During a disease outbreak, cities and towns have the power to close their own property, such as parks. However, they do not have the power to order businesses to close or cancel events.
This is causing tension in some of New Hampshire’s bigger communities, such as Manchester, and tourist hotspots, such as Hampton.
Are some New Hampshire towns more at risk?
Over the weekend, March 21 and 22, there was bumper to bumper traffic along Hampton Beach as tourists flocked to the seacoast.
Meanwhile there are reports of out-of-staters moving into summer residences in the Lakes Region, increasing the local population and potentially bringing disease.
On Monday, March 23 the mayors of Manchester and Nashua, New Hampshire’s two biggest cities, asked Gov. Sununu to issue a “shelter in place” order. That would require all non-essential businesses to close.
However, there are still zero reported cases of COVID-19 in Coos County.
Each of these examples show that some towns and cities in New Hampshire may be more interested in closing businesses than others.
Why can’t towns choose to shut down?
Gov. Sununu has broad powers during a state of emergency, but those powers don’t fully extend to local public health officials.
According to the New Hampshire Municipal Association, only the state Department of Health and Human Services, with written approval of the Governor, can close a building or cancel an event.
This is in line with other laws governing New Hampshire towns and cities. According to RSA 31:39, New Hampshire municipalities can only make bylaws in a limited number of areas, from garbage removal to “the conduct of roller skating rinks.”
It takes an act of the legislature to amend RSA 31:39. The legislature last amended the law in 2010.
Sununu against “shelter in place”
On March 23 Gov. Chris Sununu said “shelter in place” is unnecessary in New Hampshire because individuals are voluntarily following guidelines.
“We saw folks hiking and out at the beach and even with those larger number of people visiting we saw people taking the social distancing very seriously,” said Sununu.
While some municipalities may disagree with Gov. Sununu’s assessment, a patchwork of “shelter in place” orders is also unlikely to be effective. According to New Hampshire Employment Security, over two-thirds of New Hampshire commuters drive more than fifteen minutes to work, which means they are probably crossing town lines.
Arguments for local power to shutdown
On the other hand, with the mayors of New Hampshire’s two biggest cities calling for an order to “shelter in place,” it may be time to consider local control for public health.
“We are making this request based upon the advice of our local medical experts and our Public Health Department,” said Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess. “For the health of the people in our community, we need to require work from home for non-essential employees, and we need to take all other reasonable precautions, to contain the spread of the coronavirus.”
Now that Gov. Baker has ordered non-essential businesses to close in Massachusetts, there’s also a chance more Bay Staters will travel to New Hampshire for shopping and other activities.
So far there are still not very many COVID-19 cases in New Hampshire. The coming weeks will show if New Hampshire’s statewide policies are enough to “flatten the curve.”