Mandatory mask ordinance back on the table in Concord

  • 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: 8/11/2020 1:36:19 PM

Concord city councilors are reconsidering a mask mandate three months after the idea initially gained little traction because of concerns about enforcement.

A face-covering ordinance was a relatively new concept back in early May, but several cities and towns throughout New Hampshire have since approved mandates to help reduce the spread of the virus.

Additionally, more than half of the states in the country, including Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont, have instituted state-wide mask mandates. While New Hampshire recently launched a mask-wearing campaign that encourages the use of face coverings in public, Gov. Chris Sununu has repeatedly said that he thinks a statewide mandate is not needed.

“I think we’ve been very fortunate in Concord and also in New Hampshire in that the coronavirus outbreak has been tamped down significantly, and there are some people who I think assume that because that’s the case there is really no need to require masks be worn in public places. However, if the disease suddenly has a resurgence, then we can take action then,” Bryon Champlin, an at-large city councilor, said during Monday night’s council meeting. “In my mind, that’s really kind of like waiting to install fire sprinklers until one wing of your house is engaged in flame. The time to take steps with a pandemic or with a virus is before it gets out of control.”

Champlin, who previously opposed an ordinance, said Monday that he is increasingly concerned by the number of people not wearing face coverings in public despite the latest scientific research that shows widespread mask use helps prevent transmission of COVID-19. He said the city’s close proximity to Massachusetts, which recently pressed pause on phase three of its reopening plan, is also a concern.

A proposed mask mandate wasn’t initially on the council’s agenda Monday night, but Mayor Jim Bouley re-raised the question of whether the city should draft an ordinance and post it for a public hearing in light of ongoing concerns from business owners and residents.

“As you are all aware, many other communities around the state are having this discussion – some are taking action, others are not,” Bouley said. “But I believe we’ve all received many emails and received plenty of feedback one way or another, from all perspectives. I think as policymakers for the city it’s worthwhile for us to have the discussion and to get people to testify.”

Bouley didn’t come with a draft proposal; rather, he said, he wanted to check with councilors to see if they were interested in moving forward and, if so, when.

More than half of the 14-member council spoke up in favor of taking action, and doing so as soon as possible. Other councilors who didn’t specifically comment on the measure nodded their heads in favor of putting a face-covering ordinance back on the table when polled by Bouley.

“Time is really of the essence and things are generally going in the wrong direction in the country,” said Ward Five Councilor Robert Werner.

Nashua was one of the first cities in the Granite State to require customers who visit stores, restaurants and other public places to wear a mask. Nashua’s ordinance, which requires anyone over the age of 10 to wear a face covering, withstood a challenge in Hillsborough County Superior Court last month, and it paved the way for elected officials in other communities, such as Keene and now Concord, to follow suit.

Several Concord city councilors expressed support Monday for using Nashua’s ordinance as a model.

Nathan Fennessy, an at-large councilor, said several components to a proposed mandate deserve consideration, including whether masks will be required inside and outside, if the ordinance will  require mask use only when social distancing isn’t possible and if the mandate will explicitly layout exceptions for people with medical conditions. 

“I strongly believe that there is a certain segment of the community who’s going to ignore this, whether it’s a mandate by us through an ordinance or whether it’s a requirement of a business. And the question is once that person says, ‘No, I’m not going to put it on,’ how are we going to enforce this?” Fennessy asked. “Are we going to be using the police force to do that or are we going to use some other mechanism?”

At-Large Councilor Amanda Grady Sexton said she is disheartened to hear that residents frequenting businesses do not feel safe and that business owners don’t feel like they have any recourse when customers shop without masks. She said in addition to working with the City Solicitor Jim Kennedy to draft language, it’ll be important for councilors to work with the police department to further discuss enforcement issues.

A committee of four councilors, Bouley and Kennedy will take the next few days to draft an ordinance, which will be publicly posted on Aug. 17. A public hearing over Zoom is scheduled for Aug. 31.


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