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Locals Bristle As Out-of-Towners Fleeing Virus Hunker Down In New Hampshire Homes

Annie Ropeik
New Yorkers Lauren Gaudette and Garrett Neff left Manhattan three weeks ago to hunker down and avoid coronavirus in Gaudette's family lake house in Wolfeboro.

New Hampshire's summer tourism season is still months away. But many towns with economies built around seasonal visitors are seeing an influx of second homeowners and renters.

The new arrivals are looking for an escape amid the coronavirus pandemic – causing an unsual sense of tension in places where locals and out-of-towners can usually coexist.

On a recent sunny day in a mostly empty downtown Wolfeboro, in the Lakes Region, Edward Manchur of Gloucester, MA was pulling into a parking spot by the water.

He made the two-hour drive north for one thing: “This is kind of where I come for solace,” he says.

Wofleboro has built itself on providing that. But in the time of coronavirus, it's not that simple. 

“I generally don’t spend any time around anybody else,” Manchur says. “I’m pretty much by myself, and I try to make sure I keep a distance.”

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This balance between escape and distance is one that seasonal towns in New Hampshire are newly grappling with right now.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, public health officials say people should stay home. But places like Wolfeboro – with peace and quiet, a beautiful setting, and a sense of seclusion – are attractive to people looking to escape the path of the virus.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
Downtown Wolfeboro sits mostly empty as residents shelter and businesses close due to coronavirus restrictions.

"We’re just grateful to be here,” says New Yorker Lauren Gaudette. “I think not everybody is fortunate to be able to get out of the cesspool of New York right now.”

Gaudette and her partner Garrett Neff are among the refugees looking to ride out COVID-19 in New Hampshire.

They left home in Manhattan with their two cocker spaniels three weeks ago, thanks to flexible work schedules – Neff is a model with a men's swimwear line, and Gaudette works at Ralph Lauren.

They drove north to hole up in the home on Lake Wentworth that's been in Gaudette's family for nearly a century. 

“We don’t own a car because we live in New York City,” Neff says. “So we rented a car, it has New York plates. We’ve gotten a few looks.”

“I’ve gotten some yelling,” Gaudette says. “Like, 'who let you out of the state,' you know, things like that. It’s been a mixed response." 

But they feel safer than at home. As New York became an epicenter of the virus, Neff says they were worried about taking their dogs in and out of their apartment building multiple times a day.

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Since arriving in Wolfeboro, they've tried to stay home except for a few trips to the grocery or hardware store for necessities.

“You interact with so many more people and more surfaces in New York City than you do up here,” he says. “You know, we have a house, we're the only people going in and out of the house… we don’t have to touch a doorbell, we don't have to ride in this small elevator where someone could have just ridden up and sneezed. So this is definitely the place to be.”

Locals who've been here all winter have mixed feelings on the early return of seasonal residents. Gordon Lang works at Garwoods, a downtown pub that's struggling to stay open for takeout. Lang thinks the out-of-towners should be staying away for now.

“We don’t want to turn this into something where we don’t like the people from out of town – but just at this time, they shouldn’t be coming here,” he says. “But we hope to see them again – if summer gets back to normal, come back to your houses, we’d love to see you. And that's the only way most of these places are going to survive." 

'You interact with so many more people in New York City than you do up here. This is definitely the place to be.'

The conversation about this is a lot more pointed on social media, where year-round residents are up in arms voicing their fears about what the influx means for local healthcare systems, hiking trails, even availability of toilet paper in country stores.

Some have urged Gov. Chris Sununu to close the state's borders, which he says he wouldn't do even if he could.

"But we just have to maintain a vigilance and a good, strong community message that if you are from out-of-state, you do need to self-quarantine for two weeks,” Sununu said at a press conference Monday.

That's the state's new recommendation – not a requirement, as it's being enforced in some other states, including neighboring Vermont. 

In Wolfeboro, as days of social distancing drag on, full-time residents are keeping a wary eye on who's coming and going. Local Rudy Meyer says he ran into a convoy from Massachusetts while mountain biking nearby the other day. 

"I think a lot of people are trying to come up – they want to go mountain biking, they want to go hiking, as we all do,” he says. “But you know, don’t come if you don’t live here.” 

A sentiment like that might be tough to swallow for locals who are used to welcoming outsiders. But public health officials say, the more everyone stays put, the faster towns like Wolfeboro can get back to their normal seasonal rhythm.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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