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New COVID-19 testing site to open in Keene

A fixed COVID-19 testing site will open Sunday in Keene, Gov. Chris Sununu announced Wednesday.

Sununu said this will bring the total number of fixed state testing sites to nine, including another new one in Londonderry.

The Keene site will be at 110 Krif Road (the Keene State Owl athletic complex) and hours are from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, the governor’s spokesman, Benjamin Vihstadt, said. The facility will be equipped for 125 tests a day, but the hope is to reach 200 tests daily if the demand is there, he said.

In addition, N.H. Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette announced that two new categories of people will become eligible for testing starting Tuesday: employees of child-care facilities and people who live with someone in a high-risk category, like seniors or those with underlying medical conditions.

Currently, tests are available to anyone who has a symptom of COVID-19, is over the age of 60 or has an underlying health condition that puts them at greater risk, as well as health-care workers.

Tests can be scheduled online at prd.blogs.nh.gov/dos/hsem/?page_id=8479.

This article has been changed to correct the time the Keene testing site is open.

Steve Mesic of West Swanzey casts a fishing line near the outlet of Swanzey Lake on recent morning. He had already caught a trout and was hoping for more.

Trump threatens states over plans for mail-in voting

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday escalated his campaign to discredit the integrity of mail balloting, threatening to “hold up” federal funding to Michigan and Nevada in response to the states’ plans to increase voting by mail to reduce the public’s exposure to the coronavirus.

Without evidence, Trump called the two states’ plans “illegal,” and he incorrectly claimed that Michigan’s “rogue” secretary of state is planning to mail ballots to all voters. The state is planning to send applications for mail-in ballots to all voters — not ballots themselves.

“This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State,” Trump tweeted about Michigan. “I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”

Trump later corrected the error but did not retreat from his claim that both states are taking steps that will encourage voter fraud. When asked for comment, spokespeople for the White House, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee did not offer evidence that state officials were breaking the law.

Speaking to reporters later at the White House, the president claimed without proof that mail-in ballots lead to “forgeries” and “thousands and thousands of fake ballots.”

“I think just common sense would tell you that massive manipulation can take place,” he said. “And you do have cases of fraudulent ballots where they actually print them and they give them to people to sign, maybe the same person signs them with different writing, different pens. I don’t know. It’s a lot of things can happen.”

The president’s aggressive and unfounded rhetoric drew immediate rebukes from Democrats and voting-rights activists, who accused Trump of intentionally sowing mistrust in U.S. elections.

And his claims that absentee voting will encourage cheating are at odds with the activity of state and national GOP leaders, who are mounting aggressive field operations, including mass mailings of ballot applications, to encourage their voters to cast ballots by mail. Republican officeholders in various states — including Nevada — are also backing expansions of absentee voting because of the pandemic.

Trump’s latest attacks show how voting access has become a major battleground in the 2020 presidential race, as both parties invest tens of millions of dollars into dozens of lawsuits and voter outreach across the country to try to shape how ballots will be cast amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Democratic strategists pointed to Trump’s tweets targeting battleground or Democratic-controlled states as evidence that he is trying to gain an edge in states that could decide the outcome in November. They noted that many Republican states are similarly expanding mail balloting, yet Trump has not criticized them.

“They’re doing this because they think it gives them some sort of political advantage,” said Guy Cecil, a former aide to Hillary Clinton who leads the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA Action. “They see what Trump’s poll numbers are, and their philosophy is simple: ‘If we can’t win with the electorate we have, then we try to create an environment that gives us an electorate that we can win with.’ ”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump is simply trying to prevent voting fraud.

“The president is right to look at this,” she told reporters. “We want a free and fair election, and that’s a fair concern.”

Trump has repeatedly railed against mail-in voting, asserting with scant evidence that it is subject to widespread fraud and has hurt Republicans in previous elections. Multiple studies have shown that Republicans and Democrats both can benefit with increased mail-in voting. Cases of ballot fraud are rare.

Trump himself voted absentee in Florida’s primary in March, saying he did so “because I’m allowed to,” adding that he was at the White House and out of state.

Republican officeholders in at least 16 states that do not have all-mail elections have encouraged people to vote absentee during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a tally last month by The Washington Post.

Still, even as they encourage mail balloting among their own voters, a number of GOP organizations, including state parties, the Republican National Committee and conservative-backed independent groups, have followed Trump’s lead in accusing Democrats of encouraging fraud and seeking to put restrictions on mail voting. The RNC alone has committed $20 million to fight liberal-backed lawsuits seeking easier electoral access.

