When it comes to face masks as a means of slowing the spread of COVID-19, Keene may be just as divided as the rest of the country.
At least 50 people tuned in to Wednesday’s meeting of the City Council’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee, where councilors fielded three hours of comments regarding a proposed ordinance that would require the use of face masks in Keene. Opinions ranged from concerns that the ordinance would violate the rights of businesses and individuals to fears that not passing it would be a detriment to public health.
“Over half the country ... has mask ordinances, all in the name of public safety,” said Councilor Randy Filiault, who originally pitched the ordinance, that was later withdrawn, back in May. “We’re not asking for anything new here; we can look at the other 25 to 30 states that now have mask ordinances in place and find out that they are effective and they can be enforced.”
The discussion stems from a resolution approved at the City Council’s meeting last week that encourages people to wear masks in places where social distancing is difficult. The resolution had originally been pitched as an ordinance — a requirement — based on a similar law in Nashua. When Nashua’s ordinance was upheld in court, Keene’s was brought back to the table by Mayor George Hansel, who said several councilors had expressed interest in reviving it.
The City Council passed the nonbinding mask resolution last week before sending the proposed mask ordinance to the Planning, Licenses and Development Committee.
Much of the concern from committee members Wednesday was that the language of the ordinance lacks specificity. Councilors asked to have certain items clearly defined, such as what constitutes a proper mask, and what counts as a business, as well as to specify any potential exemptions and clarify the consequences of violating the mandate.
“There is an ordinance for Nashua; I think Keene really needs to look at what Keene should have as an ordinance,” said Councilor Kate Bosley, the committee’s chairwoman. “As a concept, I think that Nashua’s paved the road, but I think we need to be looking tonight at what the public has to say and what this committee feels are the appropriate framework to build the ordinance into.“
The committee voted unanimously to continue the discussion next week, giving City Attorney Thomas Mullins time to draft a new proposal that takes into account some of the issues raised during the meeting. Matters committee members discussed included whether the ordinance would extend to the outdoors, whether all businesses would be included, who would enforce the ordinance and what penalties would be involved.
Before opening the floor to the public, the committee heard from Dr. Don Caruso, president and CEO of Cheshire Medical Center. Caruso spoke in favor of the ordinance, noting that while Keene has done a solid job of keeping its COVID-19 numbers low, the best way to keep that up is wearing a face mask in public places.
As of Wednesday, 15 Keene residents had tested positive for the virus since the start of the pandemic, according to the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services, and one to four cases were considered current. Nearly 6,300 people have tested positive statewide.
“It’s really clear from data and studies out there that if we have 80 percent of our population masked, what will happen is we will have the same result as having a strict shutdown,” Caruso said. “I’d rather have people masking and protecting our population because we know we are also the oldest county ... of any county in the state of New Hampshire.”
If there was one thing speakers on both sides of the argument seemed to agree on, it was that restrictions should be more relaxed when it comes to outdoor activities. Other parts of the argument got a bit more heated.
A sizable portion of the residents who participated in the meeting, some from Keene and some from neighboring towns, said that while they’re not opposed to using masks, they feel it should be up to individual businesses to determine their own mask policies.
Members of the public can choose whether they’re comfortable with a business’ mask policy and shop elsewhere if they’re not, said Rebecca Montrone, who owns Wondrous Roots on Roxbury Street. She urged the committee to “give people a little bit of credit.”
“As business owners, we need to be able to set our own standards,” she said. “And our patrons can choose whether they want to work with us or not.”
Other speakers questioned whether there could actually be a harmful side to masks, particularly for those who are required to wear them consistently for long periods of time, and questioned the science behind whether masks are effective at preventing the spread of diseases and even whether masks themselves could contribute to poorer health.
Health experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend face coverings when around other people to minimize the possibility that one’s respiratory droplets — spread by coughing, sneezing or speaking — infect others.
On the other hand, resident John Schmitt expressed concern about carbon dioxide buildup in masks if worn for an extended period.
Several non-Keene residents who are opposed to the ordinance said the move would likely cost local businesses money, as those who prefer not to wear a mask would probably shop elsewhere. Several others said they considered the ordinance government overreach.
Though few of the participants were in favor of the ordinance, those who did defend it said it could be a valuable tool for slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Keene resident Tiffany Matthews said residents need guidance from the city and urged the council to take a strong position on the matter.
