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Dublin weighing lakeside parking restrictions near Pumpelly trailhead
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DUBLIN — The selectboard is considering a plan to limit parking near Dublin Lake, which town officials say is needed to ensure safe passage for emergency vehicles and other drivers, as well as to protect pedestrians.

Selectboard Chairman Chris Raymond said the town has heard concerns from public safety officials that vehicles parked on lakeside roads could block emergency responders from getting to a fire in the area or a health crisis on Mount Monadnock, which is nearby.

The complaints have also come from local residents and increased last year, according to Raymond, who said an influx of people hiking the mountain’s Pumpelly Trail — which has its trailhead on Lake Road — during the COVID-19 pandemic caused even more vehicle traffic.

“There were many instances when this was a significant issue,” he said. “… For the people that are merely driving through, it’s kind of scary.”

The selectboard presented its proposal to ban parking on the shoreline shoulder of Lake Road, which encircles most of the lake, at a public hearing held virtually April 19.

Public feedback at the hearing was largely positive, according to meeting minutes, though some residents encouraged the board to enact even stricter regulations.

The Dublin Lake Preservation Committee supports the proposal to ban parking on the shoreline shoulder, committee co-chair June Brening told selectboard members. Brening said the measure would help prevent erosion into the lake.

Echoing that concern, Road Agent Roger Trempe said the town’s Highway Department could consider widening Lake Road’s shoulder to create more space for parking on the opposite side of the road.

A boat launch at the west end of the lake — which is open to the public — can accommodate about eight cars, Trempe said Wednesday. However, vehicles with boat trailers often reduce the available space, he said.

Attendees at the April 19 hearing also voiced concerns that too many people park along the road when using Dublin Lake or Pumpelly Trail, according to the meeting minutes.

Parking for that trail — which, at about four miles, is among Mount Monadnock’s longer routes — is free, whereas people hiking from trailheads with parking lots must pay for a day pass. There is no available land near Lake Road to create a parking area for Pumpelly Trail, according to Raymond.

Residents suggested limiting congestion by issuing parking passes, imposing time limits for spots near the lake or encouraging people to park in downtown Dublin and carpool to the area.

Raymond said Wednesday that parking near Pumpelly Trail is “really what triggered” the proposed restrictions. Noting that the congestion also poses a safety issue for hikers and other pedestrians, he said town officials don’t intend to discourage use of the trail but instead hope to “control parking in a safe fashion.”

“We’re not trying to limit any lake access or recreation access to the mountain,” he said.

Parking is already prohibited on the shoreline shoulder of Lake Road near the Pumpelly trailhead, according to Dublin Police Chief Timothy Suokko. Other existing restrictions prevent parked cars from blocking the road and nearby driveways, as well as from facing oncoming traffic, he said.

Raymond said some hikers park on the shoreline shoulder where it is allowed a short distance away and walk to the trailhead. Other people park on that shoulder and use the lake or recreate elsewhere in the area, he added.

Dublin Fire Chief Thomas Vanderbilt said Wednesday that fire crews have not yet encountered an instance in which they couldn’t get past vehicles parked on Lake Road, though he said “the potential’s been there” due to congestion. When cars park on both shoulders, Vanderbilt said, it leaves only one lane open and could keep emergency responders from getting to a crisis situation.

“We don’t want to get to [that] point,” he said. “... We’re just trying to be proactive.”

The selectboard will resume discussing the parking restrictions after town meeting Saturday, according to Raymond.

If enacted by the board, the ordinance would effectively prohibit parking on both sides of Lake Road in some places, he said, since those areas already forbid parking on the shoulder opposite the lake.

Raymond said the board would evaluate the effect of any new parking regulations for a year and “make changes accordingly” if it isn’t satisfied with the result.

Multiple Harrisville residents also attended the selectboard’s April 19 hearing, as that town is dealing with similar parking issues at Silver Lake. The Harrisville selectboard is considering a plan to cap the number of public spaces near a boat ramp at the lake, where parking is currently allowed on both sides of the road.

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Inspections found lacking at NH county jails
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When Hillsborough County Commissioner Toni Pappas toured the Valley Street Jail in Manchester last December, as she and fellow commissioners are required to do at least twice a year, she didn’t appear to find any cause for concern.

“I have found the condition of the facility, the security of the inmates, and the management to be in order,” Pappas wrote in an inspection report filed with the N.H. Attorney General’s Office. “The inmates are being cared for pursuant to [state law], and are appropriately supervised by trained correctional staff.”

