Weekly N.H. News Roundup: May 1, 2020 | New Hampshire Public Radio

Weekly N.H. News Roundup: May 1, 2020

Apr 30, 2020

We'll hear from Laconia Mayor Andrew Hosmer, after city officials decided to postpone Bike Week, and the Lakes Region faces economic uncertainty heading into the critical summer tourism season. We'll also check in on the decision over how and when to reopen New Hampshire's economy. Gov. Chris Sununu has said he will make an announcement Friday. And we'll check in on what's happening in Vermont, as officials there discuss a gradual reopening of the state.

 


GUESTS:

  • Andrew Hosmer - Mayor of Laconia 
  • Annie Ropeik - NHPR environment reporter
  • Anna Brown - Director of Research and Analysis at Citizens Count
  • Peter Hirschfeld - VPR reporter

 

This is a computer-generated transcript, and may contain errors. 

Peter Biello

From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Peter Biello and this is the Weekly New Hampshire News Roundup on the Exchange.

This week, as lawmakers debated how and whether to reopen the economy, city officials in Laconia decided to postpone Bike Week. Protesters continue to speak out against the stay at home order, which Governor Sununu is planning to speak about publicly later today. And how is Vermont making decisions about whether to reopen its economy? We're going to take a broad look at COVID 19 news today. We'd like to hear from you. And we're gonna start today's program with a conversation about Laconia and the Lakes region. If you live in Laconia or the Lakes region, we want to hear from you during this part of the show. What are your concerns about this upcoming summer tourist season? Are you hoping to see some easing of restrictions? Are you concerned about moving too quickly?

With us now is Laconia Mayor Andrew Hosmer. The city council voted this week to postpone bike week from June to August. What went into that decision?

Andrew Hosmer

Well, an awful lot went into that decision. As you can imagine, first and foremost was the health and safety of not only the residents of the city of Laconia, but also the surrounding areas, as well as the people who traditionally gather by the tens of thousands in the city.

And as you as you alluded to in your introduction, people are very anxious about the economy and when is it going to bounce back? And we are a travel and tourism destination here in the Lakes region, particularly Laconia. We are very dependent on people coming to visit our beautiful area and spending money. So the idea of postponing it when we're in an economic downswing like this was a very difficult decision. But ultimately we wanted to err on the side of public health. And though it wasn't the easiest decision, the fact is postponing it to August seemed like a proper and responsible thing to do.

Peter Biello

And for those who don't know about Bike Week, just how big an event is it and what kind of businesses might benefit from having bike week?

Andrew Hosmer

Sure. I mean, we're talking about hundreds of thousands of people and depending it's a little different, difficult to gauge the exact numbers. But it is it is significant that the businesses that really benefit of certainly our hotels and our motels, our resorts on the lake, our restaurants, our gas stations are convenience stores. It really benefits everyone up and down the economic ladder because it is such a shot in the arm every single year. And certainly if the weather is with us, it's an even bigger shot in the arm. So it really affects everyone here and we take a great deal of pride in that. So, again, you know, the hard part is making this decision. It wasn't gonna make everybody in the city happy. But ultimately, if we are healthier and safer because of it, I think that's a good decision.

Peter Biello

And has there been much pushback from this decision?

Andrew Hosmer

There are some concerns, certainly. You know, I think what we have to understand is there are a lot of businesses, particularly small businesses, that are hanging on by their fingertips and worried that no one is going to come and eat at their restaurant or stay at their report. And that is people are anxious, to say the least, but in some instance, downright frightened about the possibility of losing a business. So, you know, I think we have to remember how difficult that is. And they have some concerns and they're trying to, in their own minds, balance the risk of opening maybe a little too early, but starting up a business and getting revenue. So, yeah, there has been a little bit of pushback. And clearly the third week in August seemed like a very reasonable alternative. But that interrupts the third week of August and some of the plans and some of the reservations that various resorts and motels in the area have. So, you know, I as I told people, we had a we had to make a decision between a choice that wasn't so good or a choice that was worse. The worst choice we could make, I think, is to cancel Bike Week in its entirety. No one wants that. A less bad choice, if you will, was right. Now, the third week in August. So that's that's where we're at right now.

