Despite the fierce community debate that preceded Keene’s new mask ordinance, the Keene Police Department has fielded just a handful of reports of possible noncompliance.
The ordinance, which requires most adults and kids over the age of 9 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 by a 12-2 vote. Between then and early Thursday morning, Keene police officers had responded to six calls about potential ordinance violations, according to a log the department emails The Sentinel each day.
Two of the calls came in Monday, and the other four were from Wednesday. None of them resulted in any formal warnings or fines.
Penalties for violating the ordinance are a verbal warning for the first offense, a written warning for the second, a $100 fine for the third and a $250 fine for all subsequent offenses. Only businesses and other public establishments are subject to the fines, not individuals.
All of the calls have involved people with a medical condition, who are exempt from the mandate, an employee who wasn’t wearing a mask but was working behind a barrier approved by city health officials, or a person who was no longer on the scene when officers arrived, according to police officials.
Police Chief Steven Russo said there will be a learning curve, noting that it may take some time for everyone to become aware of the new requirement.
“I talk to many people that didn’t even know [the council] was addressing the mask ordinance, so it might take a while to get around,” Russo said. “When we put up a new stop sign, we always have a grace period. So we’re doing the same thing here, and our goal is always voluntary compliance and education.”
Russo said the city has taken some steps to help with the education piece, such as sharing fact sheets detailing when masks are and aren’t required and posting an FAQ section on its website.
However, the chief said enforcing the ordinance isn’t quite as black and white as one may think. He said there’s not much police can do if they don’t directly see someone who is refusing to wear a mask, and he also noted that officers must take into account state business-reopening guidelines, which supersede the city’s mandate and often have their own requirements for when masks are or are not needed.
Councilor Randy Filiault, who proposed the first draft of the ordinance back in May, said Thursday that he’s not surprised that there hadn’t been any formal warnings or fines issued yet. He said the ordinance was never meant to be enforced with a heavy hand and is simply a measure taken to keep people safe.
“The ordinance was originally written for one purpose,” Filiault said. “And that’s to save lives.”
He said those who aren’t aware of the ordinance and those who forget to wear a mask are not the people he envisions getting fined. The ordinance is meant to hold accountable those who deliberately defy it, he said.
While penalties apply only to businesses that don’t enforce the ordinance, Russo said it’s up to establishments to determine if they want to allow someone inside without a mask — for example, if they say they have a medical condition that exempts them. If a business attempts to enforce the ordinance but a customer refuses to abide, police have other ways of holding those people responsible.
“It would be trespassing if they don’t leave a private business [when asked to],” Russo said. He added that such behavior would also be considered trespassing at certain city facilities, like the library or City Hall.
Although not yet having to use it, Russo said the police have a database set up to help them keep track of how many times a business has been cited for not enforcing the ordinance.
The concept of mask mandates has become highly controversial — with many people saying they’re necessary for public health and others seeing them as a violation of individual liberty.
In the weeks leading up to the ordinance’s adoption, the council’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee heard hours of public comment on the subject before the ordinance was approved, with members of the public offering strong opinions on both sides of the issue. But Filiault emphasized that the mandate was not meant as a political move.
He also answered accusations that the ordinance is just a revenue source for the city. If that were the case, he said, it wouldn’t include two warnings before imposing a fine.
Russo said he doesn’t want to make the matter political either. He said the police department is neutral on the topic and echoed Filiault that public safety is the focus. With an influx of students set to return to Keene State College very soon, he said, and visitors from neighboring states like Massachusetts and Vermont regularly coming and going, the ordinance can only help.
“People should have open minds,” he said. “The goal really is to protect our community.”
Sentinel staff writer Caleb Symons contributed to this report.