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Sununu Says Vaccination Rate Is Why He Dropped Mask Mandate; Says There's No Systemic Racism In N.H.

Face masks
Centers for Disease Control

Gov. Sununu is lifting nearly all statewide limits on businesses and public activities related to the pandemic within the next few weeks.

The statewide mask mandate expired on Friday, and by May 7, all required business restrictions will be replaced with voluntary guidance.

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NHPR's Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with the governor about the state's new response to the ongoing pandemic, his reaction to the House budget proposal, and the State House debate over organizations and schools discussing systemic racism.

Note: The following transcript was machine-generated and lightly edited for clarity  

Rick Ganley: Thank you so much for taking some time to talk to us this morning. You know, when you first imposed the mask mandate back in the fall, you said it was important to let the data guide your decisions - I should say, back last year. The situation in long term care facilities, of course, has improved dramatically, as has health care staffing pressure. But our test positivity rate remains roughly the same as back when the mandate was imposed. And, you know, we're still seeing rising hospitalizations and some widespread transmission. These are all data points that you pointed to when opposing the mask mandate. So why not rely on that same data now?

Chris Sununu: Well, we're in such a different position. So when you look at the fatality rate, that's what this is really about. That's been dropped 90 percent. And we have vaccines. We did not even have a vaccine, a single shot in an arm back in November when we took the decision to put the mask mandate in. And not only do we have vaccines, we're among the fastest in the country in terms of administering at this point. And that's what it's really about allowing those in the most vulnerable populations to be protected.

And we've gone so far beyond that, not just long term care. We've had folks 16 and up being able to get their shots for a few weeks now. We have even out-of-staters. We have so much vaccine available. As of this morning, we're even making it available to out-of-staters. So the vaccine is the key here. And that's what gives a lot of folks the confidence to be back out in the community, to going out to dinner, seeing their grandkids, all these things that have really been sacrificed over the past year and gives us a lot of confidence to move things up.

We're going to have high case numbers, I think, for quite some time. I think we're going to see surges of high case numbers. You know, we'll come out of this spring surge, but then we'll probably see it again in the fall. So COVID is going to be with us. There's no sign that COVID itself is going away potentially for a few years. But now that the vaccine is here and it's still viable, the efficacy rate is so high, we can all make that choice to protect ourselves.

Some will choose to do it. Some will not. But we have a very high uptake right now in New Hampshire. We're kind of leading the country in that statistic as well. So all these data points come together to say we can start loosening things up and creating a little more flexibility for our system.

Rick Ganley: Well, let me ask you about some of that hesitancy. What about the people who are hesitant or even outright hostile about getting a vaccine? You know, polling has shown there's some skepticism, especially among Republican men. Do you see that as a risk to public health in the long run?

Chris Sununu: It's their choice, right? So if I'm vaccinated and you're not, you're making that choice. I'm fine. I've protected myself. If you're going to take the risk then that's absolutely your choice. You could go to your doctor and get a vaccine tomorrow if you really wanted to. And I think over time, a lot of folks will kind of make sure that there's not, you know, drastic side effects and maybe people will become more comfortable with it as we get in business.

The vaccine's only been out a few months. So I understand some folks' hesitancy. We want everyone to get it, of course. But that's their choice. And because we've been so fast about it in New Hampshire that we're really at that point where people are choosing. They're not waiting in line anymore so to say. They're really choosing to make that choice for themselves or not. And so far, the folks in New Hampshire have done a phenomenal job. I think at the end of the day, we'll have north of 60 percent vaccinated.

Rick Ganley: Dr. Ben Chan, the state's epidemiologist, was not present when you announced a loosening of several COVID restrictions. What was Dr. Chan's advice to you on the decision to loosen these restrictions? And, you know, what's he saying about when it comes to public health, what would he would like to see?

Chris Sununu: Sure. So, look, everything we do is hand in hand with public health, and they still have a very strong message, which we support. With wearing masks and social distancing, that is really, really important stuff. And that is their mission. That's their guide. And, of course, you know, our job is to make sure that we kind of provide that balance in terms of personal responsibility, flexibility, economic opportunity, getting kids back to school. All those other variables kind of come into play. So I'm very proud. I can't say it's every state out there. But here in New Hampshire, everything we do is in consultation with public health.

Rick Ganley: Is Dr. Chan on board with this?

