MANCHESTER, NH – A virtual town hall Thursday held via Facebook live drew several questions fielded by Mayor Joyce Craig and the city’s health department No. 1 and 2, Public Health Director Anna Thomas and Chief Operations Officer Phil Alexakos.
While questions ranged from Halloween and the homeless encampments to school reopening plans and lack of affordable housing, the theme of the hour-long session was the ongoing repercussions of COVID-19.
Alexakos led off with a rundown on statistics – more than 2,000 cases of COVID-19 among city residents have been investigated including “a cascade” of contact tracing for each case. In evaluating the overall “health” of the city, data including the number of current hospitalizations and fatalities is factored in. This information allows the city to evaluate “how the disease is behaving” and who is at most risk.
And that information will contribute to deciding which groups should be a priority once a safe and effective vaccine is available, Alexakos said.
Manchester makes up about 25 percent of the state’s reported COVID-19 cases, Alexakos said.
Since March the city has tested more than 5,000 residents through mobile testing locations, and that testing continues through at least October every Tuesday (JFK Arena parking lot, 303 Beech St., East Side) and Thursday (West Side Arena, 1 Electric St., West Side) from 12 – 4 p.m.
The question of whether the city is still considering a mask mandate was also raised.
Craig said that discussion should resume at the Aldermanic Committee on Administration Oct. 20.
She clarified that such a mandate would only apply to inside businesses where social distancing is not possible. Thomas added that there is growing evidence from around the world that those cities and towns where mandates have been implemented are “highly effective at curbing the number of cases” of COVID-19.
Thomas also said there are misconceptions swirling around the proposal for a mask mandate, and said that penalties including a $1,000 fine associated with violating a mask mandate had been misrepresented by the media. The primary goal is education, and any subsequent offenses might carry smaller fines, Thomas said. However, those details would be fine-tuned by the city should a mandate be approved, including enforcement, which would be carried out by a compliance officer through the fire department, not the police.
The question of school reopening centered around adequate PPE and air quality in the schools, both issues which have been addressed at the local and state level and should not be a deterrent to the current hybrid reopening plan put forth by the District School Administrator Dr. John Goldhardt.
Alexakos added that safety is key, and that the city has been stockpiling disinfectant products and that they have access through Aramark to a hydrogen peroxide-based solution that is highly effective.
Craig fielded a question about Halloween, stressing that it’s an optional activity, and that while the city has sanctioned trick-or-treating to take place Oct. 31 between 6-8 p.m., alternatively residents can participate in a downtown event on Oct. 30 that will include the Bookmobile. Several businesses will be participating including:
- 900 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria
- Ben & Jerry’s
- Boards and Brews
- Bookery Manchester
- Congressman Chris Pappas’ Office
- Cookson Communications
- Creative Framing Solutions
- Diz’s Cafe
- Framers Market
- Republic of Campo
- Bonfire Country Bar
Residents can check the list of participating businesses here. Any downtown businesses interested in participating can contact the mayor’s office via email firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone, 624-6500.
A question about what the city is doing about the many homeless encampments, in particular the one located next to the Hillsborough County Superior Courthouse, was also answered by Craig, who noted that the property is county-owned. She said that the city and state are working with the county toward a solution, and noted that the state recently placed “no camping” signs in that vicinity.
A meeting Thursday on that subject was attended by about 25 representatives from local and state government, as well as NH State Police and city department heads, Craig said.
“What [the state] communicated to us is that they have a timeline in place, but there are more details that need to be fleshed out,” Craig said. She expected the state to be moving forward with a plan sometime next week.
Small business help
Another question touched on how the city is helping small businesses survive the economic burden of COVID-19 which has reduced capacity and revenue in particular for the city’s bar and restaurant businesses.
Craig pointed to a small business resiliency grant now available to qualifying small businesses to assist with anything they might need to work within the current COVID-19 requirements, including plastic barriers as recommended by the state to increase capacity. More information is available by emailing email@example.com.
There are also low-interest small business loans available for up to $25,000. So far a handful of businesses have taken advantage of those loans, Craig said.
Other questions and answers included:
How to report graffiti, trash or hypodermic needles – The mayor directed people to use the city’s Manchester Connect phone app which flags issues directly to city departments.
What is the city doing about lack of affordable housing? Craig noted the city’s low vacancy rate, which is less than 1 percent, and pointed to a new Affordable Housing Task Force, which will meet for a second time on Oct. 21, and is looking at funding, zoning regulations and code enforcement.
Thomas concluded with a reminder that residents should practice self-care, one of the best ways to remain healthy as the regular flu season sets in. Eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising and getting flu shots are ways to boost the immune system, Thomas said. She also added that the health department is looking at initiating drive-through clinics for flu shots this year.
The town hall was also broadcast on Manchester Public TV Channel 22. You can watch a replay of the town hall below.