By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Gov. Chris Sununu said reducing the rooms and meals tax to help restaurants and hotels is on the table.
He said he will work with the legislature to try to help the businesses survive and one way might be to reduce the tax.
During his weekly press briefing in which state officials reported 79 new cases of COVID-19 and one new death on Thursday, the governor noted that hotels and restaurants are among the areas hardest hit economically by the pandemic.
“Absolutely,” he said when asked if he would consider an effort to reduce the 9 percent rooms and meals tax.
Under Chapter 78-A, the state asks restaurants, hotels, and grocery stores that sell prepared food to collect a 9 percent tax for them on top of the cost of the meal or room.
Sununu recently told the Executive Council that rooms and meals revenue was only about 17 percent off of the anticipated levels, which he said was pretty impressive given the situation and much better than in other states.
Sununu held an outdoor roundtable on Sept. 25 with southern New Hampshire restaurateurs and hinted the idea of reducing the tax could be a way to help the industry. But he noted he would need the help of the legislature.
On Thursday, he said the economic picture of the state continues to improve with the unemployment rate, which before COVID-19 was at 2.4 percent, is now at 4.1 percent.
He called it “just phenomenal.”
In addition to restaurants and hotels, another hardest hit area of the economy has been in hospitals and health-care centers which eliminated many routine procedures and care.
Sununu said meals and rentals tax continue to be below expectations but he said there are fewer of those businesses closing now than in past years, perhaps helped by various federal stimulus programs. He said there are about 5,000 businesses now in the state collecting meals and rental taxes. “They are surviving which is a great sign,” he said, adding they are not necessarily thriving.
The state is refocusing its data message as it relates to COVID-19 statistics by going with a new stat: the number of cases per 100,000 on average over a seven-day period. Currently, that number for New Hampshire is 53.
But in some cities like Nashua and Manchester, that number is 120.
The data shows there are 531 active cases across the state but most are in three counties: Rockingham, Strafford, and Hillsborough.
Active hospitalizations are on the rise. There are 14 active hospitalizations now but Sununu said there is still plenty of capacity with several thousand beds empty. Another important data point the state will continue to watch, unfortunately, are total fatalities.
“Each one is a tragedy,” Sununu said.
With one new death reported Thursday, of an elderly resident of a long-term care facility, the state has seen 449 deaths attributed to COVID-19. The final important data point is the percent of positive cases relative to the number of tests administered. Back when the state was doing 100 or 200 tests a day, that rate was closer to 15 percent but now the state is doing in some cases 10,000 tests a day and that rate is at about 1 percent.
47% of Schools Open
Sununu said if you count all the educational institutions in the state, about 47 percent are operating fully in-person classes while about 37 percent are in some sort of hybrid learning model and about 14 percent are fully remote.
He acknowledged that some schools are having a hard time finding substitute teachers and he said there could be federal relief funds used to help pay for more, but it is not only an issue of compensation but of finding people able and willing to do that work.
He said about 100 kids who were in schools are sick right now but a big issue in schools also is quarantining large groups who may have been impacted and that they have to go to remote learning.
In March, Sununu created a $28 million relief fund through the federal CARES Act aimed at helping the childcare industry recover and cope with new needs caused by the pandemic.
He said Thursday he is putting $10 million more into that effort with a new fund, administered through state Department of Health and Human Services with applications open online until Nov. 6.
“Our state child care centers played a hugely important role,” to allow parents to work and in some cases re-enter the workforce.”
He said there will be a continuing need there.
State drought conditions as of Thursday continued to worsen and widen with now 20 percent of the state in extreme drought status with wells are going dry. In response, Sununu is working with state Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, to create a drought relief fund to help residents pay for new wells.
“A lot of their wells are simply dry,” he said, and a new well can cost $5,000 or more. He said he and Morse will work with Bob Scott, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Services, to free up funds in the drinking water trust fund to help residents. He said several million dollars may be available.
Long-Term Care Outbreaks
Lori Shibinette, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Human Services, announced that the state was closing a COVID-19 outbreak case at the Mountain View nursing home in Ossipee but adding a new case reported at Pine Rock Manor in Warner with four residents and one staffer testing positive for COVID-19.
An outbreak also continues at Bedford Hills nursing home, she said.
Shibinette said the state is in very good shape with its stockpile of personal protective equipment to distribute throughout the state. She said usually there is three or four months of stockpiled equipment. Four people work to procure and maintain the stockpile, searching worldwide for the material.
What is least in supply are large gloves although a supply of gloves arrived Thursday and more is on its way.