BERLIN — The city is asking residents to continue wearing masks voluntarily to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The city council Monday night chose not to renew the city’s mask mandate, which expired last Friday with the statewide mandate. Berlin will still require masks to be wore inside municipal buildings.
Mayor Paul Grenier said only one city in the state, Portsmouth, now has a mask ordinance. Grenier said the mayors of Claremont, Concord, Dover, Franklin, Keene, Laconia, Lebanon, Manchester, Nashua, Rochester and Somersworth as well as Berlin have followed the state’s example and let the mandates expire.
He said the mayors have issued a joint letter, explaining Gov. Chris Sununu let the mask mandate expire following a reduction in the state’s seven-day average of daily deaths to 0.6, the lowest since October 2020, as hospitalizations remain at a manageable level, and as over 70 percent of residents 65 and over have been vaccinated.
The letter, however, urges residents to continue to wear masks and social distance until a larger percentage of the population is vaccinated.
Grenier noted the majority of residents of long-term care facilities and other vulnerable populations are now vaccinated. While the number of active cases in the city is high because of a significant outbreak at the federal prison, Grenier said the numbers should go down soon.
The federal prison in Berlin Wednesday reported 174 inmates and for staff members have tested positive for the virus. The state dashboard reported 59 active cases in Berlin Tuesday. State officials could not be reached to ask about why the prison numbers have not appeared on the state dashboard.
City Manager James Wheeler said he met with the city COVID task force and the decision was made to continue to require people to wear masks in municipal buildings for at least a few more weeks. The task force will revisit the issue in a few weeks.
Councilor Lucie Remillard said she would strongly encourage businesses to continue to require masks, at least for another two to four weeks to allow the city’s numbers to go down. She agreed with the mayor that a lot of local people have been immunized. Councilor Roland Theberge said he believes people should still wear masks while out in public.
Councilor Peter Higbee showed a graphic from The New York Times on the vaccine roll-out across the country. The graphic lists Coos County “at very high risk of exposure to Covid-19” with an average of 12 new cases and four hospitalizations a day.
“This isn’t over. The virus is still up here all around us,” Higbee said.
The mayors’ letter cited State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan, who recently said, “The threat to health from COVID-19 is real. Even as restrictions are reduced, we are still in a pandemic and levels of COVID-19 remain high across the State. Therefore, we ask that people continue to take steps to protect their own health, the health of their family and friends, and the health of their community.”
“NH public health continues to work towards protecting the health of all NH residents and communities,” said Chan. “Throughout the pandemic, we have advised people to wear face masks to protect themselves and prevent COVID-19 from spreading, even when there was no mask mandate."
The council first approved a mask mandate in November and revisited it at 30-day intervals. In February, however, the council decided to link it to the state mask mandate and ruled it would sunset with the state mandate. The city did not set penalties for non-compliance, preferring to see the mandate as an educational and safety tool. But the council noted business owners could serve "no trespassing letters" on offenders, barring them from their businesses.
In other business, City Manager James Wheeler reported the city received a letter from Kevin LaChapelle of Industrial Protection Systems, the company that provided the new self-contained breathing apparatus to the fire department.
LaChapelle said he was impressed by the level of pride and ownership of the department and the delivery and training process at the fire station. He also cited the hard work of Berlin Fire Chief James Watkins in writing the grant the city received to purchase the equipment. LaChapelle said grants are not easy to get.
The city is expecting to get approximately $1.1 million in stimulus funding from the American Recovery Act.
Wheeler said the city is still waiting for specific guidance from the U.S. Treasury on how the money can be spent. He said it appears the city can use it to offset revenue lost because of the pandemic and to make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.