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Allowed to reopen, salons restyle themselves for safety during a pandemic

After being closed for more than a month, hair salons across the state are gearing up to open their doors once again as early as Monday. But getting back to business is going to look a little different.

When he announced the easing of some elements of his stay-at-home order on May 1, Gov. Chris Sununu also said that those businesses permitted to reopen would have to follow some new restrictions. The stay-at-home order, issued in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, has been in effect since late March and was recently extended until the end of May.

Salons that reopen will be able to offer limited services — haircuts and root touch-up coloring — and stylists and clients will be required to wear face masks. Services will be provided by appointment only, according to a list of guidelines established by the state’s Economic Reopening Task Force.

While some people have expressed concern about reopening the cosmetology industry, including the more than 6,300 people who signed a petition to keep the sector closed, many clients are eager to return.

Vicky Smith, owner of Vicky Smith Artistry on Main Street in Keene, said her stylists are booked well into the summer, in some cases until July, less than a week after receiving word that the salon would be reopening. While it’s not uncommon to be booked into June at this point, she said, clients are eager to get a touch up.

“I’ve had people asking me [when we could reopen] for weeks,” Smith said. “People are wanting a pick-me-up and are likely sick of the quarantine look.”

She added that she’s spoken with only two clients who had chosen to hold off a bit longer due to concerns about the virus.

Smith said the salon will follow the protocol issued by the state to ensure the safety of her stylists and the community, and that appointment slots have been expanded to allow additional time between clients to thoroughly sanitize work stations.

Other salons are taking similar precautions. On Tuesday, Great Clips, a salon chain with locations across the country, including at the Kohl’s Plaza in Keene, posted its reopening plans to its website.

The chain is encouraging clients to book appointments using its mobile app, which will include a countdown until the appointment, and to be in the vicinity of the salon within the last five minutes of the countdown. Then, in an effort to keep the number of people in the salon to a minimum, the client will be called to alert them that their stylist is ready for them.

Moda Suo Studio, on Main Street, has teased a forthcoming Facebook live video to share the details of its plans for reopening. Though the Facebook post didn’t specify the date of reopening — and no one from Moda could be reached for comment — the salon said its stylists had received certification for using Barbicide, a solution used by cosmetologists and barbers to disinfect their equipment.

“We are taking this very seriously and will be following the state and CDC guidelines for our industry strictly when we reopen,” the salon said in the Facebook post.

MJD and Company Hair Design, on Emerald Street, is planning to reopen at the beginning of the week.

In addition to requiring cloth face masks, the salon is also asking that appointments be made over the phone and paid for in advance with a debit or credit card, or at the time of the appointment with a check or exact cash, according to a post on its Facebook page.

MJD is asking that clients wait in their cars upon arrival, and they will receive a text to let them know when it’s time to come inside. The waiting room will be closed, and clients are being told not to bring anyone to their appointment with them.

In an effort to conserve supplies, clients are asked to use their own face masks, and are being instructed not to come in if they are experiencing any signs of illness.

“We are not willing to put our staff or other clients at risk,” the salon said in a Facebook post on Saturday. “It’s going to be crazy and difficult for a while, so we ask for your patience and understanding.”

Salon Manager Tina Fitz-Simon also noted that the salon will be doing a full sanitization of stations in between appointments and that hand sanitizer will be readily available to clients.

Having been closed for the last month has left the financial health of some salons, like other businesses, up in the air. Salons like Vicky Smith Artistry didn’t qualify for the federal Paycheck Protection Program, aimed at keeping employees on the payroll, because it’s common practice for stylists to rent stations as independent contractors rather than be employed by the businesses directly. But Smith said having the opportunity to open back up now will give salons a shot at a full fiscal recovery.

“I am feeling much better about money,” Smith said. “With all the appointments we have, I have no doubt we’ll bounce right back.”

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Monadnock Community Hospital furloughs 100 employees

PETERBOROUGH — Monadnock Community Hospital has furloughed 100 employees, or about 20 percent of its workforce, because of the financial strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March, the hospital lost $1.7 million, according to a news release Friday, and it is projected to lose between $3 and $4 million monthly — or a total of $24 million by the end of September.

