Proposed mask ordinance wins committee approval

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    A mannequin wears a face mask at the Citadel Outlets in Commerce, Calif., Thursday, July 2, 2020. California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday urged Californians to turn to their "better angels" and use common sense over the holiday weekend by wearing a mask and skipping traditional gatherings with family and friends. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) Jae C. Hong

The Keene Sentinel
Published: 7/30/2020 5:47:35 PM

The Keene City Council’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee has voted unanimously to recommend a revised mask ordinance to the full council.

After listening to hours of public comments last week, City Attorney Thomas Mullins presented the committee with a new draft ordinance with some tweaks based on the feedback. The ordinance would require that employees wear face masks when dealing with the public, and require members of the public to do the same whenever entering a business for any reason, including outdoor areas where business is conducted.

The ordinance defines an appropriate face covering as one made of “cloth, fabric, paper or other soft or permeable materials, without holes, mesh, or exhaust valves.” It also specifies that masks must cover the mouth and the nose.

A citywide mask ordinance was first pitched in late May by Councilor Randy Filiault. The ordinance he proposed was nearly identical to a law passed in Nashua, but he withdrew it about a week later after Nashua’s was challenged in court. Keene Mayor George Hansel brought the ordinance back to the table earlier this month, after the Nashua ordinance was upheld. He said several councilors had expressed interest in resuming that conversation after learning of the Nashua decision.

The council has also approved a mask resolution that strongly encourages the use of face masks in public places but does not mandate them.

Mask mandates have become a highly polarized political debate between those who stress the importance of face coverings to protect public health and those who object to the notion as an infringement on their civil liberties.

Masks are recommended by health experts, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as a means of stopping the movement of respiratory droplets, believed to be the primary way COVID-19 is spread.

Many governors have enacted mask mandates, including Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, whose requirement goes into effect this week. Brattleboro has had an ordinance in place since the spring. And the New Hampshire communities of Lebanon, Enfield and Hanover will all be discussing face-covering mandates at meetings over the next week or so, the Valley News reported.

To date, there have been more than 6,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Hampshire. There have been 85 confirmed cases in Cheshire County, and two deaths related to the viral disease. As of Wednesday, the state health department listed five current cases in Keene.

“[The proposed ordinance] is very enforceable; it’s certainly not heavy-handed,” Filiault said during Wednesday’s meeting. “I think it’s just enough, and all we really wanted here is to educate the public, have a little enforcement behind it. It’s all about public safety. That’s really all this ordinance is about.”

Key changes in the revised ordinance now being considered include the addition of definitions for “business” and “face covering” as well as a sunset clause, which stipulates that the ordinance would expire when New Hampshire’s COVID-19 state of emergency ends. It also includes penalties — a verbal warning on the first offense, a written warning on the second offense, a $100 fine on the third offense and a $250 fine for all subsequent offenses.

The new version also clears up questions about whether all businesses would be subjected to the ordinance. For example, masks would not be required for conducting business within a private residence or for businesses where members of the public are not typically coming in and out.

Businesses would also be required to implement measures to notify their customers of the ordinance, via signage or another means.

The ordinance would exempt those whose health might be put at risk by wearing a mask, such as people with medical or developmental conditions. Mullins said these individuals would not be asked to provide proof of their condition. The ordinance also exempts masks for children under 10 years old.

Mullins also changed a stipulation from the original ordinance relative to common areas in apartment buildings, specifying that the mask mandate would apply to buildings with three or more units, thereby exempting duplexes.

Mullins said churches are not included in the ordinance, citing potential First Amendment conflicts and noting both that the state has issued guidance dealing with conduct in churches and that the ordinance itself does not contain a religious exemption to wearing a mask.

While residents were able to weigh in on the proposal during Wednesday’s meeting, they were asked to restrict their input to comments about the language changes specifically. One resident, Tiffany Mathews, said she was worried about the exemption for children and objected to concerns raised in the past by other residents that wearing masks may have a negative psychological effect on kids.

Another resident, Tracy Desteph, asked whether private clubs would be included under the ordinance.

“I see them having events with 50 or more people in building,” she said. “I don’t think they’re requiring masks. That’s a large group of people to possibly be infected and go out in the community.”

Mullins said that unless the clubs invite in the general public, rather than just specific people who hold memberships, they would not be subject to the ordinance.

Others raised questions about whether the resolution should require specific language be used when businesses create signs notifying customers of the ordinance and what would be done if someone fakes a disability so they don’t have to wear a mask. Another resident suggested including the outdoor space downtown where there’s generally more pedestrian traffic.

Councilor Mitch Greenwald, who is on the committee, suggested including language requiring masks at private house parties, saying that landlords should be held accountable. Greenwald, a landlord of several residential and commercial properties in the city, said he was worried that the ordinance would not be followed at large private gatherings and said the city should have some enforcement power in that regard.

However, other committee members thought that level of regulation in a private residence was a step too far.

The full text can be found on the committee’s meeting agenda, which can be viewed online. The next step is for the full council to take a vote on the proposed ordinance. The council will next convene on Aug. 6 at 7 p.m.

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