WASHINGTON, D.C.— U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan heard from North Country officials that while positive COVID-19 cases are few, the financial impact is tough for a region where margins were already tight before the pandemic.
Hassan opened up the roundtable conference call by noting it is the time of year that normally is the start of the busy travel and tourism season. She said businesses and officials are trying to figure out how to make the season happen even in a modified fashion. Hassan also cited challenges to health care providers as hospitals start to reschedule elective procedures and schools try to plan for summer and fall sessions.
Joining Hassan on the roundtable conference call Monday were Corrine Cascadden, Interim Superintendent of Littleton School District; Scott Colby, Upper Connecticut Valley Hospital CEO; Jeff Cozzens, Schilling Beer Co. owner and NH Brewers Association President; Tom Mee, North Country Healthcare CEO and Jim Wheeler, Berlin City Manager, Janice Crawford, executive director Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, and White Mountain National Forest Deputy Supervisor Diane Taliaferro.
North Country Healthcare CEO Tom Mee said the three hospitals in Coos County have been largely empty since mid-March when they stopped doing elective surgeries. There have only been four positive cases in the county and Mee noted that none required hospitalization. While losses were modest in March, he said NCH saw a “profound loss of several million dollars in April, which will continue into June.” This, he said, is in an industry that meticulously budgets and “any negative variance of eve a point or two can be the difference between red and black for us.”
This week, the hospitals have started to re-open but Mee said they are operating at about 25 percent of pre-pandemic level. He said the availability of personal protective equipment is a limiting factor in the number of patients that can be treated.
Echoing Mee comments, Scott Colby, said UCV in Colebrook is the smallest hospital in the state. Thanking Hassan for her efforts, he said UCV has received some grant funding but stressed without a grant mechanism, he does not know how the hospital could repay the money. On the bright side, he said they are starting to get patients back through the door.
Colby said NCH has started to reach out to its industry partners, such as retailers and restaurants, to provide information and answer questions on how to reopen safely.
Berlin City Manager James Wheeler said while the North Country has had very few cases of coronavirus it faces a balancing act as it starts to open up. He said the county has a large number of elderly residents that are especially vulnerable and they want to be careful not to create a surge that they have worked hard to avoid.
Wheeler said he is worried about the financial impact over the next one to three years. With one of the highest tax rates in the state, he said he would like to see the city be able to boost its undesignated fund balance to provide some protection.
Wheeler said the city would like to see some stimulus money targeted for infrastructure work, which he said is important to the local economy’s future. He also called for more flexibility in spending stimulus funds.
Hassan said the House has put together a new stimulus bill that includes about $1 trillion for states and local budgets. She said getting the kind of flexibility Wheeler would like will be a challenge in the Senate.
Crawford said tourism in the Mount Washington Valley really doesn’t get underway until lodging establishments open, which probably will be June 1. And then they need attractions for their guests. Crawford said Storyland needs 500 patrons to open.
She said some people are fearful of travel and there are residents who don’t want to see visitors coming to the valley. Encouraging people to wear masks, she said, makes everyone feel safer.
She said it is tough to get employees who are receiving $28 an hour in unemployment benefits to come back, especially those fearful of the virus.
Crawford expressed concern about how the country is going to pay back all the money being spent to combat COVID-19.
“So really, I think it’s a buckle up because we’ve got a long long haul,” she said.
Hassan said she understood the concern about the debt load but quoted Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell who said the country would do more harm by not spending now than it will do by spending.
Taliaferro said trails in the WMNF have remained open and the Forest Service is seeing higher than normal use of trails for this time of year. She said some backcountry facilities were closed because the Forest Service was concerned about a lack of social distancing. Taliaferro said they are looking to get campgrounds open and assured Hassan the Forest Service is constantly doing risk assessment to determine the best path forward.
Cascadden raised the issue of connectivity, reporting there are approximately 20 students in Coos County who do not have Internet access. She said the schools have worked to provide for those kids. In Littleton, she had two families that chose not to use the district-provided Chrome Books, preferring paper instead.
She said remote learning is fabulous for the motivated student, who is self-driven and tech savvy. But she said students who are disengaged in school are even more so in remote learning. She said that difference is more pronounced in high school. A vast majority of elementary students are participating as they should be on a daily basis with about 10 percent not doing anything. But the figures reverse for high school with 30 percent excelling, 50 percent getting by with some support, and 20 percent not engaged. Cascadden said the districts must have safeguards in place to catch the students and provide some form of alternative learning.
The former Berlin superintendent said districts have been asked to come up with three different plans for the fall and said extra pay for teachers will be required if schools have to limit the number of students per classroom and the result is double shifts or alternate days.