Seacoast mayors are split about whether Gov. Chris Sununu should issue a shelter-in-place order to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The mayors of Somersworth and Rochester sent a letter urging Sununu to "issue a shelter-in-place/shelter-at-home order in response to the rapidly growing threat of COVID-19."
The Dover mayor opposes such an order, and Portsmouth’s mayor does not believe such it’s necessary yet and thinks Sununu should make that decision.
Dover Mayor Robert Carrier said the city has already taken a series of steps, including closing city buildings and schools, along with constantly reminding people to practice social distancing and stay home if they feel sick.
"We’ve taken tremendous precautions," Carrier said.
If a shelter-in-place order included more economic restrictions, like closing restaurants that already reduced to takeout and delivery operations, the impact "would be devastating," he said.
"This is why we’re taking a balanced, one-day-at-a-time approach to this," Carrier said. "You have to look out for the people in business."
On Tuesday, Somersworth Mayor Dana Hilliard and Rochester Mayor Caroline McCarley stated a shelter-in-place order is the "only intervention that has a hope of decreasing transmission of COVID-19 in our communities while the prevalence and spread of the coronavirus remains undetermined."
They acknowledged in a letter that "essential activities exempted from this order would obviously need to include food shopping, vehicle fueling, pharmacy, essential home needs, emergency medical needs, banking, the care and upkeep of critical facilities such as schools and municipal infrastructure, and isolated exercise."
They sent the letter to Sununu and state Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette.
On Monday, Hilliard said he believes Sununu should have issued the shelter-in-place order "a week ago."
"When it comes down to financial stability or people’s lives, keeping people alive always has to be the first priority," he said. "Everything is going to be OK if we’re proactive."
If public officials make the tough decisions now about protecting public health, the economy will also recover faster in the long run, Hilliard said.
Right now, Somersworth and the Tri-City area has come "to almost a complete standstill economically," Hilliard said Monday.
"Our small businesses, if they haven’t closed already, they’re really waiting to find out are they’re going to be ordered to," he said. "It’s incredibly unfair for the business community to continue to be kept lingering through this as opposed to being proactively able to plan for the shutdown of the economy and then the recovery."
He noted everyone has to make sacrifices for the greater public good.
As an example, Hilliard shared, his father is in home hospice care and his mother is 76, and he can only visit them by phone.
Asked about the difficulty a shelter in place order would cause, Hilliard said, "During this we are all going to be in some discomfort, we are all going to get stressed, we are all going to get angry and we are going to be saddened over this."
Portsmouth Mayor Rick Becksted said Wednesday he agreed with Carrier.
He will not call for Sununu to issue such an order, Becksted said, stating "the problem is just to go and simply put a shelter in place order won’t work without a plan."
"It’s easy to go and say, like a lot of people are now, to issue a shelter in place order, but does anybody really understand what the implications of that are?" Becksted said Wednesday. "There’s not one community that has the kind of resources to enforce that kind of law."
He believes Portsmouth needs to "wait and see" and follow Sununu’s lead, rather than call for a shelter-in-place order.
"If we go and do this before we have real support, how are we going to manage that? I'm scared to death of that," Becksted said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is responding to the pandemic. For most people, COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, results in only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough.
People with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover, according to the World Health Organization. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
Like Carrier, Becksted believes residents should continue safe social distancing of six feet or more, avoid gathering in groups larger than 10, wash their hands several times a day and stay home if they feel sick.
He encouraged people "to try to take it one day at time, think before acting and be a little more sympathetic and respectful to one another."
"Lashing out in anger is not going to make the situation any better," Becksted said. "Be respectful of other people, that’s what’s needed now."
Carrier stressed he will continue to follow the recommendations of Fire Chief Paul Haas, who is the city’s emergency management director, and City Manager Michael Joyal.
He predicted if Sununu implemented a shelter-in-place order "people will venture out anyway."
"You’re better off if you keep the safeguards that we have in place," Carrier said. "If you start more stringent rules, people are not going to follow them."
"We’ll get through this," he added.
In addition to Dover’s many restaurants, the city has ongoing "million-dollar construction projects downtown," he said.
"Do we shut down the construction sites or the lumber supply houses? What's essential to one person might not be essential to another," Carrier said. "It’s a slippery slope."
If an order restricted people to their house or street, "you’re going to see more police responding to more domestic violence cases," he predicted.
"Tensions would just rise," Carrier said.
Hilliard and McCarley contended "instituting a shelter-in-place order now will help prevent the transmission of the virus now before we are overwhelmed."
"Without immediate intervention, such as a shelter-in-place order, our community and all of New Hampshire will find itself very soon with an inability to provide critical, lifesaving services," they said in the letter.
"We feel that taking such an action provides our community with the best chance of limiting the devastating impact of COVID-19. Conversely, we strongly believe that not taking action now, is a decision that we will very soon come to regret."
McCarley added Wednesday, "It is worth noting that Manchester, Nashua, Exeter and Durham are in agreement with a strict shelter-at-home order."
The state Wednesday afternoon reported 29 new cases bringing the total to 137.
Sununu, on Wednesday, said many non-essential businesses have closed voluntarily and other major steps, including remote learning, a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people and restaurants only offering takeout, puts New Hampshire on the right path and in line with the region.
He noted Vermont Gov. Phil Scott ordered in-person operations of non-essential businesses to close and Vermonters to stay home to help prevent spread of the coronavirus.
"They have about half our population and the same number of identified cases, and we've tested a lot more than they have, so they have quite an issue," Sununu said.
He added the state could take more steps, as necessary.