The Keene City Council was over three months ahead of Gov. Chris Sununu in adopting a mask-wearing requirement last August. The council was right at the time to act without waiting for the state to play catch-up. There’s nothing about the governor’s sudden, rather impetuous decision to let the statewide mandate expire last Friday that should influence the council’s assessment of whether to leave the city’s mask ordinance in place.
The council adopted its ordinance, which in general requires face coverings when entering a business and in common areas of apartments with three or more units, early last August, citing advice of public health officials and its desire to minimize the public health threat of COVID-19 within the community. By its terms, the ordinance terminates when the governor decides that the state of emergency he has declared no longer exists. Although Sununu has now lifted the mask mandate he implemented in late November, he indicated last week he is likely to continue his state of emergency declaration through the rest of the year. Unless the council decides otherwise, then, the city’s mandate remains in force.
Surely everyone hopes for a full return to life without the public-health imperative of mask wearing, social distancing and other precautionary measures. These have all been — and continue to be — urged by the Centers for Disease Control and other of the country’s, state’s and region’s leading public health officials. The purpose of the measures is hardly punitive or to make a political statement. Rather, they help protect individuals from contracting the virus and, just as importantly, from spreading it to others. Controlling the spread is critical, as it helps keep businesses and institutions open and workplaces safe. Further, it prevents hospitals and other health-care facilities from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patient care. And while the mask-wearing requirement in Keene has not been completely without controversy, most residents have accepted the near-term inconvenience and incorporated it into their daily life, while businesses have adapted it into their operations rather seamlessly.
Vaccinations for the coronavirus are well underway locally, but they haven’t yet reached a level where public health officials say they need to be for herd immunity to be achieved. Meanwhile, another wave of the virus seems to be underway, as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the state are on the rise again and, while not yet at the winter surge levels, are above last spring’s highs. Fortunately, the success in vaccinating those most vulnerable to the virus has meant fewer people have been dying from it than during the winter.
With vaccinations accelerating locally, it seems appropriate for the City Council to begin discussing what statistical and other information it should rely on in considering when its mask ordinance can be safely lifted. City Manager Elizabeth Dragon reported to the council at its meeting last Thursday that she had asked Cheshire Medical Center officials for advice on what measurements or data points might help guide the council. Relying on the advice of medical experts who are best-positioned to understand the data certainly makes sense.
And the council should also bear in mind the ordinance’s role in backstopping mask-wearing precautions that Keene State College and local businesses have in place. The city and its businesses have been beneficiaries of Keene State’s generally successful efforts to keep its campus open and its students here. Even though the college will be limiting its commencement ceremony attendance late next month, the end of any academic year inevitably means celebration and parties. With the spread of coronavirus variants on the rise, particularly among the younger population, the city would do well to continue supporting those efforts. As for local businesses, having the city ordinance standing behind them will continue to help them in upholding mask-wearing to protect their customers and employees.
The council’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee meets Wednesday evening to begin revisiting the mask ordinance. Keene’s residents and businesses have handled the mandate well thus far. There seems no compelling reason not to keep it in place until the best CDC and local public guidance indicates it is safe to lift.