MANCHESTER, N.H. – There is a mask mandate once again in Manchester’s public buildings.
The concept of renewing the mandate came following an update to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BMA) on COVID-19 data from Manchester Health Department Director Anna Thomas, where she reported that the city is approximately 14 times above the threshold for “substantial” community transmission levels.
When originally instituted, the mandate, which was a voluntary resolution, required anyone in public buildings to wear masks outside of various exceptions such as medical issues, children under 10, public employees needing to show their face to perform their duties and anyone casting a ballot among other exceptions.
While Thomas repeatedly said she did not come before the board asking for a mandate, Ward 2 Alderman Will Stewart moved to restart the mandate that had been in place last year while New Hampshire was officially in a state of emergency.
Stewart did not propose a timeline for the mandate, saying that the measure could be revisited at each BMA meeting as needed.
Thomas did ask everyone in the city to wear masks while indoors until at least mid-January given the current COVID-19 figures in the city and said that without 90 percent vaccination rates, the virus would continue to mutate into new forms.
Thomas said she was unsure how far mandates could go and was unsure how many city employees were vaccinated. She also struggled to understand the resistance to wearing masks indoors for limited periods beyond people feeling like they might be having their choices taken away.
“Is it really that big of a deal when you’re indoors for a short time?” she said. “I don’t know if it’s that much of a burden.”
At-Large Alderman Joseph Kelly Levasseur urged everyone to obtain COVID-19 vaccinations, but questioned the effectiveness of mask usage and felt that it may give people a false sense of security against the virus. He also noted that there is no current state of emergency, unlike when the mandate was previously in effect.
He also felt that it was inappropriate for elected officials to pretend they had the expertise of doctors and scientists.
Ward 6 Alderman Sebastian Sharonov asked Thomas if mask mandates had been successful elsewhere and she answered that mandates were generally most effective when they focused on indoor spaces.
Sharonov also asked if there would be penalties for non-compliance, with Ward 8 Alderman Ed Sapienza interrupting that the penalty would be “20 lashes with a wet noodle.”
Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig said that the purpose of the measure would be protection, with Thomas adding that she would rather understand an employee’s thought process rather than punish them if they violated the resolution.
“All of my employees are masking, but if they’re not, I’m not going to taser them to the ground,” she said, reiterating that her goal is to get the majority of city residents to mask voluntarily.
City Solicitor Emily Rice said that she was unaware of any punishment during the initial time the mandate was in place, but could not definitively say that no one would ever be punished if the mandate went back into effect.
Ward 10 Alderman Bill Barry said he did not feel comfortable with the measure unless it included a carveout for vaccinated individuals, but Thomas repeated that it would be difficult to discern how many city employees are vaccinated, let alone members of the general public.
Ward 4 Alderman Jim Roy was concerned that this proposal was not on the agenda, leading to the Aldermen not having ready answers to questions they may need to make a decision.
The BMA were deadlocked 6-6 in a roll call vote on the issue. Stewart, Kevin Cavanaugh (Ward 1), Pat Long (Ward 3), Tony Sapienza (Ward 5), Dan O’Neil (At-Large) and Ross Terrio (Ward 7 ) voted yes. Levasseur, Sapienza, Barry, Sharonov, Normand Gamache (Ward 11) and Roy voted no. Craig broke the tie in favor of the mandate.
Immediately after the vote, Ed Sapienza requested a mask to ensure that he was not in violation of the new order.