A masked moment

Michael Joy of Swanzey wears a mask outside Cheshire Medical Center in Keene in this file photo from April 2020.

City councilors put off action on Keene’s mask ordinance Wednesday, saying they need more local COVID-19 data to determine the mandate’s end date.

The Elm City’s ordinance — which the council adopted in August — requires most people 10 and older to wear face coverings in all indoor public places and outdoor spaces where business is conducted. It’s due to sunset at the same time as the pandemic-related state of emergency that Gov. Chris Sununu declared last year and has extended numerous times since.

But following Sununu’s decision to let the statewide mask edict expire last week, the council’s Planning, Licensing and Development Committee discussed Wednesday night whether Keene should keep its ordinance as is, tweak it or get rid of it.

The meeting was streamed via Zoom, with most councilors reporting from chambers.

John Rogers, the city’s building and health official, kicked off the session by recommending that the ordinance stay in place until June 1, when vaccination rates will be higher.

Continuing with a mask requirement is essential to combating the spread of the coronavirus, he added. And as business restrictions loosen and more students return to in-person learning in coming weeks, Rogers said it would be a disservice to lift the ordinance now.

“We need to continue to use the best practices as possible in hopes to end this pandemic, and wearing masks is a large part of that effort,” he said.

Keene State College President Melinda Treadwell echoed Rogers’ request, adding that by June, college students will have finished their semester and many will leave the city.

“If [students are] in a quarantine or isolation protocol, they will not be able to complete their semester,” Treadwell said. “Part of my request is to help support consistency in the types of requirements we require of our students, whether they are on our campus or on our Main Street or in our businesses downtown.”

Opponents of the ordinance made a variety of claims, including that masks don’t work, and also argued that being forced to wear a face covering is against their rights.

Masks have been widely shown by scientists and health experts to protect the wearer and others from the virus that causes COVID-19.

Face masks work by containing the small droplets emitted from the mouth or nose when talking, sneezing or coughing, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Several other people Wednesday spoke in favor of keeping the ordinance in place, recommending extensions ranging from June 1 to mid-July.

Supporters of the mandate said the virus needs to be taken seriously, and Keene can do so by keeping its mask requirement, as community members continue with social distancing and hand-washing.

Having a city mandate, some people argued, takes the pressure off business owners who want to require customers to wear masks and also maintains consistency in the safety precautions throughout Keene.

“I have two children in the public schools. One is 14, and one is 18,” resident Marie Duggan said. “I have learned this year that no matter how hard I try, I can’t protect my family by myself. I need the community to make rules that will protect my family.”

Following more than an hour of discussion, committee members unanimously agreed that they want more local data — such as vaccination rates, number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates — before making a recommendation.

“My concern with putting any date on it ... If we put, say, June 1, and our numbers skyrocket, we are then tied to that June 1 repeal date no matter what,” said Councilor Catherine “Catt” Workman. “I really would like to just table the decision until we have more statistics.”

Other councilors shared similar thoughts, and the committee members voted to place the matter on “more time.”

City Manager Elizabeth Dragon reminded attendees that Keene’s mask ordinance remains in effect until councilors decide otherwise.

Olivia Belanger can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or obelanger@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @OBelangerKS.