“We need clear direction on COVID safety precautions,” she said. “That’s what the public needs, and we need to take a hard stance.”
Another resident, Gordon Matthews, called wearing a mask something that is “a minimal inconvenience” that helps protect the most vulnerable members of the community.
Still others argued that those who are opposed to the ordinance are misinformed. Sean O’Mara urged the council to make decisions based on advice from health experts rather than “hunches and feelings.”
The committee will continue discussion of the proposed ordinance at its next meeting, scheduled for Wednesday. The meeting is expected to be held via Zoom, and access information will be posted on the city’s calendar, which can be found online at ci.keene.nh.us/calendar.
WASHINGTON — When the COVID-19 pandemic first drove the country into lockdown and tens of millions of workers lost their jobs, Congress voted to add $600 a week to whatever individual states paid in unemployment insurance.
That extra money was a desperately needed lifeline for many because state unemployment benefits typically replace less than half a worker’s paycheck. Adding the federal payment on top gave many low-income workers more than they earned before.
Now with the $600 boost about to end, Congress must decide whether to let it die, continue it or cut back the payment levels. Recent negotiations suggest lawmakers on both sides are open to extending only reduced or a more restrictive version of the payment.
Most Republicans argue that the present system encourages workers to remain on unemployment rather than go back to work. Ending or slashing the federal payments would help employers and investors by pressuring many of those employees to go back to work.
But maintaining the extra unemployment payments at or near present levels would help millions of workers keep paying their rent, writing mortgage checks, making car payments and caring for families. That’s especially true right now, when the pandemic is getting worse in many parts of the country and local officials are moving to restore lockdown rules they had begun to relax when the danger seemed to be fading.
In addition to helping the jobless, keeping the extra payments at or relatively near the current level would provide a substantial boost to an economy still reeling from the impact of COVID-19. Conversely, abolishing or slashing the federal payments would undercut the economy.
Basic unemployment insurance payments are determined by each state. During the first quarter of this year, they averaged $373 a week. The additional $600 a week was part of Congress’s $2.2-trillion relief package known as the CARES Act and passed in March.
Beyond anecdotal reports of employers struggling to recall workers, one of the few attempts to measure the extent of the problem was a May 18 survey by the National Federation of Independent Business, a small-employer lobbying group. It reported that 18 percent of 685 respondents said an employee had declined a job offer in order to stay on unemployment benefits.
“Even in the best situation hiring is often a difficult process. But when there’s competition with a government program, it’s even more challenging,” said Holly Wade, director of research and policy analysis at NFIB.
In northern Maine near the Canadian border, Michael Collins said he is trying to bring back dine-in service at his Arby’s franchise in Presque Isle. Maine has been doing better than most other states in controlling COVID-19, and unemployment has dropped back down to 6.6 percent, compared to 11.1 percent for the nation.
But Collins has rehired only one of six employees he furloughed months ago. The other five, Collins said, told him, “Why would I come back when I can make more sitting at home?”
If the $600 benefit is cut back, he said he hopes more will want to return.
One of the things that’s clearly changed since mid-May is that the health crisis — and with it the economy — has taken a turn for the worse.
Since early this month, small business openings and revenues, as well as new-job postings, have turned sharply down, according to Opportunity Insights, a nonpartisan group based at Harvard that is tracking the economic effects of the pandemic.
Before this month began, “I would have said, ‘Maybe we should back a little off $600. There’s enough evidence of new hiring activity that the $600 might be just too much disincentive for too many people,’” said Harry Holzer, public policy professor at Georgetown University. “Now with the hiring slowdown, I would rather err on the other direction” to offer more help for people.
If Congress ends or makes a sharp cutback in the special unemployment benefit — Senate Republicans are said to be considering $200 to $400 a week — many economists worry that it’ll take billions of dollars out of the economy at exactly the wrong time.
“We would replace the nightly stories about the spread of the COVID virus with the spread of desperation among households,” said Richard Curtin, director of the University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey. The latest survey found confidence, a leading indicator of future spending, falling back down in July.
Some 30 million people have been claiming unemployment benefits since May, suggesting the $600 supplement may be adding as much as $18 billion a week in payments.
