CONWAY — While strong messages are being shared on social media demanding that out-of-staters stay home rather than come to places like the Mount Washington Valley, New Hampshire’s borders remain open.
Despite calls for tougher border protection measures, Gov. Chris Sununu stopped short at that but did issue a request for out-of-state visitors who arrive for non-work reasons and stay for an extended period to voluntarily self-quarantine.
Following his "stay at home" order to Granite Staters issued March 23, Sununu said: “This is not a shelter in place. We are not closing down transportation, we are not closing our borders, and we are not preventing our residents from leaving home.”
Yet the idea of closing borders gained a life of its own Saturday when President Donald Trump flirted with the idea of potentially closing off New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. He eventually veered away from doing so, though Rhode Island and Vermont governors did just that over the weekend.
While Sununu hasn't taken that draconian step, a move seems to be afoot to limit the attractions that cause out-of-state visitors to flock here.
The U.S. Forest Service on Friday took steps to shut facilities and its more popular trailheads. Then on Sunday night, it closed off Mount Washington's Tuckerman Ravine after more than 400 people there over the weekend. More than half of the vehicles parked at the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center were reportedly from out of state.
Groups such as Leave No Trace and the Mount Washington Valley Trails Association have espoused that people should recreate only close to their own backyards versus coming here to test their outdoor skill levels.
New Hampshire Fish and Game on Monday morning released a statement saying: “Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Monadnock State Park has seen a surge in hikers with an estimated 90 percent of the hikers coming from out of state."
Lt. William Boudreau, who sent out the release, added: “Conservation officers would like to encourage people who are enjoying the outdoors to do so with a great deal of caution. People putting themselves at risk results in a multitude of first responders and volunteers having to abandon social distancing guidelines, thus placing themselves at risk."
During his Monday news conference, Sununu spoke of conditions at Mount Major and other places where some said there were too many people congregating or hiking too close together. Sununu said state staff were monitoring those situations.
"In very few instances were people not managing the social distancing," said Sununu. "I think people are taking it incredibly seriously."
Bartlett Selectman (and former N.H. House Speaker) Gene Chandler shared with the Sun on Sunday that he got stuck at a Glen intersection behind 10 cars. He was the only one with a New Hampshire plates and the most of the rest were from Massachusetts, along with New York, Rhode Island and Maryland.
Steve Lavoie of North Conway posted on Facebook over the weekend that he would not be so upset if people from away did their grocery shopping before they come up, rather than come here and clean out local stores for a lengthy self-quarantine and potentially bringing the virus into local stores.
Wrote Lavoie: “The governor is asking for a voluntary 14-day quarantine if you travel from another state, but that doesn’t make sense if you go shopping in town before you adhere to that.”
Local jeweler Timothy W. Psaledakis of North Conway responded by saying, “Best we can do is wash hands. It’s here, whether the person has NH or NY plates. Reducing exposure is the objective. One or two grocery runs a week, and working from home would be consistent with that objective, yes?”
Kim Shroeder Steward of Intervale urged people to withhold judgment when seeing a vehicle with out-of-state plates, noting that some medical people who are helping out at Memorial Hospital, for example, are from out of state.
But a local pharmacist told the Sun that they were backed up filling prescriptions from people from out of state.
"For the past 10 days, it’s been crazy with people coming up from Mass, Rhode Island and New York," she said. "It’s been absolutely ridiculous.”
She said their business is up 25 percent over normal because of it and that "the phone has 10 people at a time on hold with people asking to have their 'scripts' transferred.
“It’s very frustrating because they are coming up from urban areas, and we only have two hospitals,” she said, referring to Memorial and Bridgton. "What’s going to happen when they get sick?”
However, North Conway Realtor Dave Grant of Vacasa NH, a vacation property ownership company with 24,000 properties nationwide, said he has only seen a slight blip in rentals.
“For the most part, a lot of our rentals have shut down at the request of owners as they don’t want people in their rental properties.
“The only silver lining to this, is that it is happening at this normally slower time of the year. To get hit like this in mud season is like a punch in the face; to lose the summer would be like getting your head cut off,” said Grant, noting his company has 55 properties in Mount Washington Valley.
Conway Police Chief Ed Wagner said despite all the talk on social media, his department has not witnessed any hostile interactions between locals and visitors.
“Everything has been eerily quiet,” said Wagner on Monday.
Janice Crawford, executive director of the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce said the chamber is doing its best to distill COVID-19 information to members while doing a bit of a dance by asking visitors to stay away for now but to remember to come back when the crisis passes.
“I think you saw the governor pull back the marketing for spring in New Hampshire … I think what we are saying is that we want people to stay home but to remember to come back and see these mountains that they so love when this crisis passes,” said Crawford.