Gov. Chris Sununu rolled out a limited reopening plan for some areas of New Hampshire’s economy Friday, citing what he called a “downward trend” in the overall rate of coronavirus cases and the readiness of the state’s hospitals to handle any surge in infections.
Sununu's announcement came as the state recorded its highest single day death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic, with nine new fatalities. That brings the total number of coronavirus deaths in the state to 81. The total number of confirmed cases in New Hampshire stands at 2,310.
Sununu, however, said he was prepared to “flex open” some sectors of the economy, as the state’s testing capacity rises and the level of available bed space as well as personal protective equipment at hospitals is considered adequate.
“We are taking steps to reopen our economy in a smart, phased approach that’s supported by facts, science and data,” said Sununu during a press conference.
The reopening plan released Friday, which Sununu dubbed “Stay At Home 2.0,” allows health care facilities to begin resuming elective and other time-sensitive procedures on May 4. Employees and patients will be screened for coronavirus symptoms before being allowed to enter any facility, and all providers are asked to monitor their levels of PPE to ensure adequate supplies.
On May 11, hair salons, barber shops and cosmetology businesses can reopen for basic services as long as both employees and customers wear cloth face masks.
Golf courses in the state will be allowed to reopen on May 11, although only New Hampshire residents or current members of a club will be permitted to play. Drive-in movie theaters can also begin screenings on May 11.
Sununu’s plan allows for retail stores to begin allowing customers to enter stores on May 11, although all businesses need to limit occupancy at 50 percent of normal capacity. Employees will also be required to wear cloth masks.
On May 18, restaurants, which have been limited to delivery and take-out since the state of emergency began, will be allowed to resume outdoor or sidewalk food service.
The state’s Seacoast beaches will remain closed for the time being, with Sununu citing concerns that opening New Hampshire’s coast without similar reopenings in Massachusetts will lead to an influx of out-of-staters, potentially spreading the virus.
Campgrounds, which have been allowed to remain open during the state of emergency, will now only be permitted to host New Hampshire residents or members. Pools and other communal outdoor spaces at campgrounds will remain closed.
Sununu made no announcements concerning summer camps, despite making it a priority sector for his reopening task force, which has spent the past two weeks working on a set of recommendations.
Places of worship, hotels, gyms, bowling alleys and similar places where large crowds may gather will remain closed for the time being, with no timetable announced for when restrictions may be lifted.
“We are not taking a giant leap forward,” said Sununu. “We are just not at that point, but we do want to provide the opportunity to flex some of these things open.”
Weighing Public Health Concerns
Sununu’s announcement of a limited reopening of certain businesses comes despite the state apparently falling short of its own previously stated public health benchmarks.
A roadmap released in mid-April by the governor’s office said that a first phase of reopening the economy should only take place “after New Hampshire reports a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days (one incubation period) or a reduction in hospitalizations to ensure our healthcare infrastructure can safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization.”
Over the past two weeks, the state has seen the current number of residents hospitalized due to COVID-19 continue to grow. As of Thursday, 112 people were hospitalized, the highest single day figure to date.
Sununu said during his press conference the rate of new hospitalizations has begun to slow over the past week, citing a color coded chart. The prior seven-day period, however, saw an overall increase in new hospitalizations.
“It gives us a lot of confidence that, again, if there were another surge of COVID, if we do add additional surgeries or procedures, our system can handle the capacity,” said Sununu.
The number of confirmed cases also continues to rise, an expected outcome following the increased availability of testing in recent weeks. But the percentage of positive test results each day, considered a better indicator of the spread of the virus, continues to fluctuate in New Hampshire. While down from its peak in mid-April, a three-day rolling average of positive cases measured as a percent of the total number of tests climbed during the past week, according to a chart provided by the governor’s office.
Nevertheless, Sununu said during Friday’s press conference that he was working to align New Hampshire’s reopening with neighboring states.
The governors of Vermont and Maine also announced partial reopening measures in recent days, as cases in those states continue to either fall or remain flat. In Vermont, the number of new confirmed new cases during the past two weeks has ranged between zero and 13, well below that state’s peak number of 70 cases from earlier in April.
In Maine, Gov. Janet Mills earlier this week said her state “appears to be successfully flattening the curve” and would begin reopening sectors of the economy beginning May 1. Reporting in the Press Herald published Wednesday found that in Maine the number of active COVID-19 cases fell below 400 on Wednesday, the lowest level since April 12. The number of active cases in that state peaked on April 17 at 446. The number of active cases in New Hampshire has ranged between 950 and nearly 1,100 for the past week and a half, the highest level since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Despite having a population roughly equal to that of New Hampshire, Maine had 35 residents hospitalized due to the coronavirus as of Thursday, while New Hampshire reported three times as many.
In Massachusetts, where the coronavirus has killed more than 3,500 people, Gov. Charlie Baker extended a "stay at home" advisory through May 18. On Tuesday, he announced a 17-member committee tasked with making recommendations for how the state can safely reopen shuttered sectors of its economy.
Health care, Salons, and Restaurants Get Green Light
Sununu’s reopening announcement comes as the state’s economy continues to reel from pandemic-related business disruptions. Nearly 160,000 residents filed for new unemployment claims during the past six weeks, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. A survey released this week by the Business and Industry Association, a statewide chamber of commerce, found that more than 80 percent of its members saw revenues decline during the state of emergency.
