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Area businesses plan to relax mask policies, in light of new guidance

Shortly after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance May 13 that vaccinated people can shed their masks outdoors and in most indoor settings, Jim Fennell emailed the teams that use his Swanzey athletic facility to gauge their preference for the safety policies there.

Fennell, general manager of The Fieldhouse at Homestead Mills, said Wednesday that none of the 14 teams, which include high school field hockey and an adult soccer league, accepted his offer to require that their opponents wear masks.

He’s taking that as tacit approval of the indoor facility’s plan to relax its stance on masking — something that other area businesses say they will do, too, in light of new public health standards.

In addition to the recent CDC guidance, those include Gov. Chris Sununu’s decisions to end a statewide mask mandate and ease other COVID-19 safety guidelines last month, as well as anticipation that Keene would end its city-wide mask mandate — which the City Council did Thursday, effective June 1.

Even before those changes, Fennell said The Fieldhouse, a 32,000-square-foot warehouse on the Ashuelot River that opened in October, didn’t require people to wear masks while exercising.

“We didn’t want to put them in a position where they were having trouble breathing or functioning while playing,” he said. “… We try to be diligent, but at the same time logical [and] reasonable.”

Nearly everyone still wore a mask, Fennell said, and some teams in the winter did request that the facility tell opposing players to do the same. Even then, he said The Fieldhouse didn’t need to be too strict because “almost everybody did.”

With guidelines being relaxed and more people vaccinated for COVID-19, Fennell said fewer players are wearing masks now. The Swanzey facility still asks spectators to wear masks, but he said it has begun emphasizing social distancing rather than masking since the CDC released its new standards.

“The timing of these changes are good for us since most of our leagues are done for the summer,” he told The Sentinel in an email. “It has allowed us to transition slowly back to the ‘old normal.’ ”

Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state’s top epidemiologist, has voiced concern over the recent CDC guidance, warning that mask-wearing is one of several practices — like social distancing and getting vaccinated — that best reduce viral transmission when used together.

At a news conference Tuesday, Chan said a widespread move to shed masks indoors could endanger people with a weakened immune system or those who can’t be vaccinated due to their age or a medical condition. The state still encourages businesses to ask that employees and patrons wear masks, especially when around others for an extended period, he noted.

“Continued use of face masks and social distancing in these higher-risk indoor settings is going to help us exit the pandemic more quickly,” he said. “It’s going to help protect the vulnerable populations who may be in some of these public settings … Frankly, the CDC guidance was difficult, if not impossible, for businesses and organizations to figure out how to implement.”

But a pair of Keene food providers say they’re also ready to ditch their mask requirements — in place due to the city-wide mandate, which was enacted last August — and leave that decision up to customers.

Tracy Gunn, who owns the downtown candy store Life Is Sweet, said she has been eager for more flexible guidelines, explaining that a number of patrons have taken issue with Keene’s mask mandate.

A sweet errand

“I’m not in the business of offending customers,” she said. “I didn’t think it was appropriate that it was our responsibility as a business owner [to enforce the mandate].”

Gunn would not require people to wear masks in her store if the city lifts its ordinance, she said Wednesday — a day before the Keene City Council voted 13-2 to let the mandate expire next month and also end the outdoor portion of the ordinance immediately.

Still, Gunn said she is sensitive to concerns that letting unmasked people gather indoors again, with no way to know who is inoculated, could spread COVID-19. Life Is Sweet will allow workers to stay home if they don’t feel comfortable being inside with unmasked strangers, she said, and the store will continue to offer home delivery and curbside pickup for customers with the same concern.

“We’ll just try, as always, to meet customers where they are,” Gunn said.

Lindy’s Diner co-owner Carroll Stubbs said the Gilbo Avenue business has had to regularly remind patrons of Keene’s mask ordinance, explaining that many point to the new CDC guidance in protesting the local regulation.

Stubbs said Wednesday that the restaurant would also drop its mask requirement when the city mandate expires, though he thinks most staff at Lindy’s would continue wearing their masks.

Despite the relaxed guidelines, Union Congregational Church in Peterborough will continue to require that anyone attending services wear a mask and keep their distance from each other, according to administrative assistant Cindy Bower.

The congregation, part of the United Church of Christ, has capped attendance at 50 people and livestreams the services online for other members, she said. Although UCC Peterborough plans to lift its capacity restriction this summer, Bower said the other health protocols will remain in place — noting that some residents may not be quite ready to resume normal life.

“We had people pushing to open up the service, but most people are still online,” she said. “I think they like the options.”

After a challenging year, educators assess the challenges to come

Ben Lambright could talk about the toll the COVID school year has had on his peers, but he said his teachers aren’t in much better shape.

“I have teachers at school who, I like to joke, they have senioritis worse than I do,” the Nashua 12th-grader joked to a panel of education representatives Monday. “So not only are the students burned out, a lot of the teachers are burned out.”

