BERLIN — Wearing a mask or face covering in public places is now required in Berlin. The city council Monday night voted 5-3 in favor of a 60-day emergency ordinance. But in a nod to those opposed to the ordinance, the city will not impose penalties for noncompliance during the first 30 days. And the council will review the ordinance at its Dec. 14 meeting and decide whether to keep it in place the entire 60 days. In another change, the ordinance will cover children down to 5 years of age.
Mayor Paul Grenier said the ordinance is designed for public safety and education and not to be punitive. He estimated 70 percent of the public voluntarily wears a mask when out in public shopping, dining and socializing. He said he would like to get that rate up to the 85-90 percent range.
After few positive cases over spring and summer months, the city went to 26 cases at the end of October. The number dropped to 17 but is now back up to 20 cases. Grenier said he is hoping the number will drop to below 10.
Grenier admitted that he does not like wearing a mask. But he said the community has already incurred damage from what he called the worst public health crisis in 110 years. He cited the impact COVID-19 has had on students and the entire school culture. He said store and business owners cannot afford to lose any customers who come into their shops without masks but at the same time they don’t want to get the virus and not be able to work.
Councilor Lucie Remillard asked how the city will deal with repeat offenders during the first 30 days. Police Chief Peter Morency said police could work with business owners to do a no trespass letter to such offenders, barring them from the business.
Two councilors who voted against the ordinance said they could support a non-binding resolution.
Mike Rozek said after going to several stores over the weekend he feels 90 percent of the public are wearing masks. He said he is not confident the ordinance will get the other 10 percent to comply.
Mark Eastman said he spoke to a lot of people since last week’s public hearing and all were opposed to the mask ordinance even though they wear a mask. He said some said they don’t want to be considered a criminal if they happen not to have a mask. Eastman said he felt passing an ordinance would split the community.
Councilor Peter Higbee said he also received phone calls over the past week from opponents of the ordinance. He said the callers did not feel they should have to wear a mask when out walking. Higbee said that is not required by the ordinance. He said the callers also said that they do wear masks but feel the decision to do so should be their choice.
Higbee said his fear is that there are enough people who don’t care about the impact of not wearing a mask to pose a threat to the city’s aging population. He said there are roughly 1,000 residents over the age of 74 and statistics show 15 percent will die if they get the coronavirus. That calculates to be about 150 people, he noted.
“We need to slow the spread of this virus,” Higbee said, in support of the ordinance.
That was a point also made by Grenier, who cited the outbreak in the Stewartstown-Colebrook area, Grenier said he wants to avoid that happening here.
The Coos County Nursing Hospital in West Stewartstown last week had 21 residents and 33 staff members test positive with others staff members out on quarantine. Grenier said the health infrastructure there is at the breaking point. He said Berlin has two nursing homes, two prisons and two elderly housing complexes and a similar outbreak here would overwhelm the health-care structure.
“Preventative action is far mor
e desirable than fighting a fire of that magnitude,” he said.