New Hampshire has been fortunate in this pandemic in relative terms. A less densely populated state with an ingrained Yankee practicality, New Hampshire took to social distancing early and many residents have continued to be cautious, following the rules laid out by the governor and then some.
New England leaders have seen what works and what doesn’t, and have been slow to ease restrictions on businesses where people congregate. And as they’ve done so, they’ve also paid attention to another proven COVID-fighter: face masks.
From the outset of the pandemic, health workers have known masks are a key to prevention in any setting where people can’t distance. However, there’s been much hue and cry about wearing them and no shortage of misinformation. The CDC, early on, advised people not to obtain masks, fearing the supply would dry up and those most in need of them — first responders, medical workers and such — would face a shortage. Some people took that as authoritative advice that masks don’t work to deter the spread of the virus, a falsity.
Then there is the persistent, perhaps willful, misinterpretation of the purpose of wearing a mask. Its benefit is in keeping the wearer from spreading the virus, even if they don’t know they have it. It is not intended to protect the wearer from others — though it does that, too, to a lesser degree.
And even those who’ve resigned themselves to the idea often can’t comprehend the simple concept that the mask is worn to curb particles expelled by your breathing. Wearing it as a chinstrap or under your nose is worse than ignorance; it’s insulting, telling everyone around you: I know I’m supposed to wear this, but I simply don’t care about your health.
We can understand why some people would feel covering their mouth is enough. Early reports were that the louder you talk, the more particles you expel; that coughing or sneezing could be a risk to others. This is true, but a recent study found even more particles are expelled through the nose, meaning it’s important to wear masks over both nose and mouth.
Naturally, there are those who simply won’t comply even when stores and other businesses make clear customers are required to wear them. We find it astonishing that people who wouldn’t hesitate if asked to don a mask while visiting a compromised relative in the hospital have reacted to the same idea on a grander level as if they’re being told to pledge allegiance to al-Qaida.
Those business owners, who don’t want to discourage business walking in the door and surely don’t want a confrontation, would be aided greatly by the weight of an official mandate.
Keene’s city councilors are considering enacting such a mandate, after shying away from the idea weeks ago. They should move forward with it, both to make clear the local authorities support the wearing of masks and to give cover to businesses. Keene State College President Melinda Treadwell has said it would also help her staff if the city mandates masks, as it would set up that expectation for returning students who will be required to wear them on campus.
But even if the councilors do move ahead, such an ordinance would be toothless without the aid of the state. New Hampshire’s constitution prohibits local governments from enforcing laws not specifically allowed by the state. Keene has acted in the face of this restriction in the past and been rewarded with eventual state capitulation.
It’s well within the governor’s power during this state of emergency to take the city off the hook. Every other governor in New England has mandated masks be worn in public. Chris Sununu, who’s done so much else right during this crisis, has refused. He said this past week it would be too hard to enforce.
Sununu also said of mask-wearing: “I feel like every time I put my mask on, we’re sending a message to everybody that yeah, it’s important. And remember, when you wear a mask, it’s not to protect you, as much as it is to protect everybody around you. It’s a sign that you’re doing something for everybody else and it has real positive effects in terms of mitigating that virus spread.”
So while he’s urged people to wear them, and clearly believes they help, he won’t put the force of his authority behind it.
That’s a bad choice for someone who’s made a point of exercising his authority. He may think it’s enough to “lead by example,” but the real message coming across is that he’s unwilling to lead by actually taking a stand.
With school boards across the region and state struggling to decide how best to approach the coming semester, and Southern outbreaks slowly moving northward, we’re nowhere near the end of this pandemic. The time is past to let people choose whether they feel like helping to protect others’ health. Make masks mandatory.