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With end of federal jobless aid, local residents could lose a lifeline

Rebecca Crowell is worried.

Crowell, 39, lives in Troy with her husband and their two daughters, ages 10 and 5. Before the pandemic, she worked part time at a health-care company in Keene.

After Crowell was furloughed on March 16 along with the rest of her colleagues, she filed a claim for unemployment insurance benefits with the state. The weekly checks she has received since early April helped the family pay for groceries, utility bills and an increase in their rent.

Now, Crowell is concerned they won’t be able to afford these expenses past the end of the month.

That is when the federal government will stop distributing unemployment aid designated specifically for the COVID-19 pandemic, also known as Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation.

New Hampshire housing advocates and community leaders in the Monadnock Region say the expiration of this assistance will force many residents to miss rent payments, reduce their grocery bills or forgo other important expenses.

In New Hampshire, the last week for which residents were eligible to receive FPUC benefits ended Saturday, although anyone claiming unemployment has not yet been paid for that week.

The FPUC program, which President Donald Trump signed into law March 27 as part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, gave an extra $600 per week to Americans who qualified for their state’s unemployment assistance due to the pandemic.

Data published by the N.H. Department of Employment Security (NHES) show that as many as 166,000 New Hampshire residents — 21 percent of the state’s labor force — filed for unemployment insurance during at least one week between March 15 and July 11.

People claiming unemployment benefits from NHES, including some out-of-state residents who worked for New Hampshire companies, received more than $785 million from the FPUC program, according to Brian Gottlob, director of the N.H. Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau.

In Cheshire County, 3,560 residents were still receiving unemployment assistance as of June 20, the most recent date for which data are available. NHES estimated that 8.6 percent of the county’s workforce remained unemployed due to the pandemic at that time — the second-lowest rate in the state and down from 16.1 percent as of May 16.

In a sign that New Hampshire residents are slowly returning to work, continuing claims statewide — those made by people who are already receiving benefits — fell for the sixth consecutive week, to 71,005, during the week ending July 11.

Crowell hopes that she, too, will be able to resume working in early August. For now, however, she is concerned about her family’s ability to afford basic expenses.

Crowell and her husband, a mechanic at the Honda dealership in Swanzey, earned about $1,500 every two weeks before the pandemic. Still, they budgeted well for an increase in their monthly rent — from $1,100 to $1,200 — that began in May, which they knew about before the pandemic.

Since Crowell’s work involves frequent close interactions with clients, her office closed on March 16, complicating their ability to afford the rent increase. Her husband, who was briefly furloughed in April, earns a weekly salary of about $400.

Crowell receives $188 each week from the state’s unemployment program. She and her husband were able to continue paying their bills with the additional $600 in FPUC assistance.

“If we didn’t have this extra money, we probably wouldn’t have been able to pay our rent,” Crowell said. “Groceries would have been probably the only thing we could afford.”

Costs up, income lost

Many people across the state may soon face similarly precarious situations, according to Ben Frost, managing director for policy and public affairs at N.H. Housing, a Bedford-based public entity that helps New Hampshire residents find and pay for affordable housing.

“The [FPUC] benefits have helped a lot of people make their rent and mortgage payments,” Frost said. “It’s pretty clear that the typical unemployment benefit is insufficient to meet the typical household’s weekly or monthly needs.”

Nearly 50 percent of New Hampshire renters spend at least half of their monthly income on rent, Frost said. With the expiration of FPUC assistance, he worries that some of them will not be able to afford rent at all.

“Some people will be looking at medical costs they have to deal with. Others are dealing with child care. Others are just trying to put food on the table,” Frost said. “You look at your immediate needs — getting medicine for a sick kid or getting the next meal for your family. In most cases, that’s going to take priority over paying your rent.”

The possibility of widespread missed rent payments is particularly alarming, housing advocates say, given the expirations of state and federal eviction moratoriums on July 1 and July 25, respectively.

Southwestern Community Services, which assists residents of low income in Cheshire and Sullivan counties as one of the state’s five community action agencies, typically helps about 4,500 families pay for their heating and utility expenses each year, according to its CEO, John Manning. But Manning expects that number will increase this year, due largely to the expiration of FPUC benefits.

