Weekly N.H. News Roundup: May 15, 2020

May 14, 2020

As some sectors of the economy begin to reopen, we’ll speak with Taylor Caswell, Commissioner of the NH Department of Business and Economic Affairs. We'll talk about what types of regulations and safety measures are in place for businesses that are reopening, and what the next steps may look like. We’ll also continue to hear from reporters in neighboring states about what reopening looks like there - this week, we talk with a reporter from Massachusetts.

Air date: Friday, May 15, 2020 

 


GUESTS:

  • Taylor Caswell - Commissioner of the NH Department of Business and Economic Affairs
  • Todd Bookman - NHPR reporter
  • Ethan DeWitt - Concord Monitor reporter
  • Anthony Brooks - WBUR senior political 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, some businesses in New Hampshire begin a phased reopening. But how was business and how did both business owners and customers feel about re-entering this remade world? Some businesses not officially cleared for reopening resumed operations anyway. So what is the state doing about that? And south of our border, Massachusetts looks at a phased reopening of its own.

Joining us for this part of the program is Taylor Caswell, commissioner of business and economic affairs for the state of New Hampshire. He also serves on the governor's economic reopening task force. Welcome, Commissioner.

Taylor Caswell Good to be here, Peter.

Peter Biello: Phase one of the state's reopening plan now underway allows a number of businesses to reopen their doors while abiding by safety guidelines. As a member of the governor's reopening task force, what's your response to those businesses who are uneasy about opening or even opposed to opening? Given concerns about public health?

Taylor Caswell Yeah, I certainly understand that. And I think, you know, we're trying to accommodate what the individual business owner feels is the right path forward. What we're trying to do is really enable a path that allows them to reopen in a safe and responsible way, that meets the public health requirements that we have here currently at this point in time and the state and really be able to sort of, I think, be able to achieve some level of flexibility where we can. And I say that because, you know, as we move through some of these initial phases here in mid-May, moving towards June we're trying to take an approach that allows us to continue to give businesses that so choose the opportunity to bring back their employees to start paying people, start making some revenue back, try to keep some level of activity, advancing that as we go along in a responsible way. So I think it's a good approach so far. And for the most part, it's been pretty well accepted.

Peter Biello So many salon owners, though, have expressed concern that it's not safe to cut hair. Given how close they have to get to clients there, they're following a variety of guidelines specific to salons as well. But they're also concerned that by not opening, they'll lose their clients. So those who are concerned sort of feel compelled to open, even if it's not safe. So are they, in effect, forced to reopen?

Taylor Caswell You know, I don't think so. And, you know, I understand and we certainly heard from a lot of the cosmetology community on both sides of the equation. I think, again, our goal is to enable where we're able to in a way that our state public health division feels is appropriate amid the circumstances. So people have, of course, their own approach to that. And they're certainly welcome to do that. If they want to open, they can open. If they don't, they don't have to.

Peter Biello In a webinar hosted by the Business and Industry Association last week discussing the state's economic reopening plans, you said one of the biggest threats in all this is the growth of government. You said you're concerned about too much direct oversight and enforcement in the business community. I wanted to ask you to elaborate on that. What did you mean by that?

Taylor Caswell Yeah, I mean, what I was talking about it as we get towards the end of this process, as we get through the period that we're in right now, which is still very much in the clutches of this pandemic in this part of the country. As we come out of that, I really do believe that it's important that we take the time to see what types of regulatory restrictions and otherwise that we've put on the business community and make sure that these are either, if they're no longer necessary, to really seriously look at how we're going to either roll them back or how we're going to discontinue those requirements and get back to a normal business environment here in New Hampshire. That's what I was referring to. I do think that that's something that we all need to pay very close attention to as we go through this. And none of us know how long this is going to go on or where it's going to take us. But the role of government here is, in my view, to protect the public health of our employers and our employees and of the public in general. And once that threat is gone, I do think that it's important for us to take a hard look at the requirements that we put on and make sure that, where appropriate, we take them off.

Peter Biello And does that mean, though, that the government should have a heavy hand in mandating how people should behave? Or should the government take more of a hands off approach? Make suggestions and allow people to decide for themselves what they think is best as far as keeping themselves and others safe?

Taylor Caswell Well, again, I think our approach has been more towards the latter, which is, you know, we are enabling, as I said earlier, many different sectors of the business community to get back to business in a way that meets what our public health division experts are telling us is an appropriate way to achieve that and moving through that in a in a process that slowly, hopefully over time allows for those requirements to be relaxed as we go.

Peter Biello House Democrats yesterday called on Governor Sununu to issue a temporary order requiring face coverings in public to help stop the spread as businesses reopen. Similar orders were issued in Massachusetts and Maine. Is that something you would support requiring the use of face coverings in public?