Peter Biello

And, of course, let's be honest, I mean, we don't exactly know how the rest of the year is going to go. It could be that you do end up having to cancel it. You're not making that call now. But if the stay at home order is in place or goes back into place, if there's another outbreak of COVID 19 that must be a possibility.

Andrew Hosmer

It certainly is. And I think we have to remain sort of nimble in this. We have to be responsive to the evidence and the facts and the direction from the CDC, as well as the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.

So as I said, it's a very fluid situation and I hope we don't get to that point. But it is a realistic possibility based on, you know, a pandemic will go as the pandemic goes. We can't wish our way out of it.

Peter Biello

And, of course, Bike Week is just one of many events and local the local businesses rely on in the upcoming summer months, the major economic driver of the region. There is a lot of uncertainty, but what do you think you can tell us about what the next few months are going to look like in your area?

Andrew Hosmer

Well, it's of course, difficult to predict. But what I can say is that if I were to look back over the past six weeks or so, what I can tell you is that the city of Laconia is remarkably resilient and it's trying times like this that I think we really see the strength of our communities.

We see people reaching out and coming together. And I've been so impressed with our first responders who are putting their health and safety on the line every day. I'm so impressed with our teachers who are who have transferred to remote learning and have done a remarkable job. Groups like Got Lunch Laconia and making sure that our citizens are fed.

I have been very optimistic in these dark days that we will continue to pull together as a community and serve those that are most vulnerable. Once we get through the other side of this pandemic, whether it's at the end of the summer or whether it's into 2021, I know we'll be a stronger community because of it, because I think we are certainly have been empowered that we can we are a resilient and community that perseveres in the face of these challenges.

Peter Biello

Laconia Regional General Hospital has had to furlough roughly 40 percent of its workforce, about 600 positions people. How concerned are you about the hospital's ability to get back to serving the community?

Andrew Hosmer:

I'm tremendously concerned. And, you know, it's been valiant efforts on behalf of all of those at Lakes Region General Hospital years now to try and ride out what we have is a very fragile and in some ways a dysfunctional health care system, not only in our community or state, but across this country. I think the story that we're seeing emerge from Lakes Region General Hospital is indicative of what's going on in many more rural hospitals across this country and that we have a hobbled health care delivery system. You know, our hospital here reflects our community. And as many people know, we have pockets of great wealth, but we also have pockets of poverty.

We have an aging population. We have an underinsured population. We have a higher percentage of Medicaid recipients. And that is a very difficult business model for any hospital to manage. Lakes Region General Hospital has done great up until now. But really, COVID and the elimination of surgeries has crippled them. And they lost 60 percent of their revenue when they had to eliminate surgeries. So I'm very concerned about the economic impact, the well-being of those that have been furloughed. But I have to remain optimistic that with some of the federal relief coming through and certainly some of the relief coming through the state level, which is greatly appreciated, we've been able to stabilize our hospital at this point. But the long term fix is really what we're focused on right now. It has. We need these jobs. We need this hospital. We need it for public health. But we also need it for quality of life in this area. So it's going to be a tremendous challenge. But we're stabilized right now and I'm pleased to see that. But I really I think we're all anxious about the next chapter.

Peter Biello

And so what you mentioned the long term fix. What would a long term fix require in your view?

Andrew Hosmer

Well, I you know, I'm not I'm not a health care expert or health care management expert, but I certainly think that our goal must be that we have a full service hospital here, not only an emergency department and a surgery center, but I would like to see the maternity ward return. I would want to make sure that we still have behavioral health services available as well. You know, this is important to our community. I think it's difficult to convince people what a great city and great area this is to either have a second home or to make it your primary residence when you've got a hobbled health care system. So we really the hospital can't be everything to everybody. What we can do is offer a certain basic level of services that people would feel comfortable and living in this area, starting a business or coming here to work and raise a family. That's what's that's what's critically important for us.

Peter Biello:

You mentioned taking care of vulnerable populations in the Laconia area. So I wanted to mention what the local county has done for some homeless people. The state school building in Laconia has been used for homeless people who've tested positive for the disease. So I wanted to ask you, what kind of activity have you seen there?

