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Sununu Drops Mask Mandate, Will Lift Most Other Pandemic Restrictions

Dan Tuohy/NHPR

Virtually all statewide limits on businesses and public activities due to the pandemic will be lifted in New Hampshire within a matter of weeks, Gov. Chris Sununu announced Thursday.

The statewide mask mandate will expire on Friday, April 16. And on May 7, all required business restrictions – such as capacity limits and cleaning requirements – will be lifted, replaced with voluntary guidance.

In making the announcement, Sununu pointed to rising vaccination rates -- especially among healthcare workers and the elderly -- and a decline in COVID-19 deaths. He struck an upbeat note and said his decision was informed by public health data.

“We are really on the top in terms of the speed of vaccine,” Sununu said at a Concord press conference Thursday afternoon. “And, really, what has happened over the past month has been an absolute game changer.”

But by many other measures, New Hampshire's trends in managing the pandemic are as troubling as any point over the past several months, with several key measures of progress getting worse in recent weeks.

For example, New Hampshire is currently averaging more new cases each day, more active cases and more hospitalizations than it was in November 2020, when the statewide mask mandate first took effect.

At that time, in the month leading up to the mandate, the state reported about 6,600 new COVID cases. In the month leading up to today, the state has reported about 11,500 new cases.

About 30 more people are hospitalized, on average, right now, than they were when the mask mandate first took effect. And all 10 New Hampshire counties continue to experience “substantial” transmission of COVID-19, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Sununu’s announcement Thursday came with little advance notice. More than a dozen cities and towns had already passed their own mask mandates before the state requirement took effect last November. That includes Durham, where Town Manager Todd Selig said Thursday that the town’s mask requirement is in effect until at least June 5.

“The lifting of the statewide mandate by the governor does not diminish the importance of wearing a face mask,” Selig said. “The threat to public health from COVID-19 is real.”

At Thursday’s press conference, Sununu stressed that municipalities and businesses can still require masks in the absence of a statewide mandate. And he encouraged all residents to wear masks when appropriate, practice social distancing, and get vaccinated.

Sununu’s announcement means New Hampshire will be the only state in the Northeast without a mask mandate - something critics were quick to point out Thursday.

“We are seeing a real spike in COVID-19 cases, and, with new variants like B.1.1.7 circulating, we will be the only New England state without a mask requirement – including for visitors from states hot with the virus,” said Brendan Williams, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Health Care Association, which represents most of the state’s nursing homes.

As of today, over 70% of New Hampshire residents have either been vaccinated or registered for a vaccine.  Dr. Beth Daly, chief of the state's Bureau of Infectious Disease Control, said Thursday that about one quarter of state residents are now fully vaccinated.

Sununu’s announcement is in keeping with other recent efforts to lift pandemic-driven restrictions. Earlier this month, Sununu ordered all school districts that had not already returned to fully in-person learning to do so by April 19. The mandate caught state educators and administrators off guard, but Sununu said the benefits for students in returning to in-person education far outweighed the risks of further transmission of COVID-19.

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