By eliminating elective procedures and scaling back on outpatient visits to help flatten the curve of the viral disease, the hospital’s patient volumes declined by about 60 percent, the release says, leading to the financial problems.

The hospital took several steps to stabilize its finances before implementing furloughs, the release says, including delaying projects, reevaluating existing agreements for services and applying for federal and state loans.

In addition to the 90-day furloughs announced Friday, senior leadership will take a 10 percent pay cut, and physicians, directors and managers will take a 5 percent cut.

All types of positions at the hospital were subject to the furloughs, depending on where the employee need is, according to spokeswoman Laura Gingras.

Everyone affected will continue to receive their health insurance benefits, with the hospital paying for the employee’s portion of the premiums during their furlough period. Employees can also use earned vacation time to make up for the lost hours, the release says.

“Every hospital in the country is dealing with these challenges. We must be very cautious about managing our financial resources as tightly as possible so that we can sustain the future of MCH and preserve the healthcare services our community depends upon for the long term,” President and CEO Cyndee McGuire said in the release. “It has been very difficult to make this decision that impacts our dedicated employees.”

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Keene State initiates furloughs of about 70 staff

Keene State College has begun instituting employee furloughs as its officials continue to try to address the financial disruption to the institution’s operating budget from the COVID-19 pandemic.

College President Melinda Treadwell said Friday that just under 70 of Keene State’s benefited staff members will be affected by the furloughs, which will begin May 22. The number is about 13 percent of the college’s entire benefited staff workforce, she said. The affected employees began receiving notices this past week, she said.

“The bulk of the notices we’ve done so far, we wanted to do at one time so once they were completed, people could breathe a little,” she said.

The decisions were tough, but necessary, as the college needs to immediately preserve its cash resources, she said.

The college faces an $8.7 million budget deficit, about two-thirds of which it attributes to the pandemic.

The furloughs will result in just over $600,000 in savings, Treadwell said.

“If it weren’t more than half a million, it would’ve been a different argument. But this is a significant amount,” she said.

She noted that the furlough actions don’t affect faculty members, as they go off contract in a few weeks, she said.

Treadwell said that during the past week, members of her cabinet have met with directors and supervisors across campus to identify staff members who may be considered eligible for furloughs based on two criteria. The first is whether the person doesn’t have work because there are no students, faculty or staff on campus to support. The second is whether the employee has work to do that, although important, isn’t essential under the current environment, she said.

“It’s not a single position or person that’s not important, but we do have areas that are not operating at full capacity,” she said.

Employees who are furloughed will continue to receive their health and dental benefits and can apply for unemployment benefits, according to an emergency furlough policy approved by the University System of New Hampshire chancellor and presidents last month.

Besides Keene State, the system includes the University of New Hampshire, Plymouth State University and Granite State College.

While the term of the furlough notice is through Aug. 1, Treadwell anticipates that some employees will be asked to come back sooner, as the college begins its startup for the fall semester.

Keene State officials announced Friday that they would be moving forward with plans to reopen the campus for the fall semester. The campus has for the most part been closed since mid-March, with students finishing their spring semester online.

Late last month, more than 90 adjunct staff members working without benefits had their contracts terminated early. That was about 63 percent of the college’s adjunct staff.

“This first step was to close open adjunct, hourly, and contracted employees contract commitments as individuals are not able to engage in their contracted work given the COVID-19 disruption of our normal operations,” Treadwell said in the email at the time.

Between the early contract terminations and the furloughs, the payroll savings that can be used toward offsetting the budget deficit are close to $1 million, she said Friday.

She and her cabinet officers will continue to review Keene State’s operations as the end of the fiscal year approaches, with the possibility of voluntary furloughs by senior administration members, she said.

“I’m trying to make sure this impact is something we share as a community,” she said. “We have to be in this together.”

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Keene testing site doesn't draw a crowd

Tents, uniformed personnel and a military truck were visible last Sunday outside Cheshire Medical Center, as the N.H. National Guard visited Keene to run a one-day mobile testing site. The pop-up facility was equipped to test at least 125 people for COVID-19 over the course of eight hours.

But only 66 people were actually tested, according to the N.H. Joint Information Center, which is handling media inquiries related to the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s not clear why the site did not end up testing as many people as it could have. But people were given at least two different messages about how to make appointments and who qualified for testing.

