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Brian Buskey

Mist gathers at the base of Mount Monadnock, as shown in this photo taken from Mountain Road in Jaffrey last week by Keene resident Brian Buskey.

Above the mist


Local
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Area stores welcome return of reusable bag

Shoppers are once again able to bring their reusable bags into New Hampshire stores, Gov. Chris Sununu announced Monday.

Effective immediately, the governor rescinded the state’s emergency order banning reusable bags, which he instituted because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response, most grocery stores in the area are allowing reusable bags back in.

This includes locally owned grocery stores Gomarlo’s Shop ‘n’ Save Supermarket in Swanzey and the Monadock Food Co-op in Keene, according to their managers.

Price Chopper, which has a store in Keene, will also welcome reusable bags, spokeswoman Mona Golub said.

However, Hannaford Supermarkets — which has area locations in Keene and Rindge — will allow customers to use bags brought from home only if they bag their own items at checkout, according to spokeswoman Ericka Dodge.

She added that single-use bags will still be available, as well as new reusable bags for purchase. If a new bag is purchased, Dodge said, employees can bag the items.

Hannaford has encouraged reusable bags for a long time, Dodge said, but the company feels it is safer to avoid them for now.

Market Basket and Aldi’s did not respond to requests for comment.

New Hampshire had a reusable bag ban in place since March. Sununu said he imposed the order out of concern that these bags aren’t washed frequently and the novel coronavirus could potentially live on them, putting vulnerable workers at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

As a result, stores were required to supply single-use plastic or paper bags for their customers. This stood in contrast to efforts in recent years nationwide to promote reusable bags out of concern for the environment.

But whether reusable bags pose a legitimate health threat is still up in the air.

While it may be possible for a person to get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it, the disease is mainly thought to spread via person-to-person transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other research shows that single-use plastic bags can still harbor viruses and bacteria they pick up during manufacturing, transport, stocking or use.

An April study by the National Institutes of Health shows that the novel coronavirus can stay on plastics for up to three days and on cardboard for up to one day.

If people decide to use their reusable bags while shopping, Sununu — along with area store managers — said people should just make sure they’re washed before bringing them into a business.

“We looked at the latest data, consulted with officials at Public Health and ask individuals to be courteous and respectful to retail/grocery workers by cleaning your reusable bags,” Sununu said Monday on Twitter.


Wapo
New cases rise in Midwest as they plateau in Sun Belt

WASHINGTON — As new coronavirus infections appeared to plateau in the Sun Belt but creep up in the Midwest on Tuesday, governors and local authorities imposed additional restrictions and a powerful teachers union warned that its members would strike if ordered to return to unsafe schools this fall.

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert, warned that positive coronavirus test results were rising in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee as the number of new cases is showing signs of leveling off in Arizona, California, Florida and Texas.

“We just can’t afford, yet again, another surge,” Fauci said on “Good Morning America.” A few hours later, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, said Fauci’s appraisal was correct as he announced limits on county fairs, barring grandstand events, rides and games. He noted that emergency visits are decreasing and new cases have plateaued, but that hospitalizations are increasing.

Stressing the highly infectious nature of the virus, DeWine told reporters at his televised briefing about a 40-minute car ride that four people recently took to an Ohio lake. One person had the virus but did not know it. Within days, 10 people were sick, with two hospitalized and in intensive care, and three businesses had to be temporarily shuttered, he said.

“From a single car ride,” DeWine said, urging the public to wear masks and follow other public health precautions.

“If we do what we need to do, we can start these numbers going in the right direction,” he added. “We are at a crucial time.”

At a news briefing Tuesday, President Donald Trump continued to promote hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that most studies have found is ineffective in treating the novel coronavirus. The FDA has revoked its approval of the use of the drug to treat COVID-19, the disease caused by virus.

On Monday, Trump retweeted a viral video that featured Stella Immanuel, a Houston pediatrician and spiritual leader who calls hydroxychloroquine a cure for COVID-19 and says masks are not important in fighting the pandemic. On Monday evening, Facebook tried to scrub the video from its site after more than 14 million people watched it, saying it was misleading. YouTube said it removed the video.

Immanuel has also said that alien DNA is an ingredient in some therapeutic drugs and that government scientists are developing a vaccine to prevent religious faith.

Asked about his retweeting of the video, Trump said, “I wasn’t making claims,” just passing along recommendations.

