By CATHERINE McLAUGHLIN, InDepthNH.org
The Plymouth Selectboard voted to implement a mandatory mask rule at their meeting Monday evening, becoming the seventh community in the state to do so.
Plymouth State University students begin arriving on campus in a week, and University officials endorse the measure as a responsible precaution. The ordinance goes into effect immediately and will end when the selectboard or a superior level of government overturns it.
Selectmen took public comment on the ordinance, which led to several amendments. The mandate was amended to accommodate landscape workers, people eating at restaurants, fitness centers, and the mask policy of the School Board, whose policy in schools will supercede the town ordinance.
Multiple residents, including David L’Heureux, attended the meeting, which took place over Zoom, from a protest against the proposed ordinance which took place contemporaneously downtown. L’Heureux said that a mandate was unnecessary, restrictive of individual liberties, and would cost Plymouth business from people who might boycott the town because of the mandate. Other residents who testified from the protest echoed his frustration about restrictions on their personal right to choose not to wear a mask.
Other residents, Kim Tirrell and another who identified herself as Magnus S., spoke in support of the ordinance because, they said, they had been inside businesses in town that requested customers to wear masks and seen multiple people without them. They believed an ordinance was necessary to minimize the spread of the virus and that an advisory was insufficient. Other residents who testified in favor of the ordinance expressed concern about the compliance of PSU students off-campus and expressed desire to take every reasonable precaution because of the uncertainty of the nature of the virus.
New Hampshire remains the only New England state without a mask mandate, but towns and cities across the state are considering their own policy as cases continue to spike nationally and college towns prepare for student arrival.
Many of the first towns to consider mask mandates were areas that house colleges and universities, as students will arrive from across and outside the country and, once on campus, are statistically more likely to engage in risky behaviors. But communities of all types are taking up the issue, and even in college communities, students are not the sole, or even the primary concern.
Durham’s town council unanimously passed its proposed mask ordinance last Monday, August 3. Hanover and Enfield in the Upper Valley followed suit. Portsmouth city councilors passed a mandate July 13, Newmarket on August 5, and Keene August 6. Lebanon will vote on their proposed rule in two days. Several other communities across the state, like Lyme, Plainfield, Henniker, and New London, have the issue under informal consideration.
Durham Town Administrator Todd Selig cited unsatisfactory levels of voluntary compliance and local concern about health risks posed by incoming UNH students as primary reasons behind changing town policy from a mask request to a mask mandate. Concern about risks posed by incoming college students among locals has been underscored by noise complaints connected to parties among UNH students residing in off-campus apartments during the summer months.
A fine system will be the primary means of enforcement. Police officers will carry masks to offer those without one on hand. If the mask is refused a fine will be issued, ascending from $100 at the first offense to $200 at the second and $500 for subsequent offenses.
Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland stressed that while the arrival of college students is “a major concern,” impetus behind the proposed mask rule lies most strongly with the surging numbers across the country and an earnest desire to prevent that from reaching New Hampshire. “There’s a lot of fear there,” he emphasized.
Concern about the risks college students pose to Lebanon mostly circle around the arrival of students itself, rather than risky behaviors as the semester goes on, Mulholland explained. “Lebanon is the hub of the Upper Valley,” he said. Students arriving to school at Dartmouth and other institutions in the area pass through from buses, cars, and planes.
Though cases remain relatively low in New Hampshire and Lebanon’s voluntary compliance is encouraging to Mulholland, anything that might help prevent the human consequences of a second surge, and the economic consequences of a second shutdown, would be a worthwhile effort. “I don’t think it is an unreasonable step,” he said.
He noted that both compliance enforcement town-to-town would be easier if the rules of towns with mask orders were more uniform, rather than the “patchwork of requirements” currently in place. A statewide order might help with this, he said, but did not call on the Governor to implement one.
New London, home of Colby Sawyer College, has not yet formally considered a mask order, but the issue would, said Town Administrator Kim Hallquist, likely be raised at the next selectmen’s meeting.
Like Mulholland, Hallquist noted that if New London were to consider a mask ordinance “it won’t be because we have a college in town,” but rather because of more general concern about the national spike. She had not heard any concerns from residents about the safety of the town when Colby-Sawyer students arrive and stressed that the school and local residents had a positive rapport around COVID-19 issues.
Communities without incoming college students also have taken up consideration of a mask requirement, like Portsmouth, Enfield, and Newmarket. Nashua, notably, became the first municipality in the state to implement a face covering ordinance on May 22.
The Gate City referenced the recommendations of its Board of Health and concern about spread from Massachusetts, which at the time was a COVID-19 hotspot, as reasons behind the mask rule. Nashua resident Andrew Cooper, who claimed the mask infringed upon his right to freedom of speech, brought a lawsuit against the mask order in June. The lawsuit was rejected in Hillsborough County Superior Court on July 13.
For several weeks the only such a rule in the state, Nashua’s mask order’s legal strength has helped bolster efforts to implement similar rules across the New Hampshire.
Keene had backed off from such action after Nashua’s ordinance was challenged in court. The Elm City’s policy closely resembles that of Nashua’s, and only after the challenge was rejected did city officials reconsider. Keene city councilors voted in favor of the measure 12-2.
Consideration of these requirements comes in response to growing concerns about a second surge in the state, something it thus far has been spared. Gov. Chris Sununu regularly says he fully expects another wave in the autumn, but has refused to institute a statewide mask order because, he says, enforcement would be too difficult and New Hampshire’s voluntary compliance is adequate without a rule.