A group of NHGOP lawmakers made their case Wednesday for forgiving and returning any fines collected from Granite State businesses for violating Gov. Chris Sununu’s COVID-19 emergency orders, saying the punishment is “making things worse” for small business during the current economic downturn. At the end of the hearing, the bill received a vote of ought to pass along party lines, 11 to 10.

The full House will consider the measure at their next session, tentatively scheduled for late February.

“They [businesses] just want to make a living, and they want to do the right thing, and they want to follow all the guidelines,” Executive Councilor Joe Kenney (R-Union) said at Gordon MacDonald’s confirmation hearing last week. “But we have got to have a conversation. We can’t be putting fines on people who are trying to make a living.”

Not that New Hampshire has been engaged in a mask-enforcing crackdown. According to MacDonald, of the more than 1,500 mask-related complaints fielded by the state’s Department of Justice, just eight businesses have been fined for violations.

One of those businesses was Simply Delicious Baking Co. in Bedford. They were fined $500 for “repeatedly failing to ensure employees wore masks,” according to Associate Attorney General Anne M. Edwards.

“The mask mandate goes against my inspiration for starting this business — to build a face-to-face community space, and I believe people who choose to come in and enjoy that environment should have the right to do so,” owner Alexa Firman said in a statement announcing she would challenge the fine. “I have many loyal customers who greatly value the freedom they have to gather here.”

Though the fines are few, the bill’s backers were insistent the penalty was worse than the crime.

“I hoped this bill wouldn’t be needed at all,” said the bill’s prime sponsor Rep. Andrew Prout (R-Hudson) during Wednesday’s hearing. “This bill isn’t about making businesses whole… businesses are hurting plenty. We don’t need to make it worse.”

“Businesses are operating in a culture of fear,” Prout said. “They’re afraid they’ll be the next one’s [fined]. Even with best intentions, they may get caught up in this.”

Some committee members pushed back, arguing that while businesses have suffered, the state had to step in on behalf of public safety.

“I understand your concern about businesses, a lot of businesses in this state have been harmed,” said Rep. David Meuse (D-Portsmouth. “But a lot of our residents have been harmed as well. We have close to 1,000 people who have died during the COVID-19 pandemic, and not all of them in nursing homes.

“What do you think the impact will be of essentially removing all of these penalties at a point in the pandemic when we still have a high level of community transmission, where we still have people dying, where we still have people hospitalizing. Is there any incentive at all for businesses to take proper health precautions if this bill passes?”

An amendment added by Prout and Rep. Scott Wallace (R-Danville) delays the implementation of the bill until the end of Sununu’s state of emergency, allowing enforcement actions to continue. Prout says the Attorney General and Department of Health and Human Services could continue to temporarily suspend licenses, issue and collect fines, and enforce the emergency orders in order to protect public health.

The goal, he said, is to enable businesses to move out of the pandemic with a clean slate so they can rebuild, instead of bogging them down with complications or black-marks encountered during the pandemic. “This gives them certainty about the future,” Prout said.

The issue was a hot topic during last week’s hearing on former Attorney General Gordon MacDonald’s nomination to become chief justice of the state supreme court. MacDonald told the Executive Council that his office had focused on education, not enforcement, but that it doesn’t work in every instance. A memo to businesses instructs them on how to handle the mask mandate, telling businesses to “call local law enforcement for assistance,” Anne Edwards, Associate Attorney General, wrote. “Do not have your staff engage further,” if someone refuses to wear a mask without an adequate exemption.

“I’m just so flustered right now,” testified Nicole Nordlund from the North Country. She said she just left her local hardware store, which had received a notice from police regarding COVID-19 order violations. “They’re supposed to be police officers, not mandate officers.”

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