Governor Sununu has issued an emergency stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The order goes into effect this evening at midnight and is scheduled to last through May 4.
NHPR’s Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with the governor Friday about the state’s response to the pandemic.
Note: Because of the governor's cell phone connection, the audio for this interview is difficult to understand in places.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Rick Ganley: You had previously downplayed calls to declare a stay-at-home order like this, saying it wasn't necessary. So why now?
Chris Sununu: Well, what really is a concern, and where the consistency is important -- a lot of folks are calling for the shelter in place. We received letters from mayors and folks for shelter in place. This is not a shelter in place. Well, let's pray we never go to a shelter in place. That's when you're really shutting down roads, and you're really forcing people to stay in their homes.
So what we're doing is very similar to what we see in Massachusetts, right? In terms of, you know, we appreciate that our economy is so connected to our surrounding states in a regional manner, whether it's how we telecommute, our families and our communities. So in looking at the modelling, we know we're going to be in this for a couple more weeks. We are going to see a surge, and it's real and it's going to get a little scary for folks. There's going to be a bit of a run on our health care system, and so anything we can do to suppress that.
And when we look at the modeling, we're in a very advantageous position compared to our neighbors. We don't have the number of positives that Massachusetts [has]. We don't have the rate of infection that even Vermont has. So we've been able to take some time, look at the data. And in doing that, we said, well, it makes sense that if we're going to get to this point anyway, let's give folks time to plan and prepare.
We knew that schools were likely going to go past our original date... I think April 4 was the original date. We knew that was going to be extended. So we wanted to align all of these things up so people can plan, prepare with their businesses, their families and schooling. And so we said, okay, you know what, now is the time to do it because, yes, even though we're kind of ahead of the game in terms of the infection rate compared to other states, we want people to have the time to be able to plan and prepare.
Rick Ganley: But has there been something about the nature of the threat that you've heard of that's changed your mind into doing this? I know you want to be proactive, of course, but is there something that you're seeing in the modeling that's indicated, you know, there's something that's changed?
Chris Sununu: Nothing has changed other than it's not going away, right? So I guess maybe there was always some hope that we'd start to see a down curve or would start to see something leveling off. You always want to hold on to that. But at the end of the day, we know that about two or three weeks from now is a rough estimation, and that that could change too. We're in completely uncharted territory. No one's ever seen anything like this.
But my sense is two to three weeks from now, the model says that our system is going to really start feeling the pressure. And so which is why we've been so aggressive about creating our flex, what we call our flex facilities for hospitals, the extra beds, the surge facilities, which has 2,000 bed capacity and adding another 1,000 to 2,000 more beds across the state so the system will be ready. So nothing has changed other than what we originally thought might happen, it looks like it is going to happen. So let's be proactive and give folks that time to prepare.
Rick Ganley: I know you're encouraging Granite Staters to get outdoors every day, do some exercise, you know, stay healthy. You did issue an order to close the state beaches as of midnight tonight. Should people feel safe at state parks, which will remain open? I'm thinking about hiking trails. Sometimes you have to pass very close by people when you're walking. Are further closures of those outdoor areas going to follow at some point?
Chris Sununu: I don't think so. You know, our parks I'll say this, when you're hiking, you can keep a much better social distancing. The feel with the state beaches is you're going to get folks from Maine, or Massachusetts and even New Hampshire really descending onto some of those single points. And as big and beautiful as Hampton Beach is, if you get 50,000 people there, you just get to a point where you're not going to be able to keep the social distancing. And so as the weekends get warmer and warmer -- I think this weekend would've been fine and next weekend it might have been fine -- but to be honest, the pressure would have grown to a position where we would be asking those over in Hampton and Rye to manage an unmanageable situation.
So we said, look, let's just make the clear decision. Let's take that points out of the mix. Like you said, when you're hiking, you can pass people, but you also don't have to, right? I mean, we're really asking people if you're going to go hiking, enjoy it, but keep that social distancing. If you get to the top of the hill, or the mountain or a single point, really make sure that you and your party are a small group and you're keeping your distance from other folks. It's just much more manageable. And what we've seen in Massachusetts already, they have a very similar model. It's been working well and we suspect it will work well here too.