All of it has forced state and national Republicans, and even Trump’s own political operation, to navigate messy and conflicting strategies as they try to balance the president’s distaste for mail balloting with the on-the-ground objective to help their own voters cast ballots during the pandemic.

“We have been clear that we cannot have rogue state officials or activist courts making unilateral decisions,” said RNC press secretary Mandi Merritt. “We continue to support lawful absentee voting with the proper safeguards in place, safeguards which Democrats are suing to eliminate in states like Michigan.”

Trump’s political advisers said he has made clear that he doesn’t like mail balloting and doesn’t want states to expand it.

“He’s not telling us to reverse current rules,” said one senior campaign adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly. “He just doesn’t want it expanded or people to use it for other reasons like this. He thinks the more mail voting there is, the more fraud there is.”

Several Trump advisers said they viewed the president’s attacks on Michigan in particular as unwise, given internal GOP polling showing he is trailing in the state. The tweet caught several campaign advisers by surprise, including Republican National Committee chair and former Michigan state party chair Ronna McDaniel, as well as campaign manager Brad Parscale, according to people familiar with their reactions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

The first version of his tweet that erroneously said Michigan was sending out ballots — rather than ballot applications — was deleted after hours of internal conversations with Trump and others concluded that it was not a good idea, a Republican with knowledge of the discussions said.

Internal campaign polling has consistently shown Trump trailing former vice president Joe Biden in Michigan, people familiar with the polling said. A Fox News poll in mid-April found Biden leading Trump by 49 percent to 41 percent among registered voters in the state.

Trump took aim at Michigan a day after its secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, announced a plan to send absentee ballot applications to all of its 7.7 million voters for primary elections in August and general elections in November.

Benson noted in an interview that at least four Republican states — Georgia, Iowa, Nebraska and West Virginia — have decided to send ballot applications to all voters, just as she did.

“It is not a partisan issue to ensure that every citizen can vote,” she said. “Our hope is that the misuse of federal funding that’s being threatened is simply that — a threat. It’s certainly illegal to predicate federal funding on a political agenda.”

In his tweet threatening to curtail federal funds, Trump flagged the Treasury Department as well as Russ Vought, the acting head of the White House Office of Management and Budget. He offered no details about what money he would hold up.

Later he told reporters that he spoke Wednesday with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer but said they didn’t discuss the withholding of federal funds, adding, “I don’t think it’s going to be necessary.”

McEnany said Trump’s tweet “was meant to alert OMB, who wanted to be very careful as we send trillions of dollars to states that we keep this important point in mind.”

Several current and former budget officials said the majority of federal assistance for states is distributed according to formulas set by Congress that would be difficult — if not impossible — for the president to unilaterally alter.

Other assistance comes in the form of grants that are awarded jointly by relevant federal agencies and the Office of Management and Budget, which could decide not to award money to Michigan or Nevada. But any political interference with the grant-making process would likely be challenged in court, said William Hoagland, a Republican and former staff director on the Senate Budget Committee.

“OMB and the agency head would be legally culpable,” Hoagland said. “If the states apply and meet all the requirements, I think it would create legal challenges.”

Republicans are more united about Trump’s attack on Nevada, which has moved to a largely mail-in system for its June 9 primary. Republican Party leaders have criticized the state for deciding to mail ballots, not just ballot applications, to all active and inactive voters. That could allow bad actors to obtain ballots sent to voters who have moved or died, they argue.

“State of Nevada ‘thinks’ that they can send out illegal vote by mail ballots, creating a great Voter Fraud scenario for the State and the U.S.,” Trump said in his second tweet. “They can’t! If they do, ‘I think’ I can hold up funds to the State. Sorry, but you must not cheat in elections.”

His criticism is complicated by the fact that Nevada’s secretary of state, Barbara Cegavske, is a Republican. A federal judge upheld her decision to mail ballots to all voters in Nevada’s upcoming primary. Democrats are now suing to ensure that in-person voting is also available on Election Day.

Cegavske’s office issue a statement Wednesday defending her decision, noting that “many safeguards” are in place to prevent fraud, including signature requirements and bar code tracking.

The state’s Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, was more pointed in a tweet Wednesday: “For the President to threaten federal funding in the midst of a pandemic over a state exercising its authority to run elections in a safe and legal manner is inappropriate and outrageous.”

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Brattleboro requires face masks in businesses

BRATTLEBORO — The town selectboard Tuesday issued an emergency order requiring that customers and employees in local businesses wear face coverings, a measure meant to slow the transmission of COVID-19.

The order applies to “all establishments in the Town of Brattleboro that invite the public into their premises,” including nonprofit organizations and government offices. Effective immediately, the order requires that either a cloth face covering or face shield be worn.

