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Keene Chorale rehearses remotely in COVID-era arrangement

Several Keene Chorale members missed their cues at the group’s Oct. 6 gathering — hardly surprising, given that the choir only recently began rehearsing for its spring concert. Rather than an unfamiliar composition, however, the mute function on Zoom was to blame.

Last week’s session was the group’s second virtual meeting this fall as it resumes operations during the COVID-19 pandemic despite a number of technical and logistical challenges.

The Keene Chorale typically performs twice each year — in December and April or May — with about three months of weekly rehearsals before each concert, according to Cailin Marcel Manson, who is in his fifth year as the choir’s music director. This year, it has elongated that schedule and plans to meet virtually twice a month before having just one recital, in May.

The choir canceled its spring 2020 concert in April due to the public health crisis. Manson, 38, who oversees the music performance concentration at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and also directs the school’s concert choir and chamber chorus, said the Keene Chorale had been scheduled to perform Mozart’s “Requiem.”

“I think we had learned more than half of it at the time we had to start shutting things down,” he said.

Manson added that he worked with the choir’s board of directors over the summer to develop a plan for resuming rehearsals safely. The group has typically rehearsed at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Washington Street in Keene, according to Board President Don LeRoy.

Public health experts have identified singing in groups as particularly likely to spread the novel coronavirus, due to the high volume of aerosol particles that singers exhale.

Last month, choir members began learning their parts of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” from instructive materials available online, said Kate Rantilla of Jaffrey, a board member and the choir’s immediate past president. She explained that after having weekly rehearsals in previous years, the choir will meet via Zoom twice a month until at least early 2021 — once to rehearse with the choir’s piano accompanist, Vladimir Odinokikh, and once to review their preparations with Manson.

“I think that we’ve found a solution that seems to be working for us,” Rantilla said. “The majority of it has to do with Cailin’s ability to connect with people, even [over] video.”

Enrollment in the Keene Chorale, which does not require its members to audition, is down to fewer than 60 people, from its usual number of 65 to 80, she noted. Registration is still open, however, and Rantilla said she expects people to continue joining the choir into January.

As a former web developer for Intelstat Corporation, a satellite communications provider, Rantilla is responsible for managing Keene Chorale’s website. That job has taken on added responsibility this year because members must download their sheet music — three to four pieces each month, she said — as well as prerecorded singing instructions from Manson and audio files amplifying their roles over the ensemble, which can help as they practice alone.

“This [audio tutorial] is great because you’re singing with an orchestra,” Rantilla said. “... It’s a very complete system. We would use it anyway, even if we were rehearsing every week.”

Instead, the Keene Chorale began holding once-a-month practice sessions with Odinokikh on Sept. 29. Rantilla explained that the rehearsals are for choir members to sing with live music rather than to practice as a group, since they will be muted to avoid audio discrepancies over Zoom.

“I went into that first one with a little bit of trepidation, but ... even though we could only hear ourselves sing, we all knew that everybody else was singing at the same time,” she said. “It still felt good to be singing and seeing everybody.”

The group will also meet once a month with Manson to clear up any confusion from the rehearsals.

About three dozen members tuned in at 7 p.m. on Oct. 6 for the first of those virtual sessions. Manson divided attendees by voice type — soprano, alto, tenor and bass — and sent them into respective “breakout rooms” on the Zoom call before resuming the group discussion to address their questions.

Several singers mentioned their concerns with the remote format, calling the first rehearsal “tedious” and out of sync. Suzanne Coble of Harrisville told other alto section members she was “terrified that at any moment [she] would be unmuted.”

Members also praised Manson and Odinokikh and said learning the pieces on their own seems like an adequate solution.

“I think this is going to work as well as it possibly can,” said Dick Goettle of Fitzwilliam.

But after some COVID-related comments, the questions focused on more ordinary topics. Manson told choir members how to interpret a 16th note, advised them on pronouncing lyrics in the 18th-century arrangement, offered suggestions for its tempo and clarified their cues, among other items.

And more normalcy could be coming in late March or early April, when the Keene Chorale may resume in-person rehearsals if it is permitted under COVID-19 safety guidelines, according to Rantilla. She explained that the group’s board of directors is exploring options to hold its May concert in a “nontraditional space,” such as the ground floor of a parking garage, if an indoor space would be infeasible.

“[It] is a very ambitious thing [because] for the majority of the year, we won’t have sung together,” she said. “... We’ve all performed the ‘Messiah’ on numerous occasions but never with Cailin. For that, I would do just about anything because his interpretation of things is extraordinary.”

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Beeze Tees named finalist in national small-business contest

When Beeze Tees Screen Printing opened its second retail location in Manchester in February, owner Tim Pipp wanted to buy a vehicle for the business to transport products between the new store, the company’s production facility in Marlborough and its storefront in Keene.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit New Hampshire, and the prospect of such a big investment vanished about as fast as nearly all of Beeze Tees’ business, Pipp said. Instead, the company has been using Pipp’s personal Jeep to move T-shirts and the other promotional items it produces back and forth between Manchester and the Monadnock Region.

