NH city leaders urge public to keep wearing masks

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Kevin Landrigan, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
·5 min read
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Apr. 20—The mayors of all 13 New Hampshire cities urged residents Tuesday to continue to wear masks and practice social distancing, less than a week after Gov. Chris Sununu lifted the statewide mask order.

In a joint statement, the mayors said they understood Sununu's move, but they plan to push the mask-wearing message until a larger percentage of the state's population is fully vaccinated.

Sununu did not renew the mask mandate when it expired Friday.

On Thursday Sununu said the average number of deaths from COVID-19 — about one every two days — was the lowest in the state since last fall and hospitalizations were at a manageable level.

"The lifting of the New Hampshire mandate does not diminish the importance of wearing a face mask," said Rochester Mayor and ex-Democratic State Sen. Caroline McCarley, who organized the statement.

"It's important to stay vigilant until the experts say it's safe. We also urge New Hampshire citizens to respect private businesses that choose to continue and enforce COVID-19 safety protocols."

Nashua was the first municipality to enact a mask ordinance, in May.

Similar local orders are now on the books in Concord, Lebanon Portsmouth, Keene and Durham.

Manchester adopted a separate one that carried no fine for violators and only applied the mask wearing to indoor public buildings.

Concord's mandate is set to expire June 1, Durham's will expire June 5 and Portsmouth's ordinance ends June 30 unless extended by local officials.

Lebanon's mandate stays in place until the city council votes to end it and Keene's ordinance stays in place as long as the state's declaration of emergency is in effect.

"Our city has a mandate in place through June," said Portsmouth Mayor Rick Becksted. "Our health department continues to use the Rockingham County percentage as a measure."

Also signing onto the statement were Joyce Craig in Manchester, Jim Donchess in Nashua, Jim Bouley in Concord and the mayors of Berlin, Claremont, Dover, Franklin, Keene, Laconia, Lebanon and Somersworth.

McCarley said that according to federal health experts, 90% of the nation's population will not be vaccinated until late July. The nation is still well short of "herd immunity," that share of the population that needs to be vaccinated to break the chain of transmission, she said.

The World Health Organization places that "herd immunity" level at between 60% and 70 %.

Sununu has stressed that individual communities and private businesses are free to keep their own mask rules in place.

"We are a local control state. That will continue," Sununu said Tuesday during an appearance on Howie Carr's network radio program.

"If that's what they want to do, then that's their choice... Some of them are college towns, so they are worried about their students."

Sununu predicted Connecticut "in a couple of weeks" could become the second New England state to lift its mask mandate.

Vermont and Massachusetts, run by Republican governors like New Hampshire, likely won't take that step for a while, Sununu said.

Late last week, a coalition of the seven chambers of commerce across the southern and capital regions of the state issued a joint statement urging consumers to patronize businesses that choose to retain mask mandates and other restrictions.

"Throughout the pandemic the business community has proven to be innovative and resilient no matter what challenges have been thrown their way," the chamber statement said.

"We urge all citizens to listen to and support these businesses as they continue to adapt to new changes in guidelines and phases of the pandemic."

Sununu announced that on May 7 all industry-specific state requirements for mask-wearing and seating capacity will expire and be replaced by a set of "universal best practices."

Even after Sununu's decision, the state Department of Health and Human Services continued to recommend mask-wearing in schools.

Concord, Merrimack Valley, Dunbarton, Bow, Hopkinton and Franklin are among many individual school districts that have said they will continue requiring masks.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 reached 133 last Sunday, double the number a month ago and more than at any point since early February.

Sununu said last week the people hospitalized now are younger than those who were laid up with the infection months ago, and the average hospital stay has gotten shorter in recent weeks.

According to the state's COVID-19 dashboard, 22% of fully-staffed hospital beds are not being used, and the vacancy rate of hospital intensive care units is just under 19 %.

The latest data confirm that the virus incidence here is dropping considerably among older residents who have been fully vaccinated.

Those up to 20 years old made up the biggest group of new cases in New Hampshire in the first week of April.

Those over 50 made up the smallest number of new cases, according to state analyses of both virus and vaccination rates.

"I think we are just going to be in a much better place in the coming weeks," Sununu said.

On Tuesday, the average number of daily positive tests over the past week was 374, which was 16% lower than the same average a week ago.

The daily positivity rate this week was 4.7%. National experts have said that any state or community with a rate below 5% has the virus under control.

New Hampshire remains at or near the top of states for vaccinations completed.

As of Tuesday, 654,424 people — about 50% of the state's population — have received one dose of the vaccine, and 24.6% are fully vaccinated.

Those under 16 aren't eligible to be vaccinated.

klandrigan@unionleader.com