Hospitals and outpatient healthcare facilities have been among the hardest hit sectors. According to an industry group, hospitals are losing $200 million per month in revenues from cancelling profitable elective procedures, a move done to ensure an adequate supply of PPE as well as preserve bed space in preparation for a potential surge in coronavirus cases.
Sununu’s plan will allow hospitals to resume procedures next week, provided they “have a defined process for screening all employees and patients for symptoms of COVID-19,” according to a guidance document released by the governor’s office. “Screening and enhanced use of PPE must be considered depending on the services or treatments performed.”
Hair salons and barber shops will be allowed to reopen on May 11, but no walk-ins clients will be accepted. “Services shall be limited to haircuts and root touch-up color services. No blow-drying of hair,” will be allowed, according to new guidelines. Both employees as well as employees are required to wear cloth masks, and capacity inside any facility will be capped at no more than 10 people.
Retail stores, many of which have converted to curbside pickup or delivery in recent weeks, can begin allowing customers inside, as long as employees wear cloth masks. Customers are also encouraged to wear cloth masks and adhere to social distancing requirements wherever possible. State guidelines say that retailers should, “if feasible and reasonable, establish one-way aisles and traffic patterns for social distancing.”
Restaurants that choose to reopen can “expand outside wherever an outdoor area can be set up safely, such as parking spaces close to entrances, sidewalks, existing patios, lawn area,” according to the state. Tables must be six feet apart and all “outdoor areas must be able to be cleaned and disinfected, as appropriate.”
At the state’s golf courses, members and New Hampshire residents will be permitted to play rounds, but pro shops are to remain closed and club houses will only be open for the use of restrooms. Bunker rakes are prohibited, but roving beer carts will be allowed.
Sununu acknowledged that some stores may not feel comfortable reopening, telling owners it is ultimately their decision.
“No one has to open up; we are not mandating that anybody open,” said Sununu. “We understand that a lot of businesses may still not feel comfortable. Businesses, depending on their set-up may have a hard time adhering to certain guidelines and provisions, and we can appreciate that.”
Maine Takes Steps to Reopen On Friday
Sununu’s partial reopening announcement comes in the same week that Maine Gov. Janet Mills released a four-stage plan to reopen that state’s economy.
Beginning May 1, Maine residents are asked to follow ‘Stay Safer At Home’ guidelines which still encourage people to stay home “with limited exceptions.” All Maine residents will be required to wear cloth masks in public spaces whenever social distancing efforts may be limited.
Under the first phase of the plan beginning Friday, Mills, a Democrat, is allowing healthcare facilities to reopen. Healthcare providers are to give priority care to patients with time-sensitive conditions, and are required to monitor their PPE levels and maintain adequate bed space for any potential outbreaks.
Along with healthcare facilities, Mills is also permitting the following to reopen on May 1, as long as they adhere to social distancing guidelines: hair salons, barber shops and pet groomers; drive-in (stay in your vehicle) religious services; drive-in movie theaters; golf and frisbee golf courses; guided hunting/fishing expeditions; state parks and historic sites (although certain parks along the coast will remain closed); and auto dealerships and car washes.
On June 1, phase 2 of Maine’s plan will allow the following sectors to reopen: restaurants, gyms, and nail salons; retail stores can begin in-store shopping; lodging and campgrounds for Maine residents only, or visitors who complete a 14-day quarantine; day camps for Maine children; and coastal state parks.
During Phase 3, slated to run through July and August, Mills will permit the following to reopen: spas, tattoo and piercing parlors, and massage facilities; bars; hotels, campgrounds and summer camps will open to out-of-staters; and charter boat and boat tour operations.
Mills is also contemplating a fourth, final phase that would lift all restrictions, though no time table was provided. The reopening plan will be closely monitored by public health officials, Mills said, and could be delayed or backtracked if necessary.
“If Maine CDC detects a resurgence of the virus, the state will move quickly to halt progression through the stages and reimplement restrictions to protect public health and safety,” Mills wrote in her order.
As Cases Drop, Vermont Begins to Reopen
Vermont is also lifting restrictions on its residents. The moves come as Vermont has recorded a sharp decrease in the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, including on Tuesday of this week, when public health officials announced no new confirmed cases.
On April 17, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, laid out an executive order loosening restrictions on outdoor employment. Beginning April 20, those who work outdoors, including civil engineers, contractors, employees in the mining, forestry, landscaping, painting industries were permitted to resume operations with a maximum of five workers at any job site.
Manufacturers and distribution operations were also permitted to reopen as long as they could effectively social distance, and interior construction could resume with no more than five workers inside a job site.
New Hampshire considered many of these industries “essential” and allowed them to remain open during the state of emergency.
Scott announced Friday that beginning May 4, the number of employees allowed to work together onsite in the manufacturing, construction and distribution sectors will rise to ten. On May 11, that restriction will be lifted entirely.
Appraisers, realtors, municipal clerks, attorneys, property managers, and pet care facilities were also permitted to return to work, as long as they met with no more than a single client at any one time.
On April 27, Scott announced that garden centers and greenhouses could begin serving customers, with no more than ten people allowed on property, including staff. Sununu permitted nurseries, garden centers and flower shops to remain open in New Hampshire from the start of his stay-at-home order.
In Vermont, Scott is permitting retailers to begin accepting customers with no more than 10 people allowed in any facility at one time. Starting Monday, libraries in Vermont were also allowed to begin curbside lending to patrons.
Beginning Friday, Vermont’s farmers markets were allowed to reopen, though customers are asked to pre-order items to limit congregation at stalls.