The Keene City Council is slated to take up reinstating a city mask mandate Thursday, and they can’t do it soon enough.

The council implemented such a mandate last year in the midst of what was then the “worst” of the COVID pandemic. When it was passed in August 2020, Cheshire County was experiencing two new cases per day, according to N.H. Department of Health and Human Services data. The entire state had only 27 new cases. That mask mandate lasted until June; the council ended it after the governor ended his state of emergency.

That particular time frame had another significance. The city enacted its mandate just prior to the start of the school year for Keene State College, and ended it once the college students had mostly left town. The thinking was that college students would be among the likeliest to gather in groups without masks and not adhering to social distancing guidelines. It’s hard to say whether the approach had the intended effect, since Keene State itself put stringent rules in place for students, staff and visitors. Throughout the 2020-2021 school year, the city’s numbers pretty much reflected what was happening in the state and region as a whole. There was a post-holidays spike that began tapering off as vaccines became available and the weather improved. By June 1, when the city mandate officially ended, the county’s daily count of new cases stood at five.

Just about the time the council was debating when to lift the mask ordinance, news arrived of a variant of the coronavirus that was much more virulent. But the pressure was on to “get back to normal,” so the mandate was lifted, and over the next several months, we’ve seen COVID cases rising fairly consistently. Sunday, the number of cases in the state was 7,078, including 251 new cases in Cheshire County alone.

And that doesn’t really attest to the severity of the situation right now. Cheshire Medical Center, which has been compiling its own data based on its test results, has consistently shown higher figures locally than the state has. More importantly, the hospital’s intensive care unit and emergency department have been inundated with COVID patients.

Last week, the hospital reported up to 15 people waiting in the emergency department for a bed over the past week, and President and CEO Dr. Don Caruso said the problem is occurring at hospitals all over the state. A week earlier, Cheshire Medical stopped scheduling elective surgeries that might require patients to stay overnight, for a lack of beds.

Caruso has been stumping for the city to reinstate its mask mandate for months. It seems he’s finally found a voice on the council in Randy Filiault, who first proposed the city’s mask mandate last year. Filiault has said he plans to bring up reinstating it at this week’s council meeting.

The council’s rules normally call for two readings of a proposed ordinance, which also must be sent before a subcommittee. However, with holiday shopping and travel underway, that weekslong process ought to be trimmed as much as possible. Masks aren’t a panacea, but they do help contain the spread of the virus, especially worn indoors.

With the caseload straining the hospital and a new variant on the horizon that experts say could spread even more easily, local officials ought to take every precaution. Though he doesn’t have the political will to order a statewide mask mandate, Gov. Sununu has made clear that municipalities can do so locally.

Wearing masks isn’t ideal; it does make breathing a little harder; it can be uncomfortable; and it’s one more thing to remember when you leave home. However, it’s also one of only two proven ways to effectively fight the spread of the coronavirus. The other is vaccination. Both are worthwhile and we recommend them. But the City Council is in a position to order only one. It should do so.

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