NH virus updates: House passes pandemic bills; housing help; 4 more deaths

CONCORD — The New Hampshire House responded to the coronavirus pandemic Tuesday with bills targeting everything from employment and elections to housing and health care.

One of the five bills sent to Gov. Chris Sununu would permanently implement changes made to the state’s unemployment system during the state of emergency and would allow workers to take unpaid time off for virus-related reasons. It also would require paid leave for virus testing and state-provided personal protective equipment for small businesses.

“This is a bill about getting people back to work, but back to work in safe conditions,” said House Majority Leader Rep. Doug Ley, D-Jaffrey.

The House also passed a bill to streamline the absentee voting process amid concerns about the coronavirus. Based on the recommendations of a recent task force, the bill would create a new box to check that specifies the virus as the reason for not voting in person. It also would allow voters to use one application to receive absentee ballots for both the Sept. 8 state primary and Nov. 3 general election.

“Voters should not be forced to risk their physical health to participate in the most fundamental right of a U.S. citizen, the right to vote,” Ley said.

Opponents argued the bill would violate the state Constitution, which allows absentee ballots only for those who are absent from their home towns or cities on Election Day or who can’t vote in person “by reason of physical disability.”

“Getting scared because you may catch COVID-19 does not constitute a disability,” said Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry.

Another bill would spent $25 million of the state’s federal virus relief aid on nursing homes and would mandate an independent review of such facilities. The House also passed bills aimed at helping homeowners and renters once emergency moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures are lifted and one that would permanently allow all health care providers to offer services remotely and require insurers to cover them. Such provisions have been allowed on a temporary basis during the pandemic.

Sununu said he supports the absentee ballot and telehealth bills but has concerns about the others because those areas already are being addressed.

The numbers

As of Tuesday, 5,782 people in New Hampshire had tested positive for the virus, an increase of 22 from the previous day. Four new deaths were announced, bringing the total to 371.

The deaths were all Hillsborough County residents, age 60 and older, two males and two females.

All of the 22 new positive test results with complete information were adults. The new cases live in Rockingham (3), Cheshire (2), Hillsborough County other than Manchester and Nashua (2), Coos (1), Grafton (1), Merrimack (1), and Sullivan (1) counties, and in Manchester (6) and Nashua (5).

No new hospitalized cases were identified for a total of 565 (9.8%) of 5,782 cases.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and the infirm, it can cause more severe illness and can lead to death.

Budget hole

New Hampshire looks to be facing a revenue shortfall of nearly $540 million, Sununu said.

While officials hope Congress will provide some relief later this summer, Sununu called the shortfall severe. Department heads have been instructed to eliminate discretionary spending and put capital projects on hold. Increasing taxes is not an option, he said.

“This is a big hill to climb, but it’s something we can absolutely manage,” he said.

Housing and utility help

Families and individuals struggling with housing and utility costs during the coronavirus pandemic will get additional state help after emergency protections expire, Sununu said Tuesday.

A moratorium on evictions and foreclosures expires Wednesday, and a similar prohibition on cutting off utilities such as electricity and heat ends July 15. But the state will use $35 million of its federal coronavirus relief funding to provide grants for those who are having trouble paying their mortgage or rent, or need help with past-due utility bills, Sununu said.

“We want to provide an off-ramp to those who need it,” he said.

The relief fund will be administered through community action program offices around the state.

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