Timing, the saying goes, is everything, and that will certainly prove the case as the various states and localities and their residents make decisions about when to lift social-distancing restrictions and at what pace “normal” life can be resumed comfortably.
In Keene, the City Council is now addressing the timing issue as it discusses easing and then lifting the city’s mask ordinance. The council adopted its ordinance early last August amidst ongoing concerns about the spread of COVID-19. The ordinance, which generally requires face coverings when entering a business and in common areas of apartments with three or more units, has also served to backstop businesses and others with their own mask requirements, particularly during the months before and after the statewide mask mandate was in place.
By its terms, the city’s ordinance continues until the end of the COVID-19 state of emergency declared by Gov. Chris Sununu. That sunsetting provision seems increasingly irrelevant to the council’s discussion of what is a public health measure, as Sununu seems far more interested in continuing his emergency declaration throughout the year so that he can control the spending of federal coronavirus aid without legislative approval, than he is in continuing it for public health reasons.
The council’s Planning, Licenses and Development committee has in recent weeks had several meetings to discuss the ordinance’s future. This Wednesday, it unanimously recommended that the council immediately remove the restriction on outdoor masks in business settings and that it end the mask ordinance entirely on July 1. In making that recommendation, the committee relied on the advice of city Health Officer John Rogers and Dr. Don Caruso, the head of Cheshire Medical Center/Dartmouth-Hitchcock, who expressed comfort that sufficient numbers will be fully vaccinated locally by July 1 to justify terminating the ordinance. Other considerations discussed by the committee were that Keene State College students will have returned home and area public schools will no longer be in session. The council will take up the committee’s recommendation at its May 20 meeting.
Assuming the council adopts the committee’s recommendation, mask-wearing will in many respects become a matter of personal choice, but there are complications. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Thursday advised that fully vaccinated individuals may stop wearing face masks and social distancing in most settings, a decision that took many state and local officials across the country by surprise. Among them was New Hampshire’s state epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan, who expressed concern that the CDC’s change of course was premature, and didn’t yet know whether the state would similarly change its recommendations. Such a change puts businesses in a bind, as, in determining how best to protect customers and employees, they will likely be unable to know which of them have been vaccinated.
In the end, removing the mask requirement depends on the willingness of individuals to get vaccinated, both for their own safety and to avoid asymptomatic transmission to others. If local public health officials are advising a sufficient number are likely to be vaccinated by July 1, there is a basis for the council to lift the mandate.
Still, even though COVID-19 cases have been generally trending down as summer approaches, the pandemic situation remains fluid. Keene State this week reported its highest number of infections this semester, and its testing of the city’s wastewater indicates that one of the COVID-19 variants has become the dominant strain found in Keene’s sewage. The college’s students will return from parts unknown in the fall, people will be spending more time indoors after nicer weather ends, and the danger from the coronavirus variants is yet unclear.
The council, then, would be wise to retain flexibility to act quickly in case the situation worsens after July 1. The process by which the council adopts ordinances can typically take at least a few weeks. Whether by incorporating flexibility in the ordinance when amending it to lift the mandate on July 1, or by assuring that the city — acting through the city manager or otherwise — can promptly, if temporarily, reinstate it until the council has time to act, the council will have taken an appropriate step in the interest of protecting public health.