Governor cleared to spend relief aid, task force starts work
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit seeking to prevent Republican Gov. Chris Sununu from spending New Hampshire’s $1.25 billion in coronavirus relief aid without legislative approval.
The Democratic leaders of the New Hampshire House and Senate sued last week to stop the work of the new Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery. But Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge David Anderson agreed with Sununu that the lawmakers lacked standing to sue. Even if they didn’t, halting the recovery office’s work would be inappropriate, he said in his ruling.
“Even in an ordinary case, the court must be cautious in granting a request from any individual or group of individuals to stop the governor from acting,” he wrote. “To go even further and allow an individual state taxpayer to stop or even the delay the governor from distributing purely federal funds intended for the benefit of the public in the midst of a global pandemic would be contrary to the public interest.”
Sununu, who had relied on a 2002 law granting the governor authority to take immediate action during a statewide crisis, thanked the judge.
“In this unprecedented public health emergency, it is paramount that we get relief out to New Hampshire families fast, and that is what I am determined to do,” he said.
Democrats argued that provision doesn’t override a more specific law that says during an emergency, “the governor may, with the advice and consent of the fiscal committee, authorize such expenditures.” They disagreed with the ruling.
“Knowing that time is of the essence it is discouraging that instead of arguing this case on the merits, Governor Sununu continues to put up technical roadblocks on this issue and continues to allow a cloud of constitutional uncertainty to persist over how more than a billion dollars in federal aid is properly provided to our communities,” they said.
As of Wednesday, more than 1,500 people in New Hampshire had tested positive for the virus, and 48 had died.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and the infirm, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
Leaders in New Hampshire’s hospitality and retail industries are using words like “catastrophic,” “devastated” and “nightmare” to describe the pandemic’s financial toll.
About half of the restaurants represented by the New Hampshire Restaurant and Lodging Association have remained open as takeout businesses, but many are likely to give up soon after losing hundreds of millions of dollars, the group’s president, Mike Somers, told lawmakers Wednesday.
Both restaurant and hotel owners cautioned against allowing restaurants to open with limited seating or hotels with limited occupancy.
“Even though it hurts like hell, in my opinion, it’s better to keep the restrictions on long enough so we don’t reopen the doors and have (the virus) resurface again,” said Steve Duprey, who owns five hotels in Concord. “We have assumed we are not opening any closed facility until Sept. 1. There is not going to be a summer tourism season.”
Nancy Kyle, president of the New Hampshire Retail Association, said stores operating via curbside pickup are maintaining a “trickle of sales,” but she fears consumers now accustomed to shopping for most things online won’t go back.
“Safety concerns may drive them to continue shopping from home long after shops have reopened, and it will be horrific for New Hampshire’s local retailers,” she said.
TASK FORCE TASKS
A task force on reopening the economy will issue “granular” guidance for specific sectors, from barber shops to bowling allies, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said during the group’s first meeting Wednesday.
Sununu told members to work quickly, because whatever they come up with will have to be cleared by public health officials. Other states also are a factor, he said.
“We don’t have a pact where what we do is what other states are going to do and vice versa, but we all agree that timing should be relatively the same for continuity,” he said. “Timing doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re Montana because the state is so big, it’s so rural, they don’t have an incredibly high infection rate and they’re less impacted by their fellow states. But here in New England, we really are part of that regional community.”
In its next few meetings, the task force will hear from industries including food service, retail trade, manufacturing, recreation, health care and education.
Residents in two New Hampshire long-term care centers have become pen pals to help deal with the coronavirus-related isolation.
The Eagle Times reports residents at Sullivan County Health Care in Unity and Summercrest Senior Living in Newport are exchanging letters.
“I think there is something about taking the time to write a note to someone that money can’t buy. It’s something that a person cherishes,” Summercrest resident Gloria Stetson said.
Associated Press Writer Kathy McCormack contributed to this report.