Andrew Hosmer

Well, we've seen a very, very moderate levels of activity. I believe the capacity of the building in the state school property is anywhere from 25 to 50 patients right now. As of yesterday, I believe we had either three or four patients there. A couple of people had been released earlier this week. So I have been happy, very happy to see is a great collaborative effort among our fire department, our police department and our public health network here in the city to staff and set up a this operation. I've also been really pleased after a couple of missteps early on that the governor and the Department of Safety have been tremendous as far as communicating with the city and making sure that we laid out 13 points that we'd wanted from the state before they started to house people here in Laconia. And I was very pleased that the state got back to the city in a timely fashion and agreed to all 13, 13 points, which would assure public safety, would assure that if we had a surge of patients, it wouldn't overwhelm our health care network here in the city and also would assure that those, once they were released from quarantine, were transported back to their home communities where they had originated from.

So I'd been very pleased with that. Of course, it's an ongoing situation. We haven't seen the numbers that we could have seen, but we're not through this yet either. So it's now we try to I try to monitor it every day.

Peter Biello

And what's been the community reaction to the use of that site for homeless people who've tested positive?

Andrew Hosmer

Well, the initial community reaction wasn't particularly positive. And I think it had to do with and when I mentioned a couple of missteps early on, it was just in in the communication of what the state school property was going to be used for.

Peter Biello

What were people afraid of? Were people afraid?

Andrew Hosmer

I think people had some concerns that no one had informed them that it was going to be used for homeless, homeless population. So they found out through social media and I found out through social media that it was being considered.

And I think people were blindsided. So I think we had to take a couple steps back and get more information from the state. I think we're concerned about we’re a relatively healthy community, but because of our ageing demographic and our limited capacity at the hospital, we don't have the capacity to handle a surge like some other communities did. So where we're going to take a relatively healthy community and make it a hotspot. And if that were the case, could our local hospital handle the surge of patients? We also had some concerns that people might be wandering off the campus there. And so I think to assure people, you know, the local Laconia Police Department and our state police and the Department of Safety have been terrific in reassuring people that this is a secure facility. It is a compassionate facility staffed by professionals 24 hours a day. And that there were plans in place if people chose to leave, want to leave the facility and go back to their. So those were the things that we were concerned about.

Peter Biello:

We got this note from Pete in Center Harbor who says, I'm very fortunate that during these troubled times I have not lost my job as a cook in the Lakes region. I am concerned with opening up too early as the virus hasn't hit its full peak. How can we open up for broad tourism when the virus is just now starting to infect the Midwest ie meat processing plants. As for bike week being postponed, I would just like to mention that most of the vendors that participate will be coming from states that have yet to experience a spike in infections. I agree that we need to do what is needed for businesses to open, but I advise caution for a second wave.

We also got this comment from someone who wanted to remain anonymous. They say as a small business owner in the Lakes region, who also sees a huge tourism influx in the summer and also is at risk of losing it this year, I nonetheless have to express my concern that even entertaining the concept of bike week this year, let alone at the end of August. Even as states reopen, it is irrefutable to say that there will still be no vaccine in widespread use nor herd immunity. Bringing in half a million people largely out of staters, effectively adding 25 percent to our state's population is itself risky. Doing so. In addition, right now, as schools go back, could compound the risk hugely, meaning that we risk reintroducing covered en masse when our biggest social distancing - the closing of school - ends. I think it is a combination asking for calamity. Andrew Hosmer, want to get your take on those comments from both Anonymous and Pete, who is a Pete who's a cook.

Andrew Hosmer

I think I think Pete really raises the point I discussed early, and that is those that depend on our travel and tourism industry to remain to remain employed. But again, if we don't balance this properly, public health and the economy, we may find ourselves going backwards here and hurting, having more long term negative effects to our economy if it were to open up too early. So I share those concerns certainly with Pete. And and second of all, the word calamity is really striking because I think that second on listener was correct. The idea of opening up too soon and subjecting a vulnerable population to this disease when the second wave may be building may not be the right thing to do. So what I what we do say here, though, and ultimately it's not up to me as the mayor, but we need to be aware of the data that's being produced from credible sources, like epidemiologists are DHHS departments as well as the CDC, and not let this become politicized. It has to be based on evidence as to whether in a prudent fashion we could reopen the local economy or not. And that's what we will be acutely aware of as we progressed through the coming weeks.

