20210331-FEA-face masks

Following the CDC’s latest guidance that fully vaccinated people can safely go maskless outdoors unless in crowds, the city councilor who originally pitched Keene’s mask mandate is seeking to update the ordinance.

In a Wednesday letter to the council and Mayor George Hansel, Councilor Randy Filiault requested councilors consider cutting the part of the ordinance that requires masks in outdoor spaces where business is being conducted. He has asked that the matter be brought to the table during the council’s next meeting, which will take place May 6, when the item will likely be sent to a committee for further review.

“[The request] basically had to do with the amount of New Hampshire residents — especially in Cheshire County — that have received vaccinations,” Filiault told The Sentinel Wednesday, noting that a change to the ordinance would require at least two readings before the council, meaning it wouldn’t go into effect until June at the earliest. “Though we’re not 100 percent where we want to be ... the feeling is that by June 1, we will be there anyhow.”

A total of 762,346 people, the equivalent of just over 56 percent of New Hampshire’s population, have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while nearly 26 percent have been fully vaccinated, according to the latest data from the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services. New Hampshire offers vaccines to all people 16 and older, including those who don’t live full-time in the state, so it’s unclear how many within those numbers are non-residents.

Filiault originally proposed a citywide mask ordinance last May, using language similar to an ordinance that had passed in Nashua. However, when that mandate was challenged in court, Filiault withdrew his proposal, pending a judge’s ruling.

When the Nashua law was upheld, Filiault revived the proposal in July. After heated debate among community members, the council adopted the ordinance in August.

In November, Gov. Chris Sununu announced a statewide mask mandate, which he let expire on April 16.

Filiault said he had been considering cutting the outdoor provision of Keene’s ordinance even before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its updated guidance on face coverings Tuesday. While the CDC recommends that people continue to use masks outdoors when in crowded areas, Filiault says he won’t suggest adding a similar requirement to Keene’s mandate. The agency could relax its guidance even further by the time his proposed change to the city’s rule is enacted, he noted.

While Keene’s ordinance would sunset automatically when New Hampshire’s COVID-related state of emergency expires, Filiault said it could be adjusted or lifted sooner than that. He said the state of emergency could last through the rest of the year or even into next year, but that COVID-19 conditions might improve enough to lift Keene’s mask mandate before then.

“We really need to be looking ahead at when, and at what point, and what criteria do we use to eliminate the entire ordinance,” Filiault said.

The council had already been discussing the future of Keene’s mask ordinance following the expiration of the statewide mandate. During a meeting of the council’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee last week, members tabled the matter to allow more time to evaluate local COVID statistics before making a determination.

Mayor Hansel said Wednesday he is working to give community members chances to weigh in on the mandate’s future, noting he expects the next such opportunity to be at the PLD committee meeting on May 12.

“That is a timely and appropriate discussion,” Hansel said. “I will continue to facilitate opportunities for the council to hear from the public, businesses, Keene State College and public health professionals in the coming weeks to help them decide whether changes are required and when the local ordinance should be relaxed or removed.”

The PLD committee meeting will be at 7 p.m. and held remotely via Zoom. Access information can be found on the city’s website at ci.keene.nh.us.

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @MiaSummerson