As COVID cases spike, Concord City Council votes against mask mandate

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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?

Monitor staff
Published: 1/11/2022 11:50:07 AM

Concord city councilors decided against passing a city-wide mask mandate that would have required customers and workers to cover their faces in all Concord businesses.

Instead, the council passed a muted resolution that authorizes the city manager to require masks in city buildings – something the manager already had the authority to do – and encourages the public to follow other public health mitigation strategies. The passed ordinance has no fines or penalties for those who do not wear masks in municipal buildings.

“This is a feel-good resolution to encourage something that businesses and individuals in the city already have the opportunity to do,” said Zandra Rice Hawkins, one of the council’s newest members. “This makes it look like the council is doing something and I actually don’t think we are doing something.”

The original mask mandate would have required members of the public to wear face coverings indoors and employees to mask up around customers or within six feet of coworkers. Repeated failures to wear a mask could have resulted in a fine of up to $50.

The council heard several hours of public testimony, mainly from those against the mandate.

Several members of the public raised concerns about the mental health impacts a mask mandate might have on children. Others raised concerns that cloth masks do not sufficiently protect against COVID-19 and N95 masks are not widely available, making a mandate unhelpful for those who do not have access to medical-grade masks.

Dr. Millie LaFontaine, a retired Concord Hospital neurologist, said she wished the ordinance went even further. She said she would have preferred if masks were also required in outdoor areas where social distancing isn’t possible and in gyms. She added that those with medical exemptions should have a signed doctor’s note.

“I guarantee that would eliminate a large percentage of those who blame their refusal to wear masks on a medical condition,” she said.

The public also submitted written comments – mainly in support of the ordinance – including the owner of Gibson’s Bookstore, Michael Herrmann.

“We have no expectations that a mandate is 100% enforceable,” he wrote. “It doesn’t have to be. We just want to improve the odds.”

Jim McConaughey, a longtime Concord resident who wore a small pin that read “I’m vaccinated,” said at the meeting he didn’t want to debate whether masks were effective.

He said he had concerns about a mask mandate’s impact on the community.

“When you put this ordinance in place, I think you create another wedge to separate people apart,” he said. “I think really that’s one of the most negative things about this kind of an ordinance.”

Many councilors brought up McConaughey’s testimony before they voted against the city-wide mandate.

“I think this is very restrictive,” said councilor Jennifer Kretovic. “If you’re vaccinated and you’re boosted, you shouldn’t have to wear a mask and it’s taking away the whole entire premise of people being able to have some freedoms.”

Other councilors took issue with specific language in the ordinance that would not grant exemptions for theater performers and would only allow the mandate to lapse if the county reached a certain level of community transmission.

Ultimately, 11 councilors including mayor Jim Bouley, voted against the ordinance and four councilors voted in favor. Those voting no included Brent Todd, Candace Bouchard, Byron Champlin, Nathan Fennessy, Amanda Grady Sexton, Fred Keach, Jennifer Kretovic, Gail Matson, Paula McLaughlin, and Keith Nyhan. Those voting in favor included Rice Hawkins, Stacey Brown, Karen McNamara, and Erle Pierce

Concord schools have required students and teachers to wear masks since the beginning of the school year. Cases of COVID-19 have surged to record-shattering numbers in recent weeks. As of Sunday, the number of daily cases, 2,705, was about three times the peak number of cases last year.

Other New Hampshire cities have started reinstating requirements amid the rising COVID cases. In December, Keene and Nashua brought back mask mandates for indoor public spaces and Manchester and Portsmouth began requiring masks inside municipal buildings.

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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