City councilors will discuss the future of Keene’s mask requirement Wednesday, after Gov. Chris Sununu lifted the statewide mandate last week.
The Elm City’s ordinance remains in effect, but is set to expire at the same time as the pandemic-related state of emergency declared by Sununu last year. The state of emergency, which is still active, is separate from the statewide mask mandate that expired Friday.
Keene Mayor George Hansel said city leaders now want to tie the ordinance to local factors instead, such as area vaccination rates or levels of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
Keene’s rule — which requires most people 10 and older to wear face coverings in all indoor public places and outdoor spaces where business is conducted — was approved by the City Council on Aug. 6.
On Wednesday at 7 p.m., the council’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee will discuss whether to keep the ordinance as is, tweak it or get rid of it. The committee’s recommendation will then be considered by the full council one week later.
City Councilor Catherine “Catt” Workman, who sits on the PLD committee, said she would be concerned about lifting the ordinance right now because the state plans to end pandemic-related business restrictions May 7, which she said could lead to an increase in cases.
Additionally, Memorial Day weekend is fast approaching, which typically leads to big gatherings.
“Personally, I’d like to see what the numbers will be in mid-June, and I want to re-examine the ordinance at that time,” Workman said.
She added that she’s already spoken with many Keene residents about Sununu’s decision to lift the statewide mask requirement.
“I have received several phone calls from people who are opposed to the mandate and want us to lift it immediately, and I’ve had phone calls and email correspondence from other residents who want us to have it remain in effect,” Workman said.
City Councilor Randy Filiault — who urged his fellow councilors to adopt a mask ordinance last summer — said he’s also heard from community members, but unlike Workman, said those he’s spoken with have been “overwhelmingly” in favor of keeping Keene’s ordinance in place.
When it’s time to vote on the matter, Filiault said he’ll be considering the area’s COVID cases, the science behind masking and how far the community is from achieving herd immunity — which happens when enough people have been immunized to stop the virus from circulating.
“Sununu lifting the mandate was 100 percent political ... because he is still saying everyone should still wear a mask. Talk about an oxymoron,” he said. “That’s what we need to avoid as far as the city goes. Leave the politics out and decide based on the medical experts.”
Michael Faber, the general manager of the Monadnock Food Co-op, said he hopes the city keeps its ordinance for a little longer.
Last summer, before the city or state mandates were in place, he said, the Cypress Street store had its own mask requirement, and it would be reinstated if Keene lifts its ordinance.
And while a majority of the co-op’s customers have complied with the mask rules, Faber said “having the city ordinance provides a layer of uniformity and a level of support for local businesses.”
But Gail Somers, owner of Yahso Jamaican Grille on Main Street, said she thinks the city can end its requirement.
“I think there should still be encouragement to socially distance and wearing a mask when appropriate, and there may be people who continue to do so regardless of what the state and city rules are,” she said. “... If we have new guidance that says it doesn’t have to be a mandatory mandate, then I say we follow suit.”
She added that if Keene’s ordinance is pulled, she will not require patrons or employees to wear masks at her restaurant.
“People should be free to do whatever feels more comfortable,” Somers said.