, chair of the task force. He did not specify a time frame.
Public Health Update
Trish Tilley, deputy director of the Division of Public Health, told the task force there were modest decreases in COVID-19 cases in the state this week compared to last week. She said the state now has more outreach capacity to do contact tracing again.
Initially, the state did research on where and how all cases of COVID-19 were being contracted and transmitted but was unable to keep up with everyone who was exposed as the number of cases exploded earlier this winter.
Tilley said the state is now nearing the mark of having 75,000 cases confirmed since last March. Spikes in cases are being seen mostly in the university settings with increased positives leading to remote learning, Tilley said. Most transmission there, she said, have been linked to social contacts and not in the classrooms.
The state has also had a few recent clusters of COVID-19 reported in restaurants, manufacturing, retail, and daycare locations, she said.
Vaccines to prevent people from becoming sick or killed by the virus have brought about 5,000 people a day to sites across the state.
Tilley said about 7 percent of the state has been fully vaccinated and about 15 percent has been administered the first dose.
New Hampshire’s transmission rate is a little bit higher than its neighboring states right now, she said particularly compared to Maine and Vermont.
“Massachusetts is looking a little better, not significantly but better than us,” and both states are among the 45 that have identified variants of the virus.
The state is expecting more good news next week as it works to vaccinate more of the state’s population. About 28,000 doses were received this past week and that was better than last week. Next week may mean up to 40,000 shots arrive if Johnson & Johnson gets emergency use authorization to release its one-dose vaccine, Tilley said. That could come this weekend and the doses could roll out next week.
“We are deep in the process of reaching the homebound population,” Tilley said, and noted next week that the Department of Health and Human Services will likely be launching a new hotline to connect those residents with vaccines.
And she said as more vaccine arrives in New Hampshire, “we are preparing in earnest for the next phase” of the rollout which will include teachers, child care workers, summer camp staff and their support staff, Tilley said.
“We still have a ways to go to get through Phase 1B,” which includes people age 65 and up, but she said people should expect next week to hear more about the rollout plans for the next phase. Tilley said travel is still a concern.
“It is just not a time to jump on planes and go here and there,” she stressed. Transmission levels are higher than other times in the pandemic although they are coming down. She urged continued wearing of masks and for travelers to take advantage of testing “if you have to travel.”
Mike Somers, executive director of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, said there are a lot of “pressing issues” for the industry as it looks to summer and the phones at his office are ringing off the hook with questions.
“We continue to get a ton of calls,” Somers said on entertainment and allowing bands back into bars. There are also a number of other questions related to again expanding outdoor options in warmer months.
State Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, D-Manchester, said he is working on an amendment to an existing bill in the Senate to address concerns related to executive orders and said he is working with the prime sponsor, state Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, to add. But it could be addressed also in the House, Cavanaugh said.
Somers said municipalities have the choice and power to work with restaurants on expanded outdoor dining but if encroaching a state road, the state emergency order would apply. Bettencourt said the state’s role also includes an extended liquor license.
The next meeting of the task force is set for 11 a.m. on March 11.