CONCORD – Although Gov. Chris Sununu has shown little fondness for the term, the first phase of New Hampshire’s reopening appears to be nearing an end.
For the first time last Friday, the two-term Newfields Republican mused publicly about a time when restaurants could offer some indoor dining, when people could legally gather outside in groups larger than 10 and when employees could no longer refuse to return to work because they did not feel “comfortable” in the workplace.
“I remember when we limited groups of 10 and I thought, ‘How the heck are we going to do that?’ Well we did it, and it would be great to get out of it, as it is one of the most restrictive things we have done as a state,” Sununu said.
“I would love to see it move forward and open things up. There are about 20 different scenarios on the table.”
The change in unemployment ground rules will happen June 15, the date on which Sununu has confirmed he will let the current stay-at-home order expire.
When the order expires, so too will expanded eligibility for state-paid unemployment benefits.
Sununu admitted many business owners could still have a hard time attracting back workers who are collecting $600 a week extra in federally paid unemployment through June 30. But it will happen eventually, he said.
“I think it’s a nice transition time for that,” Sununu said.
Sununu’s look ahead came after a week of important announcements.
Beginning next Friday, hotel rooms may be rented to any New Hampshire resident or out-of-stater who has first quarantined in the state somewhere else for at least two weeks.
Greg Moore, state director of the fiscally conservative Americans for Prosperity, predicted that some owners offering, small-unit, short-term rentals might not carefully check driver’s licenses.
“I suspect a small operator or two will try to stay under the radar and rent to their regular customers, hoping that doesn’t lead to a police chief knocking at their door,” Moore said.
Sununu also announced people will be able to gather more freely in houses of worship, though many religious leaders say they will wait awhile before fully reopening their buildings.
“There has been a lot of passion around opening houses of worship and that’s rightfully so,” Sununu said.
“It is an integral part of so many families’ lives and it keeps so many families together and the glue that binds them.”
Andrew J. Manuse, volunteer head of ReopenNH, last month organized a large protest in support of reopening houses of worship.
“Even Pharaoh let all of the Israelites go and not just 40%,” Manuse said in a statement. “It’s unconscionable that this governor thinks he has the authority to tell religious organizations how they can gather. It’s clearly unconstitutional and I’d like to see priests, pastors, rabbis, imams and other religious leaders completely ignore His Excellency all across the state.”
Moore said Sununu has well-defended his decisions, which is why his popularity has grown, though not among a minority of some hard-core conservatives who think New Hampshire should be through a second or third phase by now.
Massachusetts’ Phase 2 could begin as early as June 8.
“The natives are restless,” said Moore who keeps a close eye on this political base with the Right-of-Center meetings often held at AFP headquarters in Manchester.
Sununu bristled last Friday when asked why New Hampshire hasn’t fully reopened its economy, as western states with fewer COVID-19 cases like Colorado have done.
“A lot of states are not 30 miles away from Boston. It is a very different situation. If you want to compare New Hampshire to a place like North Dakota that’s very unfair, you can’t consider that anything like an apples-to-apples comparison,” Sununu said.
Northeast still ‘ground zero’
Sununu said most states didn’t take the steps New Hampshire did, including creating an advisory board of stakeholders that devised reopening rules for their own industries.
“The Northeast in the U.S. is ground zero for COVID in the world. Those are the facts,” Sununu said.
The governor’s actions on hotels and short-term rentals received qualified support from the two industry members on his Economic Reopening Task Force.
The rules allow hotel owners to take reservations immediately for occupancy starting next Friday.
Those who own complexes with fewer than 20 units can be fully occupied. Larger hotels can only rent to 50% capacity.
“We heard from those running lodging properties there’s a great deal of frustration on their part,” said Mike Sommers, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association.
“Not many people love this idea, but at the end of the day, we just need to get open in some capacity.”
John Nyhan, president of the Hampton Area Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
“It’s extremely important we get something to protect public health and I believe this amendment will help us move forward. I’ve got over 25 lodging establishments on Hampton Beach that are waiting to open. We need to get lodging back, so I support this 100%.”
Dining and camping
Before becoming governor, Sununu was general manager of the Waterville Valley Resort, which had seven restaurants.
Sununu said he hopes next month to offer a road map for allowing some indoor restaurant dining.
“Businesses want certainty more than anything. If you drag things out for three months, a ‘maybe’ is worse than a ‘no’ right now. Every day that goes by seems like a month, every month seems like a year. I get that,” Sununu said.
“I think it will help businesses to have certainty that they can see the light at the end of that tunnel.”
Sununu also knows the limit on outdoor gatherings will likely have to be adjusted by June 28, when he plans to permit overnight camping for larger groups of youths. Day camps can reopen June 22.
“These camps are really about an amazing opportunity, especially in these times, to get away,” said Sununu, who attended day camps as a youth.
“I don’t know anybody who doesn’t need to get away.”