20210812-FEA-face masks

New Hampshire communities can require people to wear face masks indoors and outdoors if they wish, even as broad emergency powers in effect since early in the COVID-19 pandemic have lapsed, according to a spokeswoman for the state’s attorney general.

That authority now falls under the state’s Universal Best Practices guidance, which recommends that businesses take certain steps to curb the virus’ spread, such as encouraging workers to get vaccinated and asking patrons to wear masks, N.H. Attorney General spokeswoman Kate Giaquinto told The Sentinel recently. Though that guidance was meant for businesses, Granite State cities and towns may also act on its recommendations, including by imposing community-wide mask mandates, Giaquinto said.

That clarification comes shortly after Vermont Gov. Phil Scott said last month that Brattleboro officials aren’t authorized to require mask-wearing except for in municipal buildings.

Citing COVID-19 infection rates in the region, which have risen substantially since earlier this year, Brattleboro’s selectboard adopted a resolution Aug. 17 mandating that people wear masks in all indoor public places, including businesses in town. Scott’s office declined to approve the measure, however, telling town officials that infection and hospitalization rates at the time didn’t justify a broad mandate.

Brattleboro previously had a community-wide mask mandate in place from May 2020 until this past June. But under new rules that Scott created when Vermont’s pandemic state of emergency expired that month, state health officials must now sign off on local COVID-related regulations.

“You have asked the commissioner of health to approve Brattleboro’s proposal to exercise an extraordinary regulatory power while there is no state of emergency,” Scott’s office told the town in an email late last month. “Mandatory masking has only been exercised or permitted by the governor during a declared state of emergency.”

Without support from state officials, Brattleboro selectboard Chairwoman Elizabeth McLaughlin said Tuesday, “I don’t see the point in pursuing a mask mandate any further at this time.”

Instead, McLaughlin said the board plans to stick with another resolution it approved at the Aug. 17 meeting that encourages — but doesn’t require — residents to wear masks in public spaces and get vaccinated against COVID-19. Brattleboro already requires anyone in a town building, including employees, to wear a mask.

“I’m pleased that Brattleboro has brought this matter to Vermont and New Hampshire’s attention,” McLaughlin said Tuesday. “I see the CDC guidance and the upward trajectory of COVID cases, and hope that we can all be smart, sensible and stay safe, mask mandate or not.”

Under guidance updated earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone who isn’t fully vaccinated wear a mask in indoor public spaces and that even vaccinated people wear a mask in those places if the region has substantial or high viral transmission. Windham County, where Brattleboro is located, was downgraded from “substantial” to “moderate” transmission on Aug. 17 but is now reporting “high” transmission, with 88 new cases in the past seven days, according to the CDC.

Even though its own statewide mask mandate expired in April and its state of emergency ended in June, New Hampshire is still allowing communities to require masking in public places if they wish.

At least two have taken advantage of that local authority.

Hanover’s selectboard voted last month to adopt new rules requiring that people in indoor spaces wear face masks, after the town’s last mandate expired in June, and Lebanon enacted a similar policy last week, The Valley News reported. Local officials in both communities said the measures are needed as infection rates there keep rising, due largely to the virus’ more contagious delta variant.

Infection rates in Cheshire County — where 62 percent of eligible residents are vaccinated — have risen quickly since July, according to data published by the CDC. (Health experts say all three vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are effective against the delta variant, though so-called “breakthrough” cases can still occur.)

Keene officials said last month, however, there were no plans at the time to bring back a community-wide mask mandate that lapsed in June.

City Councilor Randy Filiault, who first proposed that policy last year, said Tuesday the city remains in “ ‘wait and see’ mode” on a new mandate. Local officials are monitoring the situation daily, he said, including by having regular conversations with Cheshire Medical Center and Keene State College.

“Most councilors honestly would prefer not to institute a mandatory mask mandate, and are, for now, allowing business owners to implement their own if they choose to,” he said.

Caleb Symons can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1420, or csymons@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @CalebSymonsKS.