Chris Sununu: Yes. We talk to public health about a week, a week and a half beforehand about the timing, when things would come out. You know, we looked at -- one example -- we looked at the data point. When we get rid of the business restrictions on May 7, that's because at that point, 97 percent of people in New Hampshire who will have wanted a shot will have at least gotten their first shot. That's an amazing statistic. And when we look at that data, I said, look, your public health, we need to make sure that we're encouraging wearing masks and social distancing and all that other stuff.

The state mandates, right? That's a bit of a different story. Restaurants can have a mask mandate. That's great. Businesses can do what they want. That's terrific. We encourage all of that. But when you get to the point of the state putting in the mandate and enforcing it from Pittsburgh to Nashua -- And what's happening in Nashua, or Manchester or the southern border is very different than the rest of the state. And so when we do a mandate, it's a very big deal.

You have to remember this - 220 cities and towns, all with different levels of COVID, all with different variables and situations. And so when you look at it as a whole like that, of course if we can have the opportunity for the state to take that mandate off, that's a big deal. That's a huge opportunity for the state. But we very much walk hand in hand with public health and are still encouraging good business practices, the social practices. You know, COVID's going to be with us for some time.

Rick Ganley: Let's talk about schools a little bit. Health officials say masks are essential to mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in schools where hardly any students are vaccinated, of course, because of age. Why are you mandating that all schools reopen fully this week without also mandating masks in schools?

Chris Sununu: Well, first, schools can open and they are opening today. Today is an incredible day. It's been over a year since we've had virtually every school open five days a week. What an amazing opportunity for kids. We've had, you know, through, let's say, December, January, over half the schools in the state were fully open. Most of them required masks, and they did the right things and they didn't have any major outbreaks. They had models that showed it could work very, very successfully. And that was even before the vaccine was available.

And now that the vaccine is available, we vaccinated teachers. We know the symptoms. Even when kids get it, they are much less symptomatic, at a much lower overall risk in the general population. That's a very, very good thing. So, again, we've always provided flexibility from day one back in September in terms of masks and distancing and all of that, because every school is different. Every school has to manage. If you put a rock solid mandate on all 100 different recommendations that we put in our school guidance, no school would open because, you know, it's just so hard for just one of those things would kind of cause the school to close down.

So by providing that flexibility, I think schools have done a phenomenal job. The teachers and the administrators, they've done an amazing job managing themselves and keeping the outbreaks -- if we had massive outbreaks -- that might be a different story, but we don't, right? Their models worked really well. And all we asked is that the remaining schools, the few remaining schools, take up a lot of those models, make some of those tough decisions and actually get these kids back in. Because the risk of keeping kids out of school far outweighs the risk to cope with it at this point.

Rick Ganley: I want to turn a little bit to what's happening in Concord at the State House. Republican lawmakers are seeking to bar public money from going to groups that teach, as they put it, that certain races are inherently victims or oppressors. Critics say that they could make it harder to teach about systemic racism. Can you tell us what that phrase, systemic racism, means to you and how you see it playing out in New Hampshire now?

Chris Sununu: Well, look, we do not have systemic racism in New Hampshire, but I do believe we have elements of racism and implicit bias throughout all parts of our community. And so it's not just a school issue or a law enforcement issue. It's a cultural issue. And so I think that's something that we want to be aggressive about. That's something that we started way back last summer putting different programs into place, better community involvement in certain areas, working with not just individuals, but organization.

And so, again, going after this isn't something where you just provide some funding, or check the box or say we're going to do it now and we're good. We're going to go on to the next thing. This is something that takes time. And again, I'm very proud of the way that different parts of the state stepped up and said, "we're going to embrace this. We're going to say, 'what can we do better?'"

So I don't like the term systemic racism because that has a lot of implicit biases in itself, right? When you when you get to that point. So I think we just have to be very open about saying, look, there are biases throughout our community. We have to be open and understanding to that.

This critical race theory stuff and how it's being taught. I don't like the idea of critical race being taught in our schools and to our kids. And if that's happening, then parents have the ability to step up and talk to their schools about that. I mean, there's a direct bias in just discussing that, right? Some of those ideas can get very controversial, very divisive within the schools themselves. And so I understand a lot of the pushback.

Now is it the place of government to come in and tell schools what they can and can't say? Well, that's kind of big government stuff that I'm not a big fan of. And that's why I've said that House Bill 544, I'd veto it. I'm not supportive of that bill. But I think part of that is because we have local control. We have a very active community with parents and teachers and kind of understanding, you know, what's appropriate and what's not. And if there's something that's happening in the classroom, as a parent I can tell you, if there's something happening in my kids classroom, I'm going to go say something about it. And we're going to talk about it and find a better path.