That’s helped many people not only hold onto their homes or apartments but also pay for other critical expenses, including healthcare. A majority of Americans with medical insurance get it through their jobs, so being laid off has left likely millions of workers and families without their normal coverage.
Since the $600 figure was based on nationwide averages and distributed as a flat payment to everyone qualifying for unemployment assistance, as many as two-thirds may be receiving more than their lost wages, according to researchers at the University of Chicago. That’s in large part because lower-paid and part-time workers at restaurants, hotels and retail stores accounted for a very large share of those laid off or furloughed during the outbreak.
Cutting the federal boost will weigh harder on workers in certain parts of the country. States in the South have been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus resurgence, and they also provide some of the lowest unemployment benefits. Florida’s regular jobless benefit tops out at $275 a week, compared with $450 for California and more than $800 for Massachusetts.
Bottom line: Without the $600 pandemic supplement, Florida workers would likely have just 38 percent of their lost wages replaced by unemployment insurance, compared with 45 percent for the nation, based on first-quarter data from the Labor Department.
In Austin, Texas, another state where the outbreak has worsened recently, restaurateur Adam Orman, 44, doesn’t blame workers if some of them are reluctant to return to low-paying jobs.
“If the minimum wage was an actual livable amount of money, then this wouldn’t be an issue,” said the general manager of L’Oca d’Oro. The wage floor for tipped workers in Texas is $2.13 an hour.
“It is a little ludicrous to ask somebody to come off of unemployment in the middle of a pandemic to make” so little, he said.
Governor Chris Sununu joined 20 of his Republican governors in pushing for liability protection for businesses in the next round of coronavirus legislation.
The letter sent Tuesday to congressional leaders urges “common sense civil liability protection to healthcare workers business and schools,” but most of the letter goes on to talk about protecting employers from lawsuits claiming that their actions resulted in workers and customers getting sick and possibly dying from COVID-19 related illnesses.
“Liability protections must be predictable, timely, targeted and shield employers from legal risk when following the appropriate standard of care to protect employees, customers, and students,” said the letter. “To be clear, liability protections are not a license for gross negligence, misconduct or recklessness.”
Liability protection has been a key demand of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce shortly after the pandemic started. Its local affiliate, the Business, and Industry Association of New Hampshire, had pushed for Sununu to include such protections in his emergency orders relating to reopening the economy. But an attorney seeking to convince the Economic Reopening Task Force on recommending such protections got a lukewarm reception. A direct letter to Sununu also failed, though the governor said he supported the idea in principal.
“There are a lot of businesses that should be protected, absolutely,” he said at a press conference in early May,” adding he was “looking to provide some of those protections to get businesses to open up, to allow things to move forward would be very important.”
But he added, “It’s really a federal issue. Not just to punt, but given that we have so many workers in businesses that deal with workers across the border.”
The BIA also tried to get legislators to introduce a “safe harbor” bill that would protect business as long as they were following recommended guidance, but failed to gain traction in face of strong democratic opposition.
“If workers cannot be kept safe, then they should not be back in the workplace,” said Sen. Dan Feltes of Concord, a candidate for governor. “The discussion of blanket immunity for corporations who put their workers at risk is a non-starter.”
Now the debate is being played out again on the federal level, as Congress considers its fourth package to alleviate a pandemic that has only — on a nationwide level — worsen. Democrats want some kind of extension of enhanced unemployment benefits, which actually expire this week (though the last weekly check with that extra $600 won’t go out until next week), as well as extending and perhaps adding aid to small businesses like the Paycheck Protection Program that is now set to expire on Aug. 8, as well as aid to the states, municipalities and school districts.
But for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — one of the recipients of the letter — liability protection is the “red line” for him to agree to any deal. In addition, President Donald Trump has said that any school aid be contingent on schools opening physically and has insisted on a payroll tax cut. All of this controversy could jeopardize the passage of any package to help small business or their workforce.
While 21 governors — none Democratic — signaled that they have McConnell’s back with the letter, five Republican Governors were not signatories, including two of Sununu’s neighbors: Phil Scott of Vermont and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts. Kristi Noam (South Dakota), Kevin Stitt (Oklahoma) and Brian Kemp (Georgia) also did not sign the letter.
Keene State College students will begin the fall semester with a week of online classes while they return to campus the week of Aug. 24, a week earlier than classes were originally scheduled to begin.
