CLAREMONT — The Claremont City Council will consider adopting a mandatory city-wide ordinance requiring residents to wear protective masks when interacting with the public or customers, as positive novel coronavirus cases surge across the state.
On Thursday, the city council, by a unanimous vote of 8-0, directed the Claremont Policy Committee and city manager to draft an ordinance requiring people to wear face masks when patronizing businesses or public places in the coming weeks to possibly present by Wednesday, Dec. 9, for a council discussion and first reading. Councilor Erica Sweetser was not in attendance.
Mayor Charlene Lovett explained that she added the item to the agenda because of the virus’s recent surge across New Hampshire and the continuing concerns from residents about the number of people still not wearing masks in local businesses.
“I know people have different opinions about this,” Lovett said. “But I thought it would be a good time to discuss this issue at the council level should there be a desire to change our position.”
In May, the council adopted a non-binding resolution that urged residents to wear protective masks but did not make mask-wearing mandatory.
Several area communities, including Hanover, Lebanon and Plainfield, have adopted mandatory mask-wearing ordinances.
While active cases of the virus remain relatively low in Claremont, with only six reported cases as of Thursday night, the new surge of novel coronavirus cases in New Hampshire is far stronger and more widespread than its first wave during the spring. New cases have exceeded 200 per day since Nov. 5 and reached a new record-high of 322 cases on Thursday. Before October the highest single day of new cases in the state was 164 on May 1.
The State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan has projected that new cases in New Hampshire appear on pace to reach a rate of 500 to 1,000 new cases per day.
This second surge is also more widespread than its predecessor. Since Oct. 30 Coos County has reported 149 total cases, a 250% increase from the total cases reported in the prior months.
While most councilors indicated they would like to see mandatory mask-wearing in Claremont but have strong reservations regarding enforcing it.
City officials, including City Manager Ed Morris and Police Chief Mark Chase, said that trying to enforce a mask-ordinance could become a serious drain on the city’s police department.
“I would hate for our council to put forth something that would have our police department chasing calls of people who didn’t wear masks,” Morris said. “We’re having enough trouble keeping up with what we are dealing with now, so putting this on there would be extra strain for city staff.”
Chase said the issue was “a double edged sword” for him because he personally advocates strongly for mask-wearing, including having a department police requiring his officers to wear one when on-duty. But he worries about putting potential stress on his officers to respond to the calls.
“The other side of this is the due process,” Chase said. “If we issue tickets to people, they have to have their day in court, and the court system is somewhat behind right now because of COVID as well.”
Councilor Andrew O’Hearne, a retired Claremont police officer, added that confronting citizens over minor violations like mask-wearing often spur the offending citizen to escalate the confrontation.
“I don’t want to see an officer get into a tussle or a back-and-forth” because [the citizen] refused to take the ticket or whatever the fine was going to be,” O’Hearne said.
Councilor Deborah Matteau said that making an enforceable mandate was the only way to make a mask ordinance effective.
“Too many people won’t take a suggestion,” Matteau said. “If there’s a mandate we get a little more compliance.”
Though the council appears divided over supporting a mandate, councilors unanimously agreed that the process of drafting and deliberating an ordinance would elicit public feedback and community discussion.
“If the decision is that it doesn’t happen, that’s fine,” Koloski said. “My goal is to have the conversation and have more of an educational community outreach on this.”
The Claremont Policy Committee plans to work on an ordinance draft at its next scheduled meeting on Thursday, Nov. 19. The council’s approved motion targeted Wednesday, Dec. 9, as the tentative deadline to present the ordinance for a first reading. If councilors approve the ordinance in first reading, there would be a public hearing on the ordinance, and a second reading, scheduled at least one week’s public notice. The ordinance would only go into effect if the council approves the second reading by a majority vote.