Rick Ganley: You see this as a First Amendment issue?

Partially a First Amendment issue, partially a local control issue, partially a look, if we get into the process of government starting to ban this and ban that, what you can say here, whether it's in the classroom or not, you're going down a very slippery path, I think. And Republicans and conservatives might have their say on what's banned today in New Hampshire. And Democrats and liberals will say what's banned tomorrow. And then it's just a tit for tat thing. And so I just get very concerned about the government's place in that position as opposed to a parent's place and a community's place, and actually having the discussion and finding a better path without government mandates.

Rick Ganley: Yeah, I'm wondering about this bill prohibiting taxpayer funding for implicit bias training for police. That's something that you've endorsed your support of your police reform commission's recommendations.

Chris Sununu: Oh, sure. No, look, we're going to go through with implicit bias training for police, for communities, for schools. We're going to create that opportunity for a lot of different folks. And so, whether it's taxpayer funded or otherwise, those are important discussions to be had, and good education, good retraining for folks. And what that training might have looked like ten years ago might be very different than today. And what that training looks like today might be very different than ten years from now. And so it has to evolve.

It isn't something that really should be static. I think it evolves with the national discussion. You know, examples of what has worked and hasn't worked is obviously good models and models that aren't as successful. So I think there's just a huge amount of opportunity to do it right.

Rick Ganley: Let's turn to the state budget process for a moment. You've expressed disappointment with the House plan that passed a week ago and said the Senate is where things will take firmer shape. So what's your role there? Do you see yourself playing more of a role in this stage of the budget process?

Chris Sununu: Well, yeah. I mean, look, I've been involved in every stage of the process. Obviously, I submitted my budget back in February. I meet with the House and Senate leaders on a weekly basis. You know, every budget I've done, I've done one with Republicans and one with Democrats, the House process is always a bit messy, for lack of a better word. You have 400 individuals. Everyone wants their say on it.

You know, it could probably be a lot more balanced. There's a lot of non-germane things in there. That's fine. Nothing we haven't seen before. Doesn't worry me too too much. The Senate is always where it kind of comes together. And then ultimately the committee of conference, right? Then we have that step where it comes back to the House and we get more involved in and, what do they say? That's where they make the sausage. I think that's the old State House term. You know, everything kind of gets put in there and taken out, and the real negotiation happens.

So, still early on in the process, but I'm very confident that we're going to get something really viable. And that's a great opportunity with tax cuts across the board for New Hampshire with just a great opportunity for communities returning,  property taxpayer dollars, by means of lowering some of that burden that folks have at a localized level. Because we can invest in wastewater projects, or drinking water projects or things that otherwise would cost the property tax payers money.

We're going to send cash back to these communities to actually pick up some of these projects for them. And so I just think there's a whole world of opportunity there and we still got a long way to go. But I'm very confident.

Rick Ganley: Well, we just have a minute here. But I want to ask you, House Republicans have made it clear that many of the policies they passed, and that you have been critical of, are must-haves for them. How do you intend to convince them otherwise? And can we presume that you'd be ready to veto a budget if those sorts of things are in the bill that hits your desk?

Chris Sununu: Well, look, if there's certain things in the bill that just shouldn't happen. Then, of course, I have no problem vetoing it, whether it's a budget or any piece of legislation. But, you know, one thing I've learned, it's my third budget, my third time around the block, so to say, must-haves today aren't necessarily must-haves tomorrow. And everything can be discussed and kind of batted around, and with good discussion and better understanding of the pushes and pulls of all these different pieces. Again, I'm just very confident we'll get to a good place.

Rick Ganley: What might you be willing to compromise on?

Chris Sununu: Look, I'm willing to compromise on a lot of things. The things I don't really compromise on in a budget are non-germane things, right? Things that aren't budgetary, they don't belong in the budget. If you want to take them as a separate bill, by all means, let's have that open and public discussion. But you can't just be throwing things in there that have nothing to do with the budget.

I'm a firm believer we need paid family leave in there. I'm a firm believer we need the tax cuts in there. But again, everything is really negotiable if it's a budgetary item. And look, I'm a good listener. Maybe I'm not realizing there's certain aspects to something that I suppose that really can't happen or are just not a good use of dollars, maybe a duplicative effort. I'm very open to those discussions and having a better understanding of where they're coming from, just like I hope that they're open to kind of hearing our side. But at the end of the day, we come up with something good for New Hampshire.

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.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.

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