Rick Ganley: Are you going to be monitoring that to see if any further action would be needed?
Chris Sununu: Oh, sure. You know, we'll have folks out in the parks system constantly. We're actually gearing up for that now. We're actually going to be loosening some of the hiring freeze that we put on. So we can make sure that we have the staff and personnel to ensure that a lot of that distancing is taking place. It's not going to be perfect, to be sure. But I think everyone feels pretty confident, especially given the open air condition, the fact that you don't have a single point where everyone just goes to and sits at, like a beach, for hours and hours on end. People are constantly moving, and you have the flexibility with a small party to be nimble. We feel very confident it should work, but we'll be out monitoring to be sure.
Rick Ganley: The formal order issued yesterday explicitly gives state and local police, as well as state health officials "the authority to enforce this order." I know you told reporters yesterday that the order will not force people to remain inside or empower police to confront those who are outside, and that you don't expect law enforcement to harass anyone. Can you explain how you see this order being enforced?
Chris Sununu: Look, just again, we're elevating the message. We want people to know they need to stay at home unless they're coming out for, you know, whether it's exercise, or work or going to get groceries, some vital need of theirs. They are healthier at home. All the data says that you are much healthier at home.
In terms of the enforcement side, I don't think anyone in law enforcement across the state wants to be in a position or put themselves in a position, where you're forcing people to do X, Y and Z. So we're just gonna constantly be reminding folks what the rules are. I think that's probably more what it's going to be. They haven't had any problems with this in other states and we don't anticipate that here.
Rick Ganley: I know you extended the statewide school closure by another month, until May 4th. Students have been home now for two weeks. Many parents, because of work and other demands, simply lack the time and resources to oversee schooling, especially when you're talking about such an extended period of time. Are you concerned about the impact that this is having on educational disparities for kids across the state?
Chris Sununu: I've got to tell you, remote learning has been launched here in New Hampshire. It's going remarkably well. I mean, we're getting national recognition, not just for rolling it out quickly [with] the fact that every student was up and running in a remote learning atmosphere within a week, but the fact that also teachers and parents are now working to adapt those lesson plans to make them more flexible for the students. Maybe it's based on time that they're with the parent or the time of day.
It was a bit of a strong push up front. But now that folks know we're going to be in it for a month, all these new opportunities are coming up. And I mean, it could be little things, right? It could be the fact that you have children's authors doing art classes online. You have gyms that are now closed, whether voluntarily or now forced to be closed, are now putting exercises for kids online. We know there's a constraint on parents. It is a really tough situation. But you see small you know -- the ability for folks that might not have the Internet connectivity to be using books and paper, kind of the old analog way of learning.
Rick Ganley: I wanted to ask you about that, Governor. There's a lot of folks, especially in western and northern parts of the state, who don't have reliable broadband.
Chris Sununu: You know, and not all remote learning is online by any means. So even in parts of the state that if you're not online, they're kind of picking up their homework bags. They're doing things in a lot of very innovative ways. But every part of the state, whether you have broadband or not, whether you have a good connection or not, has a remote learning opportunity. So they've been very creative in terms of how to do it.
And again, we just very much appreciate the teachers, the parents, the principals and superintendents. They've all told us almost across the board it's going well. And it's not just the reading, and writing and arithmetic, it's all those ancillary services. The food insecurities and making sure kids get meals, and some of the special ed services, all those other pieces. The mental health services and behavioral health services that traditionally come through a school setting are now being provided in other means as well. So it's really a full mix in a way that you'd typically see in the classroom. We've changed our model. It is not exactly the same, and it will have some bumps, but the fact that it's gone up and running so successfully is a testament to the state.
Rick Ganley: Do you worry at all about teachers not having eyes on students and kids who may be in home situations that are not ideal and abuse cases that are going unreported?
Chris Sununu: Yes, I mean, and it's not just that the teachers' responsibility, but it's the system, right? So we've had a drastic reduction in the number of calls to DCYF and concerns to DCYF, and that gives us a lot of concern. So, you know, we put a lot of preventive measures of re-instituted prevention programs about a year or so ago into our system that had been, you know, wiped out for dumb budget reasons, frankly, years ago. We put those back in. And so we have our DCYF workers. We're hiring them up and making sure they're doing those proactive visits. So we are very concerned, to be sure. We're putting more folks on the front line staff to help alleviate that concern as best we can.