Based on what she saw, she concluded, “there are no specific actions that need to be taken.”

But just a few days after that visit, a Hillsborough County Superior Court judge came to a dramatically different conclusion about conditions inside the same facility. In an order granting bail to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 while being held at the jail, the judge said he was “deeply troubled by the cavalier attitude that [the facility] has shown toward its inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Soon, the Valley Street Jail, the largest county correctional facility in the state, had a full-blown outbreak on its hands: More than half of the people incarcerated at the facility were infected with the virus, with more than 168 cases eventually reported across residents and staff. The facility accounts for about 40 percent of the COVID-19 cases reported at all New Hampshire county jails since the start of the pandemic.

When attorneys and other advocates raised alarm about virus protocols inside the Valley Street Jail last winter, state officials said it was largely out of their control. And they were right.

“That was the moment that it became crystal clear that the system that we have does not work,” Robin Melone, president of the N.H. Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, said of the Valley Street Jail outbreak.

In New Hampshire, responsibility for monitoring what’s happening inside county jails rests primarily with county commissioners like Pappas: elected officials who receive no formal training on correctional issues and no supervision from state officials who specialize in issues relevant to incarceration. The lack of consistent statewide standards means that, in times of crisis, the level of protection afforded to those inside county jails hinges on the level of interest and scrutiny their county commissioners bring to their role.

While New Hampshire law gives county commissioners lots of discretion on how to run jails, it is clear on at least one thing: Twice a year, commissioners are supposed to “make a proper examination into the management, condition, and security of the condition of the inmates in county correctional facilities.” And within a month of that inspection, they’re supposed to file a written report on “their findings and actions or proposed actions on such findings” with the New Hampshire attorney general.

Several counties opted not to conduct in-person jail inspections during the pandemic, citing safety concerns. But an NHPR review of the inspection reports posted publicly on the attorney general’s website found that even before the arrival of COVID-19 most county commissioners were only fulfilling the bare minimum of this law.

Most of the inspection reports are no longer than a few paragraphs. Some county commissioners — including those in Hillsborough and Strafford — have re-written essentially the same summary after each visit, year after year, with no mention of changing conditions inside the jail. Coos County’s reports consist of a checklist with minimal comments. In Sullivan and Grafton Counties, reports are similarly brief and routinely authored by jail officials — the very people who are supposed to be the subject of the inspections reports — not the county commissioners.

“The inspection reports looked meaningless,” said Michele Deitch, a distinguished senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin who studies prison and jail oversight across the country. “They were so lacking in detail as to be useless — which is not to say that they are not fulfilling oversight responsibilities in different ways, but there still needs to be another external government entity that’s responsible for going into the facilities and ensuring that they are complying with a set of minimum standards.”

‘Transparent operation’

The N.H. Attorney General’s Office said its only role, when it comes to county jail oversight, is to ensure the reports are filed; how the commissioners approach the inspections is up to them. If something in one of the reports raised “significant concern,” Associate Attorney General James Boffetti said the state would investigate.

“But in terms of monitoring for the quality or checking when this examination took place and in what form? That’s really not our role,” he said.

If people have concerns about the inspections or other aspects of county jail oversight, Boffetti said, “they should be raising those with the elected county commissioners.”

Some county officials, when questioned about their inspection reports, said they believed they were doing what the law asked of them. Sullivan County Manager Derek Ferland said that even though his county commissioners do not personally author their jail inspection reports — that task is delegated to him and jail officials — they still take the tours seriously and give the reports careful review before they’re submitted to the attorney general.

“When we submit a report saying the commissioners walked through the building, that’s what the law is for, is to ensure that they’ve done that,” Ferland said. “As far as having them write a report — to me, that’s just good staff work, you typically don’t have the senior person in your organization responsible for the administrative tasks.”

Grafton County, however, plans to change how they approach their reports after being contacted by NHPR for this story: They will no longer be authored by jail officials, and Grafton County Commissioner Wendy Piper said they will more fully reflect the “full-bodied conversations” commissioners have with staff and people held at the jail.

“I’m sorry for the lack of detail on the reports, because I believe that they should be more detailed,” she said, explaining that inspections are usually much more thorough than what their previous reports would suggest.

Piper, who also serves as the president of the N.H. Association of Counties, said it would be helpful if the state provided a standard inspection form so that there was more uniformity across counties.

To the extent that commissioners go into detail in their inspection reports, they tend to focus on facility issues — whether the kitchens or showers were clean, for example, or whether the security system was functioning — rather than on the welfare of the people inside the jail.

