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Refunds for pandemic scofflaws given initial OK from New Hampshire House

  • Legislators stand for a moment of silence in honor of former House Speaker Richard Hinch during a New Hampshire House of Representatives session held at an indoor sports club, due to the coronavirus,, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Bedford, N.H. Speaker Hinch, a Republican from Merrimack, died of COVID-19 a week after being sworn in December 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • Legislators gather prior to a New Hampshire House of Representatives legislative session held at an indoor sports club, due to the coronavirus, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Bedford, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • Legislators listen to speakers during a New Hampshire House of Representatives legislative session held at an indoor sports club, due to the coronavirus, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Bedford, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • N.H. Rep. Mark Pearson, R-Hampstead, right, addresses a session of the New Hampshire House of Representatives held at an indoor sports club, due to the coronavirus, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Bedford, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • Legislators stand for the Pledge of Allegiance during a New Hampshire House of Representatives legislative session held at an indoor sports club, due to the coronavirus, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Bedford, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • A sign directs Republican and Democrat legislators to their parking areas as a N.H. State Trooper watches the flow of traffic prior to a New Hampshire House of Representatives session held at an indoor sports club, due to the coronavirus, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Bedford, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • Louise Spencer, of Concord, N.H., holds up signs in protest to the in-person gathering of the New Hampshire House of Representatives legislative session held at an indoor sports club, due to the coronavirus, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Bedford, N.H. Many legislators wished to attend the session remotely due to the virus outbreak concerns, but were denied. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • Democratic House minority leader Renny Cushing, right, holds up a protective suit prior to a New Hampshire House of Representatives legislative session held at an indoor sports club, due to the coronavirus, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Bedford, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

  • Protestors support Democrat legislators, who arrive for a New Hampshire House of Representatives legislative session held at an indoor sports club, due to the coronavirus, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Bedford, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Associated Press
Published: 2/24/2021 9:47:11 PM
Modified: 2/24/2021 9:50:04 PM

CONCORD — Meeting indoors for the first time since September, the Republican-led New Hampshire House gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill that would reverse and refund the fines paid by businesses that have violated emergency orders during the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the 400-member House has met several times at the University of New Hampshire ice arena, outside on a UNH athletic field, and — after former Speaker Dick Hinch died of COVID-19 — from their cars in a parking lot. The sessions scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday were being held at sports complex in Bedford that offers more space to spread out than the previous facilities, as well as separate entrances for members from opposing parties.

“Let’s keep this thing as safe as we can,” said House Speaker Sherm Packard, who successfully fought attempts by medically vulnerable Democrats to attend the sessions remotely.

With more than 130 bills on the agenda, one of the first actions members took Wednesday was to give an initial nod to a bill that would refund money to businesses that were fined for violating the governor’s orders on mask use and other restrictions. As of late last month, eight businesses had been fined a total of $10,000.

A general store in Loudon was fined $2,000 in October after being warned more than 10 times that workers must wear masks. That same month, Fat Katz Food and Drink in Hudson was fined $2,000 for holding an indoor karaoke event after being told it wasn’t allowed. Nearly 20 people later tested positive for the virus.

Rep. Chris True, R-Sandown, said the bill would not “make any business whole” but would be a good first step.

“The people and the businesses in New Hampshire have suffered enough, and we must stop adding to their pain,” he said.

Rep. David Meuse, D-Portsmouth, called the bill ill-timed and unwise, and said it would send a message to those who have followed the orders that “your state has chosen to reward people who chose not to follow the rules during the worst public health crisis of the last 100 years.”

“This is a time when we need to do everything in our power to rid ourselves of the virus and not to rid ourselves of accountability,” he said. “Freedom from accountability during a pandemic isn’t freedom. It’s anarchy.”

In a statement, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said lawmakers should not be incentivizing law-breaking.

“Our reasonable public health guidelines allowed us to keep our economy open,” he said. “Rewarding the small handful who recklessly thwarted public health and safety after outreach and educational attempts is a complete disservice to the thousands of small businesses who worked tirelessly to keep their employees and customers safe.”

The House voted, 188-169, to send the bill to its finance committee for further review. The party breakdown of the votes wasn’t available by mid-day, but Republicans hold a 212-186 majority. It also was unclear how many Democrats who had sued Packard last week seeking remote access to the session were in attendance.

Seven Democratic lawmakers with serious medical conditions argued that holding in-person sessions without a remote option violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the state and federal constitutions, and would force nearly 30 lawmakers to either risk their lives or abandon their duties as elected officials.

A judge on Monday declined to order remote access, and at least one of the plaintiffs, Democratic Leader Renny Cushing, attended Wednesday’s session.




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