As New Hampshire Begins To Reopen, More CARES Act Aid Released

Tony Schinella

CONCORD, NH — Beginning Monday, Granite Staters are going to have a lot more freedom to get out and about as New Hampshire's Stay-At-Home 2.0 new coronavirus restrictions move into a third phase, of sorts, with a Safer-At-Home Advisory.

Gov. Chris Sununu and Lori Shibinette, the commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, announced the changes at a news conference Thursday along with the release of tens of millions of more dollars from the state's federal CARES Act funds.

The new Safer-At-Home Advisory removes the restrictions on gatherings of 10 people or more and essential vs. nonessential businesses as well as other changes, with expanded guidance and recommendations, to ensure that a surge of COVID-19 cases does not occur. Gyms, as an example, will be allowed to open at 50 percent capacity next week. Outdoor road races can be held with food that is grab and go but not eating while milling around after a race in an effort to limit large crowds. The governor called the road races, which are often charitable events, important and joked later in the news conference that he might have to work off his COVID weight before running a 5K again.

Adult recreational sports, both indoors and outdoors, are getting the OK, and so are some outdoor attractions. Museums, charitable gaming, funeral homes, and other things will reopen with guidance and capacity limitations June 15.

"We're taking, I think, some really positive steps," Sununu said.

Some businesses, however, like amusement parks, movie theaters, performing arts centers, and other businesses are not allowed to open just yet but will be able to on June 29, once the final documents and safety protocols are completed. Those entities are "some of the toughest to manage, going forward," the governor said. Officials are still working on a plan for the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon to host NASCAR races.

CARES Act Funds Released

Sununu announced a number of new initiatives for housing, businesses, and education to utilize CARES Act funds to assist those in need during the pandemic and ensuing economic collapse.

"It doesn't do any good for it to be sitting at the state," the governor said.

A new $35 million housing relief fund was announced to assist tenants and homeowners before the termination of an emergency order on evictions and foreclosures slated for July 1.

The fund will allow one-time grants for households and short-term rental assistance to "provide an off-ramp" for tenants as the state lifts the moratorium on evictions. He stressed the money should be used by tenants to pay off property owners and work out payment structures to avoid evictions and foreclosures. The seven-day window on foreclosures and evictions will be extended to 30 days, too, Sununu said.

About 90 percent of rental units are owned by small businesses or independent owners with 10-units are less. They, too, are facing difficulties due to the pandemic.

"When they don't have a lot of those rental payments coming in, it creates a lot of financial hardship on them, and with their banks," the governor said. "It's a domino effect."

Sununu also thanked New Hampshire banks for working with lenders and businesses, and being "great partners throughout the economic crisis."

Another $15 million will be available in grants to homeless shelters, too, Sununu said, so those organizations could assist the hundreds of homeless people in the state.

The importance of remote work, remote learning, and telehealth during the pandemic had also made it evident to everyone that the state needed to bridge the digital divide by expanding broadband into communities without it — so another $50 million of the funds will be used to expand access to the North Country and other rural areas of the state, including residences, schools, and libraries. The governor called the plan "the last leg" of an investment made by the state 12 years ago with the installation of a fiber loop that was never finished. Sununu called it "a great backbone" to bring "21st century flexibility" to residents in rural communities to work from home, access information, and allow children to be educated at home, if needed.

"It's going to be unlike anything we've done before," Sununu said.

The state is also creating a $2 million partnership with chambers of commerce to keep them up and running, and to assist New Hampshire's business communities with marketing tools, data collections, and business to business transactions at the local level.

Private colleges and universities will also be able to tap into $10 million in funds to assist in offsetting loses due to COVID-19. Only viable institutions before the pandemic can apply for the grants to cover expenses.

"We want to stand with them," Sununu said, "to make sure they are a part of our success and we are a part of theirs."

Later, during the question and answer period, the governor was asked about the private colleges with multi-million endowments and why they should tap into those funds before using public funds. Sununu said most private colleges can't use endowments to pay for operating costs and there were state and federal laws against such activity, too. Sununu added that no private college with more than a $300 million endowment.

According to CollegeRaptor.com, only one private college in New Hampshire has an endowment of more than $300 million: Dartmouth, which had nearly $5 billion, according to the 2017 study, meaning that nearly all other private colleges in the state, assuming they were viable before the pandemic, could tap into the $10 million.

Health Update

Shibinette said the state would be reporting 34 new positive patients later on Thursday with four new hospitalizations and seven new deaths, too. All seven deaths were associated with long-term care facilities. More than 97,000 people in the state have been tested for COVID-19.