A notable exception is in Cheshire County, where commissioners typically provide a minute-by-minute log of their visits. Their reports also usually include summaries of what are described as private conversations between the commissioners and people who live and work at the jail.

“I look at it as a way that we could all improve, in terms of how we deliver public services to our constituents,” said Chuck Weed, who until recently served as a Cheshire County commissioner and previously led the statewide association of counties.

County commissioners across the state emphasized that these inspections aren’t the only way they hold their local jails accountable.

“While there is always room for improvement, I believe we Commissioners take our responsibility to oversee the jail very seriously,” Pappas, who has served as a Hillsborough County commissioner for about two decades, wrote in a statement in response to questions from NHPR. “Our job is to protect the safety of our community and the security of our inmates. I believe this happens with the impartial monitoring and oversight that occurs during jail inspections, but more importantly happens during our bi-weekly meetings with our Superintendent.”

Longtime Strafford County Commissioner George Maglaras says he meets weekly with his jail superintendent, but he doesn’t believe he needs to share the details of those meetings with the public because they involve discussions that could compromise the security of the facility, the privacy of the people who are held there or personnel matters about jail staff.

Instead, Maglaras has included the same, brief summary in each of his jail inspection reports dating back to 2013. It reads: “We found the House of Corrections/Jail to be in excellent condition regarding the management and security, as well as in cleanliness during this inspection.”

“The reports that we filed meet our statutory obligation,” Maglaras told NHPR. “If I filed the report on the weekly meetings we have with the superintendent … most of the information would not be made, could not be made public.”

He’s confident the Strafford County jail has “the highest standards of any facility in the state,” because it also doubles as a federal immigration detention center.

“We have a very transparent operation,” he said. “Well, as transparent as it can be, under the circumstances that we’re dealing with.”

Other states

New Hampshire county government has few major responsibilities and operates largely out of the spotlight, compared to the state or even local government. County commissioners are in charge of funding and monitoring some obscure positions, like registers of deeds, but also a few highly consequential ones: county attorney offices, county nursing homes and county jails.

In contrast to county correctional facilities, other county-level positions in New Hampshire are routinely subjected to at least some kind of state-level scrutiny. County sheriffs are certified through the N.H. Police Standards and Training Council, which explicitly says it “does not train or certify County Corrections personnel.” County nursing homes are licensed and monitored by the Department of Health and Human Services, or their federal counterparts. County attorneys, the top prosecutors elected in each of the state’s 10 counties, too, are subject to oversight from the state attorney general.

“That sort of analog doesn’t really exist in the same way with county Departments of Corrections,” said Henry Klementowicz, an attorney for the ACLU of New Hampshire.

That also puts New Hampshire in the minority of states without at least some kind of state oversight of local jails.

According to Deitch, 28 states provide at least some kind of jail regulation through the state correctional agency, a statewide sheriff’s association, an independent commission or, in some cases, the state health agency.

Those who study correctional systems across the country caution that merely having state-level oversight doesn’t automatically bring more accountability. These systems can still lack the kind of transparency, consistency and enforcement options to bring meaningful changes.

“Even where formal oversight mechanisms have been built in states, they tend to not produce a lot more dignity or safety for the people behind bars,” said Jasmine Heiss, who directs the Vera Institute of Justice’s In Our Backyards project, which focuses on incarceration in smaller towns and rural communities.

However, Deitch — who has spent much of her career studying correctional oversight — wasn’t aware of any other state except New Hampshire where the primary responsibility for monitoring county jails rests with local elected officials. And this model concerns her on a few levels.

“Relying on them to point out problems in the facilities is a concern because they don’t have the expertise to know what they’re looking for,” Deitch said. “And, arguably, they’ve got a conflict of interest because they’re the ones that are funding and ultimately liable for what happens there.”

There are some potential benefits to giving elected officials at least some role in jail oversight, Heiss said, since they’re ultimately accountable to the public.

“If there are things happening that voters don’t like, there is always the possibility for them to respond and to use direct democracy as a way to sort of hold people accountable or to ask for something different,” Heiss said.

County government can often be an afterthought in the minds of the average New Hampshire resident. But attorneys who work directly with clients at New Hampshire’s county jails, including Valley Street, said there are good reasons for people to pay closer attention to how these facilities are being supervised.

For one, local defense attorney Suzanne Ketteridge said, “everybody’s entitled to a certain level of care and dignity.”