Taylor Caswell Well, I think we've got a good amount of discussion on that in what we're calling our universal guidance document. That really is the guiding document for businesses that are either on the essential list or otherwise operating. It's pretty much par across many different all the various sectors so what they need to do and there is some language in there on face coverings when you're in the establishment.

Peter Biello Those are suggestions, but as far as a requirement, do you think that's the way the state should go requiring people to wear face masks in public?

Taylor Caswell Well, I mean, again, this is part of the doubt that we're always up against. And I think, you know, questions like that, you know, I have to say I'm the economics business guy. I'm not the public health expert. And we've got a unique situation in New Hampshire. Maybe from some other states, particularly Massachusetts. We're not as urban for the most part.

Peter Biello But Maine required it.

Taylor Caswell Yes. So that's a decision that Maine made. And that's a decision that is always on the table for the governor on public health. But we'll see sort of whether they make that decision or not.

Peter Biello As we've been talking about, the state’s taking a phased in approach, allowing different industries to reopen at different times under different rules. To what extent are you worried about confusion for the public and for owners about what's open, what's not and what the rules are?

Taylor Caswell Well, that's a big part of the discussion that we've been having on the task force. And I think that, as I mentioned earlier, that universal guidance document is really made; that's one of the steps that we've taken to avoid confusion, is to make a standard level baseline foundation or whatever you want to call it, requirements for businesses that are reopening so that we're not kind of restating it in every case. What we're trying to do is really work through the list of businesses that weren't on that initial essential list and determine what, if any, unique circumstances occur within that sector that need to somehow be addressed as part of a reopening-based approach. And I think when you look at the type of documents that we've been recommending to the governor and public health, that’s pretty well reflected. The best way to describe this I think for from my perspective is what we're talking about at the task force level is the how – how can these sectors reopen and in a responsible way, given the circumstances that we're in? The when is really being more decided with our division of public health and when it would be an appropriate time from their stand point. And then ultimately the governor makes the decision as to when that's going to occur, when we will announce them.

Peter Biello What do you make of a possible regional approach, as some states have done, for example? I mean, northern New Hampshire has seen relatively few cases of covered 19. It's not nonexistent, but it’s not as prevalent as it is, say, in Rockingham County. What do you make of a possible regional approach?

Taylor Caswell You know, I think that might not help the confusion component of what's going on to some extent. But I think we also need to be very cognizant of the fact that, you know, we are as a region in New England, very, very tight here. I mean, you look at a state that much bigger states like Texas or Virginia or states like that, where there's a lot more geography that they have jurisdiction over. We have six states that are all of. And in here together, and if we have one area that's opening ahead of another for things like restaurants, for instance, what's the impact of that going to be that people have shown a willingness to really go where the the opened facilities are. And what's the impact of that from a public health standpoint? So there's this constant balance. Whereas if we have hundreds of people from out of state going to rural regions of the state to eat out, what's the impact of that region going to be at that state? So these are all considerations that are going on.

Peter Biello I want to shift gears and ask you specifically about summer camps. Can you provide an update on where the issue of summer camps currently stands? Are camps going to be open? And if we don't know the answer yet, when will the state decide?

Taylor Caswell I don't think we have a firm answer on that yet. I think the task forces got that on the agenda for next week, which, as you know, is a process where we'll go through the process, make a recommendation, and then it will go over to public health for their consideration and ultimately to the governor. So we realize that we're coming up against a lot of sort of go no go decision points for both the camps and for the campers and their parents. So we're trying to move that through. But that's one of the ones that I think takes a little bit of time to really consider what are some of the ways that we hopefully could be able to move them in a positive direction, but not put anyone in undue risk.

Peter Biello Are there certain sectors of the economy where you think reopening will be more complicated?

Taylor Caswell Yeah, I think some of them are more complicated than others. You know, that cosmetology decision was certainly not an easy one. Dentists being open. I know right now we've got under consideration fitness centers and spas and massage therapy and those sorts of things. Those are very close contact situations. We can certainly see from the standpoint of economic development and the economy that those are really important things for a lot of people, particularly those with pain and pain management. So we're really trying to move quickly. But at the same time, the public health situation remains what it is. And so it's, again, a really difficult balance in that, you know, not that many of us really enjoy doing this, but this is a constant on the high wire here trying to get these pieces right.

Peter Biello And the state has said it will provide facemasks to businesses that are reopening at no cost. What kind of demand has the state seen for these masks? Is it able to keep up?

Taylor Caswell Yes, we're able to keep up with the demand is huge. Thankfully, we have had a really fruitful effort in bringing those types of masks in New Hampshire and other PPE equipment over the last couple of weeks, which is really kind of enabled us to be to do this. It's an ongoing effort. I know there's more coming in soon. And a lot of our companies have been ramping up here in New Hampshire and providing where they can. So it's been a little bit all hands on deck on that. And when we got to the point where we were able to get a lot of that priority equipment to our first line responders, to the medical community and hospitals, we really made it a priority to start moving those into our private sector as quickly as we could. So we hope to be able to continue to grow that capability over the next couple of weeks.

