Gov. Chris Sununu’s surprise decision to lift New Hampshire’s statewide mask mandate this week leaves residents, businesses, local officials and health care workers with big decisions to make about their own safety and that of those around them, as COVID-19 continues to pose a risk to public health.
The most immediate impact will likely be felt in the state’s retail sector, where businesses must now decide whether to set and enforce their own COVID-19 policies, and customers will face a patchwork of restrictions, store to store, restaurant to restaurant.
Patrons at any of John Tinios’s restaurants on the Seacoast will now encounter a sign that explains they would appreciate customers continuing to wear masks, but there will be no requirement.
“We are not going to fight with our customers, or police them, if they decide not to,” Tinios said Friday.
Servers and cooks, however, will still continue to wear masks. Tinios said he’s hearing mixed reactions from other restaurateurs about the new flexibility.
“I think there are a lot of them that are rejoicing, while others are lamenting that they have a larger role to communicate to their customer,” he said.
Other businesses are taking a firmer approach, including at Jetpack Comics in Rochester, where anyone entering the store will still be required to wear a mask.
“We are going to enforce masks, until every person that works here feels comfortable about people not having masks,” said Ralph Dibernardo, the shop’s owner.
Dibernardo said he’s supported Sununu’s decisions throughout the pandemic, but believes the repeal of the mask mandate comes “a little too soon.” One fear he has is that the governor’s decision will lead to more confrontation.
“All of the staff, we are just so used to dealing with it that we don’t engage in the argument anymore,” Dibernardo said. “If somebody wants to start a discussion about it, there’s no discussion to have. This is our rule, if you don’t want to follow it, you don’t have to shop here.”
Health care sector still under strain
In announcing the expiration of the mask mandate Thursday, Sununu pointed to the availability of hospital beds and an easing of the health care labor crunch.
Martha Wassell, director of infection prevention at Wentworth Douglass Hospital in Dover, said, while staff shortages have gotten much better, thanks to the rise in vaccinations, many staff are worn down by the pandemic.
When it comes to beds, the hospital has been “full to the brim” over the past two weeks with COVID and non-COVID patients, she said, and the hospital opened up annexes to house and care for more patients.
Statewide, New Hampshire’s inpatient and ICU hospital beds are about as full as they were when the mask mandate first took effect last November, and COVID patients are occupying a similar share of beds, according to federal hospital data.
Anne Sosin, program director for the Center for Global Health Equity at Dartmouth College, said dropping the statewide mask mandate is premature. She said, when it comes to the state’s younger population, many have not yet had the opportunity to get vaccinated.
“Many young people are working in higher risk settings such as grocery stores, retail, where they’re not choosing whether or not they’re exposed to COVID-19,” she said.
Lifting the mandate leaves them at higher risk for contracting the virus, Sosin said, especially as COVID variants continue to spread.
State government gets leeway
What the lifting of the statewide mask requirement means for the 10,000-plus state workers isn’t entirely clear. In his Thursday announcement, Sununu didn’t specify any policy for state government, one of New Hampshire’s largest employers.
Charlie Arlinghaus, commissioner of the state Department of Administrative Services, said in an email that agency leaders will have latitude to implement health and safety policies specific to their departments.
“Every space is different and every operation is different, so agency heads will work internally to have internal protocols that encourage safety and normal operations,” Arlinghaus said.
But Rich Gulla, president of the State Employees Association, the largest union representing state workers, said he hopes state leaders will still opt for mandatory masks within state office buildings.
“I think it makes common sense, based on everything we are seeing right now, to keep wearing masks for the safety of fellow citizens,” Gulla said,
A spokesman for Sununu said public-facing state offices and facilities -- including state-run liquor stores and DMV offices -- located in cities and towns with mask mandates will “follow and comply with local rules.”
Schools still push masking
Meanwhile, schools are reminding students and parents that despite the end of the statewide mask mandate, masks are still required in school.
K-12 schools have been exempt from the statewide mask mandate and given flexibility to develop their own mask rules, but school leaders say the statewide mandate reinforced their rules for mask-wearing on buses, in classrooms, and during sporting events.
Some school officials say they're already getting inquiries about whether the mask rule will change and worry about pressure from parents with the statewide change.
State health officials say masks are essential to limit the transmission of COVID-19 as schools fully reopen next week, particularly as some relax their distancing restrictions to accommodate more students.
Several cities and towns are keeping their own mandates in place in lieu of the expired statewide mandate. More than a dozen municipalities had already passed their own mask mandates before the state requirement took effect last November. That includes Hanover, Lebanon, Keene, Concord, Nashua, Franconia, Plymouth and several Seacoast towns, including Durham.
Other towns, like Conway, that don’t currently have a mask ordinance in place, plan on discussing the expiration of the statewide mandate at upcoming select board meetings.
New Hampshire is now the only state in the Northeast without a statewide mask mandate.