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Lawmakers consider reversing fines for businesses that violated COVID mandates

  • A sign on the door of the Loudon Village Country Store tells customers that masks are optional. Jonathan Van Fleet

Monitor staff
Published: 1/27/2021 4:07:41 PM

As the pandemic has progressed, the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office has issued about $10,000 in fines against businesses over violations of COVID-19 mask orders.

This year, several Republican lawmakers are looking to give that money back.

At a hearing Wednesday, state representatives took up House Bill 63, which would require that the state refund the fines it has collected from businesses that flouted the statewide mask mandate or other pandemic protocols.

Sponsored by Rep. Andrew Prout, the bill would require the state to reverse any findings that businesses violated the rules, refund all money and restore any suspended or revoked permits or licenses once the state of emergency has ended.

Prout argues the bill would lift a financial burden that for many businesses had become prohibitive.

“I think a lot of people feel like this all came at them fast, they don’t fully understand it, and even with the best intentions, they may get caught up in this, and that’s a terrible way to operate,” he said. “That’s why so many businesses, even the ones that have not been impacted, are reaching out and liking this bill, because it’s more of a safety net. If they do get targeted by enforcement action, at least it’s temporary and they know they can move on once this pandemic has passed.”

He proposed an amendment to the bill that would delay the refund of the fines until after the pandemic was over.

Some lawmakers on the committee questioned whether businesses were given adequate warnings before being fined. Prout said he didn’t know the details of the individual cases, but according to press releases posted online by the attorney general’s office, all had been repeatedly reminded of the rules before facing enforcement action.

For example, a general store in Loudon was warned more than 10 times that workers must wear masks, according to the Attorney General’s Office. The store posted a sign that read “Please refer to the Constitution of the United States! We know how to wash our hands, clean surfaces and NOT cough or sneeze on people.” The owner later said she felt targeted and harassed by the town fire chief.

At Wednesday’s virtual hearings, several residents appeared to support the legislation, arguing the fines had been an example of government overreach during the pandemic.

Nicole Nordlund, of Madison, said that her town had recently seen a hardware store close after a “cease and desist” letter from the police. “I am disgusted at this overreach,” she said, adding that the mandates were unconstitutional. “I’m heartbroken over the way the state has behaved. I believe people are adults, and the information we are being given is subjective at best.”

Nordlund, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for state representative, said that she and her husband had medical conditions that prevented them from wearing masks, yet under the present mask orders, a business would have to force them to wear masks in order to let them work there, or face the state fines, she argued.

Julie Tucker of Rye called the restrictions imposed on businesses “completely confusing and arbitrary,” and said they have done little to prevent the spread of the virus.

“We’ve been allowed no input into these rules at all, which are greatly impacting our daily lives,” she said. “They were written without the input of us or you, who are our representatives.”

In fact, the rules for businesses were drafted by a task force that included both lawmakers and business leaders. The task force has held weekly sessions to gather public input before sending proposed guidance to health officials and the governor for approval.

Rep. Melissa Blaskek, a cosponsor of the bill, said she had spoken to many businesses that support the legislation but were “too afraid of their government to speak out.”

“They are not violating orders because they are trying to be troublemakers. Many of them don’t feel comfortable wearing a mask. They have medical conditions or certain members of their staff have medical conditions. We’re asking them to either fire their staff or have a fine.”

Blasek, a Merrimack Republican, also incorrectly said that none of the businesses that were fined have been the site of outbreaks.

In October, Fat Katz Food and Drink in Hudson was fined $2,000 for holding an indoor karaoke event after being told it wasn’t allowed. Nearly 20 people later tested positive for the virus.

One person on Wednesday testified against the bill. Rep. Timothy Horrigan, a Durham Democrat, said the fines were appropriate in the face of businesses defying multiple warnings – and that they should have been tougher.

“I hate wearing masks. I hate not being able to visit family, friends in other states, including Massachusetts,” he said. “I don’t like it any better than anybody else does. But this is a horrible pandemic. It’s already killed off already more Americans than any catastrophe, except for the Civil War. So this is very, very serious, and the accommodations they’re asking us to make mostly are not that onerous.”

He added: “The masks and the other precautions are a lot less controversial with regular people than it is with us political types.”

Horrigan, who was speaking via a Zoom call, addressed about eight representatives who had chosen to show up to the hearing room in person in Concord. Half of them chose not to wear masks.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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