The Monadnock Food Co-op first began considering expanding its Keene store more than four years ago.
“It really was around 2017, we were just visibly starting to outgrow our space, and we knew we needed to do something,” said Michael Faber, general manager of the store, which opened at 34 Cypress St. in 2013. “It wasn’t immediately clear what that was.”
The co-op eventually settled on a 6,700 square-foot expansion, bringing the store to 19,900 square feet as part of a multi-year renovation. The roughly $10 million project included purchasing the property from the Monadnock Economic Development Corp., which built the original facility for about $3.5 million and previously leased it to the co-op.
The expansion — featuring larger indoor and outdoor seating areas, a new kitchen, bigger space for the co-op’s prepared-food section and greater selection throughout the store — started in late 2019, and wrapped up at the beginning of this year. With the COVID-19 pandemic, though, the co-op has waited to celebrate the official opening of the addition until this week, with a series of public events scheduled Thursday through Saturday.
“We really are about being a community hub, a community space,” said Jen Risley, the co-op’s marketing manager. “So, just to be able to celebrate together is going to make it real, and allow us to really see the difference.”
The events, billed as the co-op’s “grand re-opening celebration,” will include free live music from the Sharon, Mass.-based Willie J. Laws Band on Friday evening at the amphitheater behind the co-op, completed as part of the expansion; food trucks including The Traveling Taco on Friday and Yahso-on-the-Go Saturday afternoon; and a variety of family-friendly activities and free tastings and demonstrations from local vendors.
“If we had a celebration, we actually wanted to be able to celebrate with people, and not keep everyone at arm’s length,” Risley said. “So, [we waited] until we could do it well, and still have it outside. So it seems like a long time since the expansion project was done, but for the public, they might not even know that it’s been all completed.”
But the expansion project is no secret to co-op members Carolyn Jones of Keene and Liz Ober of Dublin — friends who caught up on a warm, sunny morning last Thursday at a table on the store’s renovated patio.
“I like it a lot,” Ober said. “... They did a great job.”
Though she said she hasn’t taken advantage of the new café much yet, Ober said the new space is even nicer than before.
“It looks more open,” she said. “I’m really impressed that they did it, and that it came out really well.”
Jones, who became a co-op member about five years ago, added that she’s amazed the co-op remained open, and finished its renovations, during the pandemic.
Faber, the general manager, said the pandemic slightly delayed the project, but construction essentially remained within the one-year timeline the store initially projected. The most time-consuming element, he said, was securing the funding, which came through a combination of a traditional bank loan, the federal New Markets Tax Credit program, and about $1.3 million in loans raised through a campaign with the co-op’s nearly 4,000 member-owners. (The loans acted as investments from the members, whom the store will repay in the coming years.)
“It did take several years to go through all those steps that were required, to put the financing in place,” Faber said.
But now, he added, the co-op is already seeing the benefits of the larger store. The co-op hit its target of $17 million in sales for the fiscal year that ended July 1, including $6 million in sales of locally made products.
“For our community, for shoppers, we’ve got just greatly expanded offerings, and we’re able to offer more healthy food choices and support more local farms and producers,” Faber said. “Our local sales are significantly up this year, thanks to the expansion and just adding more of those products into our mix.”
Risley added that the expansion has given the co-op more purchasing power, and a greater ability to pass those savings along to customers with lower prices.
“So, we’re kind of highlighting some of those price changes with new lower price tags and things like that, just to let people know that this is one outcome of the expansion that was really important to us,” she said.
The co-op also hired about 20 additional people along with the expansion, for a total workforce of roughly 120. Overall, Faber said, the co-op considers the expansion a big accomplishment.
“We’d only been open six years, but had already [outgrown the space],” he said. “And that’s really a testament to the community support for our co-op. So, to complete this project, and be able to showcase that for the community, is really important for us.”
Looking ahead, Faber said the co-op is still wrapping up some minor elements of the renovations, including a community meeting room that should be open within the next month or so. Beyond that, the store plans to add solar panels to the roof of the addition, matching the original building, and add an electric-vehicle charging station next year to the parking lot, which grew by nine spaces on the east side of the building as part of the expansion.
