Gov. Chris Sununu announced on Thursday that the state will not renew the mask mandate. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
New Hampshire’s mask mandate will become a mask recommendation – “when appropriate” – on Saturday.
Gov. Chris Sununu announced Thursday at his weekly COVID-19 update that the state will not renew the mask mandate when it expires Friday. Businesses, cities, towns, and schools can continue requiring masks. He also announced that on May 7, he will retire the state’s “Safer at Home” messaging and lift all statewide restrictions on businesses and activities.
Andy Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center, said the center’s recent research shows support for businesses and municipalities requiring masks. Nearly 68 percent favored allowing cities and towns to require masks. When asked about businesses requiring masks, 45 percent said they would “definitely” patronize a business with a mask mandate and 27 percent said they “probably” would. About 23 percent said they would “definitely” not.
The decision to lift the mask mandate comes when the daily cases numbers are slightly higher than they were when Sununu announced the mandate in November. On Thursday, the state reported 552 new cases and 130 hospitalizations. State Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette announced a new COVID-19 outbreak at the federal prison in Berlin, with 85 prisoners and two employees testing positive.
The difference, Sununu said, is the drop in deaths, less need for hospital beds, and the arrival of vaccines. State officials said Thursday that 25 percent of the population is fully vaccinated and there are enough doses for everyone.
But while the state will no longer mandate masks, Sununu strongly encouraged continued mask use. “We all know wearing a face covering when we’re unable to maintain social distancing, it’s just a good idea,” he said. “It is recommended by public health and we’re strongly behind that message, and we encourage everyone to continue to do so.”
State epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan was not at the press conference Thursday but included remarks in a release from the governor’s office. “The lifting of the mandate does not diminish the importance of wearing a face mask,” he said. “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. Therefore, we ask that people continue to take steps to protect their own health, the health of their family and friends, and the health of their community.”
Following the announcement, Sen. Tom Sherman, a Rye Democrat, urged Sununu to reconsider. “Our state is averaging more new cases each day and more hospitalizations than when the mask mandate first went into effect. As a doctor, I am shocked that in spite of these facts the Governor is now lifting this critical protection against the spread of COVID 19. It is clear that the pandemic is far from over.”
Sununu is unlikely to think twice. During Thursday’s update, he said: “The only thing that’s changing is the state isn’t coming down with a mandate saying, ‘Thou shalt.’ That’s a very harsh thing, and that was a hard decision to make on our part to be sure. We did it as part of the fall surge.”
He said he understands some people will greet the end of the mandate with trepidation but doesn’t feel lifting the mandate leaves people unprotected. “It’s very natural for folks to have trepidations and concerns, of course, but that’s what the vaccine is for,” he said. “Folks (who) want to protect themselves, that’s their job is to protect themselves. And if there’s individuals that are choosing not to get that vaccine and kind of provide themselves that shield, they take those risks.”
Sununu has been hinting he’d take this step, predicting for weeks he’d reopen the state by Memorial Day and telling the Portsmouth Herald Tuesday that he would lift the mask mandate “wicked soon.” He said last week he believed Granite Staters can make personal mask-wearing decisions that are safe and respectful of others.
“So, even as we loosen some of these restrictions, there’s that aspect of personal responsibility, I think, in all aspects of our lives,” Sununu said at his April 8 COVID-19 update. “New Hampshire handles personal responsibility really, really well.”
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