Several New Hampshire communities are worried and frustrated by the state’s decision to allow campgrounds to open for the season, which will bring an influx of residents from Massachusetts and other areas that have seen significant coronavirus outbreaks.
Smaller towns are joining a movement aimed at pressuring Gov. Chris Sununu to change his mind and keep campgrounds closed for the health and safety of their residents.
His executive order, which temporarily closed all non-essential businesses until at least May 4, was updated this week to clarify that private and public recreational campgrounds or camping parks can remain open “only for purposes of providing parcels of land rented for the placement of a tent or recreational vehicle.”
The decision did not sit well with Conway Fire Chief Steve Solomon, who worries about the thousands of campers who will likely head to Mount Washington Valley for an escape in the coming weeks.
“We’re a small, fairly rural area and right now we’re seeing a lot of people from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York that are coming up here on the weekend. They’re coming from hot spots and they have the potential to bring sick people here and potentially overwhelm our small community hospital,” he said.
On Thursday, Massachusetts reported more than 32,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and an additional 137 deaths, bringing the state’s total death toll to 1,245.
In New Hampshire, 1,211 cases have been reported with 34 deaths.
Sununu has asked out-of-staters to voluntarily self-quarantine when coming to New Hampshire for an extended stay, but Solomon said that’s not what’s happening.
“We see them in all our stores and on our streets. That’s not quarantining,” he said. “We’re doing our best to try to look out for our residents. We just need a little help from Concord and we don’t see it on this issue.”
Raymond Town Manager Joseph Ilsley has been trying for weeks to get the state to close Pawtuckaway State Park because of his concerns about visitors from high-risk areas coming into town, increasing the risk of exposure to residents and first responders, and stopping at stores to buy goods that locals themselves are having trouble finding.
Pawtuckaway’s camp sites usually open in May.
Pine Acres RV Resort in Raymond has indicated that it would remain closed until the town feels it is safe to open, Ilsley said.
“The concern is for a lot of municipalities we do not have a legitimate avenue to elevate concerns to the governor’s office for executive actions. We are supportive of the governor, but we’re asking him to listen to the multiple communities that have raised this concern over campgrounds and hiking trails. We’re asking for leadership in our own state, not what the governor of Vermont is doing or the governor of Massachusetts is doing,” Ilsley said.
Ben Gaetjens-Oleson, emergency management director in Lancaster, said he doesn’t understand why camping would be allowed when stay-at-home orders are in effect.
“If we’re in stay-at-home order why are we opening up opportunities for people to not stay at home?” he asked.
Lancaster has three campgrounds, but Gaetjens-Oleson questions how the town’s small police department could handle enforcement of social distancing and other restrictions under the stay-at-home order.
“Once they know campgrounds are open people are going to escape the hot areas to come to the cool areas,” he said, referring to the fewer cases of confirmed COVID-19 cases in northern New Hampshire.
Solomon, the Conway fire chief, shared concerns about visitors buying grocery items and affecting the local supply chain.
“There hasn’t been a roll of toilet paper in the Mount Washington Valley for five weeks,” he said.
Friendly Beaver Campground in New Boston is currently open for seasonal visitors only.
Owner Christine Quirk said the campground’s buildings and facilities remain closed and that guests must remain on their sites and use bathroom facilities in their campers.
No gatherings are allowed, she said, and strict social distancing rules must be followed.
“We’re very strict and you have to be in order to keep control,” Quirk said.
As for concerns about visitors hitting local stores for goods, she said most bring their own supplies from home.
“I don’t foresee swarms of people going out to stores from my place,” she said.
Epsom Valley Campground in Epsom usually opens May 15, but owner Dwyna Arvanitis said her opening date is up in the air.
“I’m kind of waiting until May 5 to make a definite decision,” she said.