20210331-FEA-face masks

As communities and businesses throughout the U.S. return to mask requirements amid rising concerns over COVID-19’s delta variant, the city of Keene doesn’t have plans to follow suit.

Late last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised fully vaccinated people to resume wearing masks indoors in areas seeing significant community transmission of the virus. (The federal agency never stopped recommending this for those who are unvaccinated.) Mask mandates have been reinstated in Los Angeles County, as well as statewide in Louisiana and in the cities of Atlanta, San Francisco and Kansas City, Mo.

Several major retailers, such as Walmart and Target, have also reissued their mask mandates in places where community transmission is high. This did not apply to Keene’s Walmart or Target locations as of Tuesday afternoon. Likewise, the Walmarts in Rindge and Hinsdale are not requiring masks, but are recommending them for unvaccinated customers.

Keene City Councilor Randy Filiault, who first proposed a mask mandate back in the spring of 2020, said he doesn’t plan to bring the idea back up for discussion anytime soon.

“I’ve thought this one over, as the delta variant takes over,” Filiault said. “I think we’re at a high enough vaccination rate that we don’t need a city mandate.”

In New Hampshire, 53.7 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, and in Cheshire County that number is just shy of 50 percent, according to state data issued Monday. State statistics released in June show that Keene’s rate for full vaccination at that time was 52 percent.

Filiault first pitched a citywide mask mandate in May 2020, a couple of months after the COVID-19 pandemic began in earnest in the United States. Shortly after doing so, he withdrew the request due to a legal challenge to Nashua’s mask mandate, on which he had heavily based his draft.

He brought the matter back to the table that summer after a judge struck down the challenge to Nashua’s mandate, and the City Council adopted Keene’s mask ordinance that August. The requirement, which pertained to people 10 and older in all indoor public places and outdoor public spaces where business was being conducted, was allowed to expire on June 1 of this year after the region’s cases began to fall and its vaccination rates went up.

Keene Mayor George Hansel confirmed Tuesday that the city has had no discussions about reviving its mask mandate. He said city officials have been keeping an eye on data from Cheshire Medical Center to keep tabs on the virus’ local impact.

“We are continuing to monitor the percent positivity rate and the number of hospitalizations closely,” Hansel said. “While these have been trending up in recent weeks, those levels are still low.”

According to state data, Cheshire County is considered to have moderate community transmission. The county has seen about 67 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks. As of Tuesday morning, there were 850 known, active cases statewide.

The delta variant, according to the CDC, is highly transmissible and responsible for at least three-quarters of recent COVID-19 cases in the United States. Cases have been on the rise lately, both in New Hampshire and nationally.

Filiault said the only reason he could see returning to a mask mandate in Keene is if a variant arose that the vaccines don’t protect against. According to public health officials, the vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — made by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — are effective against the delta variant, though slightly less so than against other strains.

Still, while saying he doesn’t think Keene needs a new mandate at this point, Filiault advised people to heed the CDC’s masking recommendation.

“If you’re not vaccinated or are high-risk, you should make the choice of wearing a mask,” he said. He added that “based on what I’m seeing over the last few days, people seem to be adhering to the warnings.”

Hansel said he hopes to see the area’s vaccination rates continue to rise. Getting the shot is a good way to keep yourself safe from the worst reactions to the virus, he noted.

“My hope is that people consult with their primary care physician and make the decision to get vaccinated,” Hansel said. “While not the only tool to protect us from the most severe impacts of COVID, the evidence ... has convinced me that it’s a very powerful tool.”

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