President Donald Trump’s rally scheduled for Saturday in New Hampshire will take place amid a debate about political events and public health. And it comes as much of the country sees a surge in the number of coronavirus cases.
Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with NHPR’s health reporter Jason Moon about the public health backdrop here in New Hampshire for the president’s visit.
(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Rick Ganley: I mentioned we're seeing big spikes in the number of cases across the country. What is the situation like now here in New Hampshire?
Jason Moon: Well, relative to a lot of other states, especially in the South and the West right now, we are doing okay. We've seen a slow, steady decline in the number of new cases. Our hospitalizations, they peaked at around 125. They're now down to just 25 or so. And so that trend, it actually puts us in a minority of states in the U.S. Most states right now are seeing increases in new cases at this point.
But, of course, the virus is still here in New Hampshire. Five people have died just so far this week. And when you look around New England, compared to Vermont and Maine, we've had more COVID-19 cases and more COVID-19 deaths than Vermont and Maine combined. So it's always relative, but compared to a lot of states, we're doing okay.
Rick Ganley: Some of the spikes in other parts of the country, Jason, have been blamed on states reopening too quickly. What's the reopening trajectory look like here in New Hampshire?
Jason Moon: Well, if you think back to March, Gov. Sununu was reluctant to even take us into a shutdown. Way back on March 11, he said a state of emergency would not be necessary. Two days later, he declared a state of emergency. And of course, over the next few weeks, everything - schools, most businesses - were shut down.
Things really began to reopen starting May 1. That's when we got the stay-at-home 2.0 order. And ever since then, he's steadily relaxed restrictions. We got outdoor restaurant seating in mid-May. State beaches reopened in early June. And just a few weeks ago, outdoor visits at nursing homes were allowed to restart. Now, on Tuesday, earlier this week, we got a little insight onto where we might be going next from the governor. Here's the governor at a press conference responding to a question about whether we should allow the use of reusable grocery bags again.
"I've got to tell you, you know, I'm cautious to make any more adjustments, to keep flexing things open. And whether it's using something like reusable bags, or creating more or flexing businesses open, you know, more and more knowing that the numbers are increasing across the country, knowing that we could be in line for another spike. So I don't want to have to go backwards."
Rick Ganley: So, Jason, it sounds like we'll be in a holding pattern, at least for the time being in the Granite State.
Jason Moon: Yeah, I think so. And I think you can hear there Sununu, you know, just as he was reluctant to start the lockdown, he's also afraid of ending it too quickly and being forced to do what some other governors have had to do, which is reverse course and go back into tighter restrictions in the face of a second wave of cases.
Rick Ganley: How is the president's visit playing into all of this, Jason?
Jason Moon: It's certainly generating some discussion, as you might imagine. Some people are worried that the rally itself is a public health risk that could lead to a spike in cases in New Hampshire. You know, that's certainly possible. Luckily, we have not seen outbreaks associated with other large outdoor events in New Hampshire, like recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
But still, we've had some city councilors in Portsmouth debate whether a mask requirement should be implemented in response to the visit. A lot of Democrats at the state level are calling on Gov. Sununu to issue an emergency order requiring masks soon. He is refusing to do that. I think in a larger sense, what we're kind of seeing is some protectiveness of where New Hampshire is with the virus. You know, again, we're in a relatively good spot.
And so for some people, the idea of Trump's visit kind of threatens that, either literally with the event itself or just sort of conceptually, because, you know, the president won't wear a mask and he's still using language like "the virus will eventually just disappear." And he contradicts his own public health experts.
And there's actually a bit of polling that I think gets at this. Some recent polling shows that around 70 percent of people in New Hampshire approve of the way Gov. Sununu has handled the pandemic so far. According to that same poll, just 30 percent of New Hampshire residents feel the same way about how the president has handled it so far. So I think this weekend, in a sense, we are seeing the collision of those two sentiments.