The complaint is nearly universal. As schools have reopened their doors to full five-days-a-week instruction, and raced to line up expanded summer programming and tackle fears of COVID learning loss, many educators are raising alarms about exhaustion — among students and staff.

Teachers, who have ping-ponged through different instruction models, are contemplating retirement. Students, isolated from friends and meaningful connections with instructors, are dealing with anxiety and frustration.

“We know from experience that a lot of students are feeling stressed and anxious not only directly because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because, you know, it’s been a year since many students have seen a classroom full of students,” Lambright said. “And so, it’s starting to cause some anxiety in some students.”

The issue came front and center at a key Department of Education meeting this week. In its first time convening since June 2020, the N.H. School Transition Reopening and Redesign Task Force met Monday to check in with education stakeholders about what issues remained for schools and how to resolve them.

Burnout was high on the list.

Dellie Champagne, community engagement coordinator at the N.H. Children’s Behavioral Health Program, said her own conversations with teachers had painted a dark picture about the current mood.

“[They’re] thinking about leaving, they’re just so burned out from what just happened,” she said. “And that really scared me.”

On Monday, the task force weighed options to tackle that emotional exhaustion. Many agreed that boosting mental health support is crucial.

To Champagne, one approach lies with the state’s community mental health centers.

The Department of Education could devote money to create partnerships between schools and mental health centers, “a community care team of school staff and outside mental health professionals,” Champagne said.

“We need folks to be trauma informed and trauma responsive so we want to make sure that we create an environment in the schools where teachers feel competent to work with kids who may have experienced some trauma,” she said.

But others pointed to a paradox: The same forces that have created the burnout in the first place could make it difficult to create the programs to address it.

“We’re going to need to find even more staff with some highly specialized areas of expertise, such as school psychologists, case managers, reading specialists, social workers, things of that nature,” said Barrett Christina, executive director of the N.H. School Boards Association.

With widespread workforce shortages across schools, keeping teaching staff levels at adequate levels is already difficult, Christina said. Expanding mental health services would compound that task.

“To the extent that they’re available, trying to disperse them statewide to serve the needs of 170,000 children is going to be very, very challenging,” he said.

Other members had out-of-the-box solutions.

Orientation programs at the end of the summer could play a role in restoring normalcy, argued Lambright, the representative of the Student Voice Workgroup on the task force. As educators look nervously to the August and September starting dates, the state could help fund early orientation efforts to re-familiarize students with the classroom.

“Giving the students an opportunity which is a little bit more relaxed, to move back into a much more social system like we had a year and a half ago” would help, he said.

And Lambright added another simple suggestion: focusing on the outdoors. Summer programs that prioritize outdoor education could be an easy tool to add balance for both students and teachers, he suggested.

Amy Allen, assistant superintendent at the Manchester School District, echoed that call, suggesting state financial support for outdoor learning spaces, particularly for schools in urban environments.

And Champagne suggested encouraging parent-teacher associations and organizations to find creative ways to boost teacher morale, such as baked-good parties or events.

Still, with every new initiative, staffing and logistical questions intervened.

“Aside from the worker shortage because so many of our teachers are burned out from the school year, those that may normally teach during the summer in summer programs are taking the summer off,” Christina said. “They need time to recoup and recharge.”

Community mental health centers in New Hampshire already face a shortage of around 200 employees in total. Schools are struggling to retain guidance counselors and support staff.

Then there’s the matter of funding. While New Hampshire’s Department of Education has received over $500 million in federal “Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief” funds, the majority of that money has been passed along to school districts. The money that remains has a shelf life.

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, for his part, said he understood the need for more counseling and mental health support. But he urged caution when it comes to any major expansions.

“Part of the difficulty that we have is that this is kind of one-time funds, right?” he said. “We get it, and it doesn’t sustain itself beyond a couple of years.”

To Christina, it’s a thorny question for school districts and school boards wrestling with how to craft their budgets.

“We keep talking about needing more people, needing more staff, but staff and people are your budget drivers, aren’t they?” Christina said to Edelblut. “So there’s duplicity and contradiction within that. We talk about needing more staff and more people and more paraprofessionals and more psychologists and social workers in our schools, but we’re also saying, ‘Be mindful of what you’re going to have to sustain when the money is gone in a few years.’ ”

Edelblut said the department would continue taking input from task force members through the week and incorporate it into the next round of programmatic support.

“Hopefully we can have a meaningful plan,” he said.

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Ian Freeman released to home confinement in federal bitcoin case
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Ian Freeman, the Keene-based libertarian activist facing criminal charges relating to his bitcoin-exchange business, was ordered released to home confinement Friday after two months in jail following his arrest in March.

In an order Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph N. Laplante imposed a number of conditions, including that Freeman leave home only for approved reasons, refrain from accessing digital currency, submit to government monitoring of his computer activity and agree to forfeit $200,000 in money or property if he fails to appear for court.