“We know that we’re going to see a lot of people who have never come to us before and who, I suspect, may not have thought they lived paycheck to paycheck — until they lost a paycheck,” Manning said. “There’s going to be a much larger group of folks who are at risk of losing their housing.”

As a result, SCS is providing local landlords and businesses with information about the services it offers to people struggling with their housing costs. This year, rent is only one of the expenses that many families will struggle to afford, according to Manning.

“In addition to losing income, there are, in many cases, a lot of increased costs [for people out of work],” he said. “Child care, if it’s available, may be much more expensive. There may be medical bills. These folks need a lot of assistance to keep their heads above water, but that $600 has certainly helped a large percentage of [them] do that.”

An uncertain future

Nonetheless, it may be a while until anyone receives federal unemployment assistance again.

Congressional negotiations on a new stimulus package were delayed last week due to disagreement among Republicans over spending on the FPUC program.

In May, House Democrats passed a bill that would extend the $600-per-week stipend for those out of work due to the pandemic through January 2021.

But many Republicans are concerned the stipend may incentivize people who have received more from unemployment than they earned as a salary to stay home rather than return to work. Instead, GOP leaders proposed on Monday offering $200 per week as part of a plan in which states would provide up to 70 percent of what employees were making before the pandemic.

Phil Suter, president of the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged that some local business owners share these views. Suter said, however, that he does not believe many people remain out of work voluntarily.

“Not everybody is able to connect with a job that matches their skill set at the snap of a finger,” Suter said. “Most people, I think, want to be working … People would prefer to have that in their lives, rather than the uncertainty of some other kind of financial support.”

Suter added that the regional economy would likely be worse off if unemployed residents had not received an extra $600 each week.

“If people don’t have the money they need to pay rent and they end up being evicted … that doesn’t help us either,” he said. “We need to think about it holistically as part of a regional economic ecosystem and be supportive, if we can, to the elements of that ecosystem that need our support — whether it’s finding people jobs, helping them pay rent, helping them with food security or with other challenges that they face.”

Meanwhile, Crowell is thinking about which bills must be paid on time.

In addition to rent and groceries, that may also include Internet access so that her daughters can learn from home. Monadnock Regional School District, which includes Troy Elementary School, announced Monday that it recommends beginning the year with a mix of in-person and remote instruction.

“We’ve been very fortunate having this extra money coming in,” Crowell said. “But with it ending, the anxiety of, ‘Am I going to be able to pay my rent?’ or, ‘Am I going to be able to get groceries?’ is definitely there.”


Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff

Phil Warren of Warren Farm in Alstead drives draft horses Rudy, left, and Jake as he mows a field using a sickle bar mower at the Kingsbury property on West Surry Road in Keene, near the Court Street roundabout, Friday.

KEEPING tradition alive


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Movie theaters reeling from pandemic restrictions, fears

Movie theaters were one of the last businesses approved to reopen under New Hampshire’s stay-at-home guidelines. Theater owners in Peterborough and Wilton hoped to get their businesses back up and rolling, but early projections have them questioning whether they can stay afloat.

In the first five showings since the Peterborough Community Theatre reopened in mid-July, owner Vanessa Amsbury-Bonilla said a total of nine people showed up. There were two showings where not a single person came through the downtown theater’s doors and another that just one movie enthusiast came to see “Military Wives.”

“It’s that bad,” she said. “And that’s not a sustainable model. We don’t make money as it is. In normal times, when our theater is thriving, we break even. Our margins are that slim.”

Wilton Town Hall Theatre owner Dennis Markaverich, who has owned the theater on Wilton’s Main Street for 47 years, said last week, just two people came for one of his showings and not a single person for the other, and in one previous week, one of his movies made a total of $89.

“You can’t pay the bills on that,” he said.

After receiving the go ahead to begin reopening on June 30, both Amsbury-Bonilla, who owns the Peterborough Community Theatre with her husband Kevin Goohs, and Markaverich had hoped that going to the movies would be a choice that people felt comfortable making. So far that hasn’t proven to be the case.