Peter Biello

What is the financial impact this has had on the city, if any?

Andrew Hosmer

Well, right now, I applaud my city councilors and the city manager in Laconia, because our budget as we speak right now, is in very good shape. We although we do anticipate come July 1st, the beginning of the new fiscal year when taxes, property taxes will be due, we will see an impact I believe. What that impact looks like right now, it's very difficult to determine. But certainly as this budget year winds down, it's a balanced budget. It's a responsible budget. It is able to fund the needs in this city. And it's a good budget. So I don't anticipate that we're going to have a problem this budget year going forward, though, as we begin to discuss and debate our next budget. I think we all need to be acutely aware of a drop in revenues. The possibility perhaps of stimulus 3.5 or 4.0 from the federal government might be able to backfill some drop in revenues. But we can't depend on it. Therefore, when we build this budget, we have to be very fiscally conservative, fund our needs, but also be very cautious how we're spending any discretionary funds that we may have. So right now, I'm good. I say that we're in we're in good shape. All in all. But I think everyone on the council is just very much aware that going forward, we may find that we have to cut some spending in areas that we don't want to, but it might just be necessary so we don't end up in a debt situation that can be.

Peter Biello

One of the commenters earlier mentioned the potential danger in bringing so many people to the Lakes region for events like Bike Week. But what about, say, second homeowners, people who have houses on the lake and maybe spend the colder winter months in warmer states, but usually take this time of the year to come back to Laconia? Do you have or does the city have any guidance for people who may be coming back and planning on spending the summer in Laconia if they've spent the winter elsewhere?

Andrew Hosmer

That's a great question. We certainly have seen and I've heard from a number of people throughout the city an influx of Massachusetts plates and Connecticut plates and New York plates. People coming up to second homes and leaving hot spots will say in the northeast and coming here to New Hampshire. And I think the only guidance that we ask for is that social distancing is still critically important to flatten the curve that when people come to New Hampshire, it doesn't mean that the rules have changed. Well, you may be in a safer environment here. There may be fewer cases per capita, which is great, but we're able to achieve that because we have social distance and taken just basic precautions of hygiene and sort of keeping to ourselves in our own and our own homes and not leaving unless we absolutely have two or four essential workers. So should those folks quarantine for.

Peter Biello:

Should those folks also self-quarantine for 14 days? That's been the recommendation. You see them on flashing billboards if you cross state lines between here and Vermont, for example.

Andrew Hosmer

Well, that that's going to be I think whether we recommend it or not, that's going to be up to individuals. And they should be taking personal responsibility for the fact that they may be asymptomatic and they may come to an area and be contagious. And we want to prevent that. So I just want people to responsibly, socially distance that if they have a home here and this is their residence, of course, they can come here and they come back to their home. On the other hand, it's about personal responsibility and how we behave. We should mask up when we go out and we should keep that six foot distance at a minimum.

Peter Biello

We got this note from Martha in Laconia who writes, Mayor Hosmer mentioned the efforts of Got Lunch to help feed the children of Laconia during this unanticipated time of need. I write the thank you notes to the donors whose generosity makes possible the purchase of the food that got lunch distributes. I have written over 100 thank you notes to donors since mid-March, a phenomenal response to an unexpected crisis. Thousands of dollars have poured in, which demonstrates that people in the Lakes region really care about others. Martha continues. Thank you to all of those people, the volunteers who get the food to the kids and to Mayor Hosmer for his ongoing support over the years.

I do want to ask, because Governor Sununu is expected to speak on this later today about the plan for reopening the state's economy. What do you hope to hear from the governor?

Andrew Hosmer

What I hope to hear is that, again, as I said earlier, that decisions will be based on credible evidence and data, that we will rely not so much on the political commentary that's out there, but we will have to make difficult decisions based on CDC recommendations and the data produced by epidemiologists. That's really what we need to focus on here, because in the short term, it may be tempting to reopen the economy. But in the long term, ultimately, the health of our citizens here must be primary. So that's you know, and I really hope that. And going back to Martha, it strikes me that how we show up for one another in these very difficult times is really what matters is not the only community so special.