Gov Sununu's order

Gov. Chris Sununu on Thursday issued a stay-at-home order, following mounting pleas from many New Hampshire residents.

He also said public schools will remain closed through May 4.

Effective 11:59 p.m. Friday, all nonessential businesses must cease in-person operations in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The order, which will remain in effect until May 4, also urges residents to avoid large gatherings, play dates for children and unnecessary travel, and to continue “healthy social distancing.”

“The decisions we’ve made are tough, but they’re consistently moving in step with the escalating COVID-19 crisis here in New Hampshire,” Sununu said during a news conference Thursday afternoon. Later, he added, “While the spread of COVID-19 in New Hampshire has not reached the level of other nearby states, we are putting ourselves in a strong position with these proactive measures to slow the spread.”

Businesses that are permitted to remain open include grocery and convenience stores, pharmacies, health care facilities including doctors’ offices and hospitals, gas stations, banks and credit unions and restaurants for takeout and delivery only. School lunch deliveries will also still be allowed. And during Thursday’s news conference, Sununu said homeless shelters, food banks, pet care facilities and hardware stores are also considered essential.

Workplaces that have been ordered to stop operations include nonessential retail stores and malls, hair salons, tattoo shops, movie theaters, bowling alleys and arcades. Additionally, concerts, sporting events and festivals have been ordered to cancel, and public beaches along the Seacoast will close at the same time the stay-at-home order takes effect.

A full list of essential businesses and jobs as defined by the order was released Thursday night. Those include law enforcement and first responders, companies that produce and distribute food, health care services, utility providers (electric, gas, water, etc.), transportation services, public works operations, communications and information technology and manufacturing.

In addition, Sununu said his administration has taken steps to ensure that workers deemed essential are able to access childcare so that they can continue to work. He explained that the state is collaborating with the N.H. Charitable Foundation to develop “an innovative public-private partnership that will ensure that essential workers have access to childcare in an environment that is safe.”

Sununu said New Hampshire residents will still be permitted to leave their homes to perform necessary functions, such as buying groceries, obtaining medical care, exercising outdoors at a safe distance from others or commuting to work at an essential job. He also said that state borders will remain open.

Sununu said his order is similar to the one put in place in Massachusetts.

“We heard a lot of people say, ‘Shut down the borders’ and, ‘Stop transportation,’ and none of that has changed — that is not going to happen in the state,” Sununu said. “We’re not calling out the National Guard here to force people back into their homes. People have to understand that daily life does have to continue.”

Keene Mayor George Hansel voiced support for the stay-at-home order on Facebook Thursday afternoon, commending Sununu for “utilizing every tool available to keep New Hampshire citizens safe.”

He said the city has been making preparations for such an order for several days and plans to continue providing essential services. Hansel said the city will keep Keene residents informed of new developments online at www.notifykeene.com

Hours after the governor’s order, the leaders of the N.H. Senate and House announced that legislative activity will remain suspended through May 4.

Sununu’s decision to issue a stay-at-home order follows calls from officials, physicians, professors and members of the public for more aggressive social distancing actions. It also comes on the heels of Vermont Gov. Phil Scott declaring a similar order, which went into effect Wednesday.

But until Thursday, Sununu had been insistent that New Hampshire was not at a point where such orders were necessary. After implementing the stay-at-home order, he explained that it is not quite as strict as some of the measures requested by members of the public.

Earlier this week, a petition began circulating calling for Sununu to impose a “mandatory lockdown” to help curb the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. As of Thursday afternoon, the petition had more than 5,100 signatures.

Additionally, 200 N.H. House Democrats sent a letter to Sununu urging him to issue a stay-at-home order. They said every day that goes by without such an order increases the health risks faced by state residents.

And on Monday, a group of two dozen medical professionals, former and current elected officials, and professors — including several from Keene State College — sent a letter to Sununu asking him to implement a “shelter-in-place” order. Chief among their concerns was that nonessential businesses were staying open.

“I’m really glad that he has changed his mind about this,” said Mindi Messmer, one of the signatories, who previously represented Rockingham County’s District 24 in the N.H. House. “The more that the public understands why it was done, and how important it is to comply with it, the more successful we will be at preventing needless deaths in the state of New Hampshire.”

However, for businesses that will remain open, Messmer has urged additional preventive measures; for example, she said, grocery stores screening their employees to make sure they don’t develop fevers.

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter

@MiaSummerson