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Apr. 15—Gov. Chris Sununu announced that New Hampshire's mask mandate will end Friday, and the state's COVID-19-related business restrictions will end in early May.
During a Thursday afternoon news conference, the governor said the state's mask requirement would not be renewed when it expires at the end of the week. The mandate has been in effect since November as a means of fighting the fall and winter surge of COVID-19 cases.
"We'll continue to work hand-in-hand with Public Health to encourage social distancing, the wearing of masks when appropriate; that message will not change whatsoever," Sununu said. "What does change is the government's imposed requirement to do so."
In a news release issued by Sununu's office during the conference, State Epidemiologist Benjamin Chan also emphasized the importance of continued mask-wearing. He noted that even before the statewide mandate was introduced, the state recommended using face coverings to limit the spread of COVID-19.
"The lifting of the mandate does not diminish the importance of wearing a face mask," Chan said in the release. "The threat to health from COVID-19 is real. Even as restrictions are reduced, we are still in a pandemic and levels of COVID-19 remain high across the State."
Sununu said the decision to lift the mandate comes after a return to the fatality rates the state saw prior to the fall surge, as well as a steadily increasing vaccination rate. Many of these new infections are being found among younger people, age groups that have had vaccine access for a shorter period of time.
About 45 percent of the state's population has received their first dose of the vaccine, and 23 percent are considered fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, according to state health department data.
Meanwhile, COVID cases in New Hampshire have been rising for weeks, after dropping from their winter peak of more than 800 per day.
The state averaged 445 new cases per day for the week ending Wednesday, compared to 239 for the seven days ending March 6.
COVID-related hospitalizations have also increased. As of Thursday morning, New Hampshire hospitals held 130 COVID-19 patients, compared to 68 a month ago — slightly higher than the spring 2020 peak, though still far below the 335 patients hospitalized on Jan. 2, at the height of the winter surge.
But with many of the most vulnerable people vaccinated, deaths have remained relatively low, averaging less than one per day for the first 11 days of April, according to state data. That's comparable to the death rate in September, before cases began surging later in the fall.
All adults in New Hampshire ages 16 and up have been eligible to register for a vaccine since early April, though the state began rolling out vaccinations for people 65 and over in January.
Sununu said local governments and private businesses will still be able to enforce their own mask requirements.
Months before the statewide mandate was announced, many businesses and some municipalities had implemented their own mask requirements. The city of Keene passed a mask ordinance in August, which will remain in place until the state of emergency established by Sununu in March 2020, and renewed periodically, expires, at which time the mandate will sunset automatically.
However, the Keene City Council's Planning, Licenses and Development Committee is scheduled to review the ordinance during its regular meeting Wednesday at 7 p.m., Mayor George Hansel tweeted Thursday afternoon.
Also coming to an end are most of the state's restrictions related to business operations, Sununu said Thursday. As of May 7, the existing requirements will transition into recommended best practices, which will be streamlined into a single document.
He said the May date was chosen because the state has projected that most people who want to be vaccinated will be at least partly inoculated by then.
"As of May 7, over 95 percent of New Hampshire citizens who want a vaccine will have received their first shot," Sununu said.
Sentinel staff writer Paul Cuno-Booth contributed reporting.
Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MiaSummerson