The temporary test site was part of an effort the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services had launched the previous week to expand COVID-19 testing to anyone experiencing one or more symptoms. In addition to mobile testing units, the state set up several fixed locations for testing, the closest of which is in Claremont.

At the time, state officials were urging residents to arrange testing through their primary health care providers. (They have since changed that guidance.)

“IMPORTANT: All appointments must be scheduled through a patient’s Primary Care Provider or by calling 211 if a patient does not have a provider,” Cheshire Medical Center said in a May 1 news release announcing the mobile testing site was coming two days later.

People who stopped by the site Sunday were told something different. Two of them told The Sentinel they were able to arrange appointments that same day without speaking to their doctors or even having symptoms.

Suzette Borden of Keene said she passed by the Keene hospital during a walk Sunday afternoon. Not seeing any cars in line, she spoke to one of the National Guard members staffing the site. He gave her a piece of paper with instructions about how to make an appointment through a state scheduling center, according to Borden.

“I said, ‘Who can be tested?’ and he said, ‘Anyone can get tested,’ ” Borden said. “I said, ‘You mean you don’t need to have your PCP recommend it?’ He said, ‘No it’s open to anyone who wants a test.’ ”

The instructions said callers “may” be asked to contact their primary care physicians for referrals, but Borden wasn’t. She said that when she called, she was asked if she had any COVID-19 symptoms. She said no, though her age — 71 — put her in a higher-risk category.

“He said, ‘Well, have you had a cough like in the last month or so?’ ” Borden said. “I said, ‘Well, I coughed maybe once or twice.’ He said, ‘OK.’ ”

Fifteen minutes later, she was back at the Cheshire Medical parking lot with an appointment. She said the person taking her nasal swab encouraged her to tell friends. Borden called four or five people, all of whom quickly arranged appointments, she said.

Brenda Von Plinsky, another Keene resident, said her family also made a spur-of-the-moment decision to get tested. On the way to run an errand Sunday, they stopped to inquire about the process.

Someone staffing the testing site handed them a piece of paper with the scheduling center number. She — along with her husband, N.H. Rep. Sparky Von Plinsky, and their two teenagers — soon had appointments for later that day, she said.

She said the person on the state call line did not ask whether they had symptoms. When she asked if anyone would be denied an appointment, she said, that person said no — they wanted to collect as much testing data as possible.

It is not clear why different entities gave different messages on different days about how to sign up for testing.

“We did follow the guidance of state officials who launched the program last Wednesday,” Matthew Barone, a Cheshire Medical Center spokesman, said in an email Monday. He added that the National Guard was sharing a number to be “given to the public should they wander to a testing site in person.”

A spokesman for the N.H. National Guard said it was supporting the state health department and referred questions to the Joint Information Center. The center did not respond to a question about the two divergent messages. The Sentinel’s request to interview someone at the state health department had not been granted as of Friday.

Everyone The Sentinel interviewed described the site — where people would drive up, verify their identity and submit to a nasal swab — as well organized and efficient.

State officials have been expanding COVID-19 testing over the past few weeks, as capacity has grown.

They announced two weeks ago that doctors could recommend tests for anyone with symptoms — a change from past guidance that prioritized the seriously ill, health care workers and first responders.

Earlier this week, the state further expanded its guidance to include anyone over 60 or with an underlying medical condition that creates a higher risk for serious complications of COVID-19, even if they’re free of symptoms.

State officials also announced for the first time Wednesday that any of those people can register for testing without contacting their doctor, through an online portal at www.nh.gov/covid19. Thousands had already scheduled appointments as of Friday, state officials said.

The state averaged about 1,200 test results per day over the past week, up from several hundred a month ago. “We expect to be well over 2,000 a day by the end of next week,” Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said in a news conference Friday.

Borden — who chairs Cheshire Medical Center’s Patient and Family Advisory Council — said she does not want to blame anyone for the different messages about the mobile test site. She just wants to make sure those resources are fully utilized the next time they’re available. Cheshire Medical said in its May 1 news release that it expects the mobile testing unit to return in about 10 days.

“This was a great opportunity to test as many people as we could in this area, whether they had symptoms or not, to see how much COVID-19 we had,” she said.