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Hassan holds virtual roundtable with North Country leaders

North Country and Mount Washington Valley leaders joined Senator Maggie Hassan for a virtual roundtable on May 18 to discuss the impact of COVID-19. (Courtesy Photo) (click for larger version)
May 28, 2020
REGION — On May 18, Sen. Maggie Hassan hosted a virtual roundtable with North Country and Mount Washington Valley leaders from multiple sectors. The goal was to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and her efforts to support public health and economic recovery.

Participants included Jeff Cozzens, the CEO of Schillings Beer Company and President of the New Hampshire Brewers Association, Interim Superintendent of Littleton School District Corrine Cascadden and Berlin City Manager Jim Wheeler. Representatives from the healthcare industry, White Mountain National Forest and regional Chambers of Commerce were also present.

Hassan opened the meeting by acknowledging the North Country's concerns about the economic impact of potentially low summer tourism numbers.

She said, "There are adjustments and difficulties in trying to figure out how to make the season happen in a modified way. There's also a concern overall about whether people will come and what it will do to our businesses if people curtail their travel and tourism activity."

The Senator continued, "Testing and contact tracing are the two public health tools that are essential when we reopen. These tools are critical as we try to get consumers re-engaged in the economy. People are not going to go to retail stores or do a lot of travel and tourism if they don't have confidence when they go out that they have a relatively low risk of contracting the virus."

Schilling Beer's CEO Jeff Cozzens discussed COVID-19's impact on the New Hampshire craft brewing industry. He indicated that the state had mirrored national trends as 40 to 50 percent of the breweries remain inoperative with an employment decrease of roughly 60 percent.

Another brewery concern is revenue losses from spoiled beer due to business closures. Cozzens said distributors and wholesalers had been affected as well as the brewers, and industry-specific grants or tax relief would help offset the losses.

"We've been hit very hard in this state. Largely because so many of our breweries are small one, two or three-person affairs run by families that don't have the logistical capacity for packaged beer. They depend on the tourists to come and fill their glass right at the brewery," explained Cozzens.

According to Littleton's Interim Superintendent Corrine Cascadden, approximately 17 to 20 North Country students had no internet access at home. She reported a 75 percent participation rate in virtual education at the elementary school level with daily student participation. Approximately 15 percent of Littleton's elementary students showed inconsistent involvement and 10 percent did not participate.

Conversely, only 30 percent of Littleton's high school students were actively engaged, while 50 percent engaged in an online curriculum with support and 20 percent did not participate at any level. Cascadden also discussed the impact of canceled technical programs, internships and certification requirements.

While administrators are required to provide three different reopening scenarios for the fall, Cascadden said it would be better to use a more restrictive plan.

She said, "I think we're all going to need extra staff if we're going to be limited on the number of kids per classroom and operate double shifts or alternate days. It will require either more financial pay for the teachers or is going to require more stopping to be able to accommodate those requirements."

Berlin's Town Manager, Jim Wheeler, reported the opening of a new business on Main Street during the pandemic.

He said, "In light of everything that's going on, it's quite incredible."

Wheeler discussed the town's budget.

"From a municipal finance perspective, I think the effects are going to come later. We've obviously spent some money reacting and getting ready but I'm concerned about the next few years, reductions in state revenue and people paying their taxes," he said.

The Senator started working on improved rural broadband access long before the pandemic changed daily life in mid-March. She continues to do so, as both educators and the healthcare industry rely almost exclusively on virtual platforms to provide education and tele-health services.

This month, Hassan joined six other House Democrats to introduce the Emergency Educational Connections Act, which aims to ensure that all K-12 students have adequate home internet and devices during the pandemic. Last month, she joined forces with Senator Shaheen to urge the Department of Veterans Affairs to improve tele-health services for New Hampshire veterans.

In March, bipartisan legislation co-sponsored by Senator Hassan to improve the accuracy of the Federal Communications Commission's broadband maps was signed into law. The maps help determine where billions of dollars in federal funding is distributed for broadband expansion and their lack of accuracy have left many rural communities without reliable service.

Hassan joined the New Hampshire Congressional Delegation earlier this month as they announced that healthcare providers and rural NH hospitals would receive $115.4 million in the third installment of federal grants through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act. She also called for additional funding for the US Department of Agriculture's Rural Housing Service Program in the next COVID-19 package to prevent rural renters from losing their homes.

On May 15, the House of Representatives passed the HEROES (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions) Act, a $3 trillion follow-up relief package to the CARES Act. It must now go through the Senate. According to Hassan, it will be a challenge to get the act passed because "there are opponents of state and local aid in the State majority," yet the bill has bipartisan support in the House.

Martin Lord & Osman
Varney Smith
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