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As Some Scofflaw N.H. Businesses Violate COVID-19 Orders, Enforcement Remains Limited

Pete Nakos/NHPR

On May 4, members of Anytime Fitness, a West Lebanon gym, received an unexpected email.

“We are so excited to share with you that our doors are now OPEN,” it read. 

The gym, part of a nationwide chain that offers members 24-hour-a-day access, said it would limit the number of entrants to 30 people, and ensure that machines were wiped down frequently. 

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“The safety and health of our members and staff are of utmost importance as we adhere to COVID-19 policies,” the gym told its members.

One policy that Anytime Fitness is violating, however, is that it isn’t allowed to open at all.

An email announcing the reopening of the Anytime Fitness location in West Lebanon sent May 4.

While Gov. Chris Sununu’s emergency orders allow retail shops, campgrounds and state parks to open in the state, gyms and other health facilities, along with a range of other entities where crowds may gather, must remain closed in New Hampshire. 

Anytime Fitness, however, said it will continue to let in members.

“Being closed for a certain amount of time, yes, that’s an inconvenience,” Sean Kuit, the owner of the West Lebanon gym, told NHPR. “Being closed and not being told when you will be allowed to reopen? That’s just a travesty.”

Records provided by the N.H. Department of Justice indicate that the number of businesses like Anytime Fitness that are violating the state’s ‘Stay at Home’ order remains small. 

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But the potential for future conflict could grow as the economic strain of the shutdown weighs down on owners, and the state’s phased re-opening of the economy, with different industries being held to different guidelines and timelines, creates the possibility for confusion or frustration. Underlying all of this, of course, is the public health risk that officials say is shaping the state’s strategy and which could be thwarted if businesses choose to violate reopening guidelines. 

Anytime Fitness isn’t alone in violating the wide range of COVID-19 guidelines issued by the state in recent weeks. A driving range in Newfields, the governor’s hometown, drew in a steady stream of golfers over the weekend, despite the fact that driving ranges have not been given permission to reopen. (Golf courses, however, did reopen for play on Monday.)

A memorandum issued by Attorney General Gordon MacDonald to law enforcement officials laid out possible penalties that individuals could face for violating Sununu’s orders, including a misdemeanor charge for disorderly conduct. Businesses could also face fines of up to $20,000, under current state law. 

It isn’t clear how many businesses may be violating the governor’s orders, however. According to the New Hampshire Department of Justice, business and property owners in at least six towns--Bedford, Newport, Thornton, Loudon, Jackson and Londonderry--were issued written warnings by local officials. The DOJ didn't immediately provide copies of those warnings, but town officials shared records with NHPR.

The violations include a gym in Newport that opened earlier this week--and then quickly shut down--after receiving a warning from local officials. In both Londonderry and Jackson, local landlords were offering short-term rentals to visitors from out of state in violation of the COVID-19 guidelines, until receiving a warning from police.

There are also a range of smaller infractions that may go unreported although not unnoticed, such as retail employees not wearing masks, or employers failing to take the temperature of their workers, as required by the governor’s most recent guidelines. 

According to state officials, residents shouldn’t expect the cavalry to swoop in on these infractions.

“Residents are encouraged to have a conversation with local law enforcement if they are concerned about violations of the governor’s orders,” a state official said in response to a question from NHPR about how citizens can report concerns. 

New Hampshire’s enforcement policies and approach to potential violations appear largely in line with neighboring states. In Vermont, TJ Donovan, the state’s Attorney General, has the authority to issue daily fines of up to $1,000 to any businesses that are caught violating that state’s executive orders pertaining to the coronavirus. 

Donovan hasn’t brought any civil or criminal actions to date. 

“Vermont’s approach has been to prioritize education and voluntary compliance with Governor Scott’s Executive Order and Addendums,” his office said in a statement. “The Attorney General’s Office has been working with and encouraging Vermont’s law enforcement and State agency partners to implement this approach.”

Authorities in Maine appear to have taken a more aggressive approach, in at least one case. Earlier this month, the owner of Sunday River Brewing Company in Bethel opened for in-service dining in violation of Gov. Janet Mills’ order mandating that restaurants limit their offerings to takeout. 

The state issued citations and eventually stripped Sunday River Brewing of both its liquor and health licenses after the eatery reopened twice in violation of statewide guidelines, according to the Press Herald.

In New Hampshire, Sununu has said he hopes to avoid a similar showdown with any businesses that choose to violate his orders.

“We always want to work with individuals as opposed to coming down with a heavy hand,” he said during a press conference on Wednesday.

He added that retailers would be wise to closely adhere to guidelines designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus, as that would ultimately lead to additional reopening measures.

“We want to take additional steps," Sununu said. "And we don’t want a few bad apples to spoil it for the whole bunch.”

For Sean Kuit of Anytime Fitness in West Lebanon, he doesn’t see his early reopening as spoiling anything. He said he believes he’s providing a vital service to his members, who include essential workers like doctors and nurses.

And,he said, as the pandemic lingers, time in a gym is something many people need to stay stable.

“There are some mental health issues for some people if they don’t get their physical health,” Kuit said.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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