A year ago, Chris Sununu was standing outside the Market Basket store in Epping at 5:45 a.m. consoling anxious seniors who snaked in a long line waiting for the supermarket doors to open.
Emotions were high, with COVID-19 lockdowns sparking a panicked run on essentials, especially toilet paper, as rare as gold coins at the time.
“The toilet paper crisis of 2020, that was a real thing,” Sununu says.
“The anxiety was palpable. People were coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh my God, if I don’t get some of these basic needs, I don’t know what I am going to do, Governor.’”
While consumers were concerned with shortages, Sununu couldn’t get out of his head an early Centers for Disease Control alert to all governors that as many as 2% of all Americans could die from COVID-19.
Sununu and his wife, Valerie, had family friends in Italy, a world hotspot for COVID infections in early March 2020, where scores of residents were dying every day in their homes before health care professionals could find hospital beds for them.
“I always feared that it could become the five-alarm fire that it became,” Sununu says. “I was doing the math, thinking that it was going to be a lot worse.”
A 2% death rate would have meant the loss of more than 25,000 people in the Granite State.
“We’ve had more than 1,100, which was terrible, tragic, heart-wrenching, but think about what more than 25,000 would have felt like,” Sununu said last week during an interview in his Concord office.
A year ago Saturday (March 13), Sununu declared a state of emergency for COVID-19, which he has since extended 17 times.
A year ago Monday, he ordered the closure of all public schools.
A year ago Tuesday, he closed all the state’s bars before the expected St. Patrick’s Day onslaught.
A year ago Wednesday, he became one of the first governors in the nation to announce an expansion of unemployment benefits for those thrown out of work due to the pandemic.
Dealing with isolation
At the same time that Granite Staters were starting to experience confusion and separation anxiety under Sununu’s stay-at-home order, the governor says he was wrestling with his own bout of loneliness in an empty State House.
Legislative leaders had locked the building up tight except for the governor’s suite and Secretary of State Bill Gardner’s office.
Three-days-a-week visits by fourth graders suddenly became a mere memory. Zoom was at first his only means of conducting business with the outside world.
“It was insanely isolating. There were days I would just live over at the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) constantly,” Sununu says.
“It wasn’t just the physical isolation. It got emotionally isolating. Nobody was picking up the phone. Politically we had to write the playbook and run the game at the same time. So many around politics would say, ‘Don’t ask me my thoughts. I don’t want to get involved because who knows what the right answer is? We could trust in you.’
“That’s a lot of pressure. It was hard for me to pour out to anyone but my wife what I was going through. They weren’t experiencing what I was experiencing.”
Sleep became elusive. Sununu, 46, routinely would admit at his twice-a-week briefings that he couldn’t remember what day it was.
Three things saved him, he says.
First was the flight instinct. He began leaving the office every day and, with notice, visiting local officials and Main Street businesses and talking with people on the street.
“I had to get out and talk to suppliers, go to the grocery stores, get a real feel for what people were going through. It kept me grounded and, I hope, connected.”
The second were ad-hoc virtual conferences that governors across the country were setting up every few days in those early months to spitball what was working and what wasn’t.
“The whole vibe was, ‘Who’s got something? What are you seeing out there?’ We had a lot of extensive talks about all kinds of issues. Everybody had a certain skill. We had become known for having figured out how to get and distribute PPE as good as anyone,” Sununu says.
“President Trump would get on the line with us and say, ‘Let’s open it up with questions.’ It was a free-for-all — it was really good and therapeutic.”
The third thing that helped began as a poke at Sununu on social media and ended in an online chat with a tear-filled mother, devastated because she couldn’t hold a birthday party for her child.
“She asked, ‘Could you send him a birthday card?’ I thought gosh, I thought, hey, this is a way I can do something concrete that makes a connection,” Sununu says.
“I’m up to 7,000 of them, and I hand-signed all of them. At the height of it, I was doing more than 500 a night. What I failed to realize was, I was getting more out of the cards than the people were.