The requirement does not apply to children under 5, people who have trouble breathing or those who would not be able to remove a mask without assistance.

Requirements issued by the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development mandate that employees wear face coverings when around others. Businesses may require visitors wear masks as well.

But according to the latest version of Vermont Gov. Phil Scott’s stay-at-home order, a town or city “may enact more strict local requirements regarding mask use.”

The Brattleboro Selectboard did so during its meeting Tuesday, after a discussion that included public input, according to a Wednesday news release from the town.

Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell said Thursday the town won’t enforce the order, but would step in if business owners have a dispute with a customer over wearing a mask.

Elwell said there’s no penalty clause in the order.

To date, Vermont has tallied 54 known deaths among COVID-19 patients.

In New Hampshire, where 190 deaths have been deemed COVID-19-related, employees are supposed to wear cloth face coverings when “at work and in public,” according to the state’s general guidelines for businesses that have reopened or continued operations.

Similarly, the state’s retail-specific guidance stresses that workers must wear cloth face coverings when they are in parts of the store that are open to the public or in shared staff areas. It also advises stores to encourage customers to wear masks.

Last week, Democratic state representatives urged N.H. Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, to require cloth masks in public.

Sununu has said he believes a broader mask-wearing requirement is not needed, though local communities could consider such steps.

“We’re not at that point here in the state,” he said at a news conference Friday. “If local cities and towns can do that, and want to go down that path, it is their choice to do so.”

Sununu’s public health team has encouraged people to follow the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which call for cloth face coverings when social distancing is hard to maintain, such as in stores.

The CDC says cloth masks that cover the nose and mouth can help prevent the wearer from unwittingly spreading the virus through respiratory droplets.

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Keene councilor pitches plan to increase outdoor business space

City Councilor Mitch Greenwald wants to start a discussion about ways to increase dining and retail space outside of Keene storefronts, particularly downtown.

In a letter to the City Council, Greenwald, who owns Main Street’s Greenwald Realty, says he wants to see what can be done to help businesses get back on their feet after months of being closed or operating with significant restrictions due to the COVID-19 outbreak. His letter is on the agenda for tonight’s City Council meeting.

He said he’d like to see additional outdoor dining space for restaurants, which were given the go-ahead to resume patio dining service as of Monday. And he also said he’s in favor of letting retailers, which were able to reopen as of May 11, use more of the sidewalks, as well.

Greenwald said that in the past, the city had weekend-long street fairs in July, when downtown merchants brought their products out to displays on the sidewalk. He said recreating that atmosphere could make it easier to cater to patrons, as restaurants are restricted to outdoor service and retail facilities are required to operate at reduced capacity.

“The street fair, at its biggest, was no traffic on the street and vendors all over the place,” he said. He added that he’d like “to get a little vibrancy and a little sizzle downtown that will hopefully attract shoppers to come downtown, not just from Keene but from further away.”

He added that this model is something the city could continue to use even after the pandemic has run its course, saying he’d like to see the street fairs return as a regular occurrence in the summers.

He noted that City Manager Elizabeth Dragon has been working with local restaurants to try to figure out ways to increase the amount of outside space for them since Gov. Chris Sununu announced on May 1 that certain sectors of the economy could begin to reopen.

But Greenwald said the council hasn’t really discussed the matter at length. He asked in his letter that it be brought up in a meeting of the council’s planning, licenses and development committee, with the results of that discussion referred to Dragon for use in developing a plan.

Some of the specific suggestions that Greenwald included in his letter are allowing patios to extend in front of neighboring storefronts, allowing seating to be set up in parking spaces, temporarily closing one lane in each direction on Main Street or even temporarily lowering the downtown speed limit.

However, he emphasized that these are all just suggestions. He added that some of them may not even be possible.

“It’s just a discussion,” he said. “I’m sure that our emergency management director is probably going to have a lot to say about what we can’t do.”

While only restaurants are being restricted to serving patrons outdoors, Greenwald emphasized that retail businesses could benefit from outdoor service as well.

He said when he owned a Main Street clothing store in the 1970s, it wasn’t unusual for merchants to bring a great deal of their inventory out to the sidewalk displays during the street fairs. Greenwald said the business’ best days of the year often coincided with these events.

When asked about how the city would cover any costs associated with these proposals should they move forward, Greenwald said it’s something that still needs to be talked about. Even asking employees from the public works department to put up barriers costs money, he said, but to help downtown businesses, Greenwald thinks it’s worth considering.

The City Council meeting for May 21 begins at 7 p.m. and will be held via the teleconferencing application Zoom. Access information can be found on the city’s website. Communications to the City Council are generally referred directly to a committee without additional immediate discussion.