PORTSMOUTH — The City Council voted unanimously Thursday night to ratify a public health directive issued by city administrators that requires everyone older than 5 years of age to wear facial coverings in publicly accessible indoor areas because of surging COVID-19 cases.
The motion, which was proposed by City Councilor Josh Denton, also calls for holding a first reading at the council’s Jan. 24 meeting to restart a previous citywide mask mandate ordinance that ended last summer.
City Manager Karen Conard issued the health directive last week at the request of health officer Kim McNamara. If the ordinance is passed, it would add strength to the city manager's directive.
The mask mandate also applies to all indoor places of employment that are shared by two or more employees who are not from the same household.
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Masks were already required in all of the city’s municipal buildings.
The council’s vote took place at a special meeting Thursday night, which several city councilors attended via Zoom video conference, some because they had tested positive for COVID-19.
A number of city residents spoke in person or by Zoom in support and in opposition to the public health directive requiring masks.
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At Thursday’s meeting, Conard stated “this is a proud united front on an important matter, essentially dealing with the public health of the citizens of Portsmouth.”
The Portsmouth weekly testing positivity rate for COVID is now over 27%, Conard told the council.
“Time is and was of the essence to institute effective mitigation measures with the least amount of disruption,” she said. “Masks are the best way to do this. Simply put, it was in the best interest of public health.”
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Mayor Deaglan McEachern said he supported the public health directive and the way it was issued.
He also credited residents who opposed the directive but showed up Thursday night and “respected the rules of this chamber” by wearing masks.
“It’s a difficult situation that we find ourselves in tonight,” he said.
McEachern also cited the need to “keep our citizens safe,” saying it’s the “fundamental responsibility of government.”
Assistant Mayor Joanna Kelley, who runs a downtown small business, talked about the importance of protecting people who can’t work remotely.
“Residents I talk to on a daily basis are in support of this,” she said.
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City Councilor John Tabor, who attended the meeting remotely, said he was “100% in support of this,” while sharing he recently tested positive for COVID.
“We know masks will slow the spread, and it will keep a lot of people safe,” he said.
City Councilor Andrew Bagley also spoke in support of the mask directive, adding he tested positive for COVID “earlier this week.”
He, too, attended Thursday’s meeting via Zoom.
“My hope is we only need this for a few number of weeks,” Bagley said.
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Brian Wazlaw of Sagamore Avenue was one of many residents who spoke in support of the mask mandate during Thursday’s special meeting.
“We are experiencing a COVID omicron surge in New Hampshire,” he said, predicting “it’s only going to get worse.”
COVID-19 cases in New Hampshire hit a record high Thursday with 3,818 new positive test results reported by state health officials, along with 19 deaths. There were 22,750 active cases in the state as of Thursday and 432 people hospitalized.
He encouraged people both to get vaccinated and to wear face coverings in order to slow “the transmission of COVID.”
Harrison Avenue resident Alan Forbes spoke against the mask mandate, citing a low death rate of the virus.
Former City Councilor Petra Huda didn’t address the mandate itself, but questioned the “process that was taken” to put it in place by the city manager.
Implementing it in such a manner, she said, went against the provisions of the city charter.
Rock Street resident Nicole LaPierre spoke in support of the directive and pointed to all the people who died from COVID nationwide since the pandemic began.
“Not having this directive is destroying our hospitals, people can’t get standard care because of it,” she said.
She thanked Conard and McNamara for “acting quickly” and added there was “no time to waste.”
Process to bring back Portsmouth mask ordinance
Portsmouth’s previous mask ordinance, which the council is now scheduled to take up Jan. 24, required that “all persons wear face coverings whenever they are in indoor or outdoor places which are accessible to the public, in which a physical distancing of 6 feet between people who are not members of the same household is not maintained.”
City Attorney Robert Sullivan said the council must pass three readings to put the ordinance back in place.
During that time, the mask directive can stay in place, he said Thursday.
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Portsmouth NH issues mask mandate indoor public spaces, COVID surge