Also, one new facility outbreak was reported, at Genesis HealthCare's Bedford Hills Center, where nine residents and 11 staffers were infected. Another outbreak, at the Kimi Nichols Center in Plaistow, had been closed June 10, due to no new infections.

Questions And Answers

The governor was asked why the state was taking these steps now and rolling back some things but not others. Sununu said everything was about context. Everyone was still going to be required to respect the 6 feet social distancing, wear masks in public places or when social distancing was not possible, and also keep up with personal hygiene. At the same time, there was no data showing the state was spiking with cases in any way. Sununu warned a second surge would come, at some point, possibly in the fall, as the common cold and flu take hold again. But the state was prepared, the hospital system was prepared, and he was confident everyone could manage "a little COVID spread" from future summer gatherings.

When asked about the gathering restrictions being limited and whether he thought about other specific numbers, he said it did not make sense. Ten was a good number to start but going to 50, 100, or 500? "At some point, the number becomes arbitrary," he said. At the same time, people who are 60 and older or residents with underlying health conditions needed to stay at home, he said. "They really do," Sununu said. "This virus can become deadly … venturing outside of the home is like throwing a dart at a dartboard in the dark."

When asked if there were any businesses left to guide after June 29 or that would remain closed, the governor said, "We don’t believe so."

There is about $250 to $300 million left in the CARES Act fund that has not been earmarked, Sununu said when asked about it. There might be more, too, since some of the proposals have not been drawn down as much as expected. He cited the long-term care stipend and added that those workers "don't get paid a whole lot of money." Everything else, Sununu said, was on target and would be spent by the December deadline. "Those dollars will be spent … don't get me wrong," he added.

On Wednesday, health officials reported the 15th death of someone under the age of 60. When asked if they were still working with the premise that all of those individuals, as well as the ones over 60, had chronic or underlying health conditions, Shibinette and Sununu both said, "Yes."

When it was noted that the it had been 6 and 10 days since most of New Hampshire's George Floyd memorials and vigils had been held and health officials were using the 5 to 14 day window for infections, they were asked if the state's contact tracing of the most recent patients had shown any outbreaks, clusters, or infections traced back from any of those events. Both Sununu and Shibinette said, "No."

When asked about long-term care infections and deaths and how those workers became infected, Shibinette said it really wasn't one specific way and it was tough to tell. Sometimes, asymptomatic cases did not infect anyone in a facility; other times, workers had. It was really difficult to tell if they got it at the grocery store or someplace else, Shibinette said.

Shibinette added it was really important for people to get a test so that they know if they are infected. She said some health care employees were taking the process very seriously and were getting tested every two weeks.

When asked if those health care employees were coming back positive or negative, she said she didn't have the exact numbers. But it was their close contact with the public that was making them test themselves.

When asked if there was a marker by which state officials would shift gears and lock things down again due to outbreaks or hundreds of positive tests, Shibinette said they were meeting every single day, working with the data, and reevaluating the state of the infections. Events such as significant community transmission or exponential growth that was huge in nature would have to occur before they would scale back the reopening process. It would not be one data point but a combination of points including hospitalization rates, positive tests, and ability to handle more cases. Sununu said he was not trying to be negative but when students come back in the fall, there could be a surge of cases, with contact tracing separating students and letting them work through it. "It's about the pressure on the system," he said, "versus a certain number … all the puzzle pieces have to be assessed."

On whether colleges would be opened up or foreign students allowed to attend university in the state, Sununu said he was unsure but decisions would be made soon so those students could make plans.

Learn More About The Spread Of COVID-19

The COVID-19 virus is spread through respiratory droplets, usually through coughing and sneezing, and exposure to others who are sick or might be showing symptoms.

Health officials emphasize residents should follow these recommendations:

  • Avoid any domestic and international travel, especially on public transportation such as buses, trains, and airplanes.
  • Practice social distancing. Stay at least 6 feet from other people, including distancing while in waiting areas or lines.
  • Anybody who is told to self-quarantine and stay at home due to exposure to a person with confirmed or suspect COVID-19 needs to stay home and not go out into public places.
  • If you are 60 years or older or have chronic medical conditions, you need to stay home and not go out.
  • Avoid gatherings of 10 people or more.
  • Employers need to move to telework as much as possible.
  • There is increasing evidence that this virus can survive for hours or possibly even a few days on surfaces, so people should clean frequently touched surfaces, including door handles, grocery carts and grocery basket handles, etc.

Take the same precautions as you would if you were sick:

  • Stay home and avoid public places when sick (i.e., social distancing).
  • Cover mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing.
  • Wash hands frequently.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces.

More information from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services about coronavirus can be found here on the department's website.

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This article originally appeared on the Concord Patch