“We’re making it work for the time being,” he said. “It’s a temporary fix.”

So, when Pipp’s mom, Nancy, sent him the information for Inc. Magazine’s “Small Business, Big Impact Contest,” the grand prize for which is a new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Van, he figured he would apply. And now, Beeze Tees is one of four finalists for the contest.

The contest, which Pipp said drew more than 4,000 entries nationwide, seeks to honor businesses and organizations that pivoted their operations to help their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Beeze Tees, which had to temporarily lay off almost all of its 17 employees early in the pandemic, that meant moving from printing T-shirts to making masks.

“When COVID hit, masks were kind of in demand and hard to come by, and we configured a way to make masks on our embroidery equipment,” Pipp said. “So, business was down and the need for these masks was very high, so we started making masks.”

The company sold about 5,550 masks, and donated another 1,000 to first responders and other essential workers in the first few months after the pandemic arrived in New Hampshire, Pipp said, allowing the company to begin rehiring its staff members. Beeze Tees still sells masks through the special website Pipp created, thetshirtmask.com.

The winner of the contest will be selected by popular vote on the Inc. Magazine website. The voting is open until Oct. 23, and individuals can vote up to five times per day. For a link to the voting website, visit the Beeze Tees website at beezetees.com.

And while Pipp said he certainly wants to win, he’s already excited about the level of exposure the contest is bringing not only to Beeze Tees, but also to the small business community throughout New Hampshire.

“I’m really excited to be a finalist, but I’m really excited for my staff, my company, our city and our state,” he said. “... This isn’t about Beeze Tees or Tim Pipp or anything like that. This is about our community.”

Pipp also admits that Beeze Tees faces steep odds against the three other finalists: Downtown Boxing Gym, a nonprofit after-school academic and athletic program in Detroit that has taken most of its programming online during the pandemic; Gang Free Inc., a nonprofit in Henderson, N.C., that has been providing food for about 14,000 people per month over the past several months; and Who Dat Barbershop in New Orleans, which has been offering free haircuts and donating food throughout the city during the pandemic.

“They’re such good stories, they’re such good people,” Pipp said of the other finalists. “And I have a really long road ahead if we want to win. And we need all the help that we can get. I think they’re all three very deserving organizations or businesses. I think we are, too, but we have a real tough competition here.”

Pipp was originally scheduled to travel to the Inc. 5000 Conference in San Antonio from Oct. 21-23, where the winner of the contest would have been announced. The event will now be held virtually, but the winner will still be revealed Oct. 23. And regardless of the outcome, Pipp said making it this far is already good for the entire business community in the Granite State.

“This is really for our community,” he said. “This is a win for New Hampshire, this is a win for Keene, this is a win for Manchester. ... This is a good win for small-town New Hampshire, and I really do believe that.”

Not since Bork has a Supreme Court pick had such a public record on issues. Will it matter for Barrett?

WASHINGTON — As a law professor, Elena Kagan once described Supreme Court confirmation hearings as a “valid and hollow charade,” because modern-day nominees rarely reveal their views on issues to avoid compromising their impartiality in future cases.

Then, in 2010, as a nominee by President Barack Obama to the Supreme Court, that’s exactly what Kagan did, too.

But Judge Amy Coney Barrett may have more trouble doing so. Unlike any Supreme Court pick since the failed nomination of Robert Bork, Barrett has taken a public stand on the most divisive issues before the court, including abortion, contraceptives, guns and health care.

That’s in stark contrast to the past three decades of Supreme Court nominees, whose public records did not include comments on hot-button issues that could prove troublesome in a Senate confirmation hearing.

As a Notre Dame law professor, Barrett signed a public letter in 2013 that condemned the “Supreme Court’s infamous Roe vs. Wade decision” and called for “the unborn to be protected in law.” In 2006, she signed on to an ad that called for an “end to the barbaric legacy of Roe vs. Wade.”

After being appointed to the 7th Circuit Court, she joined a dissent that called for reconsidering a blocked Indiana law that would have banned abortions based on a disability or deformity. She also voted in dissent to strike down the laws taking guns away from felons if their crimes did not involve danger or violence.

And when the Supreme Court narrowly upheld the Affordable Care Act over a dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia, Barrett — who once clerked for Scalia — said she thought her former boss had the better argument.

Some legal experts say Barrett may have opened the door to more probing questions because she has gone on record. That grilling could begin Tuesday, during the second day of her Senate confirmation hearing.

“This nomination is likely to be more like Bork’s than (Justice Brett M.) Kavanaugh’s in terms of the examination of her record,” said Lori A. Ringhand, a University of Georgia School of Law professor and co-author of a 2013 book on Supreme Court confirmations.

