CLAREMONT — A majority of Claremont City Council members voted in favor Wednesday night of creating a resolution encouraging residents to wear face masks in places of business to reduce the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus.
In an 8-1 vote, the council said it hopes the resolution — which will be non-binding and carry no penalty for non-mask wearers — will support businesses that adopt mask-requirement policies for customers while educating and motivating residents to wear masks in shared spaces like stores and public spaces.
“This is a public health issue,” said Councilor Deborah Matteau. “The mask doesn’t protect you from [contagious particles], it protects the people around you from your droplets getting out. To me, it’s common courtesy.”
Matteau voiced her concerns about the city’s senior population, including those living in residential facilities, who are arguably the highest-risk group in coronavirus-related fatalities.
Recently, an employee at Sullivan County Health Care tested positive for COVID-19, according to Matteau.
“Where that employee picked up the virus, I don’t know,” Matteau said. “It could have been at [a local retail store] where she was shopping for her family after her shift, because there are so many people who refuse to wear a mask for 30 minutes to shop.”
Councilor Abigail Kier, who proposed a council resolution on Wednesday, May 13, delivered a presentation to the council at the start of the discussion.
Wearing a mask in occupied spaces is recommended by the U.S. Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) and medical institutions such as the Mayo Clinic and Kaiser Permanente, Kier said. The CDC says that wearing a mask should be practiced in tandem with social-distancing, not as a replacement for maintaining separation.
Kier said that, contrary to some beliefs, “there is no evidence that wearing a standard or surgical mask is harmful to the public,” with the exception of individuals with respiratory or pulmonary issues.
The reports about people experiencing breathing issues from wearing masks only applies to a prolonged use of N-95 masks, not the commonly worn cloth masks, Kier said.
To date, Sullivan County has been less affected by coronavirus cases than elsewhere in New Hampshire. To date, Sullivan County has only reported 16 positive cases of the novel coronavirus, with only three active cases in Claremont.
However, Kier pointed out that as New Hampshire’s tourism season begins many visitors and summer residents will be entering the state.
In a letter to the council, Michael Demars, owner of tech company CCI Managed Services in Claremont, voiced objection to a council resolution, calling a requirement to wear masks an infringement on people’s liberties and could discourage people from patronizing businesses in Claremont.
“We should be careful to consider more than the small amount of lives we’d be saving,” Demars stated. “We should also consider the quality of life of all our citizens and those who visit our city. As strongly as you may feel that it’s a good idea, there are just as many people who feel it’s a personal choice.”
Councilor Jonathan Stone, who cast the lone dissenting vote against the resolution, equated it to government “overreach.”
State Rep. Walt Stapleton (Ward III) disagreed with the resolution being an infringement.
“This is a recommendation, a non-binding resolution essentially telling the community that we’re going to set a standard for caring and responsible behavior,” the representative said.
Stapleton called the resolution “a great idea.”
“It’s a good message to say to our neighbors to stay safe and follow the recommendations of the medical community,” he said.
Councilor Nicholas Koloski, while voting in favor of the resolution, said he still worries that some community members might treat the resolution like an enforceable declaration or reason to stoke conflicts.
“When an argument breaks out and it turns into what we’ve seen online, what is the expectation?” Koloski asked.”Because we certainly can’t overtax the police department with this responsibility.”
Mayor Charlene Lovett said she and City Manager Ed Morris solicited input from Gov. Chris Sununu about a resolution in a phone conversation on Thursday, May 14. According to Lovett, Sununu said that municipalities have authority to impose more restrictive regulations for mask-wearing than the state, but advised that a council be careful and consider how to enforce such an ordinance first.