It has been 10 days since Gov. Chris Sununu lifted his stay-at-home order and allowed most businesses to reopen, albeit with restrictions. At the same time, he also let the previously imposed prohibition of gatherings of 10 or more people lapse.
In place of the previous restrictions, the governor issued an executive order implementing a set of reopening guidelines he’s calling the “Safer at Home” program. Most of those guidelines dictate how businesses are to operate and, where relevant, interact with customers, clients and other patrons.
For individuals, though, there’s nothing mandatory. Instead, Sununu’s emergency order implementing the Safer at Home guidelines says that those under 65 who have no relevant underlying health conditions are “advised” when leaving home to practice social distancing recommended by public health authorities. They are also “advised ... to limit out of home trips” to a variety of essential needs and purposes “as much as possible.” The order sets forth similar guidance for those over 65 or having underlying conditions, except that those more at-risk individuals are “strongly advised” to follow the guidance and also to wear a face mask in public.
In announcing the Safer at Home program and in other public statements, the governor has stressed how important it is for Granite Staters to practice social distancing and other recommended precautions and urged the wearing of face masks when in proximity to others. But his order does not mandate such steps, except to the extent they’re applicable in the workplace, when patronizing businesses operating under reopening limitations or in certain other circumstances. Notably, they are not required for social gatherings of any size.
The upshot is that the state’s ability to limit the spread of COVID-19 depends mainly on the willingness of all of us to observe recommended precautions — including the wearing of face masks — when interacting with others in everyday (or what used to be everyday) settings. And watching how that’s been unfolding in other parts of the country — particularly in Florida, Texas and Arizona and other states that rushed to reopen and now are experiencing surging infection rates — gives little comfort that will occur.
A significant contributor has been the conflicting messages coming from authorities. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci and other leading national public health officials gave pointed testimony to Congress this week that the Sunbelt surge was resulting from people — especially younger ones — ignoring social distancing guidelines and not wearing masks, and they urged expanded COVID-19 testing. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, however, have been blaming the increasing number of cases on the greater availability of testing, and the president resolutely refuses to wear a mask, at least in public. Little wonder, then, that folks aren’t sure what to believe and whether practicing social distancing and wearing masks are important.
Compared to many other parts of the country, New Hampshire is looking pretty good right now, with declining numbers of COVID-19 cases, easy availability of free testing and adequate supplies of protective and other equipment that reduces the risk of the state’s health system being overwhelmed. Yet complacency is dangerous, and the risk here — as shown by how it’s playing out in the surging states — is that people will too easily equate the end of “stay-at-home” with “return to life as it was before COVID-19.”
The coronavirus lockdown has been hard, and it will be a long road for the state to recover from its economic devastation. It would be horrible if a failure to follow the precautions urged by state and federal public health officials leads to a reversal in the state trends and a return to lockdown.
There are those who have resisted practicing social distancing and, in particular, wearing face masks, as some kind of infringement on their personal liberty, arguing they should be free to risk getting the virus. Those precautions, though, are more to limit the spread of COVID-19 to others than for self-protection. And since those with the virus may not even be aware they have it, the real risk is passing it on unknowingly to those who are more at risk.
Until more effective treatment or a vaccine for the coronavirus become widely available, no one should conclude that the end of stay-at-home restrictions means ignoring all precautions and living life as it was before.