State nixes mask recommendation for public spaces including schools

Monitor staff
Published: 2/23/2022 5:05:54 PM
Modified: 2/23/2022 5:05:31 PM

The state of New Hampshire no longer recommends wearing masks in public indoor settings as COVID-19 cases have plummeted, health officials announced Wednesday.

State epidemiologist Dr. Ben Chan said COVID-19 no longer poses the risk it once did now that a large portion of the population has immunity from vaccination or infection. He said the current iteration of the virus also causes less severe illness than prior variants.

The change in recommendations could impact some mask ordinances in several towns and cities as the decision was left up to local communities in the absence of a statewide mandate.

However, this new guidance could have broad implications for school districts, which often rely on public health guidance from the Department of Health to inform their COVID-19 policies.

Gov. Chris Sununu urged schools that still have mask mandates to rescind them as quickly as possible. Schools that maintain mask mandates may be in violation of students’ rights now that public health does not recommend mask use, Sununu said.

“If a school district isn’t providing a fair and equitable education as the law requires them to, I imagine they would face some legal challenges,” he said.

The Department of Education will be tasked with helping districts with mask mandates to adjust their policies to meet the new guidance, though most schools have already done away with mandates, Sununu said.

Masking policies have been a contentious and bitter topic at school board meetings across the state. Concord School Board will reconsider its existing mask policy at its next meeting on March 7. Several other districts, including Merrimack Valley and Shaker Regional School District have already made masks optional, while Hopkinton will make masks optional on March 7, after winter vacation.

Sununu said the decision to change mask recommendations was based on a number of factors, including the effectiveness of vaccines and the declining number of COVID cases and hospitalizations.

The number of daily cases has dramatically declined over the last several weeks, which Sununu compared to a ski slope. The average number of new cases is approximately equal to the number of daily new cases September 2021, before the surge in Omicron cases.

“We know that masking can be a very powerful tool in times of surging transmissibility, but it obviously has its drawbacks, especially for kids in schools,” he said.

Whether or not to mask will largely be up to individual choice now, Chan said. Granite Staters should weigh their individual circumstances, including whether they are vaccinated, their health conditions, or merely if they want additional protection for themselves or family members.

“What’s important moving forward is understanding — it’s not about mask-shaming or anything like that,” Sununu said.

Individual businesses and spaces that fall under federal jurisdiction, like public transportation and healthcare facilities, may still have mask requirements that Sununu said should be adhered to.

The state has left the door open to change mask recommendations if a new, more dangerous variant gains traction or if the fall brings another COVID surge.

“A lot of data is going to change and we’ll look at all of that as we go from the summer into the fall,” Sununu said.

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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