‘It’s going to backfire’ – Concord city councilors not keen on mandatory masks

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    Inspired by the quote next to the statue of former governor John Gilbert Winant on Park Street in downtown Concord -- “Wanting not only for ourselves, but for others also, a fairer chance for all people everywhere" -- Patricia Wilczynski of Concord placed her mask on the statue last week and posed the question: What would John Winant do? Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 5/12/2020 4:23:18 PM

Concord city councilors aren’t keen on following the example set in Salem, where officials are considering levying fines to anyone who fails to wear a facemask in a public indoor place.

The proposed ordinance in the town near the Massachusetts state line would require anyone over age 2 to wear some type of face covering, or face up to a $200 fine. The board of selectmen discussed the matter during a virtual meeting Monday but didn’t vote on it. Some callers opposed the idea and felt the fine was too high.

City officials in Concord discussed the idea of mandatory mask-wearing during their monthly meeting Monday night, but didn’t get on board. Many councilors said imposing such a rule could have the opposite effect than what is intended.

“I think that if you come down hard, it’s going to backfire,” Councilor Fred Keach said Monday.

Keach said “enlightenment and education” is probably a more effective tool to encourage people to wear masks than “enforcement.”

Councilor Byron Champlin agreed, referencing the way that some members of the community have reacted to closures of public playgrounds. An 11-minute video of two Concord Police officers talking to families at Rollins Park went viral last month after parents refused to leave and called the officers “Concord Nazis.”

A group protesting Sununu’s stay-at-home order held rallies twice in the last month in front of the State House.

“I think a lot of people inappropriately have made this into a point of resistance for their own personal reasons, which I think potentially places our law enforcement, as we saw in the incidents at the Rollins Park playground, into the position of being a point of confrontation with people who have an ax to grind or a point to make,” Champlin said.

“To that extent, I would rather rely on peer pressure,” Champlin added.

The idea of passing ordinances to require masks is spreading as places like retail stores, malls and other outlets reopen . When the governor was asked about the proposal in Salem during his press briefing Monday, he said the state would not get involved.

“That’s their choice, we’re leaving it there,” Gov. Chris Sununu said.

Concord Councilor Zandra Rice-Hawkins began the conversation about Salem’s proposed ordinance Monday, saying a constituent reached out to her about it. She referred the inquiry to Concord’s city solicitor, Jim Kennedy.

“I do believe we will probably get a lot more requests of this nature because the state is not taking leadership here,” Rice-Hawkins said. “I understand if folks do not want to pursue that tonight, but I do think, if this continues to linger, we will be asked that question more often.”

Kennedy said he would need to look into Salem’s ordinance to see on what legal grounds selectmen were relying on, saying it was not clear to him at first glance if the ordinance was lawful.

“If that’s the will of the council, we are certainly willing to conduct that inquiry,” he said.

State health officials recommended mask-wearing in public places last month but not everyone is heeding that advice.

If passed, Salem’s municipal order would be first of its kind in New Hampshire. In Massachusetts, residents are required to wear facial coverings when in public. Those who refuse could face fines as high as $300.

With over 100 confirmed cases of COVID-19, Salem has high infection numbers. Salem selectman James Keller said with increasing risk, the town should impose stricter rules.

“If we have any success in opening up and not having to close down again, really creating a sense of comfort and protection for everyone is vital,” he said. Keller is proposing the town require face coverings in all locations other than restaurants.

However, some residents say the order would violate their civil liberties and are organizing a petition against it.

While all councilors in Concord said they agreed with the spirit of the Salem ordinance, they echoed Kennedy’s questions about its legality.

“If we are going to go down this road at any point, we need to consider the fact that I think there’s likely going to be a legal challenge to whatever town ordinances are implemented,” Councilor Nathan Fennessy said. “Just a note of caution there.”

Councilor Rob Werner agreed.

“I’m very skeptical that we or any municipality has the ability to do this,” he said.

Mayor Jim Bouley said he was reluctant to ask Kennedy to do any in-depth research on the matter just yet.

“I personally don’t find it practical,” he said. “I wear my mask, I wear it to protect myself. I wear it to protect others.”

However, Bouley said he sees plenty of examples every day of people going into public spaces without them.

“Today, I went to grab some lunch downtown and who was I standing next to? None other than the New Hampshire Attorney General. And was he wearing a mask? No,” Bouley said. “So if our chief law enforcement officer in the state of New Hampshire is not wearing it, I think it would be pretty tough to enforce. I don’t know if it’s a great use of our solicitor’s time to chase this down further.”

(Material from NHPR was included in this report through the Granite State News Collaborative. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.)

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