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Gov. Sununu Talks Plans For Re-Opening New Hampshire In May

Dan Tuohy / NHPR

Gov.  Chris Sununu is loosening restrictions on several parts of the state’s economy throughout the month of May.

On Friday, the governor extended his stay-at-home order to the end of the month, with some key amendments. Retailers will be allowed a limited number of customers in their stores beginning May 11, and restaurants can open with outdoor dining beginning May 18.

NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Sununu about his plans to slowly reopen the economy within the next few weeks.

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(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

Rick Ganley: Governor, you announced you're loosening some of these restrictions on your original stay at home order, which [originally expired] today (May 4). Restaurants, retailers, hair salons and a few other businesses can begin conducting some business again. You said you felt confident about this because of promising developments in COVID-19 here in the state. But on the same day that you made that announcement Friday, the state saw its highest single day death total. And new cases as a percentage of all tests actually rose for several days preceding that. So why make the decision now, despite the fact that some of the benchmarks haven't been met yet?

Chris Sununu: The benchmarks are being met. When you look at the number of overall positive tests to the number of overall tests for doing so--

Rick Ganley: Can you explain that a little bit?

Chris Sununu: Sure. So because we've been able to ramp up testing capacity. I mean, when we first started, we were doing 200 or 300 tests a day. I think the other day we did close to 1,600 tests in a single day. So yes, we had like 150 or 160 positive out of, you know, I think on that day that we announced there were 1,200 or 1,300 tests being done. So about two weeks ago, we were seeing numbers in maybe 15 to 20, 15, 16 percent of our total number of tests would come out positive. This past week we're seeing more like 12, 10, even I think 7 percent the other day. So we're on a general downward trend. And when we made the announcement, the first 20 minutes I spent on the data. I wanted people to really understand all the different metrics we're looking at. [Editor’s note: Federal guidelines say states should see “a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period” or downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period” before moving to a phased reopening. Data from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, below, show an overall decline in the share of positive cases as a percentage of total tests, with a peak on April 15. The decline has not been consistent; last week saw a five-day daily increase in positive cases as a share of total tests, as measured as a three-day average. ] 


The second metric, very important metric is the run on the health care system. In other words, we have bed capacity. If we were to experience another surge or as we'd start doing other surgeries, do we have the bed capacity to make sure that we'll be able to take care of the patients that need to be taken care of? That's really the most important metric in all of this. A lot of these restrictions were done to ensure we don't run up the health care system and we're able to show that, yes. I mean, I think right now the total number of beds in hospitals being used by [COVID-19] patients is about 5 percent. It's been consistently there. So that gives us a lot of confidence as well going forward that we can do it.

So increasing in testing, a dropping of the overall percentage of the positive cases, making sure you have that bed capacity. And then when you also look at the rate that people come in on any given day to the hospital, that's another metric that the Department of Public Health looks at. And again, seek guidance and all this is done with the support of the Department of Public Health. We have all the data, the scientists. We do nothing without public health's back.

Rick Ganley: Now, I get your points here, Gov., but you mentioned testing and that benchmark of 1,500 tests a day. We did reach that for one day, but that was one day out of the week that in many cases and there's been 200 or 300 tests a day. So I'm wondering if you feel like the testing really is at the point where you have all the data that you need?

Chris Sununu: Well, look, we're going to keep trying to ramp up the testing as fast as we can. About a week and a half ago, we were at 600 or 700 tests a day and we moved it up to about 1,100 tests a day. And now our goal is to get to 1,500 tests a day. So as the supplies comes in, we're going to keep increasing our capacity as we move forward.

And remember, we're not opening this stuff up today. When you think of hospitals. We want hospitals to do their elective surgeries starting today. But retail and barber shops, restaurants, those are like two weeks from now. So we're kind of just getting folks ready so they can gear up in between now and those two weeks. We'll have more data. We'll be increasing our testing constantly and really make sure that we're there.

And by the way, this has been a fixed, phased approach. These are steps. We can step forward. We can step backward. We can step forward quickly. We can get backwards quickly. So we've tried to keep ourselves very nimble. And if for some reason we get a second surge or something like that, we can always pull back if we have to. But everything we do is going to be data driven.

Rick Ganley: I know that you said in the past you're worried about doing that, though, taking that step forward than having to pull back again.

Chris Sununu: Very scared. Oh, my goodness. I mean, I don't think there's any decision I make when I'm not very nervous about it. I mean, these are unprecedented times and unprecedented decisions. It's why I'm going to be frank. I'm losing my hair rapidly and I don't sleep very much. But when you have the backing of a great team, when you're doing things based on data, not on politics or a hunch or anything like that, we're working with the CDC daily. We work with our folks here daily. And I mean, other states are saying, well, we're just gonna go. I'm not there. We should not be there. Especially given what we know is going on in Massachusetts. That's really a severe outbreak.

You know, one of the other big metrics that we're looking at is now that we can see consistently, unfortunately, about half of our positive cases on any given day are from long-term care facilities. And that's incredibly unfortunate because you have these outbreaks that are going. But it also means that only about half of the cases are in what I'd call the general community with community transmission. So, again, that gives us also more confidence that, you know, when we're talking about kind of the general public, this is in a very manageable situation right now. But again, to your point, if this were to explode, if it were to move too rapidly and we have to pull back, we're going to be prepared to do it. We don't want to, but we'll be prepared.

