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Keene's proposed mask ordinance wins committee's recommendation

The Keene City Council’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee has voted unanimously to recommend a revised mask ordinance to the full council.

After listening to hours of public comments last week, City Attorney Thomas Mullins presented the committee with a new draft ordinance with some tweaks based on the feedback. The ordinance would require that employees wear face masks when dealing with the public, and require members of the public to do the same whenever entering a business for any reason, including outdoor areas where business is conducted.

The ordinance defines an appropriate face covering as one made of “cloth, fabric, paper or other soft or permeable materials, without holes, mesh, or exhaust valves.” It also specifies that masks must cover the mouth and the nose.

A citywide mask ordinance was first pitched in late May by Councilor Randy Filiault. The ordinance he proposed was nearly identical to a law passed in Nashua, but he withdrew it about a week later after Nashua’s was challenged in court. Keene Mayor George Hansel brought the ordinance back to the table earlier this month, after the Nashua ordinance was upheld. He said several councilors had expressed interest in resuming that conversation after learning of the Nashua decision.

The council has also approved a mask resolution that strongly encourages the use of face masks in public places but does not mandate them.

Mask mandates have become a highly polarized political debate between those who stress the importance of face coverings to protect public health and those who object to the notion as an infringement on their civil liberties.

Masks are recommended by health experts, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as a means of stopping the movement of respiratory droplets, believed to be the primary way COVID-19 is spread.

Many governors have enacted mask mandates, including Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, whose requirement goes into effect this week. Brattleboro has had an ordinance in place since the spring. And the New Hampshire communities of Lebanon, Enfield and Hanover will all be discussing face-covering mandates at meetings over the next week or so, the Valley News reported.

To date, there have been more than 6,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Hampshire. There have been 85 confirmed cases in Cheshire County, and two deaths related to the viral disease. As of Wednesday, the state health department listed five current cases in Keene.

“[The proposed ordinance] is very enforceable; it’s certainly not heavy-handed,” Filiault said during Wednesday’s meeting. “I think it’s just enough, and all we really wanted here is to educate the public, have a little enforcement behind it. It’s all about public safety. That’s really all this ordinance is about.”

Key changes in the revised ordinance now being considered include the addition of definitions for “business” and “face covering” as well as a sunset clause, which stipulates that the ordinance would expire when New Hampshire’s COVID-19 state of emergency ends. It also includes penalties — a verbal warning on the first offense, a written warning on the second offense, a $100 fine on the third offense and a $250 fine for all subsequent offenses.

The new version also clears up questions about whether all businesses would be subjected to the ordinance. For example, masks would not be required for conducting business within a private residence or for businesses where members of the public are not typically coming in and out.

Businesses would also be required to implement measures to notify their customers of the ordinance, via signage or another means.

The ordinance would exempt those whose health might be put at risk by wearing a mask, such as people with medical or developmental conditions. Mullins said these individuals would not be asked to provide proof of their condition. The ordinance also exempts masks for children under 10 years old.

Mullins also changed a stipulation from the original ordinance relative to common areas in apartment buildings, specifying that the mask mandate would apply to buildings with three or more units, thereby exempting duplexes.

Mullins said churches are not included in the ordinance, citing potential First Amendment conflicts and noting both that the state has issued guidance dealing with conduct in churches and that the ordinance itself does not contain a religious exemption to wearing a mask.

While residents were able to weigh in on the proposal during Wednesday’s meeting, they were asked to restrict their input to comments about the language changes specifically. One resident, Tiffany Mathews, said she was worried about the exemption for children and objected to concerns raised in the past by other residents that wearing masks may have a negative psychological effect on kids.

Another resident, Tracy Desteph, asked whether private clubs would be included under the ordinance.

“I see them having events with 50 or more people in building,” she said. “I don’t think they’re requiring masks. That’s a large group of people to possibly be infected and go out in the community.”

Mullins said that unless the clubs invite in the general public, rather than just specific people who hold memberships, they would not be subject to the ordinance.

Others raised questions about whether the resolution should require specific language be used when businesses create signs notifying customers of the ordinance and what would be done if someone fakes a disability so they don’t have to wear a mask. Another resident suggested including the outdoor space downtown where there’s generally more pedestrian traffic.

Councilor Mitch Greenwald, who is on the committee, suggested including language requiring masks at private house parties, saying that landlords should be held accountable. Greenwald, a landlord of several residential and commercial properties in the city, said he was worried that the ordinance would not be followed at large private gatherings and said the city should have some enforcement power in that regard.

However, other committee members thought that level of regulation in a private residence was a step too far.