Freeman’s attorney, Mark Sisti, said Friday afternoon that his client was set to be released later in the day.

Prosecutors claim Freeman ran an unlicensed virtual currency exchange business that handled millions of dollars in transactions over several years, in violation of federal law. According to the government, Freeman and his codefendants advertised sales of virtual currency online and operated virtual currency exchange kiosks in Keene and elsewhere.

Prosecutors allege Freeman and others used personal bank accounts and accounts in the names of “purported religious entities” to conceal the nature of their business, and directed customers to falsely report that they were donating to churches or buying rare coins, not purchasing cryptocurrency.

The government also claims Freeman allowed an undercover agent to exchange around $20,000 in cash for bitcoin after the agent told him he was dealing drugs.

Freeman has pleaded not guilty to charges including wire fraud, money laundering, operating an unlicensed money transmitting business and conducting a continuing financial crimes enterprise. A trial is expected next spring, according to court documents.

The government has also charged five others — Colleen Fordham of Alstead, Renee and Andrew Spinella of Derry, Aria DiMezzo of Keene and a Keene man who legally changed his name from Richard Paul to Nobody — with helping Freeman operate an unlicensed money transmitting business. Fordham, Nobody and Renee and Andrew Spinella are also charged with wire fraud.

All have pleaded not guilty, and all but Nobody were released the day of their arrests.

Prosecutors opposed granting Freeman bail, calling him a flight risk due to his substantial financial assets and the prospect of years in prison, among other things. One of the charges against him carries a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison.

Sisti responded that Freeman has lived in New Hampshire since 2006, has substantial ties to the community — including running for office multiple times and donating regularly to the Hundred Nights shelter in Keene — and made no effort to flee even though he knew the government was investigating him.

After an initial bail hearing in March, U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrea K. Johnstone ordered Freeman detained. Sisti then filed a motion for the District Court judge assigned to the case, Laplante, to revoke that order.

Laplante ordered Freeman released to home confinement after a hearing Thursday.

Federal prosecutors have said numerous scammers used Freeman’s services to trade cash for virtual currency.

“The anonymity his business provided to his customers attracted hordes of cyber criminals that used his services to convert proceeds of romance scams, investment scams, and your-friend-is in jail scams, among others,” they wrote in a recent filing opposing Freeman’s release. They added that the government possesses emails and recordings in which “Freeman made no secret that he knew that fraudsters used his service for this purpose or that he needed to make misrepresentations to banks.”

According to federal prosecutors, Freeman and his associates opened accounts under the names of entities like the Shire Free Church, the Church of the Invisible Hand, the Reformed Satanic Church and the Crypto Church of NH.

“When the account activity, showing an incredible volume [of] deposits, eventually caused the bank to question Freeman, he would try to obfuscate further before the bank would eventually shut his account,” prosecutors wrote. “He would then move on to another bank or have a confederate open an account in their name that he controlled.”

The government is seeking to force Freeman to forfeit assets that it says he derived from his allegedly illegal enterprise. According to a notice prosecutors filed Tuesday, that includes about $180,000 in cash seized from a safe at his house; more than $50,000 from cryptocurrency kiosks at four locations; silver and gold bars; silver, gold and copper coins; a one-ounce “platinum Ron Paul coin”; and cryptocurrency worth about $4 million as of Friday evening.

Most of that value comes from a gold-plated “Casascius” bar — a physical object with a code redeemable for 100 bitcoin, worth about $3.6 million as of 6 p.m. Friday. Casascius bars and coins stopped being sold in 2013, according to their creator’s website.

In March, a prosecutor said Freeman had access to 28 bitcoin, equivalent to about $1 million as of 6 p.m. Friday. It was not clear how many of those bitcoin were included in the government’s notice listing assets to be forfeited.

In an interview Friday, Sisti denied the government’s allegations, saying Freeman did not try to hide his business because he did not think he was doing anything wrong.

“He was never told by any government, banking agency, any agency whatsoever, to cease and desist,” Sisti said. “And he operated publicly, he operated very openly.”

Prosecutors have filed a 2018 notice that the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network emailed to an entity called “Shire Cryptocoin,” stating that the government believed it was a money services business, and as such had to register with the agency and comply with anti-money laundering practices and other regulations.

Sisti said it was a form letter blasted out to thousands of bitcoin vendors. “It was generic in nature, and it was not addressed to Ian Freeman.”

Asked about the allegation that Freeman permitted an undercover agent posing as a drug dealer to trade cash for bitcoin, Sisti said he doesn’t “know where that’s coming from,” but said he has seen evidence of Freeman refusing to deal with criminals.

“I actually read a text exchange with somebody that Ian discovered was a drug dealer, and specifically told him he would not do business with him,” Sisti said.