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It's Business As Not-Quite-Usual Today, As N.H. Loosens Some Limits On Economy

Starting Monday, March 11, retailers across New Hampshire, including Pioneers Board Shop in North Hampton, can begin letting customers inside as the state loosens restrictions related to the ongoing pandemic. (Dan Tuohy/NHPR)
Starting Monday, March 11, retailers across New Hampshire, including Pioneers Board Shop in North Hampton, can begin letting customers inside as the state loosens restrictions related to the ongoing pandemic. (Dan Tuohy/NHPR)

New Hampshire retail stores, hair salons, and barbershops will be permitted to allow customers back inside on Monday for the first time since Gov. Chris Sununu instituted limits to curtail the spread of coronavirus nearly two months ago.

But it won’t be business as usual. Starting Monday morning, employees will be required to wear masks, and customers are encouraged to as well. Capacity at businesses is limited to 50%. Facilities are asked to make one-way aisles for customers, wherever possible. And hand sanitizer should be available at the entrance.

To help meet demand for face masks, the state has given out more than 143,000 boxes of masks to business owners at no charge.

The new guidelines mark the first step in what Sununu is called a “phased” reopening of New Hampshire’s economy, which has been reeling since the implementation of a stay-at-home order that barred all but “essential” businesses from operating as normal. While the governor’s broader stay-at-home order — which urges residents to remain inside except for essential needs — is in effect through the end of the month, Monday’s new guidelines are the most significant move toward a pre-coronavirus economy since the pandemic began.

The reopening guidelines mirror those taken in some other states, where governors say social distancing efforts have reduced the gravest risks of a surge in new COVID-19 cases. In New Hampshire, the number of new daily cases has remained relatively steady in recent weeks, as state testing efforts have ramped up. Sununu and state health officials point to a relatively stable number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in recent weeks, as well as an overall decline in the percentage of positive tests, to support proposals to reopen the economy.

But infections at the state’s long-term care facilities continue to rise; the vast majority of deaths from the illness in New Hampshire are in nursing homes and similar facilities.

Sununu has acknowledged that any decrease in social distancing carries risks, and he said he’s prepared to undo the looser guidelines taking effect today if necessary.

“We can step forward; we can step backward. We can step forward quickly; we can get backwards quickly,” Sununu said. “And if for some reason we get a second surge or something like that, we can always pull back if we have to.”

The new guidelines have been welcome by many businesses that have seen revenues plummet. Others, however, remain leery of coronavirus risks.

“I'm 26 and I didn't ask for this responsibility,” said Danielle Frothingham, owner of the Dover Parlor, a hair and beauty salon. “I don’t feel adequate to make decisions based off what’s safe, what’s not safe. I’d hope my government can make those, but it seems a little early and now I’m unsure.”

Frothingham said her salon is reopening slowly, starting with limited hours and extra time for cleaning between appointments. She said some of her stylists have had trouble accessing unemployment benefits and need the paycheck. But she’s still concerned about safety – especially for clients who are essential workers and may have been exposed to COVID-19.

“Now we feel judged if we open, even though we're allowed to,” she said. “Now we feel judged if we stay closed because our clients that are not very concerned want to come in."

Golf courses and drive-in movie theaters are also allowed to reopen Monday. Beginning next week, restaurants can begin serving customers outdoors.

This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative and was originally published by New Hampshire Public Radio.

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