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Declining cases and deaths have town officials reconsidering mask policies

  • Gov. Chris Sununu wears a protective mask at a polling station in Windham on Nov. 3. AP

Valley News
Published: 5/5/2021 2:43:05 PM

The city of Claremont last week dropped a mask advisory and a decision to end mask mandates in Lebanon and Enfield could hinge on how well New Hampshire performs against the coronavirus pandemic this month, municipal officials said Tuesday.

If COVID-19 cases continue to fall throughout May and more people choose to get vaccinated, they said, both communities will likely rescind their mask ordinances in June.

However, officials in Lebanon and Enfield are resisting calls to act earlier, saying they don’t want to do away with protections before people have the opportunity to become fully vaccinated.

By late June, every Granite Stater should have had the chance to get two shots — recommended for both the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines — and wait two weeks for immunity to take effect, said Lebanon Assistant Mayor Clifton Below.

“Hopefully, the metrics will converge” and June also will see lower transmission rates, he said.

Enfield is similarly cautious about ending its mandate, with the Selectboard deciding Monday night to wait until early June to discuss the matter further.

Interim Town Manager Jack Wozmak said Tuesday said town officials want to “see where the community and where the region is at” before making a decision.

Wozmak added that he anticipates Enfield and Lebanon will be “in alignment” with when to end their mandates.

Both communities were among a handful of Upper Valley municipalities — including Plainfield and Hanover — that turned to mask mandates last summer to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The local mandates, which vary slightly from town to town, preceded a statewide mandate that was issued by Gov. Chris Sununu in mid-November and ended last month.

Other communities, such as Lyme and Claremont, opted for nonbinding resolutions that encouraged masks to be worn but didn’t include enforceable penalties for those who refuse.

The result was confusion, said Claremont City Councilor Nicholas Koloski, who voted with a majority of his peers last week to end the city’s resolution.

Koloski, who said he still wears a mask while in public, also voiced his opposition to the city telling its residents how to act during last week’s City Council meeting.

If you need nine people to “tell you how to go about your daily life,” he said, “I’ll be glad to guide you through daily decisions that you should be making on your own.”

Councilor Debora Matteau also expressed her dismay with the resolution, saying she doesn’t want to debate mask-wearing any further.

“You can’t legislate people to be considerate of others,” she told colleagues.

The Claremont City Council ultimately voted, 6-2, to rescind its resolution, with Councilor James Contois, one of the two no votes, saying he wanted a full mandate in place.

In Lebanon, the City Council expressed support last month for maintaining its mandate and the nine-member group is scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss a proposal to continue the ordinance until June 30.

Waiting will not only allow people to get vaccinated but also give city staffers more time to monitor infection and vaccination rates past Memorial Day, according to a memo from City Manager Shaun Mulholland.

It also would provide city councilors the opportunity to determine what sort of metrics they’d like to see used to end Lebanon’s mask mandate, Below said. He and a few other councilors are leaning toward guidance offered last month by the New Hampshire Medical Society.

That group urges people to continue wearing masks until vaccination levels reach at least 70% and the spread of COVID-19 is considered “minimal” by state health officials.

As of Tuesday, New Hampshire’s coronavirus dashboard classified transmission in Grafton County as “substantial,” with more than 289 cases per 100,000 residents detected in the past two weeks.

There is hope that the state is on the right track, though, with cases on the decline. The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services reported a seven-day average of 244 cases on Sunday, down from 315 a week earlier. The state also reported that a little more than 26% of qualified residents are fully vaccinated, with 61% having received a first shot.

The Lebanon City Council is scheduled to discuss the mask mandate at 7 p.m. on Wednesday. Access to the meeting can be found at LebanonNH.gov/Live.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com.


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