“I took it for a 14-day period, and I’m here. Right? I’m here,” he said. “I don’t think you lose anything by doing it, other than politically. It doesn’t seem to be too popular, you know why? Because I recommend it.”

He announced that the administration is giving a $765 million loan to camera maker Eastman Kodak so it can start producing generic drugs and increase the U.S. production of pharmaceuticals now made in China and India.

Trump listed his administration’s efforts to fight COVID-19, claiming large portions of the country are “corona-free.”

“But we are watching very carefully California, Arizona, Texas and most of Florida is starting to head down in the right direction — and I think you’ll see it rapidly head down very soon,” he said.

State and local officials seemed doubtful that any relief for the coronavirus was imminent, and they continued measures rooted in wearing masks and maintaining social distance.

The Columbus, Ohio, City Council approved a law requiring bars and restaurants to close at 10 p.m. each night starting Tuesday. And Ohio State University told season ticket holders that any football games at Ohio Stadium this year will be at 20 percent capacity, with no tailgating allowed.

“We all love Ohio State football, it’s part of your fall, it’s part of what you like to do,” DeWine said. “But it’s too early to know if it’s safe to put 20,000 people in the Ohio State stadium ... . For those who love Ohio State football, if you wear a mask [now], it certainly increases our odds to be able to do that.”

Democratic Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear on Monday announced that bars would be shut down for two weeks and that restaurants’ indoor dining would be restricted to 25 percent capacity. He also recommended that schools postpone in-person instruction until late August.

In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, announced new restrictions on restaurants and gatherings in the Hampton Roads area as new coronavirus cases rise. They include a 50 percent capacity for indoor dining, and ending alcohol sales after 10 p.m.

Nationwide, the number of cases appears to have leveled off to a seven-day moving average of around 66,000 new cases daily. The slight decline registered Tuesday followed five weeks of steadily rising numbers.

At least 4,315,000 coronavirus cases have been reported in the United States, with more than 54,000 added to the tally Monday. More than 1,000 new fatalities were recorded Monday, raising the U.S. death toll to more than 145,000.

Two potential coronavirus vaccines are moving into the last phase of testing, with 30,000-person trials. Fauci said Monday that he was “cautiously optimistic” about the candidate developed by Moderna in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health.

But it is hard to predict how widespread the virus will be even a month from now. At a time when stores are normally packed with back-to-school shoppers, it is unclear whether many schools will allow students the option of coming in person.

Teachers could go out on strike “as a last resort” if they are forced to return to unsafe schools during the pandemic, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten warned Tuesday.

The executive council of the 1.7 million-member AFT, the nation’s second-largest teachers union, approved a resolution Friday giving its affiliates authorization to stage strikes — even as Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are pushing schools to fully reopen, though school district leaders say they need massive federal funding to do so safely.

“Let’s be clear: Just as we have done with our health-care workers, we will fight on all fronts for the safety of our students and their educators,” Weingarten said during a blistering speech at the union’s annual convention.

“But if authorities don’t protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, as our executive council voted last week, nothing is off the table — not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary and authorized by a local union, as a last resort, safety strikes,” she said.

Some small districts in Tennessee, Mississippi and other states will start the school year with in-person learning, but major school districts have opted to start online because of spiking infection rates.

Although low-income, Hispanic and black communities have been stricken disproportionately by the coronavirus, the rapid spread has hit many of the powerful as well.

DeWine, who put a mask mandate into effect two weeks ago, said two good friends contracted the disease, one of whom died. The director of Ohio’s prison system announced Monday that she had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We are all in a difficult period,” DeWine said Tuesday. “We are living in a period of time where we don’t know what the future is. We will in fact determine the future by what collectively we do.”

In Ohio, as in most states, different trend lines are going in divergent directions. Deaths and hospitalizations lag behind new infections, so the trend in new infections provides a better indicator of where the disease is heading.

Florida, reported its biggest day of coronavirus fatalities Tuesday, with 191 deaths, including five residents from elsewhere. That pushed the state’s death toll past 6,000. Hospitalizations were up, too. But simultaneously, the number of new positive cases of virus dropped below 10,000 for the third consecutive day.

Even as cases have started to level out in Arizona, California, Florida and Texas, at least 22 other states are experiencing a surge in cases. Among those experiencing a rise are Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

As the disease is shifting north from the Sun Belt, officials in the Midwest have started to clamp down in an effort to stop its spread.