Rick Ganley: But again, originally, what we were talking about, I know for the last several weeks is that you've been saying for some time you wanted to see 14 straight days of declines in case numbers before backing away from restrictions. The data shows clearly that's not really happened.

Chris Sununu: Well, if you go back 14 days, the percent of positive cases, it's around April 15, I think we really peak out, something like that -- I don't have the numbers in front of me -- the 14, 15, 16 of April. We kind of peak out at 15, 17 percent of our cases on those days and in the days surrounding. And we do a three-day rolling average, by the way, we don't just do a single day. We were about 15-17 percent positive. And then it started to drop precipitously. I think at one point it got down to about 5 percent positive about a week ago, and now it's back about 7, 8, 9 percent. But again, we're going to see it kind of bounce up and down a little bit here. We just want to make sure it doesn't start spiking all the way back up. But if you go back 14 days, you'll see the percent positive and that's really about where where it peaked out. And that's what the CDC recommends about a 14 day continual trend. 

Rick Ganley: There are still restrictions on how non-essential businesses can operate once they are allowed to reopen in the next week or two, like limiting the number of customers in stores. How will the state enforce those rules?

Chris Sununu: So, you know, what we don't want to do is enter a phase where we have the stay-at-home police, right? And we are going to ask the retailers to use good judgment on their own. We don't want to be in an enforcement mode where we're arresting people or anything like that. The good news is this, all of these guidance documents we've put out are from their associations. These are recommendations we did in conjunction with the Retail Association, with the Restaurant Association. So they they take real ownership in this. It isn't so much as I'm doing it to them. We're kind of walking step by step. And I think that gives us a lot of confidence that these restrictions can be adhered to. And they know that we always have the ability to pull back. They don't want us to do that. So there's a great interest on the side of retailers, or restaurants or barbershops to make sure they're following the rules and standing by it, because otherwise we'd have to take, you know, even worse action. And nobody wants that.

Rick Ganley: Have you heard any push back from retail owners, business owners who say we're not ready yet?

Chris Sununu: No, because if you're not ready, you don't need to open. I mean, that's it. We're not mandating an open. If you're a retailer that doesn't feel comfortable, or is having trouble hiring your employees back or whatever it might be, you don't have to open by any means. So we're just allowing that option to go forward for some of them starting next week and the following week. So we're giving them time to gear up as well. You know, we don't want to, again, go so fast that it would create a kink in the system, if you will. We want people to gradually be able to step into it. Also, we'll have more data and all that kind of stuff. So I think we tried to phase this out and take these steps at an appropriate time. But if folks don't want to open, if they don't feel comfortable, if a barbershop doesn't feel comfortable opening, they don't have to. But again, we'll have the [personal protective equipment] available to them. We have these new guidelines that are available for them, and it's there to protect the employees and the customers.

Rick Ganley: Let's turn to the economic recovery aspect. The office you established to oversee the more than $1.2 billion in federal aid has been meeting regularly. When do you anticipate sending that money out the door and where is it going to go first?

Chris Sununu: So a lot of money has already gone out the door. I mean, we've put a few hundred million dollars, maybe not a few, $150-200 million out the door for various things like backing up the hospitals financially. We did a lot just in terms our localized [COVID-19] costs, the other costs on [personal protective equipment] and equipment. The state alone has borne probably $20-30 million of the cost already because we're trying to bury it for the entire state.

We have a plan and we're working with cities and towns to put up their [COVID-19] costs as well. We're looking to do something for first responders. We've put a lot of money $30 million will go out this month just for the front line Medicaid workers within long-term care facilities, providing them a financial stipend to incentivize them to keep moving forward. So there's a variety of areas. Some of it can go to unemployment, amped up unemployment benefits that we've tried to kind of create. So people feel comfortable. I don't want to say feel comfortable, but at least have more than what would traditionally be allowed under unemployment so they can pay their rent, or their mortgage or whatever it is during this this very difficult time.

So there's a variety of areas where we've already put the money out. We have some that we're looking to put out to nonprofits, small businesses, especially, businesses that didn't participate in the PPP program that couldn't for some reason. All of these are kind of the next steps of consideration that the task force in working with the bipartisan budget committee is working on and taking the next step.

Rick Ganley: Well, I want to talk about that a little bit. Transparency, Gov., how will you be accounting for all that spending?

Chris Sununu: Completely transparent. That's one of the hallmarks of everything we do here. So for example, right now you can go on and see all the dollars to date that have been spent on their website. But to create something even to kind of take it to a second or third tier of transparency, I'd love to get to a place where you have a map, right? You can click on a town. You can click on an industry. You can click on a business. People need to know where every dollar is going and it's going to be accounted for. And they're working with a developer now to design that system. We're still in the early phases. The dollars will be spent between now and December and we'll phase it out over time. I think everyone agrees that's the smart thing to do, because we just don't know what the needs might be in November or September. This is such an unknown crisis that we're in.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.

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