Rayno: Is stay-at-home order for NH too little too late?

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With the coronavirus pandemic, Garry Rayno’s Distant Dome column will appear more frequently exploring the political and legislative aspects of the crisis.

The state is in the grip of a coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis that has many on edge as the number of known cases escalates and more and more residents hospitalized.

The state has taken many steps to limit the spread of the virus including closing schools, the State House complex, state beaches, and restaurants and bars, while employing remote learning and work-from-home for non-essential workers.

The state also has limited gatherings to 10 or fewer people, eliminating concerts, plays, art exhibits, church services and political events.

Despite those measures, some believe Gov. Chris Sununu has not acted quickly enough to truly stem the tide of the pandemic sweeping the world, particularly with nearby hotspots like New York City and Boston.

He has been under pressure for about a week to do more than advise people to stay home as the mayors of the state’s two biggest cities, Joyce Craig of Manchester, and Jim Donchess of Nashua, called for Sununu to order state residents to stay at home, as did Sen. Jon Morgan, D-Brentwood, the head of Exeter Hospital, Kevin Callahan, and other Exeter political and business leaders.

And earlier this week, 200 House Democrats signed a letter to Sununu advocating he issue a stay-at-home order and close all non-essential businesses.

And the two Democratic gubernatorial candidates who seek to oppose Sununu in the November general election, Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky and Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, also called on him to issue a stay-at-home order.

If you are keeping score, you will notice that most of those pushing for the order are Democrats, giving the drive a partisan tinge, when to date New Hampshire has had little of the partisan wrangling that has been apparent in Washington from the President to the House of Representatives.

In New Hampshire, there has been a steady beat to issue the order that has not been aggressively partisan, but subtly.

For a self-proclaimed Trump supporter, Sununu has acted more aggressively than the federal government has advocated, closing schools, limiting the size of crowds, closing restaurants and bars except for takeout, prohibiting utilities from shutting off delinquent customers, and financial institutions and landlords from instigating foreclosures or evictions. He also quickly expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits to help workers laid off due to the virus.

And he, like other governors, both Democratic and Republican, was quick to distance himself from the President when he called to have restrictions lifted by Easter to jump start the economy against the advice of his health care advisors. Sununu said the priority in New Hampshire would be the health of residents.

Sununu has tried to walk a fine line of acting aggressively to tamp down the spread of the virus while not making the GOP’s right-wing too angry.

However, New Hampshire is surrounded by states with governors who issued stay-at-home orders and closed non-essential businesses.

Massachusetts, who issued a stay-at-home order last week, has seen cases grown to nearly 2,500, with almost 600 new cases from Wednesday to Thursday and 25 deaths.

New Hampshire has 217 confirmed cases, 33 of those hospitalized and two deaths.

Maine has had 155 cases with 22 hospitalizations and no deaths, and Vermont has had 159 cases and nine deaths, six at a Burlington area nursing home.

It is not a pretty picture considering two weeks ago the three northern states had no cases or they were in the single numbers.

Thursday Sununu announced the Granite State was joining its neighbors.

He was quick to say he had been in contact with surrounding states particularly Massachusetts Gov. Baker in deciding to take the next step in locking down the state.

And he also said the restrictions were not as stringent as a shelter-in-place order.

“It will not prevent you from leaving your home to go on a walk or to the store or if you need groceries or simply going to work,” Sununu said. “Beyond essential necessities, you should not be leaving your home.”

And he said he did not take the action lightly noting the situation could last a long time.

The order is in effect March 27 after 11.59 p.m. and extends until May 4, and he announced schools would also be closed until May 4 as well. And legislative leaders announced the State House complex will be closed until then, and all legislative business would be suspended until that date.

Sununu’s order closes state beaches along the Seacoast, which have been gathering spots for people in recent weeks, but does not close other state parks.

New Hampshire almost had to issue an order to prevent out-of-state residents under stay-at-home orders coming here and not adhering to similar restrictions.

A look at the license plates in the local Hannaford where I live indicates the second-home owners have arrived a couple of months early, particularly those with Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey plates where the virus is raging.

But Sununu noted he could do little about such over border travel.

“I want to be clear. No governor has the authority to shut down their border,” he said. “No governor can prohibit another state’s residents from entering their state, nor has any state in the country issued a full-blown shelter-in-place order.”

If the problem becomes progressively worse as most expect it will in the coming weeks and months, then Sununu could take even more stringent action: he could shut down the liquor stores. That would bring the out-of-state trips to a halt.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com