In Indiana, Republican, Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a mask order that lasts through August.

Anyone spending more than a day in Wisconsin and 18 other states before arriving in Chicago will be required to self-quarantine for 14 days, Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday.

As the rate of positive cases in Illinois has inched upward, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has warned that residents probably will not return to a semblance of normal life until next year.

“I’m not a doctor, but that’s what my observation is, that we’re not going to be able to take off the mask and go about everything we were doing seven, eight months ago for a few more months, maybe six-plus months,” Pritzker, a Democrat, said Monday at a news conference.

And in Minnesota, where a mask mandate took effect over the weekend, public health officials pleaded with residents to be vigilant as new infections jumped.

“We’re not asking Minnesotans to mask up for the Health Department,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters. “We’re asking them to mask up for their own health.”


Local
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After a four-month COVID delay, census workers prepare to knock on doors

From the point of view of the 2020 census, late summer is now early spring.

“We’re going to kind of recreate what we should have had the week of April 1,” said Jeff Behler, Northeast regional director of the U.S. Census Bureau. “This was never in the plan.”

This weekend marks the start of a series of events around New Hampshire by census workers to remind people to fill out the every-10-years form that is used for such vital things as deciding on congressional representation and distribution of government funding. The census is so important that the Founding Fathers included it in the Constitution.

On Monday, Aug. 3, up to 1,600 workers will begin going to houses in New Hampshire that have not yet complied. Training has begun for this door-to-door work, which will be done via specialized smartphones and pays $20 an hour with flexible schedules.

For many decades April 1 has been the day when door-to-door work begins, but COVID-19 put everything on hold, forcing the bureau to develop new systems for training and data collection.

Despite the delay, Behler said, response rates for filling out the census form online are pretty good, which may be a reflection of stay-at-home orders that have left people with time to do chores.

“Overall, before we knew anything about COVID, we estimated where we thought we’d be at before knocking on doors, so we could figure out how many people we need to hire. We believed we’d be at 60.5 percent national response,” said Behler. The current national response rate is 62.3 percent.

New Hampshire’s rate of 62.7 percent is right at the national average but slightly behind Massachusetts and well ahead of Vermont and Maine.

Cheshire County is at 62.4 percent. Merrimack County is at a 67.2 percent response rate, while the most populous and wealthy counties of Hillsborough and Rockingham lead the way in New Hampshire with rates of 70.2 percent and 69.1 percent, respectively.

At the other end of the response spectrum is Carroll County, between the Lakes Region and the White Mountains, at just 35 percent. Behler said that reflects the county’s very rural nature, in that 55 percent of the households use a P.O. box for mail rather than a street address.

The Census Bureau does not mail what it calls “invitation packages” to P.O. boxes because it wants to know how many people are living in specific addresses and such boxes may not be linked to an address. The packages told people about the census and gave instructions for filling it out online.

As a result, Behler said, many people in Carroll County may not even realize the census is going on unless somebody knocks on their door and tells them.

The Census Bureau has instituted a contest between counties called Push Week to see which county can have the largest percentage-point increase in self-responses before workers head out in the field.

Workers are scheduled to be at dozens of public sites in the coming week to inform and help people with the online form. It starts with assistance at Warner Town Hall from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday and includes assistance from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Franklin Public Library on Monday and a presence at the Davisville Flea Market and Barn Sale in Warner on Sunday, Aug. 2.

This year’s census form is much smaller than in past years because information sought in some past censuses, such as type of housing, income and employment, is now gathered continuously as part of the American Community Survey. The questionnaire asks only basic information about who was living in the home on April 1.

For more information or to fill out the census, go to 2020census.gov.


Local
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Keene to host 'trial' run for NH courts

When Cheshire County Superior Court holds its first pandemic-era jury trial next month, things will look a bit different.

Jury members will be seated 6 feet apart, with several of them observing the trial from benches typically reserved for the public. Witnesses will answer questions seated in an arm-less swivel chair to minimize the potential for transmission via surfaces. And attorneys, confined to one side of the courtroom, will be unable to roam the floor during their arguments.

The Keene court has implemented numerous protocols in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among participants when it holds a pilot jury trial next month, which it sees as a first step toward resuming regular trials.

The trial, set to begin Aug. 24 with jury selection scheduled for Aug. 19, will be the first conducted in a New Hampshire superior court since officials postponed them in March.

