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Virus politics run hot in NH

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/20/2021 9:11:25 PM
Modified: 9/21/2021 11:17:50 AM

LEBANON — New Hampshire Republicans are signaling their intent to dismantle local coronavirus restrictions by banning mask and vaccine mandates they argue limit personal freedom.

House Republicans have so far submitted more than two dozen legislative service requests — or requests for a bill to be drafted — challenging mandates enacted by municipalities, schools and private businesses.

Some of the requests seek to ban schools from making students and staff wear masks indoors, while others would prohibit businesses from enforcing vaccine requirements, including those mandated by the federal government.

Lawmakers also are proposing limits to the authority of local health officers and municipal ordinances. And one request would allow ivermectin — the anti-parasitic drug hawked by conspiracy theorists as a cure for COVID-19 — be sold over the counter.

Anne Sosin, a policy fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy at Dartmouth College, said the slate of proposed legislation has far-reaching implications.

In the short term, she said, it could tie the hands of health care professionals and officials attempting to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“In the longer term, I worry that this will undermine the already weak public health capacity that we have in the state of New Hampshire,” Sosin said in a phone interview. “We need to be able to respond to the next pandemic.”

She added that, given rising coronavirus cases, this isn’t the time for policymakers to abandon the few tools they have to protect public health.

Last week, the state reported a seven-day average of 456 coronavirus cases, a threshold last seen in February. Meanwhile, WMUR reported Monday that New Hampshire’s vaccination rate crept up by only 1.7% since July.

“We’re in the midst of a surge,” Sosin said. “Now is the wrong time to be having this debate in New Hampshire.”

Current state law allows private employers to require their employees to be vaccinated. And the Upper Valley’s two largest employers — Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health and Dartmouth College — have announced COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Meanwhile, many of the region’s largest school districts are requiring their teachers and students to wear masks.

But state Rep. Jeffrey Greeson, R-Wentworth, said mandates, particularly those that would force people to obtain a vaccine to keep their jobs, cross a line and infringe on personal liberty.

“It’s all about freedom. We can be ‘safe,’ we can live free … it’s not a trade-off,” said Greeson, whose floterial district includes the Upper Valley towns of Canaan and Orange.

The first-term lawmaker intends to sponsor bills “prohibiting coercion or punishment” for refusing a vaccine and impaneling a grand jury to investigate the state’s pandemic restrictions.

Greeson, who declined to say whether he got a COVID-19 vaccine, said that the grand jury would look into the legality of Gov. Chris Sununu’s mask mandate, stay-at-home order and other emergency rules.

“We were literally in one-man rule, that man being Gov. (Chris) Sununu,” he said.

While Republicans are behind the push to do away with local coronavirus regulations, it’s unclear whether party leadership will get behind the effort.

A split in how far some lawmakers are willing to go appeared last week when House leaders held a press conference outside the Statehouse to protest the Biden administration’s recent order mandating COVID-19 vaccines for federal employees, health care agencies and employers with 100 or more workers.

The crowd turned against the representatives, with some blaming Sununu for not doing enough.

The governor’s spokesman Ben Vihstadt declined to comment on the proposed bills on Monday, saying final language isn’t yet public and that many legislative service requests don’t become bills.

“If it looks like a bill is likely to pass both houses and reach the governor’s desk, the Governor will review the final language of any bill before deciding whether to sign it, veto it, or let it become law without his signature,” he said in an email.

But state Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, said that coronavirus restrictions will be a “huge” topic in the upcoming year. While he declined to predict how the debate will go in the House, Giuda said, “I think the Senate will be much more nuanced.”

Giuda, whose Senate district includes the towns of Haverhill, Piermont, Orford, Orange and Dorchester, said he’s not in favor of a statewide policy on masks in schools, adding that decision should be left to local officials who can be voted out.

However, he’s inclined to vote against allowing vaccine mandates and worries that the state vaccine registry could be used against people who refuse a shot.

“This is a collision between privacy, public health policy and physically intrusive measures,” he said. “Each of those in and of itself demands considerable discussion and the balance between them, if we do anything, is something we have to come up with.”

To state Sen. Sue Prentiss, D-Lebanon, the choice of whether to interfere with private businesses and local government is clear cut — “it’s a bad idea.”

“Every time that we turn our backs on science and public health officials and the health care community, which are saying that vaccination is the way out, we’re just prolonging the impact of COVID,” she said.

Prentiss went on to say that Republicans are just “spinning their wheels” instead of tackling policy that will lead New Hampshire out of the pandemic. And, while Democrats are in the minority in Concord, she intends to stand up for local governments instituting their own rules.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

Correction

Anne Sosin  is a policy fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefelle r Center for Public Policy at Dartmouth College. An earlier version of this story gave an outdated title for her.




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