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Plainfield drops mask ordinance; Lebanon to hold public hearing

  • Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland talks about the newly-renovated office spaces in City Hall in Lebanon, N.H., on Nov. 16, 2020. During construction, city employees were out of the building for about a year. At right is a hand truck Mulholland brought from home to help with the move. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

  • Lisa Tibbits, owner of Red Roof Frame Shop, looks for a mat to match a print at the store in the Colonial Plaza in West Lebanon last December. Tibbits has seen a drop in customers since the start of the pandemic. James M. Patterson / Valley News

  • A discarded surgical mask lies in a Hanover, N.H., parking lot Monday, July 27, 2020. The town will hold a public hearing on a mask ordinance next week. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/22/2021 3:00:16 PM

WEST LEBANON — The Plainfield Selectboard voted to drop its mask mandate on Wednesday night, and Lebanon moved one step closer to rescinding its own as the City Council decided to schedule a public hearing on its ordinance.

Lebanon councilors voted unanimously to set a public hearing for June 2, where they hope to discuss whether to amend or drop mask regulations as vaccines play a bigger role in protecting the public from COVID-19.

However, Mayor Tim McNamara said he doesn’t expect a decision that night and instead wants to call a formal vote on June 16. If the city were to drop its mask mandate then, he said, restrictions could be lifted ahead of July 4 celebrations.

Meanwhile, officials in neighboring Plainfield voted, 3-0, to rescind the town’s mask ordinance. Town Administrator Steve Halleran announced the move Thursday, saying the Selectboard still encourages people to use masks.

He said the decision was driven by the availability of COVID-19 vaccines and new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying it’s safe for those fully vaccinated against the coronavirus to stop wearing masks in most settings.

While several Lebanon councilors acknowledged the new guidance during Wednesday’s meeting, they also argued that it’s meant to inform individual choices and not policy decisions. For that, some recommended turning to guidelines put forward last month by the New Hampshire Medical Society.

Those ask that “individuals, communities, schools and businesses” continue wearing masks until 70% of the population is vaccinated and the community spread of COVID-19 is listed as “minimal” on the state coronavirus dashboard.

As of Wednesday, nearly 38% of Granite Staters are considered fully vaccinated, meaning it was at least 14 days after their final shot. Meanwhile, almost 62% of people had received a first shot, according to the CDC’s vaccine data tracker.

The New Hampshire’s website also lists communitywide transmission in New Hampshire and Grafton County as “substantial.”

Members of the nine-member council said they were largely in favor of maintaining Lebanon’s mask mandate, for now, until the New Hampshire Medical Society’s criteria could be met. “Right now, the data does not indicate that we are out of the danger zone,” Councilor Karen Liot Hill said. “The stakes are high.”

Lebanon’s mask mandate, which was established in August, requires employees to wear coverings over their noses and mouths when they are within 6 feet of co-workers and customers who are not members of the same household.

While Councilor Doug Whittlesey said he’s optimistic that vaccinations will drive down COVID-19 cases, and would allow the city to drop its mask mandate, he worried that there are indications vaccine hesitancy could slow progress.

“You are running up against potential headwinds for getting people further vaccinated,” he said.

McNamara, Lebanon’s mayor, also recommended collecting information for surrounding communities, citing Lebanon’s status as a hub that people commute to for work and shopping.

“We’re not a tiny little community in the North Country where there’s really no turnover of folks or not significant turnover during the day,” he said.

That also works against Lebanon because with so many people traveling into the city from communities without mask mandates, it will be difficult to continually enforce masking, McNamara said.

“With our best efforts, I think it’s still going to be confusing and we just have to accept that,” he said.

Lebanon joins a growing number of Upper Valley communities that are reevaluating local mask mandates because of the CDC’s new guidance.

The Plainfield Selectboard voted unanimously Wednesday evening to drop its mask mandate, which also was enacted in August, with members saying the best way to protect people is to encourage vaccinations.

“If for any reason a person chooses to remain unvaccinated, we ask him/her to wear a mask when indoors when they are with people who are not in their household,” the three-member board said in a statement.

“We are well aware that this is difficult or impossible to enforce, but we believe that this is best practice,” the board added. “It is important to consider the well-being of all of our citizens, including those who are most vulnerable.”

Plainfield Elementary School will continue to require mask-wearing and, because Town Meeting will be held there on June 5, voters will be required to wear them too. Halleran said the town’s health officer “would have preferred” to keep most of Plainfield’s mask ordinance in place until later in the summer.

The Woodstock Village Trustees also voted on Monday night to effectively do away with their ordinance and instead opted to align rules with those issued by Vermont Gov. Phil Scott.

Scott last week signed an executive order lifting the state’s masking and physical distancing requirements for those who are fully vaccinated. Under the order, masks are still required in schools, on public transportation, in health care settings and long-term care facilities.

People who are not vaccinated or partially vaccinated, including children, are also required to wear masks in public settings.

Enfield has scheduled a public hearing for Monday, June 7, to discuss amending or doing away with its mask mandate.

Lebanon’s decision to maintain the mask mandate, for the time being, follows the advice of regional health officials, including those at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

While it’s safe to stop wearing masks outside — except in crowded situations such as concerts and the Lebanon Farmers’ Market — Dr. Michael Calderwood, the chief quality officer at DHMC, said he still recommends mask-wearing in indoor businesses.

“Those who are vaccinated are safe, but it is hard to know who is and is not vaccinated,” Calderwood, an infectious disease specialist, wrote to the City Council in a memo. “In addition, those who are not vaccinated risk having more viral replication and mutations leading to novel variants that get around the immune protection from the vaccines.”

He went on to say that the hospital responded to the CDC’s guidelines by allowing people to forgo masks while walking to and from their vehicles outside, walking around the building for exercise, and in shared offices and one-on-one meetings where both participants are fully vaccinated.

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