Given the court’s hope for a straightforward affair, it is considering cases that it believes will last only one or two days, according to N.H. Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau.

Attendance in the courtroom will be limited to about 25 people, including a 14-member jury and other trial participants, all of whom are required to wear masks and maintain social distancing. Victims will have priority seating privileges over other members of the public, including the defendants’ family members, based on their legal right to attend trials. Some cases will be streamed online.

Those guidelines are among the many adopted by the Superior Court’s Return to Operation Committee, a group of judges, clerks and other court personnel that was assembled in March. Nadeau estimated that up to 400 cases have been postponed during the pandemic.

The committee consulted New Hampshire’s chief medical officer, Jonathan Ballard, as well as Erin Bromage, a comparative immunologist at UMass Dartmouth, who visited the Keene courtroom to recommend specific protocols.

“With only 25 people in the courtroom, I feel confident that we’ll be able to keep everyone safe,” Nadeau said during a walk-through of the courtroom on Tuesday.

The biggest change to the court’s typical operations will be in the jury-selection process.

Potential jurors will continue to receive their summons by mail, along with an explanation of the health protocols that the court has put in place. They will then complete an electronic survey containing the jury questionnaire, which includes questions about their exposure and susceptibility to COVID-19.

Candidates will likely be dismissed if they show symptoms of the virus, have increased safety concerns or are unwilling to comply with courthouse safety guidelines.

Nadeau said that candidates identified for voir dire, the process of selecting a jury, will report to the courthouse and wait in their cars until entering one at a time for further questioning by the judge.

But the resulting juries may lack diversity, since certain racial and socioeconomic groups are more prone than others to underlying health conditions and may be less able to take work off, according to Alex Parsons, managing attorney at the New Hampshire Public Defender’s office in Keene.

The mortality rate from COVID-19 in communities of color is higher than it is among whites, according to data compiled by The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project and the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. That trend is particularly striking among Black Americans, who die at a rate more than two times higher than whites.

“The current procedures allow for people to be liberally dismissed because they express some kind of concern,” Parsons said. “While that’s totally understandable, it’s also problematic because it may essentially rob us of representative juries.”

Parsons said that research shows the people currently willing to sit on juries are likely to be young white men, with women more likely to assume extra child-care responsibilities during the pandemic and elderly citizens unwilling to risk their health.

Nadeau acknowledged those concerns, noting that it is always difficult to assemble a representative jury. She added that the court will analyze data from jury candidates’ electronic questionnaires to identify any concerning trends.

“We’re going to do our best to come up with the fairest solution possible,” Nadeau said. “It’s not going to be perfect, but in my view, it’s going to be Constitutional.”

In the courtroom, jurors will be seated 6 feet apart and will not be allowed to converse with each other during the trial, Nadeau said. Deliberations will take place in the courtroom to allow for greater distancing among jury members, at which point all other trial participants will leave and the courtroom security cameras will be disabled.

Jurors will also be screened for symptoms of, or exposure to, the virus each day before entering the courthouse.

In the event that a member of the jury becomes ill during a trial, Nadeau said, the court will probably proceed with 12 jurors and only one alternate, rather than the usual two alternates, unless any of them had been in contact with the infected juror.

Jury members are not the only ones affected by the new safety protocols.

Defense attorneys will be allowed to sit within 6 feet of their clients if both parties are comfortable with that arrangement, but they will be advised not to speak directly at each other.

In addition, witnesses will sit in the center of the courtroom, between attorneys and the jury and will wear a transparent face covering so that jurors can observe their facial expressions. Lawyers are permitted to walk around an area designated by tape on the floor as at least 6 feet from others.

Some of the restrictions worry defense attorneys, according to Parsons, who emphasized that defendants must be given all of the privileges they had before the pandemic.

“What does it mean to have a defendant wearing a mask? Are jurors going to see that person as a full human being, the same as someone [whose] face they can see?” he said. “A lot of defense lawyers feel strongly that by asking someone to have a trial right now with the untested procedures, you are asking [them] to take a very serious risk of an unfair trial.”

If the pilot trial in August is deemed successful, the courts will schedule jury trials for the fall in several other counties with relatively low COVID-19 infection rates, according to Nadeau. Cheshire County was chosen to host the pilot trial because of its low infection rate, compared to the rest of the state.

The courts will continue to hold plea hearings and other administrative proceedings via teleconference while jury trials are slowly introduced throughout the state.