Mask mandate helps, but more needed

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POLITICAL ANALYSIS



New Hampshire faces a dark winter of exploding COVID-19 cases, and increased hospitalizations and deaths until a vaccine is available to all residents.

The Granite State faces the biggest challenge of any of the three northern New England states. That has been obvious for some time.

The number of cases, percentage of the population infected, hospitalizations and fatalities have been much higher here than in Vermont or Maine and continues to be.

And the all-important positivity rate for tests is approaching the 5 percent threshold that could trigger curtailing business activity, along with new outbreaks in long-term care facilities and that is not encouraging.

Little is expected to change until spring and the vaccine is widely available.

Last week, Massachusetts added New Hampshire and Maine to its travel-restricted states, and Vermont has prohibited non-essential travel to and from New Hampshire since last month due to infections.

While everyone has COVID fatigue, until the pandemic ebbs, what should be apparent is New Hampshire will not return to “normal” nor will any other state.

Until the pandemic slows, more restrictions, not less, will be needed to maintain the reduced economic activity that does exist.

The economy will not return to “normal” if it ever does with the lifestyle changes the pandemic forced, until the coronavirus becomes another strain of the flu blocked by your annual flu shot.

Other Restrictions

The five other New England states instituted restrictions as cases exploded beginning in late September and October, but Gov. Chris Sununu did not. Instead, he made it easier to opt-out of the state’s two-week quarantine requirement for out-of-state visitors with a negative test after seven days.

As the new cases grew from about 100 a day around the first of the month to now more than 500 a day, there have been lots of calls for a mask mandate, something Sununu was reluctant to impose.

It should be noted state health officials stopped listing the number of new hospitalizations each day in the daily updates last week as the numbers grew substantially. The total number is buried in the information, but you have to compare it day to day to see how hospitalizations spiked.

Last week the “data” looked sufficiently awful for the governor to institute a mask mandate and that is a good thing.

But for some time, New Hampshire stood out like a sore thumb on the mask mandate map. While the rest of the northeast corner of the country from Minnesota to Kentucky to North Carolina and up to Maine, had mask mandates, New Hampshire alone did not.

You have to wonder if New Hampshire’s numbers approaching 1,000 new cases every two days, would more resemble Maine’s averaging 200 a day if the mask mandate had happened earlier.

Political Considerations

New Hampshire is not unique as the second wave of the pandemic is far worse than the first as medical experts predicted, but too many politicians ignored with a general election lurking and tried to put a good face on an ugly situation.

Government action to slow the pandemic has been a balancing act between the economy and public health because you cannot have both and control the spread.

And unfortunately, many politicians favored business over health as the virus’s spread reaches the point of no return. Several politicians even said elderly citizens should be willing to sacrifice to save the economy for their grandchildren.

We are now eight months into the pandemic and while the medical community has learned how to better treat the pandemic’s victims many states are reimposing restrictions.

New Hampshire has been slow to join the parade and has been since this spring when the state was one of the first in the Northeast to reopen its economy.

The process was gradual but nonetheless more lenient than neighboring states and out-of-staters flocked here earlier than usual and acted like it was back to normal in the old Granite State.

New Hampshire is fortunate to have a premium of open space allowing people to be outside and there was no significant uptick in infections, except after the major holidays, Memorial Day and July 4.

Enforcement

New Hampshire has a quarantine requirement and guidelines for social distancing and mask-wearing in restaurants, hotels and retail outlets, but at one of his press conference on the virus, Sununu just before July 4, said he doesn’t like “snitches” as the Attorney General’s Office was inundated with complaints.

Little was done to enforce the guidelines until last month when a dozen or more restaurants had to close due to COVID-19 exposures.

A couple of early cases in Manchester eateries should have been a warning, when the public learned a restaurant’s management is not required to report an employee’s positive tests to the state, to fellow employees or to patrons.

Several restaurants did tell the public, but only after they were outed on social media. Going into a restaurant in New Hampshire under its guidelines is equivalent to playing Russian Roulette with the virus. Many people are not comfortable eating inside at restaurants.

Most restaurant owners are responsible and do all they can to prevent the virus’s spread, but some are not and ignored state guidelines with little retribution until recently.

Holiday

Many college students will be returning home this week for Thanksgiving with extended families to partake in the late fall feast.

Some colleges like the University of New Hampshire were encouraging students to “shelter in place” rather than go home and potentially spread the virus to family members, especially elderly ones at the greatest risk of dying from the disease.

While the Centers for Disease Control urged people not to travel for Thanksgiving, and restrictions make a return home more difficult with quarantine periods, more than 1 million people flew somewhere the weekend before the annual holiday.

Like many other aspects of the coronavirus, traveling for Thanksgiving has been politicized.

The Right Message

When Sununu announced the state’s mask mandate he was quick to say it is not a political statement, that it is necessary to prevent future restrictive actions and will help the state’s hospitals remain open for all health care activities, not just COVID-19 patients.

“It is simply about data and impact to communities,” Sununu said at the press conference announcing the mask mandate. “It is not about you. It is about those around you.”

And on Twitter Sununu urged people to use masks to prevent the spread by asymptomatic people resulting in closed businesses, infecting others including health-care workers, and avoiding greater restrictions.

“No one wants a shutdown. No one wants to go back to where we were in March, April, and May,” he wrote. “But as we have seen in other parts of the country, this virus is rapidly spreading and this mandate will help slow the spread and keep our economy open.”

Not everyone is happy about the mask mandate and some planned to go to the governor’s home to protest this weekend.

That is intimidation and not a good way to make friends, but typical of what has been happening in this country for the past few years.

What is needed now is for everyone to wear masks in public. That is the first step and more needs to be done to slow the spread this winter or New Hampshire could face another lockdown like last spring.

It is not rocket science.

Most people in the state are conscientious about mask-wearing, but some are not, and a statewide mandate will help.


Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.