Ultimately, he said, the co-op will keep seeking new methods to fulfill its mission and meet the needs of the community.
“We want to continue to look for ways to serve our community and provide healthy food choices and support local producers,” he said. “We want to keep looking for ways to grow that impact.”
The Canadian border has been open to vaccinated citizens of the United States since early August, but the United States has yet to reciprocate the policy. Instead, each month the Biden administration has extended the closure — as well as the closure of the southern border — to the confusion and dismay of some New Hampshire residents.
The policy has not only affected businesses but has also kept some families who live on both sides of the border apart. And especially for Indigenous people in the region, the closures stemming from the pandemic have made the challenges of imposed colonial borders much more acute.
That’s been the case for Alexander Cotnoir, a citizen of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Tribe. Cotnoir’s family straddles the border, but because of the closure he hasn’t been able to see family in Drummondville and Trois Rivières, Quebec, since 2019. Cotnoir used to go fishing north of the border or occasionally travel there to get groceries, but no longer.
Abenaki people would traditionally move freely around New Hampshire, Vermont, and parts of Maine and Quebec, Cotnoir said — but the pandemic has added new restrictions on top of borders that already feel arbitrary for many Indigenous people.
Indigenous people who were born in Canada and can prove they have “50 percent aboriginal blood,” are still able to cross the border in spite of the pandemic. But Cotnoir said even his family members born in Canada haven’t pursued the paperwork-intensive option.
For non-Indigenous residents, the border closure has brought other changes when it comes to life along New Hampshire’s northern border. Richard Lapoint is a selectman in New Hampshire’s northernmost town of Pittsburg, the only New Hampshire municipality bordering Canada. Lapoint used to bring his black Labrador retriever across the border to go to the vet, which he said was common practice in town before the pandemic.
Since the border closed, he hasn’t been able to do that, and vets on the New Hampshire side of the border haven’t been accepting new patients. While Lapoint, who is vaccinated, could cross the border now, he hasn’t tried it yet, afraid it will be a paperwork-laden hassle. Before the pandemic, crossing the border was just a part of his normal routine.
“Obviously, we’d like to get the border back open the way it used to be,” he said.
But he doesn’t think Pittsburg has been missing out on much in terms of tourism due to the closure. Lapoint said Canadian tourists often pass through Pittsburgh to New Hampshire’s beaches.
The business community in the Seacoast region is feeling the crunch, according to John Nyhan, president of the Hampton Area Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s very clear that the coast here, they lost about 20 percent of their summer revenue because of the lack of Canadian visitors,” he said. And Nyhan estimated that in the Hampton area about 80 percent of the business community is made up of small businesses.
“I think it’s a shame that it continues to be delayed because it really now has impacted not only our summer tourism, but now, beautiful New England foliage,” Nyhan said.
For Nyhan, what’s most frustrating about the closure is not getting a clear answer about why the land border remains closed when Canadian tourists are able to enter by flying. In Canada, over 70 percent of the population is vaccinated, and in Quebec, that percentage is even higher, at 74 percent. That’s higher than New Hampshire’s rate of fully vaccinated individuals, which is currently 54.5 percent. And, Nyhan said, it’s also been unclear who is responsible for ultimately making the decision to reopen.
“It’s difficult to be optimistic when you don’t know why the decisions are being made and who is making the decisions,” Nyhan said.
On a statewide level, it’s too soon to tell just what the impact of the Canadian border closure on tourism has been, according to state Travel and Tourism Director Lori Harnois. But anecdotally, the state has been hearing from those in the tourism industry who have reported a strong summer with above normal bookings, a trend that some are expecting to continue through the fall.
The most recent data about visitors coming from Canada is from 2017, when 344,000 Canadians came to visit New Hampshire, staying for an average of 2.7 nights and spending around $89.7 million. They account for 80 percent of New Hampshire’s international travel, and a little over a quarter of international spending in the state.
