As New Hampshire continues reopening businesses, state Democrats are urging Gov. Chris Sununu to require people to wear masks in many public settings to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“We will only have one opportunity to bring New Hampshire’s economy back to full strength, so we must get it right the first time,” 178 N.H. House Democrats said in a letter to Sununu Thursday. “If reopening New Hampshire results in a new wave of infection, the public health and economic damage will likely be too strong for many small businesses and institutions to overcome.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using masks when people can’t stay six feet apart, especially in places with a high potential for community-based transmission, such as grocery stores and pharmacies. While they don’t protect the wearer, cloth face masks help prevent people from spreading virus-laden respiratory droplets when talking, sneezing or coughing, according to the federal agency.
But like many facets of the COVID-19 crisis, the issue of whether these facial coverings should be forced lacks consensus.
Sununu, a Republican, doesn’t believe such a mandate is needed at this time, according to spokesman Benjamin Vihstadt, though his public health team has encouraged people to wear masks.
In a statement he issued Thursday in response to Democrats’ letter, House Republican Leader Dick Hinch of Merrimack argued that Granite Staters are being responsible in following CDC guidance, and that making face coverings compulsory seems counter to the “New Hampshire Way.”
Rep. John Hunt, a Rindge Republican who represents that town and Fitzwilliam in Cheshire House District 11, likewise told The Sentinel he opposes a mask mandate.
“I’ve always believed we only want to pass laws that are enforceable,” Hunt said. “I think you are better off urging people to do it, but the last thing we need to do is pass another unenforceable order.”
Winchester Police Chief Mike Tollett said “everything is enforceable,” and if there were a mandate, local police would give out verbal warnings.
Those who signed the letter to Sununu include local Reps. Douglas Ley, a Jaffrey resident and House majority leader, Paul Berch of Westmoreland, Barry Faulkner and Bruce Tatro of Swanzey, Daniel Eaton of Stoddard, Cathryn Harvey of Spofford, Michael Abbott of Hinsdale, John Mann of Alstead, Sandy Swinburne of Marlborough, Craig Thompson of Harrisville, Lucy Weber of Walpole, Henry Parkhurst of Winchester, Peter Leishman and Ivy Vann of Peterborough, and John Bordenet, David Morrill, Will Pearson and Joe Schapiro of Keene.
As of Friday, New Hampshire had counted 3,464 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and attributed 159 deaths to it, according to the state health department.
As they contend with the outbreak within their own borders, states including Maine and Massachusetts have recently issued mask mandates, requiring people to wear them inside stores and when social distancing isn’t possible in indoor or outdoor public places.
But like lawmakers, Monadnock Region business owners expressed mixed feelings on whether such a requirement is necessary.
Beth Doyle, owner of Moe Momentum Clothing in downtown Keene, said as long as her employees continue staying six feet away from customers and wearing masks — even if customers don’t — the situation will be safe.
“I actually am fine with the way we’re handling it now,” she said. “I like to think that this pandemic is going to be with us for a while, and we need to be COVID-smart and not COVID-paranoid.”
Most of her customers are wearing masks as it is, she noted, and disposable masks are available at the front of the store.
At Country Bridals and Formal Wear in Jaffrey, owner Cathy Furve said she is already requiring all staff and customers to wear masks, and no one is giving her pushback on it yet.
She explained that most of her customers need alterations, making it nearly impossible for her to maintain the proper social distance.
And though she has no problem continuing to implement her own mask mandate, she’s in favor of a state requirement.
“For the protection of everyone, if we make the sacrifice and wear the masks for a little while, maybe this will go away quicker,” Furve said.
Jacqueline Trombly, manager of Frazier & Son Furniture in Swanzey, also said she’d appreciate stricter orders from the state.
The store encourages customers to wear masks inside, and she said most do, but she won’t kick people out if they don’t oblige.
“If they are strongly opposed to it, we won’t make them leave, so it would be nice if the governor made them,” Trombly said.
And Ted McGreer, owner of Ted’s Shoe & Sport in Keene, said having just a non-binding recommendation in place for masks leaves him feeling “unnerved.”
Though he said he doesn’t want to infringe on someone’s rights, a mask requirement would put his mind at ease.
“I’m worried about the health of my staff,” McGreer said. “The good news is nobody has any problem with [wearing masks] since we reopened ... but I think if we are in retail stores, whether we are six feet apart or not, I think we should have to wear masks.”
This article has been updated to correct the name of the Winchester police chief.