“I really feel like I would struggle with that process; where do you draw the line?” said Councilor Kate Bosley, the committee’s chairwoman. “I understand that you’re trying to hold landlords accountable, but I really can’t imagine how you could police ... the mask-wearing inside a private residence.”

In the end, no changes were made to the proposed ordinance that Mullins presented at the start of the meeting. The full text can be found on the committee’s meeting agenda, which can be viewed online.

The next step is for the full council to take a vote on the proposed ordinance. The council will next convene on Aug. 6 at 7 p.m.

Lucy Ryder of Keene and her daughter Lauren pick blueberries and raspberries at Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole. Two other pick-your-own locations in the region are Elsesser Blueberry Acres in South Acworth and Monadnock Berries in Troy.

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Local artists honored -- virtually -- at Ewing Arts Awards

In an unprecedented time when humans are profoundly disconnected from one another, many would agree the arts are needed more than ever.

Even a pandemic couldn’t keep audiences Wednesday night from celebrating those who create art and enjoying their work. For the first time in six years, the winners of The Ruth and James Ewing Arts Awards were not honored in the usual place: The Alumni Recital Hall at Keene State College’s Redfern Arts Center.

Instead, viewers joined the ceremonies (filmed at the Courtyard Marriott in downtown Keene) via Facebook Live on The Keene Sentinel’s page.

The Ruth and James Ewing Arts Awards is a project of The Sentinel and Arts Alive!, a nonprofit that facilitates programming, fundraising and other activities for artists.

To date, 97 artists, arts groups, art schools and presenters of the arts from in and around the Monadnock Region have been honored with this award. It’s named for the late Ruth and Jim Ewing, who purchased The Sentinel in 1954, ran the daily newspaper for nearly 40 years and had an enduring investment of time and interest in the arts and humanities.

Both Ewings were directors at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough. Jim Ewing founded the New Hampshire Humanities Council. Ruth Ewing was active with the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music and the Grand Monadnock Arts Council.

“They’d be delighted with the collection of artists to whom we pay tribute this evening,” said Terrence L. Williams, president and COO of The Sentinel and co-host of the virtual event, “though I bet they’d be puzzled with the format.”

Presenting along with Williams for the evening was Jessica Gelter, executive director of Arts Alive!

Williams hopes to hold the live event again next year and to recognize this year’s honorees as well as those in 2021.

This year, there were 16 winners chosen from a field of 62 nominations of regional artists in 11 categories. Nominations closed May 15.

This year’s nominees were judged by Gelter and previous Ewing winners: Brattleboro-based painter Leigh Niland; Seth Brenzel, executive director of The Walden School; Yuan Pan, an illustrator, graphic artist and professor at Keene State College; and Erin Sweeney, a printmaker and sculptor from Peterborough.

The ceremony opened with one of several performances throughout the evening, this one by soprano JoAnne Mead of George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Mead, a performer, vocal coach and music teacher from Swanzey, is a 2020 Ewing Arts Award winner in the community engagement category. She followed her award presentation later on with a fun and bouncy rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields.

Each winner was honored with a few words from Williams and Gelter and with videos, which were filmed inside The Colonial Theatre.

“The arts world hasn’t had it easy the last few months,” said Gelter during her introduction to the night’s festivities, “and the future seems to hold both the opportunity for big changes and the possibility of great losses. Tonight is a night that we can celebrate what arts bring to our community, to think about how we value their impact on our personal journeys as well.”

Former 34-year executive director of Keene State College’s Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery, Maureen Ahern, is the first recipient of the new Ruth and James Ewing Arts Advocate Award. Her focus at the gallery was to educate students about diversity and multiculturalism.

Filmmaker Oriana Camara, a ConVal Regional High School alumna and recent graduate of Wheaton College, was honored with an award in the interdisciplinary category. Following her video presentation was a screening of her short film, “Yasuni National Park: The Real Power Belongs to the People.” The documentary, which she shot during a faculty-led course in Ecuador, focuses on the impact of oil drilling in the area that is home to thousands of species of plants and animals as well as indigenous people.

Putney, Vt.-based company, Sandglass Theater, which earned the 2020 Ewing Arts award in the performing arts category, gave a moving and thought-provoking presentation from their current show, “Babylon,” a response to the worldwide refugee crisis and its impact on communities in the United States. The company, which performs interdisciplinary theater that combines puppetry, music and storytelling, conducted research and interviews over seven years with new residents who immigrated to the U.S. They performed the piece at the Redfern Arts Center two days before it closed its doors due to the pandemic.