Karmen Gifford, president of the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, said she has heard from state officials that tourism numbers were stronger than in 2019, pre-pandemic, which would mean there’s been a demographic shift in who is coming to visit the state.
That, in turn, has put pressure on campgrounds and trailheads that are continuing to see higher than usual traffic and trash, Gifford said, especially as people turn to the outdoors for COVID-friendly activities. Another result has been a shortage of rental cars.
Still, Gifford said, uncertainty about when the border will reopen to Canadians is a challenge for small businesses that have forged relationships with people who used to visit each year.
The question remains: “What will happen after Oct. 31, you know, with the Canadian border? A lot of people around here, I think, watch it month to month,” Gifford said.
The border closure order from the federal government is set to expire Oct. 21, unless another month-long order is issued. The September order was released on the 20th, the day before it was set to expire.
Craig Clemmer, director of marketing at the Omni Mount Washington Resort, agreed that while they’re staying busy, there’s been a change in where the visitors are coming from. More Americans from out of state are traveling here and more than making up for the losses resulting from the border closure.
“We’ve been pretty blessed with relatively robust business levels,” Clemmer said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t want some normalcy back in our lives.”
LEBANON — Cassie Audette’s last day as a part-time chemotherapy compounding technician at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center was Sept. 30. That day also was the deadline for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health’s 13,000 employees to comply with the Lebanon-based health system’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Audette, a 32-year-old Claremont resident, was among those who left their jobs rather than get the shots.
She views the vaccine mandate and her decision not to comply “as a very sharp nudge from God that I needed to stay home with my kids,” she said in a phone interview last week. “I’m taking it as a blessing in disguise.”
If one of her children, Tayla-Ann, 12, or James, 6, gets the sniffles or a sore throat, they have to be out of school for a few days while getting tested and waiting for results, she said. In addition, she’s on alert for a shift to remote learning. These challenges already had motivated her to shift to per diem status in recent months.
“With all of this COVID stuff, it was almost impossible to be a working mom,” she said.
Audette, who had COVID-19 in February, said she wishes D-H had allowed people with “natural immunity” to skirt the vaccine requirement. In addition, as a function of her job in a sterile space, Audette said that she worked in full personal protective equipment near a special air filter, either alone or with one other person, and had no regular face-to-face contact with patients.
She may one day get vaccinated against COVID-19, but she wants to know more about long-term effects of the vaccines first.
“There’s still not enough long-term studies,” she said.
Health officials have said COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and that increasing vaccination rates is the way out of the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also said the vaccines “offer better protection than natural immunity alone and that vaccines, even after prior infection, help prevent reinfections.”
D-HH, New Hampshire’s largest employer, announced in August that it would require the shots of all employees, including those working remotely or per diem, by the end of September. Employees were allowed to request exemptions on the basis of a disability or qualifying medical condition and on the basis of a sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance, said Audra Burns, a D-H spokeswoman.
As of Friday, “more than 99 percent” of D-HH employees had been vaccinated or gotten an exemption from the mandate, Burns said. Employees who received exemptions will be required to test weekly.
The number of employees who got exemptions was not available, nor was the number that left their jobs due to the mandate, Burns said. She previously said employees who failed to comply with the mandate would be fired on or by Oct. 4.
“We respect the time and consideration our employees gave to taking this important step, and we are heartened that the overwhelming majority made the choice to support and continue the critical work to defeat the pandemic, and to provide the best, safest care possible for our patients, our communities, and one another,” Burns said.
Audette and her husband, Joe, had relatively mild cases of COVID-19 this winter. She said she was stuck in bed for about two days and later lost her senses of smell and taste. Her sense of smell has not completely returned. She still sometimes has a dry cough and gets heartburn regularly, which seemed to begin with her contracting COVID-19.
She worries that the vaccines may eventually contribute to some chronic illness down the road. She has family members with autoimmune conditions, she said.
When she’s out in the community, Audette said she either wears a face mask or if she’s unmasked, she socially distances and is sure she’s feeling well.