“In a very small way, I was reaching out and touching a family, and they would touch back. At one event after another, I’d have two, three parents come up to me with their signed cards and give me an elbow hug over what it meant for their child to get one.”
The father of three also got a fresh lesson in current pop culture.
“People don’t name their kids James, John or Scott anymore. There were 100 different spellings of the same name,” Sununu said.
When Sununu needs a lift, he pulls out his file drawer and re-reads one of dozens of poignant letters he has received from residents, like a long one from a health care worker at the Veterans Administration whom he declined to identify. “I feel like these are all personal.”
“In my world, you can get so wrapped up in the 2% of negative that this is defining the moment,” Sununu says. “These remind me there are so many decent people out there rooting for me to get this right.”
From mistake, success
At one point, New Hampshire was supplying personal protective equipment for the entire U.S. VA health network.
Sununu says his team’s signature achievement came out of one of the biggest mistakes he made during the crisis.
“I really don’t think FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) did a good job,” he says. “There was a lot more trusting in that process. My whole team had great relationships with FEMA, but we were dead wrong.”
FEMA officials assured states their agency would be the gatekeeper and distributor of all PPE, but it couldn’t deliver, Sununu says.
“There was very bad communication out of Washington. We had to scramble and fight for our own stuff. The American people might not fully appreciate it, but we had to essentially outsmart the federal government.”
Sununu recalls a stunned Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker calling him to report that U.S. customs agents had confiscated for federal use a planeload of PPE that Baker had bought for his home state from overseas.
Sununu turned to a longtime confidant, Bedford inventor Dean Kamen, to use his Asian contacts to help New Hampshire acquire record amounts of PPE.
“We did some trial runs with a plane only a quarter full so in case the feds seized it, we didn’t lose it all,” Sununu says.
“Without Dean Kamen, it just doesn’t happen. We just provided that financial security and the logistics on the American end while he was providing the facility and getting it at the Chinese end as well.
“He put himself at financial risk to get it done. On most of these deals, I think he barely broke even.”
The first anniversary brings its own welcome turning point. On Thursday, Sununu announced an end to domestic travel quarantines, a new state-run vaccine scheduling system and the return of entertainment and activities like karaoke, darts and pool to bars and restaurants.
“We’re coming out of winter, we’re coming out of COVID,” Sununu said.
Still, he believes COVID-19 will have a lasting effect on our everyday lives.
Workforce deployment will look different as many more people will be able to work from home for part of every week.
“I don’t think it will be as much as people think,” Sununu said. “In large metropolitan areas, commercial real estate will have massive amounts of office space turned into apartments as more people work from home or outside the office.”
Some in-person businesses will suffer while others will thrive. “Amazon, FedEx has definitely accelerated the (retail) shift. There are certain industries where the personal touch matters. Travel and tourism is one. I think there are retail industries that will retain shopping in the store. Clothing is a good example — people want to feel the fabrics,” Sununu said.
Sununu has his own shopping habits that won’t ever change.
“I still like to go to a hardware store, a Home Depot, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware. I am never going to buy my spackle online,” he said.
Once the mask requirements and other restrictions end, Sununu predicts a new wave of human contact.
“I think at the end of the day, human nature takes over. We are all creatures of habit, we want to be social, we want to be with our friends and family. People still crave that, and once they are allowed, I hate to use that word, I think we will come back to a more normal existence.
“In my view, I think 2022 and 2023 will look a lot like 2018 and 2019.”
Two big themes from the past year surprised him: First, how much citizens embraced his 80-plus executive orders placing the state in an unprecedented lockdown.
“I was surprised, taken aback that, I guess because of the connective, transparent way we were operating, so many people came along. That was comforting, but it was scary too,” he said.
The other head-turner was the record-breaking number of votes Sununu got on the way to a 2-to-1 win for a third term last Nov. 3 over popular Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes of Concord.
“If you told me I was going to win by 30 points, I would have said you were nuts,” he said.
“I could have just as easily have lost by 30 points… It could have easily turned sour for everybody as well, but it went the opposite way. I closed my eye to the politics and tried to do my best. I trusted it would all work out, and thank God, it did.”