The shift means the college will be able to finish in-person instruction before Thanksgiving, and will allow students to finish classes and take final exams remotely, Keene State President Melinda Treadwell said Wednesday evening during a virtual town hall meeting with college alumni and community members.
During the 45-minute event held via Zoom, Treadwell outlined Keene State’s plans to reopen campus, including requiring all students, faculty and staff members to be tested for COVID-19 prior to or upon their arrival, mandating masks on campus and limiting class size to allow for physical distancing.
Keene State transitioned to remote instruction in mid-March due to concern over the COVID-19 pandemic and continued distance learning through the end of the school year.
Keene State is planning for the majority of students to move in from Aug. 24-26, according to the college’s reopening website. During that week, students can tune in to their classes and complete initial coursework on their own schedules, before in-person classes begin on Aug. 31.
But before then, all students, faculty and staff will be required to receive a negative COVID-19 test result. The college is working with Quest Diagnostics, which has locations throughout New England, to provide free testing to all students no more than seven days before they return to Keene.
On-campus testing for faculty and staff will take place starting the week of Aug. 17, according to Keene State’s reopening website. Faculty will be tested again within 10 days after students arrive, and students will be tested at least twice more in the first four to six weeks, Treadwell said.
During the school year, Keene State has contracts with ConvenientMD to analyze COVID-19 tests, with a guaranteed three- to five-day turnaround, Treadwell said. ConvenientMD doesn’t have the capacity to collect samples for these tests, though, so Fallon Ambulance Service of Quincy, Mass. will handle that aspect of the testing. The University of New Hampshire is also working to establish the system’s own lab to conduct COVID-19 testing, and Keene State will shift more of its testing needs there as the lab gets up and running.
“We’ve tried to build a lot of redundancy, knowing there’s some backlog [in testing],” Treadwell said. “And we’ve held these commercial vendors, who have been great partners with us so far, to some very specific terms, knowing that we’re going to need to make decisions in rapid time.”
When in-person classes do resume on Aug. 31, not all students will be in class every day. In order to ensure students can keep 6 feet of space between them, Keene State has reduced classroom capacities by about 60 percent, Treadwell said. That means students will rotate between in-person and online classes throughout the week.
Along with these sorts of on-campus measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, Keene State is working with various community partners to keep both students and local residents safe and healthy, Treadwell said.
“We’ll be doing continued meetings with Cheshire Medical Center, the city of Keene, the emergency-response team, to be sure that in no way is Keene State creating any risk to the safety and well-being of the citizens of Keene or of greater Cheshire County,” she said.
Treadwell, who also helped lead a team of higher education officials to develop a reopening plan for all University System of New Hampshire schools, added that Keene State will return to on-campus classes only if she is confident that the college’s plan will protect students and the entire community.
“And that is our commitment,” Treadwell said. “If that is not something that I can ensure, then we will return to remote learning.”
Treadwell also addressed Keene State’s directive that everyone on campus, including visitors, must wear masks. The college has purchased several thousand cloth face coverings from two local businesses, Bulldog Design and Beeze Tees Screen Printing, and will provide all students, faculty and staff members with three masks apiece. Disposable masks will be available for visitors to campus, Treadwell said.
After the town hall, Treadwell spoke in favor of the city of Keene’s proposed mask ordinance at the City Council’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee meeting. The ordinance is similar to laws being considered in other New Hampshire college towns, Treadwell added.
“If the city does pass this ordinance ... as Durham and Plymouth are considering, it will mean that there is a normative expectation in and around the city of Keene,” she said during the town hall meeting. “And so our students, from my perspective, will be in an environment where it’s just a normal practice. And those normal practices are washing your hands, wearing a mask and keeping physical distance. [Those] are the most important ways that we can protect ourselves and protect others.”
If students do not adhere to mask requirements and social-distancing mandates, either on of off campus, Treadwell said they will be subject to the college’s student conduct process, which follows a three-strike policy for code of conduct violations, and includes sanctions up to removal from the college.
“This has been an area of obsession, frankly, both for the [University System of New Hampshire] campuses and for our board of trustees, recognizing that it’s a place of significant risk,” she said. “... We think altogether we have a good plan, and we have the steps we need if we’re having problems with adherence. But it’s a big issue.”
This article has been updated to correct the name of the company that will collect samples for COVID-19 tests during the school year at Keene State.