CONCORD — Several Republican lawmakers and a number of citizens on Wednesday called for refunding business fines and annulling any criminal convictions for violators of COVID-19 restrictions once the pandemic is over.
State Rep. Andrew Prout, R-Hudson, said his bill (HB 63) would give business owners confidence that they can fully reopen at the end of the state of emergency without lingering concerns about state oversight.
“What it does do is say that once we are out of the pandemic, the penalties will not be permanent, and people know that there is a future for their businesses,” Prout told the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
Nicole Nordlund of Madison said the operator of her small town’s only hardware store recently was issued a cease-and-desist order for violating anti-COVID-19 guidelines.
“I am disgusted at this overreach,” Nordlund said. The company is the largest employer in the town of 1,200 residents.
“I am heartbroken by the way the state has behaved. People are adults and the state is acting on a subjective basis.”
State Rep. Timothy Horrigan, D-Durham, said he hasn’t agreed with all the actions Gov. Chris Sununu has taken in response to the virus, but he agrees with the general approach.
“I don’t like it any better than anybody else, but this is a horrible pandemic,” Horrigan said. “The accommodations they are asking us to make aren’t that onerous.”
Eight firms fined
Prout said the Attorney General’s Office informed him that since the pandemic began, eight businesses have been fined a total of $10,000 for COVID-19 related violations.
This total was negotiated down in settlement agreements with the business owners, Prout said.
Prout’s bill is one of 18 sponsored during the 2021 session to either eliminate or sharply restrict the powers of the governor and other state officials in response to future emergencies.
Sununu said last Tuesday he would be open to a bill to give lawmakers more of a defined role for future emergencies, but he warned against trying to micromanage future governors.
“You can’t have every decision go through the Legislature,” he said. “That is not a smart thing to do.”
As for bills limiting a governor’s powers in the future, Sununu said, “I think you have to be a bit careful about that.”
Sununu’s performance in responding to the virus played a part in his 2-1 reelection victory over then-Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes of Concord.
A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll released Wednesday found 70% approved of Sununu’s handling of COVID-19, and 27% disapproved.
Sununu’s popularity rating was down from the 89% he enjoyed soon after declaring a state of emergency last March because of the virus.
Rep. Melissa Blasek, R-Merrimack, said she invited many business owners to testify on the bill, but most declined.
“They are all too afraid of their government to speak out. I want that to sink in. What kind of society are we supporting?” Blasek said.
Eight of 10 sponsors of Prout’s bill are among those who have opposed wearing masks at various times. The two others were Reps. Mark Warden, R-Manchester, and Cody Belanger, R-Epping.
Several House Republicans on the committee attending the hearing in person at the Legislative Office Building did not wear masks during testimony.
House members attending hearings must wear masks while entering and exiting the building or when they are in close contact with peers.
House members and staff don’t have to wear masks if they are seated and at least six feet from others.