Planned Trump rally prompts mask requirement debate in Portsmouth

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Portsmouth has been encouraging residents and visitors to consider wearing a mask when in public. This sign was on display recently in Market Square. Photo/Dan Tuohy

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Some city councilors in Portsmouth are pushing for a mandatory mask-wearing ordinance ahead of President Trump’s scheduled rally at the Pease Airport this weekend.

Councilor Deaglan McEachern said a mask requirement was already scheduled to come up for debate next week before the council. But with President Trump’s rally happening on Saturday, he’s now asking Mayor Rick Becksted to call a special meeting so the council can vote on the idea as soon as possible.

McEachern said he’s concerned that the rally is happening just as Governor Sununu has lifted the quarantine order on visitors from other New England states.

“Trump events have already had many high profile examples of Trump aides, allies, and staff carrying COVID,” said McEachern. “And when you add to that the president has not encouraged masks – in fact quite the contrary- that’s also concerning.”

Mayor Becksted, however, sees no need to interrupt the normal procedures of the city’s policy-making process.

“I’ll tell you what, I’m not going to go and hold a special meeting because of a one-day event,” said Becksted, adding that he hasn’t seen a “formal” request for a special meeting of the Portsmouth City Council – only messages on social media and in news reports.

Becksted said the city’s current policy, what he calls “an extreme ask” to wear face coverings, is sufficient given the relatively low number of coronavirus cases in Portsmouth. According to data from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, there are between 1-4 current positive cases of COVID-19 in Portsmouth.

“[Requiring masks] is a last resort when absolutely necessary. Once this goes down we have to carry this throughout. There’s no pulling back from it,” said Becksted.

Becksted also believes the city lacks the legal authority to enact a mask requirement in the first place.

“I don’t know how I would enforce it. We are not a home-rule state. We cannot just go and create laws. It has to be backed up by legislation and the state of New Hampshire.”

If enacted, a Portsmouth mask ordinance would not apply to the Trump rally itself, which is being held at the Pease airport. Pease, a former Air Force base, is now governed by the Pease Development Authority.

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Jason Moon, NHPR for Granite State News Collaborative