Mayor halts in-person aldermanic meetings at recommendation of health, police departments

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MANCHESTER, NH – Citing health and safety considerations, on Friday Mayor Joyce Craig announced her decision to return to remote format for future Aldermanic meetings.

The mayor’s statement released Oct. 16 indicated that the decision was made jointly by Craig and board Chair At-Large Alderman Dan O’Neil at the recommendation of both city health officials and police, and was based on a large public turnout for the Oct. 6 Board of Aldermen meeting during which there was no ability to safely enforce mask-wearing or social distancing.

The statement reads:

“After multiple conversations with the Police Department, the Health Department, Fire Department, Clerk’s Office and Solicitor’s Office, and at the recommendation of the Police and Health Departments, Chairman O’Neil and Mayor Craig have made the difficult decision to hold the Board of Mayor and Aldermen meetings, as well as committee meetings, remote for the time being.

“This is not an outcome anyone wants or is pleased with, but we are doing so to ensure the health and safety of the public, city staff, and elected officials. Members of the public will still be able to provide public comment during the 30-minute designated public comment session.  The public will be provided with the virtual call-in procedures on the agenda and meeting posting.”

In a follow-up memo sent to the board on Oct. 17, Craig said that while in-person meetings are preferable and had been going well, she outlined the following bullet points contributing to her decision, including “some who not only refuse to wear face-coverings but purposely engage in high-risk behavior.”:

  • The number of people in the chamber exceeded the approved COVID-19 capacity of eighteen people
  • Many attendees were not wearing masks
  • Several such attendees were yelling and coughing near City employees and other attendees, and roaming the Chamber
  • Some unmasked attendees did not maintain a social distance of 6 feet or more, and sat too close to members of the public and City employees
  • Most of the participants were using the microphone and podium without masks and without cleaning in between participants
  •  Because many speakers were not from Manchester and did not provide their true names, there would not have been accurate information with which to conduct contact tracing

Oct. 17, 2020 NH DHHS Map of cumulative positive cases.

According to the mayor two department heads in attendance at that meeting took COVID-19 tests the following day due to their concern over being in close proximity over the course of public comment to individuals who were not wearing masks and standing closer than six feet away.  She also said that Manchester’s community level of transmission has been listed as “substantial” (or in the “red”) by the state Department of Health due to the number of new cases over the past 14 days.

For all those above reasons, Craig and O’Neil decided the only safe alternative was to return to remote meetings.

When asked, the mayor’s Chief of Staff, Lauren Smith, said that other possible alternative locations for meetings were considered but rejected due to the prohibitive cost and logistics of setting up for recording and broadcast purposes. Smith also said it is within the mayor’s authority to make such a decision without a board vote.

At least one alderman quickly voiced his objection to the decision being made without a vote by the full board.

A Re-open NH rally was held outside City Hall on Oct. 7, 2020, which included anti-mask signage. Photo/Andrew Sylvia

At-Large Alderman Joe Levasseur said he believed the move was made unilaterally by the mayor and O’Neil to garner support for a citywide mask mandate, which is on the Oct. 19 meeting agenda for the Aldermanic Committee on Administration and Information Systems, on which Levasseur sits, along with Aldermen Tony Sapienza, Barbara Shaw, Will Stewart and Pat Long.

Included with the Oct. 19 committee meeting agenda is commentary by Public Health Director Anna Thomas that notes the Board of Health directed the city health department by a vote on July 27 to craft a proposed mask mandate ordinance that would pertain to “certain indoor environments.”  Thomas The proposed mandate was scheduled to go before the committee on September 1 but that meeting was canceled by committee chair Tony Sapienza who said he did so because he could not attend.

If the committee on Tuesday approves a mask mandate it could go before the full board later that evening or the committee could lay that item over until the next scheduled aldermanic meeting.

A copy of the health department’s proposed ordinance and a series of emails submitted by the public both in favor and against such an ordinance are included below. As written, penalty for violation could result in a $1,000 fine. Thomas said during an Oct. 8 virtual town hall meeting that much like other cities and towns with such mandates, public education is the main goal, and it is likely that fines would be issued as a last resort after issuing warnings to anyone violating the ordinance.

As of Sept. 1, there were 13 cities/towns with a mask mandate, two of them “unenforced,” as outlined in the map below, courtesy of NHPR:

Below: Proposed mask mandate by city health department and emails received by City Hall both for and against such a mandate.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 9 p.m. to include an excerpt from a correspondence sent by Mayor Craig to the Board of Aldermen on Saturday.

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