“I don’t think people are scared, I know they are scared,” Markaverich said. “People aren’t feeling safe coming in.”

Chad Free, who has owned the six-screen Keene Cinemas since 2016, also observed attendance has been down due to fears around the coronavirus. Free said Monday that between 50 and 100 people, many of them diehard film fans, have visited the theater each day since it reopened on July 1.

Production companies were hesitant to release appealing first-run movies during the COVID restrictions. Having to rely on content that has already been available on streaming services and no new movies in the pipeline doesn’t help theaters get customers in the door.

“We’re having an awful time getting films,” Markaverich said. While drive-in theaters are experiencing a resurgence showing re-released classic titles like “Jaws,” “Goonies” and “Gremlins,” Markaverich said those don’t work at a theater like his.

“My audience is older folks and more artsy films,” he said.

Free has had some luck showing classic films, including “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Back to the Future” and “Jurassic Park.” Even so, Keene Cinemas might close its doors from Monday to Thursday in the fall, when people are less likely to attend movies.

“Hamilton,” which was slated for a summer release but went straight to streaming, is something Markaverich said “we could have played all summer.”

But the reality is that people just don’t seem ready to go to the movies — even with a number of protocols and policies in place to enhance safety precautions.

“People are very afraid of being in an enclosed space with people they don’t know,” Amsbury-Bonilla said.

So Amsbury-Bonilla decided that her return to business would pause once again after the one-week run of “Military Wives” ended, while Markaverich will only be showing his Saturday Afternoon Classics and his silent film series on certain Sundays, after last Thursday’s screenings of “Emma” and “Downton Abbey.”

“It’s the stark reality,” Amsbury-Bonilla said. “Why are we open if nobody’s coming? It’s costing us more money to be open.”

She didn’t expect every showing to be filled, but getting nine people over the first three days of being open was startling.

“We kind of thought if we could get 20 people in each showing we’d be fine,” she said. The showing where one person came resulted in a $7 day.

“For the people who do show up, it’s totally safe,” Amsbury-Bonilla said.

Markaverich said those who have come are the usuals, and there have been no new customers.

“I want to be optimistic, but this is the reality,” Markaverich said. “The show will go on after this intermission.”

Turning a profit has also proven difficult for Keene Cinemas, which managed to retain all of its employees during the pandemic — at a price.

“My main concern is actually them,” Free said. “I haven’t even been taking a salary, myself, for the last month and a half. I just want to keep them employed.”

Markaverich compares the recent operation of the theater to shoveling money into the boilers of the Titanic. He opened just days after being allowed on July 3 and admits it was probably a little early.

“I was excited to get going again,” he said. “I had to start somewhere, I had to start sometime, I had to play something.”

Amsbury-Bonilla put in place a mandatory mask policy for Sundays, but after no one showed for the matinee and four in the evening, the message was clear.

“We had hoped our mandatory mask Sunday would make a difference,” Amsbury-Bonilla said.

She launched a GoFundMe last week to hopefully help the theater see the other side of this. She pointed to the fact that the community pooled together more than $40,000 when the theater made the switch to digital in 2013 as a positive reminder that this area wants to see it survive. As of Wednesday, less than 24 hours after Amsbury-Bonilla launched the GoFundMe, it had raised more than $5,600 through 63 donations. By Tuesday morning, it had raised more than $11,000 toward its $12,000 goal.

“I’m really hoping we can do the same, but I realize we’re in a very different time,” Amsbury-Bonilla said prior to its launch.

The theater did, after all, survive the last global pandemic in 1918 — just four years after opening.

For the movie she was showing, Amsbury-Bonilla said in normal times it would have been one of those bread-and-butter kind of movies.

“But people just weren’t coming,” she said. When she did a soft opening, just showing mystery movies of her choosing for free, she had better attendance.

