Monday COVID update: New cases on the rise again, traffic continues to fall, Trump and Sununu don’t see eye to eye

  • Daily New Hampshire COVID-19 cases Jonathan Van Fleet—courtesy

Published: 4/13/2020 7:47:33 AM

The number of confirmed new cases of COVID-19 in New Hampshire was higher over the weekend, dashing hopes that last week’s stable count was a sign that the disease had plateaued.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday the state reported a total of 168 new cases, the highest three-day total since the start of last week, when 179 new cases were reported in three days – the largest total ever.

In midweek the number of new cases had dipped, with barely 100 new cases reported on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday combined, raising some hopes about the course of the disease.

Daily case counts are not caused only by the spread of the disease, since they can be affected by supplies of testing equipment and staff, among other factors. Until they stabilize at a lower rate, it seems unlikely that the state will be able to ease the stay-at-home orders that have altered life so greatly.

Study: Rural vacation areas have more virus

Research out of the University of New Hampshire finds rural counties across the United States with high numbers of seasonal homes saw higher rates of COVID-19 cases than either urban or other rural areas.

“These findings are consistent with anecdotal reports from popular vacation spots that were seeing an increase in visitors, including some who may have unknowingly been infected,  that are leaving urban areas and trying socially distance at second homes and seasonal rental properties,” said Jessica Carson, research assistant professor at UNH’s Carsey School of Public Policy. 

The study found that in the nation’s 199 rural counties where seasonal housing accounts for 25 percent or more of all housing units, average cases per 100,000 people were more than twice as high as in other rural counties and 15 percent higher than in urban areas.

It’s not clear whether this means that people fleeing cities to vacation homes carried the virus with them. Other possible explanations for the higher prevalence of cases in these areas includes different levels of COVID-19 testing and the fact that rural areas tend to be older, and older people are more susceptible to the virus.

Some of the rural counties with high shares of seasonal housing include popular vacation spots in New England like Coos, Grafton, Carroll and Belknap counties in New Hampshire, Nantucket and Dukes Counties (which include Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket islands) in Massachusetts, and Lincoln and Oxford Counties in Maine.

Can Trump reopen N.H. businesses?

Weeks into the crisis, the White House is getting antsy about re-opening businesses and restaurants.

But that desire is clashing against the moves of state governors, nearly all of whom have initiated stay at home executive orders on their own authority – including in New Hampshire.

In a tweet Monday morning, President Donald Trump asserted that the federal government had the final say to re-open the businesses.

“For the purpose of creating conflict and confusion, some in the Fake News Media are saying that it is the governors decision to open up the states, not that of the President of the United States & the Federal Government. Let it be fully understood that this is incorrect,” Trump said over two tweets. “It is the decision of the president, and for many good reasons. With that being said, the administration and I are working closely with the governors, and this will continue. A decision by me, in conjunction with the governors and input from others, will be made shortly!”

Speaking to CNN Monday, Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, made clear he sees differently.

“Well it was our call through executive order – if you’re talking about businesses – to again go to only essential businesses only,” Sununu told John King, noting his executive orders on restaurant take out services and prohibitions on meetings of more than 10 people.

“All of these executive orders are state executive orders, and therefore it would be up to the state and he governor to undo a lot of that,” he added.

Sununu has expressed that position in the past. On March 24, shortly after imposing a ban on in-house dining in restaurants but before shutting down “non-essential businesses,” Sununu rebuffed discussion by the president of re-opening by Easter, and maintained that New Hampshire had the final authority of when and why.

CARES Act dollars prove contentious

Monday marked the first meeting of the advisory commission accompanying the Governor’s Office for Emergency Recovery and Relief.

That's the body currently charged with dispersing an unprecedented sum of federal dollars in coming months – more than $1.25 billion.

And it came at an usual time: the same day that Democratic legislative leadership filed a lawsuit seeking to block the spending of that money unless the governor gives the Legislature a formal role. 

On Monday, members of the governor’s emergency commission, which includes House and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders, convened over conference call. No one discussed the lawsuit. 

Instead, participants spoke in general terms about how the money might be spent. All agreed that state departments and agencies should have input as to what they need, and all said that the commission should hear from municipalities and towns as well.

But Sununu had another point to make: “These dollars cannot be used to replace revenue," he said. In other words, the federal funds can't go to departments to plug budget holes.

That’s been a point of contention. Some Democrats have raised the potential of using the federal funds to supplement state programs so as to keep the inevitable damage to the state budget low. Sununu said that the CARES act explicitly prohibited that. 

Rather than flow money through state programs, Sununu said, the money is likely going to be passed on to the private and non-profit sectors. Democrats objected to that framing after the meeting. 

The discussion remains theoretical; New Hampshire has yet not received its portion of the money through the CARES act. Sununu said the state is still awaiting guidance from U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, which he said could come as late as April 24.

In the meantime, the committee will continue to meet virtually, by phone. On Wednesday it’s slated to hear from the Department of Health and Human Services on priorities, and on Friday, the New Hampshire Municipal Association and Association of Counties will both brief the panel.

N.H. highway traffic bottoming out

After three weeks of sharp decline in which the amount of traffic on the New Hampshire turnpike system fell by more than half, last week saw stabilization.

A total of 937,000 trips were registered by E-ZPass in New Hampshire for the week ending Sunday, April 12, compared to 934,000 the week before. That was the first time the figure has increased since the first week of March.

The figure is still far below the long-time average of almost 2 million trips a week.

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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