“A lot of people in jail are pre-conviction — they have not been convicted,” she said. “It could be your son or your brother that somehow ends up in the jail, for whatever reason.”

N.H. Public Radio reporter Sarah Gibson contributed to this story.

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Filiault suggests Keene consider dropping outdoor provision of mask rule
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Following the CDC’s latest guidance that fully vaccinated people can safely go maskless outdoors unless in crowds, the city councilor who originally pitched Keene’s mask mandate is seeking to update the ordinance.

In a Wednesday letter to the council and Mayor George Hansel, Councilor Randy Filiault requested councilors consider cutting the part of the ordinance that requires masks in outdoor spaces where business is being conducted. He has asked that the matter be brought to the table during the council’s next meeting, which will take place May 6, when the item will likely be sent to a committee for further review.

“[The request] basically had to do with the amount of New Hampshire residents — especially in Cheshire County — that have received vaccinations,” Filiault told The Sentinel Wednesday, noting that a change to the ordinance would require at least two readings before the council, meaning it wouldn’t go into effect until June at the earliest. “Though we’re not 100 percent where we want to be ... the feeling is that by June 1, we will be there anyhow.”

A total of 762,346 people, the equivalent of just over 56 percent of New Hampshire’s population, have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while nearly 26 percent have been fully vaccinated, according to the latest data from the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services. New Hampshire offers vaccines to all people 16 and older, including those who don’t live full-time in the state, so it’s unclear how many within those numbers are non-residents.

Filiault originally proposed a citywide mask ordinance last May, using language similar to an ordinance that had passed in Nashua. However, when that mandate was challenged in court, Filiault withdrew his proposal, pending a judge’s ruling.

When the Nashua law was upheld, Filiault revived the proposal in July. After heated debate among community members, the council adopted the ordinance in August.

In November, Gov. Chris Sununu announced a statewide mask mandate, which he let expire on April 16.

Filiault said he had been considering cutting the outdoor provision of Keene’s ordinance even before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its updated guidance on face coverings Tuesday. While the CDC recommends that people continue to use masks outdoors when in crowded areas, Filiault says he won’t suggest adding a similar requirement to Keene’s mandate. The agency could relax its guidance even further by the time his proposed change to the city’s rule is enacted, he noted.

While Keene’s ordinance would sunset automatically when New Hampshire’s COVID-related state of emergency expires, Filiault said it could be adjusted or lifted sooner than that. He said the state of emergency could last through the rest of the year or even into next year, but that COVID-19 conditions might improve enough to lift Keene’s mask mandate before then.

“We really need to be looking ahead at when, and at what point, and what criteria do we use to eliminate the entire ordinance,” Filiault said.

The council had already been discussing the future of Keene’s mask ordinance following the expiration of the statewide mandate. During a meeting of the council’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee last week, members tabled the matter to allow more time to evaluate local COVID statistics before making a determination.

Mayor Hansel said Wednesday he is working to give community members chances to weigh in on the mandate’s future, noting he expects the next such opportunity to be at the PLD committee meeting on May 12.

“That is a timely and appropriate discussion,” Hansel said. “I will continue to facilitate opportunities for the council to hear from the public, businesses, Keene State College and public health professionals in the coming weeks to help them decide whether changes are required and when the local ordinance should be relaxed or removed.”

The PLD committee meeting will be at 7 p.m. and held remotely via Zoom. Access information can be found on the city’s website at ci.keene.nh.us.

New CDC mask guidance draws clear line between vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans

In the eyes of U.S. health officials, there are two groups of people: those who are vaccinated against COVID-19 and those who are not. And they’re stepping up their efforts to get unvaccinated Americans to switch sides.

New guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding when people can safely shed their masks make the benefits of vaccination abundantly clear. Instead of focusing on the serious and potentially deadly risk of COVID-19 to those who aren’t immunized, they emphasize the extent to which those who are can return to an almost-normal life.

“Over the past year we have spent a lot of time telling Americans what they cannot do, what they should not do,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said in a briefing Tuesday. “Today I’m going to tell you some of the things you can do — if you are fully vaccinated.”

Walensky painted a detailed picture of the greater freedom vaccinated Americans can safely enjoy compared with their unvaccinated peers. She and other health officials hoped that doing so would incentivize those who haven’t yet rolled up their sleeves to change their minds and get their shots.

“If you are fully vaccinated, things are much safer for you than those who are not yet fully vaccinated,” Walensky said, emphasizing the divide. “This guidance will help you, your family, and your neighbors make decisions based on the latest science and allow you to safely get back to things you love to do.”

