In Keene, division remains on mask requirements

  • Eric Frowein of Keene and his daughters, Scarlett, 10, and Emily, 5, wear masks while receiving their order from Aubrey Moser at The Works Café in Keene on Wednesday. Michael Moore / Keene Sentinel

Keene Sentinel
Published: 7/23/2020 7:34:41 PM

When it comes to face masks as a means of slowing the spread of COVID-19, Keene may be just as divided as the rest of the country.

At least 50 people tuned in to Wednesday’s meeting of the city council’s planning, licenses and development committee, where councilors fielded three hours of comments regarding a proposed ordinance that would require the use of face masks in Keene. Opinions ranged from concerns that the ordinance would violate the rights of businesses and individuals to fears that not passing it would be a detriment to public health.

“Over half the country . . . has mask ordinances, all in the name of public safety,” said Councilor Randy Filiault, who originally pitched the ordinance, that was later withdrawn, back in May. “We’re not asking for anything new here; we can look at the other 25 to 30 states that now have mask ordinances in place and find out that they are effective and they can be enforced.”

The discussion stems from a resolution approved at the city council’s meeting last week that encourages people to wear masks in places where social distancing is difficult. The resolution had originally been pitched as an ordinance – a requirement – based on a similar law in Nashua. When Nashua’s ordinance was upheld in court, Keene’s was brought back to the table by Mayor George Hansel, who said several councilors had expressed interest in reviving it.

The city council passed the nonbinding mask resolution last week before sending the proposed mask ordinance to the planning, licenses and development committee.

Much of the concern from committee members Wednesday was that the language of the ordinance lacks specificity. Councilors asked to have certain items clearly defined, such as what constitutes a proper mask, and what counts as a business, as well as to specify any potential exemptions and clarify the consequences of violating the mandate.

“There is an ordinance for Nashua; I think Keene really needs to look at what Keene should have as an ordinance,” said Councilor Kate Bosley, the committee’s chairwoman. “As a concept, I think that Nashua’s paved the road, but I think we need to be looking tonight at what the public has to say and what this committee feels are the appropriate framework to build the ordinance into.”

The committee voted unanimously to continue the discussion next week, giving City Attorney Thomas Mullins time to draft a new proposal that takes into account some of the issues raised during the meeting. Matters committee members discussed included whether the ordinance would extend to the outdoors, whether all businesses would be included, who would enforce the ordinance and what penalties would be involved.

Before opening the floor to the public, the committee heard from Dr. Don Caruso, president and CEO of Cheshire Medical Center. Caruso spoke in favor of the ordinance, noting that while Keene has done a solid job of keeping its COVID-19 numbers low, the best way to keep that up is wearing a face mask in public places.

As of Wednesday, 15 Keene residents had tested positive for the virus since the start of the pandemic, according to the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services, and one to four cases were considered current. Nearly 6,300 people have tested positive statewide.

“It’s really clear from data and studies out there that if we have 80% of our population masked, what will happen is we will have the same result as having a strict shutdown,” Caruso said. “I’d rather have people masking and protecting our population because we know we are also the oldest county . . . of any county in the state of New Hampshire.”

If there was one thing speakers on both sides of the argument seemed to agree on, it was that restrictions should be more relaxed when it comes to outdoor activities. Other parts of the argument got a bit more heated.

A sizable portion of the residents who participated in the meeting, some from Keene and some from neighboring towns, said that while they’re not opposed to using masks, they feel it should be up to individual businesses to determine their own mask policies.

People can choose whether they’re comfortable with a business’s mask policy and shop elsewhere if they’re not, said Rebecca Montrone, who owns Wondrous Roots on Roxbury Street. She urged the committee to “give people a little bit of credit.”

“As business owners, we need to be able to set our own standards,” she said. “And our patrons can choose whether they want to work with us or not.”

Other speakers questioned whether there could actually be a harmful side to masks, particularly for those who are required to wear them consistently for long periods of time, and questioned the science behind whether masks are effective at preventing the spread of diseases and even whether masks themselves could contribute to poorer health.

Health experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend face coverings when around other people to minimize the possibility that one’s respiratory droplets – spread by coughing, sneezing or speaking – infect others.

On the other hand, resident John Schmitt expressed concern about carbon dioxide buildup in masks if worn for an extended period.

Several non-Keene residents who are opposed to the ordinance said the move would likely cost local businesses money, as those who prefer not to wear a mask would probably shop elsewhere. Several others said they considered the ordinance government overreach.

Though few of the participants were in favor of the ordinance, those who did defend it said it could be a valuable tool for slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Keene resident Tiffany Matthews said residents need guidance from the city and urged the council to take a strong position on the matter.

“We need clear direction on COVID safety precautions,” she said. “That’s what the public needs, and we need to take a hard stance.”

Another resident, Gordon Matthews, called wearing a mask something that is “a minimal inconvenience” that helps protect the most vulnerable members of the community.

Still others argued that those who are opposed to the ordinance are misinformed. Sean O’Mara urged the council to make decisions based on advice from health experts rather than “hunches and feelings.”

The committee will continue discussion of the proposed ordinance at its next meeting, scheduled for Wednesday. The meeting is expected to be held via Zoom, and access information will be posted on the city’s calendar, which can be found online at ci.keene.nh.us/calendar.

(These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.)




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