NH beach restrictions eased; indoor dining resumes June 15

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Beaches are open again to sunbathers, and a lawsuit challenging the governor's spending authority during the coronavirus pandemic is back on the docket.

Coronavirus-related developments Friday in New Hampshire:

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DINING AND DANCING:

New Hampshire restaurants can resume indoor dining June 15, but capacity will be limited in the four counties that have been hardest hit by the coronavirus, Gov. Chris Sununu said Friday.

After being restricted to outdoor dining since May 18, restaurants will be allowed to offer indoor dining at tables spread 6 feet apart. Those in Rockingham, Hillsborough, Merrimack and Strafford counties will be limited to 50% capacity, however, not just because the vast majority of the state’s COVID-19 cases have occurred there, but because of their proximity to the Massachusetts border.

“By maintaining limitations along the southern tier, it will allow us to better manage and limit the ability of individuals to come over the border to use our restaurants,” Sununu said.

The rules also apply to large, catered events such as wedding receptions, which will be limited to 50% of a venue’s capacity statewide. Though he joked about banning the Funky Chicken and the Macarena, Sununu said dancing will be permitted.

“We are strongly discouraging it,” he said. “We’re asking folks to be smart about it, but I’m not gonna be the guy in Footloose who says, ‘No dancing in my town.’”

Effective immediately, golf courses are not longer restricted to New Hampshire residents, and the minimum break between tee times has been reduced. Previous rules for outdoor attractions such as mini-golf and canoe rentals also have been expanded to allow the reopening of batting cages, petting zoos, ropes courses and other businesses.

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TESTING CHALLENGE:

New Hampshire public heath officials are asking as many residents as possible to get tested for the coronavirus.

The state recently lifted all criteria for getting tested. On Friday, officials announced a community challenge dubbed ASAP: Asymptomatic Spread Assessment Program, and encouraged everyone to get tested.

Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said she has been surprised at how many asymptomatic people tested positive when the state tested all nursing home residents and staff.

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ON THE BEACHES

Sunbathing, sandcastle building and other activities are now allowed on New Hampshire beaches, Gov. Chris Sununu said Friday.

The announcement came just four days after beaches had re-opened to walking, swimming and other motion-based activity.

Sununu said the decision to remove the restrictions was based on public health data regarding the spread of the coronavirus. Parking remains limited, and groups must stay 6 feet (2 meters) apart from each other.

Opponents of the initial beach restrictions and the Republican governor's decisions in general had planned to hold a protest to “draw a line in the sand” at Hampton on Saturday. Andrew Manuse, chairman of ReopenNH, said Friday that the “Storm the Beaches” rally will be held as a celebration.

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SPENDING SPAT

A judge on Friday allowed Democratic lawmakers to move forward with a lawsuit challenging Sununu’s authority to spend federal coronavirus relief aid but refused to halt the spending in the meantime.

The Democratic leaders of the House and Senate sued Sununu in April arguing that such spending requires approval by the Legislature’s fiscal committee. A Hillsborough County Superior Court judge later said they lacked standing to sue and dismissed the case, but after the plaintiffs asked him to reconsider, ruled Friday that the case can proceed.

Judge David Anderson said the plaintiffs who serve on the fiscal committee do have standing. But he refused to order to stop spending the money while the case proceeds. He said while state law doesn’t provide a clear picture of the process for such spending, the 2002 law Sununu used as his defense is the Legislature’s most specific statement on the governor’s power during an emergency.

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THE NUMBERS

As of Friday, 4,953 people had tested positive for the virus in New Hampshire, an increase of 80 from the previous day. Five deaths were announced, for a total of 278.

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.