The upside of immunization includes outdoor reunions with extended family and al fresco dining with friends — all without wearing a mask.

With a mask, vaccinated people can safely attend crowded concerts and sporting events, watch a movie inside a real theater, and take a high-intensity exercise class. None of those activities are considered safe for people who aren’t vaccinated.

President Joe Biden, who got his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in December, spelled out his administration’s message in a briefing on the North Lawn of the White House.

“The bottom line is clear: If you’re vaccinated, you can do more things more safely,” he said. “Go get the shot.”

The new message could give the country the booster shot it needs to prevent the country’s vaccination campaign from losing too much steam. More than 54 percent of all adults in the U.S. have now received at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine, and more than 37 percent are fully vaccinated, according to the latest figures from the CDC.

But there’s still a long way to go to achieve herd immunity. That will occur when so many people are immune to the coronavirus that it won’t be able to find new hosts to infect and the outbreak will peter out. Experts estimate that up to 85 percent of the population will need to be vaccinated to reach that protective threshold.

Officials also feel a sense of urgency to get the country vaccinated before more dangerous coronavirus variants have the opportunity to take hold and spread.

A highly contagious variant from the United Kingdom already has become the dominant strain in the U.S., but it is vulnerable to COVID-19 vaccines. Other variants of concern have shown some resistance to vaccines and treatments.

Yet vaccination rates have slowed in recent weeks. According to CDC data, the seven-day moving average of daily vaccinations peaked well above 3 million per day on April 11, but dropped to just above 2.5 million last week.

Around the country, some communities are showing such little interest in the vaccines that officials have turned down shipments. About half of the counties in Iowa stopped asking the state for new doses, and roughly three-quarters of counties in Kansas have declined new shipments at least once over the last month. Officials in Mississippi asked the federal government to ship vials in smaller packages so that unused doses don’t go to waste.

“We’re at this point … where we have greater supply than we have demand,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last week.

The Biden administration has responded by offering more financial and technical assistance to states, ramping up media campaigns and sending more vaccine directly to primary care physicians. The new messaging adds to that.

“There’s always been a push to get people vaccinated,” said Dr. Timothy Brewer, an infectious disease expert at UCLA. The CDC’s updated guidance represents “more of a carrot approach.”

For instance, the CDC used to tell everyone that restaurant dining was safer when seated outdoors than indoors. Now it says vaccinated people can safely dine together outside without wearing masks but warns those who are not vaccinated that the same meal would be moderately risky, even with masks on.

Likewise, eating and drinking indoors is safe for vaccinated people who wear masks, but not for unvaccinated people no matter how many precautions they take.

Heading inside for a spin class, Pilates workout or date with a treadmill used to be discouraged for everyone. Now such workouts are deemed safe for vaccinated people who wear masks but are still unsafe for those who lack the protection of the shots.

Drive-in movies and DIY backyard theaters used to be preferred across the board. As of Tuesday, vaccinated people alone have the CDC’s blessing to return to movie theaters with masks.

Vaccinated people with masks are also cleared for indoor worship services — and can even sing in a choir. Without the vaccine, neither activity is considered safe.

“I am optimistic that people will use this information to take personal responsibility to protect themselves and to protect others,” Walensky said.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at UC San Francisco, commended the CDC for giving vaccinated people more leeway.

“Loosening restrictions as we go along can serve as a motivating factor to get vaccinated for those still on the fence,” she said.

The science supports the move, Gandhi and others said. For instance, she pointed out that coronavirus transmission is roughly 5,000 times less likely to occur outdoors than inside.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, cited laboratory studies, clinical trials and vaccine rollouts to argue that the more Americans are vaccinated, the safer they’ll be.

Real-world data from Israel, where more than half of the population is fully protected by the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, show that the shot is highly effective against the U.K. variant that is prevalent here.

And in the U.K., where more than 60 percent of adults are fully vaccinated, a campaign that employs the Pfizer-BioNTech shots along with ones made by Moderna and AstraZeneca has kept the virus at bay.

In both countries, “as the vaccine doses increase, the cases come down,” Fauci said.

The same is likely to be true for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, though more data are needed, he said.

It did not take long for the president to start leading by example. At his Tuesday briefing, Biden wore a mask as usual as he walked to a microphone, then removed it to make his remarks.

But in a shift, he kept it off as he walked back to the White House.

Smiling broadly, the president said he wouldn’t put it back on until he went inside.