COVID update: Some funds slow to be disbursed, reopening brings new worries

  • A hiring part time sign is posted outside the Rite Aid Pharmacy in Derry, N.H., Thursday, May 7, 2020. Roughly 33.5 million people have now filed for jobless aid in the seven weeks since the coronavirus began forcing millions of companies to close their doors and slash their workforces. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Staff and wire reports
Published: 5/9/2020 5:35:36 PM

Six weeks after Gov. Chris Sununu created a $50 million emergency hospital fund, less than half of the money – $21.3 million – has been disbursed.

That’s according to an analysis of the latest figures available from the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery.

The zero-interest loans were pitched by Sununu as a means to pass on needed aid to providers struggling with the suspension of non-critical procedures as a way to increase capacity and reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The $50 million fund was first signed into law March 19, via executive order.

But despite a New Hampshire Public Radio report indicating the state received more than 200 applications for aid near the end of March, only 59 loans have been approved and dispersed, according to figures released last week.

The delay in spending has raised frustrations among lawmakers in both parties. Democrats wrote a letter on Thursday to Sununu.

In the letter, Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, of Nashua, and Rep. Polly Campion, of Etna, say they had “heard the fears of smaller practices who may not be able to reopen due to fixed expenses and significant revenue loss.

“It is critical that these funds are dispersed quickly and efficiently to ensure Granite Staters are not left without their care providers,” the lawmakers wrote.

At a press conference Friday, Sununu said that the process was working fine. Presently, loan applications are weighed by an advisory committee comprised of officials in several state departments, and signed off by the government at the end, Sununu said.

The loans are provided to facilities at risk of closing, Sununu said, not necessarily to everyone.

“Anyone saying that we haven’t moved money out fast enough – no one’s closing their doors, nor should they,” Sununu said. “And if anyone’s at the verge of closing their doors, please contact us and let us know.”

In a call to the governor’s stimulus spending advisory committee Friday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Morse acknowledged a desire for the loans to move out faster. Sununu said the committee is continuing to review applications and said that there could be more awards in coming days.

Uneasy reopening

The partial reopening of businesses across New England comes amid concerns about adequate testing and contact tracing, as well as hundreds of new cases each day.

A Harvard University epidemiologist sounded a pessimistic tone this week, pointing to fears of a second, more destructive wave of illnesses.

“I can’t point to any place in the U.S. that I would feel good about saying I think now is the time for that place to open up,” said Dr. Michael Mina, professor of immunology and infectious diseases

It’s smart for states to go slow because the rate of testing for COVID-19 is slow, antibody testing is something of a “wild West,” and contact tracing needs to be bolstered, said Dr. Elliott Fisher, an epidemiologist who does public health research at Dartmouth College.

Sununu has been wary of opening up too soon and inviting a flood of visitors from virus hotspots.

“I don’t know what we can do about that. We can’t shut down the borders here, we just have to be smart about what we do,” he said.

That sentiment is echoed by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills in Maine.

“The tourist industry, all of us, love to have people come here and enjoy our beaches, lakes and mountains, and spend money here. But this year, right now, they might be coming and bringing the virus, and it might result in the most god-awful consequences,” she said.

It’s a tricky balancing act when tourism-dependent economies rely on millions of visitors from other states, some hard-hit by the coronavirus. Maine normally sees about 36 million visitors a year.

“It’s not like we can offer Zume vacations. People actually have to come to the state,” said Jesse Henry, marketing director for Migis Hotel Group, which counts on out-of-state tourists for 90% of summer business at seven hotels and inns across Maine.

Henry remains hopeful that people will want to escape to Maine. But the summer is already a bust for businesses like Funtown Splashtown USA, an amusement park whose water slide and roller coasters will be closed this summer for the first time since 1967.

“I’ve never had a free summer. This is what I’ve done, basically, for my adult life. I would much rather be greeting guests,” said marketing director Ed Hodgdon, who has been working at the amusement park near Old Orchard Beach since he was 16.

Highway deaths up

New Hampshire authorities say despite less traffic on the road because of the coronavirus, there’s been a spike in traffic fatalities.

There have been 34 traffic-related fatalities this year, a 70% increase from a year ago, the Office of Highway Safety said Thursday. There have also been eight adult pedestrian fatalities, resulting in a 166% increase from a year ago.

There has been an increase in speeding, said Capt. William Haynes, commander of highway safety.

He said his office “remains committed to traffic safety and will maintain coordinated police monitoring activities between local, county and state law enforcement agencies.”

Energy assistance

Help is on the way for households struggling to pay energy bills amid the outbreak, New Hampshire’s Congressional delegation announced Saturday.

The state will receive $6.7 million in federal funds to boost the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps eligible residents pay their energy bills. The additional money was approved as part of the federal coronavirus relief package

“COVID-19 poses a long-term threat to the financial security of low-income families and seniors, and we need to make sure they have access to the support they need during this crisis,” U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, said in a statement announcing the funding.

Nearly 30,000 residents received assistance through the program last year.

As of Friday, 2,947 people in New Hampshire had tested positive for the virus, an increase of 104 from the previous day. There have been at least 121 coronavirus-related deaths in the state.

(Staff writer Ethan DeWitt contributed to this report.)

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