Peter Biello As a task force member, you were asked to address several issues facing the workforce, including the possibility that the difference between unemployment compensation, compensation and market wages might encourage some people to stay out of the workforce. Have you seen evidence of that?

Taylor Caswell Oh, yeah, definitely. That's definitely an issue for a lot of employers and particularly for, you know, I would say like our restaurant community that's coming online next Monday. That certainly presents a challenge for them. But at the same time, you know that's what we're dealing with, with the addition of the federal benefits to the package. And it's just an additional challenge. I think, for a lot of people, though, that's really important benefit. At the same time, who might not be in that category or might not be able to work for whatever reason. So that is also one of the many balances that we are trying to negotiate.

Peter Biello And related to that, you know, businesses without adequate staff might find it difficult to comply with public health protocols, putting workers, customers at greater risk. Is the state monitoring that potentiality at all?

Taylor Caswell Yes, we're certainly aware of all of these challenges and are hopefully going to be in a position to be helpful with those businesses, to be able to get where they need to go. PPE being one of those examples. But, yes, the workforce issue is one that has been challenging for a number of our sectors. And I think the federal benefit goes through most of June. So these are decisions that individuals are making. Again, you know, going back to our earlier point, there are a lot of options here for a lot of people. A lot of people would rather be working. A lot of people would rather stay home because they've got kids than their kids are still in school, technically, you know, learning at home. And that's a huge challenge. And to be able to have at least that benefit, to be able to accomplish that, maybe ultimately get back into the workforce as time goes through here. Those are all questions that people are struggling with, whether they're an employer or whether their employee. Right now, we're all in the same boat.

Peter Biello: Yesterday, the CDC released some long delayed guidance on what businesses and organizations should consider before reopening. This is part of a document that had been shelved more than a month ago by the Trump administration. That's according to the Associated Press. But about 57 pages of even more extensive guidance have yet to be released. That guidance might be important. Does it give you pause that the states reopening without having that yet?

Taylor Caswell I have a lot of confidence in the state's ability to gauge what the risks are and what the challenges are, and I think having this task force in place, which is really a mix of bipartisan legislators as well as representatives of the public, the private sector are all sort of working together to identify what those unique circumstances are. We're bringing in people to talk to us about what those challenges are. And we're trying to build all of that into a thoughtful and deliberate process that move this forward as quickly as we can, but also, of course, continues to recognize the public health challenges. So I think that the federal guidance is welcome and we'll be integrated into some of our discussions. But I'm pretty willing to bet that a lot of the stuff that's going to come out of that are things that we're dealing with.

Peter Biello And is there any specific guidance from the federal government that you're still waiting for?

Taylor Caswell No, no, I would not say that.

Peter Biello One model by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes the assumption that the infection rate is going to increase up to 20 percent in states that re-open. Governor Sununu himself has said that the state's likely going to face a surge in the fall or winter. So if that is the case, then why reopen as opposed to maintaining what had been the status quo?

Taylor Caswell Well, I mean, we again, we're going to go to the balanced response, but we're trying to move forward in a responsible way. But we can't just have no economy. I think that, you know, that's not really an option from our standpoint. People have to be able to continue to support themselves and their families, whether they own a business or whether they work somewhere. And we're trying really hard to recognize all the things that are going on in this universe right now and be able to say from a flexibility standpoint, here's what we're going to be today in the middle of May. This is where we see the state of the world. We certainly hope that all of the measures that are being undertaken as to the stay at home order and use of PPE and so on will continue to keep these numbers low. But the flexibility, I think, over time is going to need to be able to go both ways. And so hopefully we're going to continue to see the public health numbers go in a positive direction and as a result, continue to be able to reopen much of our economy as we can. But we're not just going through a process of just picking a couple of sectors and say, you know, what the heck, let's go with that. It's a very thoughtful process and very, very informed from all the import, the all the important experts at every step.

Peter Biello We got this comment from Peggy in Hollis. She asks, what is the plan for hotels and lodging places?

Taylor Caswell So right now, hotels and lodging places are able to operate if they are serving sort of the essential populations. And that's medical. that's anything that within our essential list. But it's primarily a medical people that are moving around. And, you know, in Manchester, you have planes that fly in. You have the pilots need to stay somewhere, you know, things like that. So we're we've we I think we passed the recommendation we did yesterday to start reopening the accommodation, the hotels and accommodation facilities. At some point, the future. We didn't put a date on that. Again, that's a decision that is over a public health now. So we'll wait to hear what they're going to decide.