“Judge Barrett, like Judge Bork, has a pretty extensive history of writing and speaking on controversial issues. She will be pressed on those issues. I think that’s a good thing. Hearings that focus on the constitutional consequences of a nomination are one of the ways we understand over time what is and is not in the constitutional mainstream.”

However, unlike Bork, whose 1987 nomination was derailed by his willingness to discuss frankly his views on civil rights, voting rights and abortion — both before and during his confirmation — Barrett appears almost certain to be narrowly confirmed. Republicans abolished the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, so they can confirm Barrett with just 50 votes and no Democrats.

In his opening statement at Barrett’s confirmation hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., appeared to invite probing questions, calling it an opportunity “to dig into her philosophy” and her views of the law.

But it is not clear the Democrats want to spend much time debating abortion and the future of Roe vs. Wade. On Monday, they focused on the health care law and what it would mean to tens of millions of Americans if the high court were to agree with President Donald Trump’s lawyers and strike down the entire law.

Republicans appeared poised to argue that questioning Barrett about issues like abortion and contraceptives is attacking her religion. If Barrett is asked about abortion, she is likely to respond generally by saying it is a longstanding precedent of court, the language used by most nominees.

Because of the sharp partisan divide, University of Chicago law professor David Strauss expects that the hearings will not reveal much about Barrett’s views of the law or precedent.

“If confirmation hearings were pretty much an empty ritual a decade or so ago, they are really empty now, because it’s all become so much more partisan and polarized,” he said.

In decades past, at least some senators on the Judiciary Committee were publicly undecided when the hearings got underway.

“It used to be that what a nominee said — and, more important, how the nominee came across — could give a senator cover if he or she wanted to vote against the nominee but didn’t want to seem partisan or disrespectful of the president’s prerogatives,” Strauss said.

In 1991, Clarence Thomas was believed to have the backing of most senators when his hearings got underway. But he dodged questions over several days, and the Democratic-led committee — under then-chairman Sen. Joe Biden — split 7-7. His nomination went before the full Senate after a second round of hearings based on Professor Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment, and Thomas was confirmed on a 52-48 vote.

In the decades since, presidents have selected well-qualified nominees who had steered clear of controversy. President Bill Clinton’s two nominees — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer — had spent more than 13 years on U.S. appeals courts and were described then as moderate liberals.

President George W. Bush’s two nominees — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. — were seen as conservative judges who kept their views to themselves. Obama nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who had 17 years on the bench, and Kagan, a former Harvard Law dean who was then serving as U.S. solicitor general. Neither had sounded off on legal controversies.

The same was true with Trump’s first two nominees: Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Both had served as appeals court judges and drew criticism for some conservative rulings. Despite caustic questions from some Democrats, neither revealed much more about their views on the law beyond what they had said before they were nominated.

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NH cities combat increasing community transmission of coronavirus

Cases of COVID-19 are rising in states across the country, and in New Hampshire there is evidence of increasing community transmission.

The state’s two largest cities, Manchester and Nashua, are both experiencing this community transmission. Spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services (NH DHHS) Laura Montenegro stated via email Friday that the densest population of residents in the state reside in Nashua and Manchester, so increased cases in those two cities would be expected.

She explained how officials are seeing that places where many people congregate together are high-risk settings, more so if they are inside. These sorts of settings can include weddings, sports teams, birthday parties, churches or any variety of gatherings.

“That risk increases if those individuals aren’t wearing masks and if they are singing or yelling or sharing cups,” Montenegro stated.

According to data updated Monday on the NH DHHS website, the number of COVID-19 cases in New Hampshire stood at 9,208 with 456 deaths. The state’s total current cases of COVID-19 stood at 738.

“We believe that there is also evidence of increasing community transmission, especially in the southern communities and southern parts of our state, in particular Hillsborough, Rockingham and Strafford counties,” State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan said during a press conference held Thursday. “As we identify people with COVID-19, we continue to conduct public health contact investigations on each and every person to identify close contacts who are then tested to identify additional infection.”

The state learned of an outbreak of COVID-19 cases at the Gate City Church on Main Street in Nashua early last week, which has since resulted in 13 cases as of the end of the day Thursday, according to Director of the Division of Public Health and Community Services Bobbie Bagley. However, she added that this number is fluid because testing was done Thursday and Friday.

“Right now, we are trending even above that as more cases continue to be identified, and the reason why we’re seeing more cases identified is because we’ve been doing testing,” Bagley said Friday.

Since city officials learned of this outbreak on Oct. 5 the city’s public health department has been working with the state and the church to try to identify anyone who might have been in contact with an individual with a positive case.

NH DHHS addressed this outbreak in a press release issued by the Bureau of Infectious Disease Control on Wednesday about potential community exposures connected to the positive cases at the church.