“I believe in personal choice, but I also believe in common sense,” she said.
She and her husband allowed their 12-year-old to decide whether she would get vaccinated, Audette said. Like her mother, Tayla-Ann has declined the shots, at least for now.
Eventually, Audette said, she hopes to return to work as a pharmacy technician in a hospital setting. That will require that the hospital roll back the mandate or that “enough time has passed” to give her sufficient confidence in the vaccine, she said.
Under forthcoming federal rules, all health care providers who accept Medicare and Medicaid are expected to require employees to be vaccinated, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said last month. Since D-H made its announcement in August, many other health care providers in the Twin States have followed suit.
Just last week, the Brattleboro Retreat announced that it would require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18, according to the Associated Press. That announcement came after an unvaccinated Retreat employee caused an outbreak there, including other staff and patients.
The University of Vermont Health Network has said that 93% of its nearly 15,000 workers at its facilities in Vermont and upstate New York have complied with the requirement they be vaccinated against COVID-19. Three employees resigned rather than comply with the vaccine requirement that took effect on Oct. 1, Neal Goswami, a UVM Health spokesman, told the AP.
In addition, about 250 UVM Health Network employees are not vaccinated and will be tested weekly and 250 or so employees are partially vaccinated and will be tested until they are fully vaccinated. Another 250 employees have yet to confirm whether they will choose weekly testing or vaccination, or have not submitted their vaccine documentation.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts hospitals are preparing to fire hundreds of employees who fail to comply with their vaccine mandates, which go into effect later this month, the Boston Globe reported last week. Hospital officials there told the Globe that they weren’t planning to cut services as a result of the departures, but they were boosting recruitment and retention efforts.
D-HH recently increased the minimum wage from $14 to $17 an hour amid a workforce shortage. On Wednesday, there were more than 1,000 jobs listed on D-H’s website. The bulk of them, 775, were based in Lebanon. In addition, smaller members of the D-H system have their own job lists, each with dozens of openings. DHMC held an interview day on Thursday.
Audette has worked as a pharmacy technician for the better part of a decade, first at DHMC, then at Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont and then again at DHMC on a part-time basis amid the pandemic and the challenges her children faced amid it.
“I loved my job,” she said. “I take a lot of pride in it. I love helping people.”
Because vaccine requirements are in place or pending at other health care organizations, Audette opted not to continue working as a pharmacy technician at this time. For now while her children are in school, Audette is working part-time as a shopper for Instacart, which does grocery shopping and makes deliveries for customers.
Leaving her job at DHMC was a “big hit for my family financially,” she said.
Though her husband, Joe, makes enough money to cover most of their bills through his job selling cellphones, Audette said she had to pick up something in order to cover miscellaneous expenses such as her children’s mental health counseling.
“It was unexpected,” Joe said of DHMC’s vaccine mandate.
The couple had a month to discuss what Audette’s job change might mean for the family.
“Really, it means we’re just not going to be investing going forward,” said Joe, who is 31 and also has begun doing some DoorDash meal and grocery deliveries “on the side.”
They own and live in one section of a duplex and rent out the other. They were considering buying another rental property, but that plan is on hold for now, Joe said.
Audette and her husband have taken divergent approaches to COVID-19 vaccination. Joe opted to get vaccinated due to his risk of contracting the virus while at work. He said he sees about 400 people per month.
“I work with the public a lot,” Joe said. “It was just too much risk.”
Audette said they believe they contracted the virus through Joe’s job in February. His choice to get a shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine also was motivated to protect relatives with medical conditions that put them at higher risk of developing serious symptoms should they contract COVID-19.
“I totally get that,” Audette said.
But her husband’s decision on vaccines didn’t sway her. She also was not swayed by webinars D-H offered employees or by conversations she had with her managers.
Audette said, “I don’t want to inject myself with something ... especially something that’s so new.”
At 32, Audette said, she feels “I’ve still got quite a bit of life to live.”
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.