Pianist Virginia Eskin, another winner in the performing arts category, is an adjunct professor of music at Keene State College and an expert in the work of female composers. To celebrate that, she performed two short pieces by turn-of-the-20th-century New Hampshire composer Amy Beach, along with a piece by ragtime composer Scott Joplin.

Larry Duberstein of Hancock was the award winner in literary arts. A writer of nine novels, his most recent, “Five Bullets” (2014), follows a Jewish Holocaust survivor who relocates to New York after World War II. In his video to accompany his award presentation, he read his poem, “Alice,” inspired by his time exploring the woods every morning with his new puppy.

The award in the presenter of the arts category, which recognizes those who bring about greater public awareness of the arts, went to Monadnock Music of Peterborough.

Laina Barakat, manager, spoke about the organization’s mission to make exceptional music accessible. Her words were followed by a live performance by Monadnock Music’s director, Rafael Popper-Keizer, performing a piece, “Draw the Sacred Circle Closer” by American composer Adolphus Hailstork.

Capping off the event was lifetime achievement award winner William Doreski, prolific poet and former professor of English at Keene State College, reading his poem, “Coast Guard.” The poem, he said in his recorded video, was inspired by his time working as a bartender in a coastal town and sleeping on the beach nearby. He said he sees art as being “essential for understanding how to live inside ourselves.”

In addition to those mentioned, here are the remaining winning artists:

In the two-dimensional arts category, painters Charlie Hunter of Bellows Falls and Chris Myott of Jaffrey.

One award in the three-dimensional arts category was given to sculptor Bruce Blanchette of Walpole.

The student award went to ConVal Regional High School senior Eamon Welby of Peterborough.

In the interdisciplinary category, which considers multiple skills used to produce art, Keene architect Katie Sutherland also won.

Sarah Benning of Brattleboro and her needlepoint work won in the folk/traditional arts category.

Two more awards were announced in the excellence in community engagement category, which recognizes those who have done the most to increase the public’s involvement in the arts. They are River Gallery School of Art in Brattleboro and Georgia Cassimatis, founder of the Keene studios and gallery 17Rox.

ELF — The Sentinel’s weekly arts, entertainment and lifestyle publication — will publish profiles of the winning artists beginning today. They will run in sequential issues until all are featured. They can also be found online at, along with the full event video.

This article has been changed to correct the location of previous awards ceremonies.

Economy contracted at record rate from April to June

WASHINGTON — The U.S. economy shrank 9.5 percent from April through June, the largest quarterly decline since the government began publishing data 70 years ago, and the latest sobering reflection of the pandemic’s economic devastation.

The second quarter report on gross domestic product covers some of the economy’s worst weeks in living memory, when commercial activity ground to a halt, millions of Americans lost their jobs and the nation went into lockdown. Yet economists say the data should also serve as a cautionary tale for what’s at stake if the recovery slips away, especially as rising coronavirus cases in some states have forced businesses to close once again.

GDP shrank at an annual rate of 32.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the agency that publishes the statistics on quarterly economic activity. While it usually stresses the annualized rate, that figure is less useful this quarter because the economy is unlikely to experience another collapse like it did in the second quarter.

Still, while a tailspin at the second quarter rate is unlikely, the nascent recovery that began appearing earlier this summer appears to be in jeopardy.

On Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell warned that the most recent surge in infections has begun to weigh on the economy, while reemphasizing that a recovery can’t be sustained unless the virus is under control.

“We’re still digging out of a hole, a really deep hole,” said Ben Herzon, executive director of IHS Markit. “The second quarter figure will just tell us the size of the hole we’re digging out of, and it’s a big one.”

A key factor in the recovery may be what lawmakers do.

Congress is divided over another round of stimulus, including over whether to extend enhanced unemployment benefits, which otherwise expire Friday. In California, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Michigan, intensifying outbreaks have forced authorities to dial back their reopening plans and restrict business activity once again.

The GDP figures show how severely the economy suffered and could “jolt Congress into action” heading into August, said Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project and a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.

“One thing that policymakers, and all of us readers of this report, can take from it is that this is the outcome we want to avoid,” Edelberg said. “We want to avoid having to go through such a dramatic shutdown again, because this is the pain that it causes.”

The economy collapsed in April on the heels of a nationwide shutdown. That month, the unemployment rate spiked to the highest level since the Great Depression. April retail sales plunged 16.4 percent, the largest drop on record.

