By Paula Tracy, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said each community has the right to implement a mask ordinance to protect the public from the spread of COVID-19 in their municipalities, but he restated at Thursday’s press conference he would not impose an order on a statewide basis.
And there was no indication Friday that Sununu might change his mind after Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, also a Republican, ordered mandatory face covering leaving New Hampshire the only New England state without one.
“Based on national and regional data on how the virus is spreading – and rather than waiting like other states have – I feel we need to act now to protect our gains, which have allowed us to reopen much of our economy,” Scott said Friday.
“That’s why today I signed an Order, which will strengthen our current mask mandates, so that we do not take steps backwards and we can stay open into the fall as people move more of their interactions indoors.”
Effective Friday, Aug. 1, all Vermonters must wear masks or cloth facial coverings any time it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of at least six feet with others from outside their household, with some exceptions, Scott’s news release said.
Scott said, “Unfortunately, this issue has become polarized and, I’m still worried that a mandate will create unnecessary conflict and resistance.”
“Attacking, shaming, and judging isn’t going to help; but understanding, educating, leading by example, meeting people where they are, and maybe a little kindness and understanding will,” Scott said.
Sununu’s press office didn’t respond when asked if he would change his mind after Scott’s announcement Friday.
On Friday, the state announced two new COVID-19 deaths totaling 407 and 59 new positive tests.
In New Hampshire, Plymouth, Keene, Portsmouth, and Durham are looking at developing community mask ordinances similar to the one now in place in Nashua.
Many of the college towns are looking to put something in place before students from all over the country return to their communities in a few weeks to study.
Supporters of a mandatory mask requirement say it would help protect the public from COVID-19, while others feel it is a limit on personal freedom and is unenforceable.
Sununu said Thursday it makes no sense to him to order masks be worn in public on a statewide basis because each community has its own set of unique circumstances.
His back-to-school guidance document also does not require that students masks in class but allows school districts to implement their own policy.
“Understand, a statewide basis is a very different situation,” Sununu said. “Manchester is not Colebrook and Plymouth is not Pittsfield. Everything is a little bit different. And so, those towns can make those decisions on their own because we are so different. We might be a small state but we are so socioeconomically diverse,” Sununu said Thursday.
The New Hampshire Science and Public Health Task Force has sent more than eight letters to Sununu and Lori Shibinette, the commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services voicing their concerns, said Mindi Messmer, a member of the task force and Democratic candidate for Executive Council.
“We have been asking the governor to implement an emergency mask order to contain the spread of the virus since our April 6, 2020 letter.
“We all want our economy to recover and our children to get back to school but we want it to happen safely. As Governor Scott did, we again urge the governor to implement a clear, consistent, and firm emergency order that mandates mask/face coverings to avoid needless sickness and prevent additional deaths,” Messmer said.
Sununu said communities have the right to order mandates on wearing masks and he noted some businesses are doing that as well, like Walmart, Market Basket, and Starbucks.
More than half of the states in the country now require masks be worn in public.
Sununu noted that some communities have more cases of COVID-19 than others. Those are communities closer to the Massachusetts state line.
“Nashua did it early on…that’s all fine. that’s great,” he said noting that Nashua and Manchester have their own health departments and that he wants to respect that and their decision-making for their communities.
On the back-to-school guidance, Sununu said school districts must decide whether they think forcing students to wear a mask all day in class is something that they can manage.
“If it’s a mandate…if kids have to wear masks all day long in the classroom…make sure it can be truly managed and it is practical and you are not putting so much onus and burden on the teachers to manage something that can’t be completely fulfilled. But if they think that can be fulfilled, my hat’s off to them.”