Gov. Chris Sununu says the state is working on a plan to reopen the economy in phases. Sununu's stay-at-home order is scheduled to end next week on May 4.
NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with him about how he's working with local and regional leaders on plans to reopen.
(Editor's note: Because of the governor's cell phone connection, the audio for this interview is difficult to understand in places. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Rick Ganley: Let's talk about reopening. I know states like Georgia and Tennessee are beginning to loosen some restrictions, but you've indicated that a full reopening is a ways off for us here in New Hampshire and whatever we do here has to be done in phases. What are some of the practical forms that might take? Will some regions open up before others? Will some specific industries open up? How do you see that working?
Chris Sununu: Yeah. So, you know, it's an interesting dynamic because New Hampshire has done a great job of suppressing the viral spread, given that Massachusetts is such a hotbed just a mile south of us, right? Look at their hospitals. They're kind of overloaded into their health care system. They're managing, and I think [Gov. Charlie Baker] has done a great job, but they have a lot of issues that we don't want to up here.
So we will take a phased approach with businesses. We may take a phased approach with the stay-at-home order itself. We'd like to loosen that a little bit. But again, public health always has to be kind of preeminent in our decisions, making sure we don't open ourselves up to enticing folks from Massachusetts to come up here, spread the virus unintentionally, and create a bigger problem for ourselves in the long run.
Rick Ganley: So you're obviously coordinating with the governors of Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine, I imagine, because you want open up at the same time. What would it look like?
Chris Sununu: So we're all sharing ideas on both timing and the business sectors that we're looking at. So, for example, I think everybody agrees that we'd like to see hospitals, and outpatient surgeries and some of the initial steps of getting hospitals and health care going again. And hopefully, you know, that'll be done sooner than later. I think everyone agrees that they're more equipped to do that, to maintain testing and [personal protective equipment], supplies and things of that nature.
There's also some simpler things that we can do, I think. Things like barbershops or salons, where again you have a whole new guidance, but you're only letting maybe a few people in at a time. You're doing everything by reservation. You're still helping supply them with [personal protective equipment], things of that nature. Our economy is more open than other states. So, for example, Vermont has already taken steps to to loosen things up over there. But really they're kind of catching up to where we already are, specifically around construction and a few other areas. You know, they had a real epidemic issue with New Yorkers.
Rick Ganley: So what you're saying is Vermont is doing essentially now what New Hampshire has been doing all along?
Chris Sununu: Yeah. They're kind of catching up to where we are, yeah. And I've been working with Govs. Scott, Mills and Baker, you know, almost on a daily basis. And again, we kind of have these draft guidance documents that our task forces put together. We're sharing them with Vermont and Maine, and they're sharing their documents with ours. So they won't look exactly the same, but I think we all agree that, you know, our timing should be roughly the same just for continuity of message. We're all roughly in the same boat here.
And there are certain things here that can't open because of Massachusetts unfortunately. Things like hotels, travel and tourism, venues, things of that nature are going to be much harder because those are all designed around attracting people out of Massachusetts. So you have to be careful not to create that unintentional viral spread again.
Rick Ganley: Yeah, and of course, it is the time of year when businesses in the tourism industry are trying to gear up for the summer season, talking about hiring for the season. What is your guidance for them? What are you telling them right now?
Chris Sununu: So we'll create some guidance documents. I mean, they're working on that now. We have a task force that are bringing in stakeholders. So they'll have a say. Public health will have a say. There's a legislative advisory committee as part of that task force as well, and they'll have a say. And then they'll put all the ideas into a pot and craft a guidance document that we'll put out. And then we'll see when we actually enact the timing of those guidance when it's feasible. But something for travel and tourism is probably gonna have to wait a little longer than, you know, hospitals or elective surgeries.
Rick Ganley: Is it a case where you think maybe it's not going to be the same, obviously around Memorial Day, but maybe in July, in August, we'll get back to some sort of normalcy? Or what's your vision there?
Chris Sununu: That's our hope, of course. You know, I can tell you this, if it's 100 degrees on July Fourth and we haven't opened the beaches in some way, that's going to be very problematic for a lot of folks. Now, again, you know, we may have to just kind of be holding the tide back as best we can. But we just know that there are certain societal pressures that are going to come. And we have to have the strength to say no. We have to put public health first.