In May, big-name companies started filing for bankruptcy, including retailer J.C. Penney and rental car company Hertz. At the same time, states began easing restrictions on gatherings and businesses, igniting new hopes for a surprising turnaround. The May unemployment rate dropped as the labor market picked back up and retail sales popped 17.7 percent. President Donald Trump and other White House officials said the nation was on track for a V-shaped recovery, even as the Federal Reserve emphasized that controlling the virus was key to a sustained turnaround.

The economy added a record number of jobs in June, as the workforce recovered about 1 in 3 of the jobs lost during the crisis. But measurements for June’s report were taken when the wave of coronavirus cases was at a low ebb in the United States — 35 states set new infection records in July alone.

There are new signs the economic recovery is faltering, and Powell has noted that rising coronavirus cases are beginning to weigh on the economy. On Wednesday, Powell said some measures of consumer spending, based on debit card and credit card use, have moved down in the past month. Hotel occupancy rates have flattened out, Powell said, and Americans are not going to restaurants, gas stations and beauty salons as much as they had been earlier in the summer.

“On balance, it looks like the data are pointing to a slowing in the pace of the recovery,” Powell said during a news conference Wednesday. “I want to stress it’s too early to say both how large that is and how sustained it will be.”

Kelly Lightfoot, 50, has run Happy Kids Maui, a child-care business, for more than two decades. In good times, she goes “100 miles an hour” managing the office staff and between 50 and 80 nannies who watch the children of vacationing tourists on three islands.

But in March, Hawaii’s governor locked the state down and adopted a strict quarantine that all but stopped the flow of visitors from the mainland.

Business came to a screeching halt, she said: “It was our spring break. We had big, giant bookings for March, April, May — I had to refund all that money.”

A recent Yelp analysis found Hawaii has been hit harder by coronavirus-related business closures than any other state. Lightfoot said she’s slashed her spending during the lockdown. All the paychecks and expenses she would have put into the islands’ economy between March and September have gone for good. But she’s still paying two office staffers, because she’s determined to reopen and can’t afford to lose skilled workers.

“We’ve been around for too long to just throw in the towel,” Lightfoot said. “I started from pretty much nothing. I’m sure I can do the same thing again.”

Beth Ann Bovino, chief U.S. economist at Standard & Poor’s Global Ratings Services, compared the massive GDP shock to the economy as akin to a “cardiac arrest.” But even such a sharp, deep shock was not felt by all Americans equally.

“If you sliced it all up equally, we’d all get a certain sliver,” Bovino said. “But that’s not how things work. There are a lot of people who are in much worse situations than others.”

The Commerce Department’s GDP data go through multiple revisions, even in normal times. And now the pandemic is only amplifying the uncertainty in the process. Constance Hunter, chief economist at KPMG, said later revisions will help clarify what happened with imports and exports, for example.

With so many questions hanging over the economy, rapid data on restaurant closures, foot traffic, even visits to doctors will help fill in the spotty picture of what is happening across the nation, Hunter said.

She said it’s more helpful to think about economic activity during the pandemic in what she’s dubbing “FOGO,” or a “fear of going out.” That gauge will be key to understanding when people feel comfortable easing back into their pre-pandemic routines. “And COVID is going to drive the bus on that,” she said.

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Monadnock Community Hospital cuts positions amid pandemic

PETERBOROUGH — Twenty-one Monadnock Community Hospital employees lost their jobs this week due to the financial strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the hospital announced Wednesday night.

The employees whose positions were eliminated Monday were part of the hospital’s furloughs in May, which affected 100 people, according to hospital spokesman Philip McFarland.

President and CEO Cyndee McGuire called the force reduction an “extremely difficult decision” and said job eliminations are “always our last option.”

“Our employees have been heroes these past five months,” she said in a news release Wednesday night, adding that the hospital limited the impact to as few employees as possible. “... We remain focused on the long-term sustainability of our hospital, while simultaneously preparing for our future in the event of expected COVID-19 surges.”

In March, the hospital lost $1.7 million, according to a previous news release, and was projected at the time to lose between $3 and $4 million monthly — or a total of $24 million by the end of September.

Hospitals across the nation have been hit hard financially amid the pandemic, due to the cost of treating COVID-19 patients and the lost revenue from canceled elective procedures.

The job eliminations at Monadnock Community Hospital come on the heels of 90-day furloughs announced in May, affecting about 20 percent of its workforce. Senior leadership also took a 10 percent pay cut, and physicians, directors and managers took a 5 percent cut, the hospital said at the time.

Since then, Monadnock Community Hospital has reinstated 75 percent of the previously furloughed employees to support an increase in patient volume, Wednesday’s news release says.