In an effort to bring in some business, Amsbury-Bonilla is offering the option of private rentals of the theater. The cost is $75 for less than 10 people and $100 for 10 or more. As of last Tuesday, she said there were five rentals planned through the end of the month. People can bring in a DVD or Blu-ray or use their phones to connect to the theater’s Chromecast to stream. She is working to get a virtual cinema program through some small indie studios up and running, where she will get a portion of the sale, but “the problem is most of those movies nobody’s ever heard of.”

Markaverich also offers private parties and has a few booked moving forward to complement his weekend offerings.

Free, at Keene Cinemas, cut ticket prices to $5 until Nov. 1, when he expects many of the production studios to begin releasing new movies again.

Amsbury-Bonilla heard that the pandemic could cause 50 percent of independent movie theaters to close down. Her goal is to make sure the one she owns with her husband is not one of them, and the same holds true for Markaverich.

“I’m hoping for myself we’ll get through this,” Markaverich said. “I want to be open again for real.”


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Monadnock recommends hybrid in-person, remote school reopening

SWANZEY CENTER — The Monadnock Regional School District intends to return to school with a blend of in-person and remote learning, according to the draft reopening plan the district released Monday.

The 55-page document outlines this hybrid model, in which about half of the students in the district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — would attend in-person classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the other half would be in school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. No students would be in school on Fridays, but teachers would be available for virtual office hours, and students could work on assignments and utilize other online learning tools.

Likewise, on the other two days of the week when they’re not in their classrooms, students could make progress on previously assigned material and use district-provided online learning platforms.

Public schools statewide transitioned to remote learning in mid-March due to concern over the COVID-19 pandemic and remained that way through the end of the school year. After Gov. Chris Sununu released the state’s reopening guidance two weeks ago, largely leaving final decisions up to individual school districts, public schools throughout the Monadnock Region have been working toward finalizing their reopening plans.

The Monadnock School Board is scheduled to discuss and decide on the reopening plan — which also calls for students and staff to wear masks in schools and maintain at least three feet of social distancing in classrooms — at its meeting next Tuesday, Aug. 4. In the meantime, the plan is still subject to change based on new public health information, according to Superintendent Lisa Witte.

“We still have a long way to go, and this document will serve to help us successfully navigate the next leg of our journey,” Witte wrote in a letter to school families and staff. “It is important to note that, while memorialized on paper, this is very much a living, fluid document, created with the best knowledge and information that we had available to us today.

“It is possible — and probably likely — that we will need to make revisions as we learn more about COVID-19, its transmission, and the impact that any reopening model will have on our community,” Witte continued.

Monadnock’s reopening plan also anticipates the possibility of returning to remote learning for all students and lays out the level of community spread of COVID-19 that would lead the district to make that decision.

For the beginning of the school year, though, the district recommends a “soft opening” from Sep. 8-11, according to the document. During that week, school officials encourage all students and their families to make an appointment to visit their school and learn about the new policies and procedures. Zoom meetings also will be available for families to learn about expectations for the fall semester.

Classes are scheduled to begin following the hybrid model on Sep. 14. The district plans to continue to monitor the spread of COVID-19 in Cheshire County, and if the region is on track for containing the virus (defined in the document as having one or fewer active cases per 100,000 people) for at least two weeks straight, Monadnock will move forward with plans to reopen schools fully for in-person classes starting Nov. 2. The district will make a decision on that by Oct. 20.

Families and students who are uncomfortable returning to in-person classes at all can choose to take remote classes. Middle and high school students would take classes through the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, an Exeter-based nonprofit online school, but still remain enrolled in the Monadnock district. Elementary school students also could take classes through VLACS or opt for instruction through another district-provided online platform and would have access to Monadnock teachers on Fridays for support with remote learning.

Monadnock’s reopening plan is the work of the district’s School Reopening Planning Team, comprising 27 teachers, staff members and administrators from throughout the district. The group began meeting June 25 and developed the draft plan based on the state’s school reopening guidance, meetings with public health officials and the results of surveys from district employees, students, parents and guardians, which garnered a total of 1,169 responses.

The full Monadnock reopening concept can be found on the district’s website at www.mrsd.org. The first two numbered pages of the document include a summary of the plan, and the district’s recommendations to the school board.