And these decisions are going to be tough. They're going to be very, very tough, which is why we're enticing all of the stakeholder input. We're having all of these meetings in public. We're getting the legislature involved as well and making sure we put all those ideas on the table. But I mean, things like beaches. You know, that's the one I haven't figured that one out yet. I've figured a lot of stuff, but that's a real, real tough one. And we're gonna keep working with not just ourselves, but we work with Maine and Massachusetts specifically on that area [and with] those chambers of commerce, those beach commissions they have in those areas so that maybe we could all take a step forward together.
Rick Ganley: But there's just no timetable here. We can't put a date on anything.
Chris Sununu: Unfortunately not. I would love to give a timetable. I mean, you want to give people certainty in a time of crisis, because there's so much anxiety over the unknown of the future. So you want to give certainty, but you just don't know. Now our numbers are decreasing. That's good. We're on a slow decreasing path, but we still have a ways to go. We had another 77 cases yesterday (Monday), but we're testing at such a greater level. We're testing five, six times what we used to do. So the percentage of positives are going down. And that's a really, really good sign.
Rick Ganley: Well, you bring up testing here. The state is working to expand testing. What are the specific metrics that you're looking at to assess how and when to start loosening things up? Are there specific milestones that you want to see before you start phasing in a plan?
Chris Sununu: Sure. So the CDC guidance document, I think, is a good backbone to look at. And what they basically say is we on 14 days of continually better testing results. And so it could be the overall number, or more accurately, would be the percentage of your positive test. So, for example, as we ramp up the number of tests we do, obviously we're going to get more positives. But what we're already seeing is the percentage of positives go down. So, for example, we could go about 20 percent of the number of tests we did came up positive on a single day and started to decrease. And now we're down around 10 percent. And we hope that that continues to decrease to the point where we're doing 1,000 tests and only getting 10 or 20 positives. That would be great.But you really want to see that trend over about a two week period. And so that's one of the most important data points we're looking at.
Secondly, remember, this was all about the health care system, right? This was all about making sure we didn't run on the health care system and overuse beds in hospitals. And so that data point is very, very important to us. And that one has maintained extremely low levels, and that's a very good sign. So that we know even if there was a surge, even if it came back two, three, four times what we have today, we could handle it within our hospital system. And that's the most important thing that we can handle it in the hospital system.
Rick Ganley: We just haven't seen that overwhelming surge that we were worried about.
Chris Sununu: No. I mean, I think, right now we've got 100-120 people in hospital beds. And that's very tough for those individuals, of course, but we have thousands and thousands of beds available, which is why we feel comfortable knowing that we could probably step open with some of these hospitals doing elective surgeries and still have plenty of excess capacity to take care of any patients that may surge with [COVID-19].
Rick Ganley: What's your feeling about how different the state's going to look like after all of this, governor? What's your sense there?
Chris Sununu: So my sense is six months we still look very different. A year from now, we look a little different. And two years from now, we're back, our economy's back truly in full swing. And there are some parts of the economy that are going to come roaring back very, very quick. We know that. There are some parts that are going to take literally a couple of years.
And one example I give is airlines. I was talking to the CEOs within the airline industry recently, and unfortunately, they say, look, we're going to get our flights going, but consumers just aren't going to be traveling, not just for six months in a year, but probably two or three years where they're not going to come back at the levels that they were. And so, you know, they're already looking within their industry having some very sober, but I think very real discussions that they have to have about the impact that this is going to have on them nationally.
You know, the Disney Worlds of the world. I know it's not New Hampshire, but, you know, Disney World and tourism, international tourism, that's going to look very, very different. And while that's down in Florida, international tourism also does have a place in New England, which does impact our economy in many indirect ways. So I think, we're still probably not going to come back a full, full strength for a couple of years economically. I think we get our businesses going, of course, but I don't know if we're going to really see having the strongest economy on the East Coast and those incredible numbers of 2.5 percent unemployment, lowest poverty rate in the country. That was all here two months ago. And we hope to get back there, but it might take a little while.