Rick Ganley: The pandemic is already having a big effect, obviously, on the economy. Have you or other city officials begun trying to forecast what the impact might look like in terms of unemployment numbers, and business closures and so on? You know, two, three, four months down the road?
Chris Sununu: It's going to be staggering. It's going to be absolutely staggering. You know, the decisions we are making, there's not a decision I make that probably isn't negatively affecting someone's life in terms of their ability to put food on the table. And that was incredibly, incredibly heavy. So we're trying to model not just the viral spread. How long are we going to be in this? What [is] the unemployment impact? That's why we tried to, and did extend unemployment insurance so broadly for anyone that's going to be impacted. They can least get something. It's why I insured people cannot be evicted or foreclosed on, or your utilities can't be shut off. I think [was] one of the first executive orders I did.
We want folks to know that this is going to be financially a very bumpy ride. There is an end game. That's the good news. I don't believe it will be drawn out as a typical economic recession would be. We want to make sure people can feel safe in their home. Hopefully they can have enough to put food on the table and keep the heat on and utilities on, and keep their kids in a safe position, and themselves and their families in a safe position.
The federal government has been a great partner in this, and our delegation has fought hard to make sure that more financial opportunity will be there, not just for business, but for individuals. So huge financial impact. We also have more opportunities than ever before, I think, to address it and prepare for it. And that financial help is coming. But you're looking at unemployment rates of 20, 30 percent at least. I mean, it has to be. We had 40,000 new folks on the unemployment rolls with full or partial unemployment last week. The previous record was about 4,000. So in just one week, we were ten times worse than the previous record. And that isn't slowing down. It's probably just going to speed up, frankly.
Rick Ganley: It's going to be a big hit, obviously, to the state budget. I mean, have you begun talking with leaders in the legislature about how you're going to address this?
Chris Sununu: Yeah, well, I mean, my first discussions with all the folks within the executive branch who manage their own individual budgets, that was basically put a freeze on all new hires with some exceptions -- corrections, DCYF, a few of the areas that are in most need. We're going through those possibilities, department by department, where we've got to put a hold on pretty much all new programs right now. And we're gonna have to look very hard at some pretty deep budget cuts. There's no doubt about it.
Now, the federal government, too, is hopefully going to be able to -- I mean, we're going to get at least $1.25 billion with this bill if the House can pass it. That's a minimum $1.25 billion to the state for a variety of different things. It's all outlined. So it doesn't just replace lost revenue, but it will provide a lot of supports for the services that we're currently providing. So as we're digging in that and we've been doing it for the past couple days, we'll be kind of 24/7 on it over the weekend, I think that'll give us a better sense of where the cuts really need to be, how deep we have to go. But there will be severe cuts, not just in New Hampshire, not just in your city or town, but all across this country.
The good news is this, I really believe because our economics, especially our earnings were so strong. We has this incredibly strong economy coming into this. That's going to give us the resiliency, I think, to bounce out of it faster than most. So, you know, we're making some tough decisions. We know it impacts live. But there will be an end to this and we will be able to bounce back.
Rick Ganley: One last question for you, Governor. Looking ahead a little bit, this order takes us into May 4. What do you see beyond that? Do you see the possibility that, like Vermont, we may end up closing schools for the rest of the year?
Chris Sununu: It is a possibility, to be sure. We really don't know. And that's why, again, we've pushed that out about five weeks. Given the unknown nature of this, I wouldn't like to go any further in five weeks. If we have to go beyond May 4, we'd probably just [end up] closing schools for the rest of the year. But we're really not at that decision point by any means right now. I mean, we could even see in a couple of weeks, this could really start dropping off quickly, given all the social distancing and good practices we've put in place. We've never seen a model like this, right? So we're just going to take it a little bit week by week on our end, but give people the planning ability on their end, and in a few weeks we'll start really digging into the data. We'll see how strong the state is, and then we'll make decisions to go forward from there.