MANCHESTER, N.H. — Stores and hair salons opened across New Hampshire this week to a trickle of customers, venturing out warily after weeks of lockdown. The coronavirus pandemic has largely spared the state, despite its proximity to the Boston-area outbreak, but the mood was anything but triumphant.
Malls were mostly empty, and main streets were far from bustling. In downtown Manchester on Wednesday, Andrea Lessard prepared to reopen her clothing store, Statement Boutique, by taking stock of her newly required supplies — masks, gloves, cleaning products. Starting Monday, she planned to allow just one customer in at a time, by appointment only, so she could disinfect the changing room between shoppers.
"Shopping is not gonna be the same, but we’re here to make it as enjoyable as we can,” Lessard said.
As New Hampshire’s economy gradually awakens, residents have tiptoed back into public life from a pandemic that has killed 151 people in the state, about three-quarters of them residents of long-term care facilities. In comparison, Massachusetts has lost an estimated 5,592 residents to the virus.
Despite the low level of infections and deaths, Governor Chris Sununu has urged caution as the state begins what his office calls “Stay At Home 2.0," stressing that the virus could easily spread quickly without proper vigilance. He has reopened industries in phases under tight safety restrictions to draw people back to work in a state where an estimated 20 percent of the workforce has become unemployed.
On May 4, the state’s hospitals, which never came close to capacity during the lockdown and lost tens of millions of dollars in revenue, returned to treating patients who needed heart operations, spine surgeries, joint replacements, and other key procedures. At Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, patients are now escorted to their destinations to avoid accidentally ending up in a COVID ward.
Stores and hair salons opened Monday, with mandated face masks and social distancing rules. Next Monday, restaurants will be allowed to serve outdoor diners at 50 percent capacity, with 6 feet between tables.
It’s unclear when indoor dining will be allowed, which has ruffled some eateries in northern New Hampshire towns with relatively few infections and chilly weather in their forecasts.
“As someone who used to own seven restaurants in the mountains, I get it,” Sununu said this week. “Nobody understands the economic impact out there more than I do — it’s what keeps me up at night."
But “we have to be sensible,” he added. "If we rush to appease one part of the state or one constituency, we really put everyone else at risk.”
Across the state this week, people seemed in no rush to shop. In Salem, just across the Massachusetts border, a few people, many wearing masks, milled around The Mall at Rockingham Park, minding signs to keep their distance from one another. Most of the cars parked outside a Dick’s Sporting Goods had plates from Massachusetts, where only essential stores, and no sports shops, have been open since March.
Massachusetts is slated to announce its reopening plan Monday. There are no restrictions on Massachusetts residents traveling north to shop or get a haircut, although businesses may choose to turn away out-of-state customers.
Farther up Interstate 93 in Concord, the Steeplegate Mall was nearly deserted. A hair salon open inside posted extensive guidelines on its Facebook page: Only cuts and root coloring touch-ups. No blow-drying. No taking off your mask, even if no one’s around.
The state’s reopening appears to mostly follow federal guidelines that say states should only relax restrictions once hospitals are far from full and cases have declined for 14 days, the time it can take for undiagnosed cases to emerge. The state, which has tallied 3,299 confirmed cases, hit its peak of new daily cases on May 1 with 164 but has since seen a largely downward trajectory.
Several health experts and business leaders alike said that with the contagion seemingly under control, it made sense for New Hampshire to reopen businesses now, at least slowly.
“It was time,” said Dr. Keith Stahl, chief medical officer at Catholic Medical Center. “You can only keep a society suppressed for so long and you have to start considering even some of the mental health issues that can come with social distancing. ... We had good indicators that we weren’t going to get the tsunami surge of COVID.”
The governor’s plan seems sensible, Stahl said, but its effectiveness will hinge on people’s behavior. He urged continued social distancing, face masks, and hand hygiene.
“If people do that, we will be able to coexist with COVID until the vaccine comes around," he said.
Of course, not everyone in the “Live Free or Die” state agrees with Sununu’s timing or approach. In recent weeks, protesters repeatedly gathered at the State House demanding the lockdown be lifted. On Saturday, more people plan to demonstrate against the governor’s 10-person limit on gatherings, saying it infringes on their constitutional right to practice religion in larger groups.
In response, Sununu said he wanted religious groups to be involved in crafting guidance on how to safely operate houses of worship in the future, but that the state “of course” has the legal ability to protect public health during a crisis.
“Some of the initial spread of this virus was done in a community setting, in a church, that was very unfortunate,” Sununu said. “Religious leaders I’ve spoken with across the state have said they want to get it right and go slow.”
The restrictions have been tougher to swallow in New Hampshire than in more densely populated states like Massachusetts, in part because of the small number of cases and the lower risk, said Sharon McDonnell, an epidemiologist at the University of New Hampshire.
“It’s frustrating and I don’t blame folks,” she said. “People in rural areas are watching the cost of the economic collapse and the job losses without any of the feeling that ‘the people I know are sick.' ”
However, the state must recognize that an outbreak could explode at any time, and that New Hampshire may have not seen its worst yet, she added.
Policy makers must weigh the trade-off of more infections, illnesses, and deaths, with allowing economic activity to resume. Testing is crucial, she said, to guide whether it’s wise to loosen restrictions.
“There is no ‘safe’ here, there is only ‘the best we can do,’ but to me, we’re not at the other end," McDonnell said. "We don’t know where we are.”
On Wednesday, Sununu said the state had tested 2,000 people the previous day, and so far had tested roughly 3 percent of the state’s population. Anyone with COVID-like symptoms can receive a test.
“We’re on a pretty good track there,” he said. “We’re not at the point where we can test anybody and everybody. … We hope to get to that point. I can’t tell you when that’s going to be.”
The state has told restaurants they may use some public outdoor areas for tables to increase patio dining. In Concord, several eateries will use parking spots on Main Street to add three to five more tables.
“What remains to be seen is whether folks are feeling confident to go out in public again,” said Tim Sink, president of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce, who plans to dine out on Monday. “As cabin fever continues to settle in, we’ll see more and more people coming out. But it’s a slow and very cautious reopening so far.”
Tourism is New Hampshire’s second largest industry, and rules for reopening hotels and vacation rentals still haven’t been announced. Even so, Sink said he approved of the cautious pace of resuming business.
“The worst thing that could happen right now is that we’re sloppy about this and we see a resurgence," he said. "Then we’re back in lockdown mode.”