“DHHS and the Nashua Division of Public Health and Community Services are investigating these illnesses further and the church has moved to hosting virtual services only,” states the press release.

During a press conference held Thursday Bagley said that officials know someone attended a service that was infectious at the church but may not have known they were carrying the virus.

A multi-day prayer service was held at the church between Sept. 18-28 and Bagley said that the church followed the rules outlined by the state with regards to social distancing, making sure families were spaced 6 to 10 feet apart and were wearing their masks.

“At one point during their service they did take their masks off once they were in their family units to sing, to have a good time praising God,” Bagley said during the press conference. “Singing, however, in an enclosed building is one of the riskiest exposure opportunities with the virus and although there was nothing that was intended to cause any harm, this situation did allow for extensive exposure at this church.”

Now, Nashua health officials are urging people experiencing any signs and symptoms who know they’ve been at the church during that time period to seek testing. When these officials do their contact investigation they are looking to identify individuals that may have been at the church during those days, and are asking those contacts to self monitor for signs and symptoms.

Officials are asking people to get tested in order to identify if there is further spread, and then asking people to go into isolation and then quarantine to make sure to slow the spread of COVID-19 down.

“Now, we are aware that there were over 100 folks that attended these meetings over that time period for the ten days and so there’s a potential for widespread and that’s why we’re asking people to cooperate with us by getting tested,” Bagley said during the press conference.

On Friday, Bagley said that for at least a month now cases have been on the rise across the state. As restrictions have been gradually eased back, what is being seen is increased activity with people gathering together doing social things. Additionally, she explained that moving into the fall and entering flu season people may have mild symptoms that they may not think are related to COVID-19, and so they continue engaging in social activities, some without wearing masks in some situations.

“Our masks are our first barrier to reducing the virus from making its way into our respiratory system and so, without having a mask on and with the singing there’s an opportunity for viral particles to be floating around in the air and then to be inhaled,” Bagley said Friday.

Clinics have been set up in Nashua to test individuals for COVID-19 as well, and as more people are checked out, case numbers have since risen. More positive cases are expected as more individuals from the church are tested.

“People come from Manchester, Merrimack, Amherst, folks that attend the church can come from any one of our surrounding towns and so our contract tracing will be extensive because of the number of people that attended,” Bagley said Friday.

Pastor Paul Berube of Gate City Church also issued a press release Thursday addressing the situation at the church:

“Please understand that we have diligently endeavored to follow State of New Hampshire and CDC Protocols. We implemented strict social distancing, physically removing more than half the seats in our facility. We screened our attendees for fever, provided hand sanitizer, required masks when proceeding to or from seats, and posted advisory signs. Each and every seat, handrail, and door knob in our facility was sprayed with disinfectant before and after each meeting. If these infections did occur in our facility, they did so notwithstanding the careful work of our staff, whose efforts likely mitigated even further spread of the infection.”

This recent outbreak comes soon after a similar situation occurred within Nashua City Hall where six positive cases were identified, including Mayor Jim Donchess. Bagley also said on Friday that the case involving the city hall outbreak was closed last week. She explained that city hall ended up closing for 14 days which gave an opportunity for people to be distanced, and so there was no further spread of cases in that scenario. Bagley said all six cases involved individuals who experienced mild cases and that there were no hospitalizations as a result of the city hall outbreak as well.

Moreover, Manchester Public Health Director Anna Thomas said that community transmission is occurring in Manchester and statewide. Moving forward, as case numbers increase, the city will be doing community testing, case investigation, contact tracing, cluster investigation, community outreach and education.

“From September 25th — October 2nd, we have experienced a relatively steady trajectory without major increases or decreases in documented cases with consistent testing rates in Manchester,” Thomas stated via email.

She added that the next 14-day period will close on Oct. 16. In any event, things being done locally include mobile community testing, ongoing contact tracing and surveillance and data analytics to name a few. Additionally, Thomas cited that the city activated their Emergency Operations Center and stood up an alternative care site based on surge needs.

According to a weekly data update from the city’s health department, “New daily case counts for Manchester are calculated as 3-day averages to reduce reporting extremes (lows and highs) that may inaccurately bias the data. In the month of August, new daily case counts averaged 4 cases per day, and for the month of September, new daily case counts averaged 6 cases per day. To date, in the month of October, new daily case counts have averaged 8 cases per day.”

Thomas believes it would have been helpful to have included the technical expertise of both Manchester and Nashua’s health departments in the creation of statewide reopening guidelines and metrics. She added that there is also a lack of understanding as to what entities are legally responsible for enforcing the reopening guidelines.

In terms of whether or not there has been any outbreaks in Manchester similar to what is happening at Gate City Church in Nashua, Thomas stated, “Not yet — but we will not be surprised if this happens in the future.”