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Without statewide rule, Plainfield among towns considering mask mandates

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/19/2020 9:47:33 PM
Modified: 8/19/2020 9:47:23 PM

PLAINFIELD — More than a dozen residents voiced support Wednesday night for a town mandate requiring mask-wearing in public, following the lead of Lebanon, Hanover and Enfield, which have recently enacted such requirements to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

During a public hearing attended by about 30 people on Zoom, Selectboard Chairman Rob Taylor noted that every other state in New England has a statewide mask mandate. “The virus doesn’t care about the town lines. … It will travel over the town lines, and we decided we would do our part to bring forth this ordinance,” Taylor said.

Most people who spoke backed the measure, though some offered changes to ease requirements for people who are exercising on town trails and to include all school-age children.

All three Selectboard members said they back the measure, but two said they wanted the town’s attorney to review the changes and declined to second a motion from Taylor for a vote, tabling the measure until Aug. 26.

No one spoke explicitly against the measure, though Margaret Drye noted that businesses already have the ability to require their customers to wear masks, and that people comply.

“How would you enforce this — take pictures, call police and say ‘somebody is going without a mask’? ” asked Drye, a Republican candidate for state representative. Her daughter, Virginia Drye, who is running as a Republican for state representative in another district, also questioned how long it would be enforced.

Taylor said some businesses in town had asked for the ordinance, rather than being seen as the “bad guy,” and Selectboard member Eric Brann echoed the comment. Brann, a career law enforcement officer, also said police would be reasonable in enforcing the measure.

“If this ordinance passes, we are not going to be goose-stepping down Main Street looking for people who are not wearing masks,” Brann said. Police Chief Paul Roberts, however, said he is “concerned about the enforcement issues” and said he thought it fell more under the “public-health arena,” such as education from the town health officer.

The proposed Plainfield ordinance, which is similar to Enfield’s, would require members of the public to wear a mask when entering any business, work site or government building, though they could take them off when seated at a restaurant table. The measure would be enforced by Plainfield police or the town health officer and start with a written warning, a $50 fine for a second offense, and $100 fine for subsequent offenses.

New London on Monday passed a mask resolution that requires that masks be worn in public, with some exceptions for exercise and eating. It lacks the penalty teeth of an ordinance.

Some other towns have balked at requirements. In Newport, Town Moderator Virginia Irwin wants to require voters to wear masks to the polls to protect against COVID-19, but the Selectboard has declined to approve any such a measure.

She and several other moderators have asserted that wording in the New Hampshire Constitution that says elections are “governed” by town moderators gives them the right to set such guidelines and rules, and also says a mask requirement makes sense because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Newport Selectboard Chairman Jeffrey Kessler said that Newport had counted only seven COVID-19 cases and noted that most voters were wearing masks at Town Meeting elections last month, where poll workers are required to wear masks. But he said he and a majority of his colleagues are not prepared to impose a mandate on the public.

“We have some people in town who feel it is a violation of their personal freedom,” Kessler said.

However, on Wednesday evening, the Secretary of State and Attorney General’s Office appeared to side with Irwin, issuing guidance saying “moderators have broad authority to regulate the conduct of polling within their jurisdictions,” including a mask requirement, as long as voting alternatives were available to voters who can’t or won’t wear mask inside a polling location.

Meanwhile, more than 100 people have signed a petition on change.org calling on Canaan to enact a mask ordinance, but the Selectboard has also balked, instead deciding on Tuesday night to recommend mask wearing.

“The board adopted a policy last night of stro ngly recommending t hat people use masks to protect their friends and neighbors and as a sign of respect that they do care about their friends and neighbors,” said Canaan Town Administrator Mike Samson, who also noted that writing an ordinance typically costs a couple of thousand dollars in legal fees.

“We read the paper, and frankly, very few municipalities are actually enforcing the mandate or ordinance provisions except for one or two cases just to prove the point,” Samson said. “The board is not thrilled about spending money if we don’t need to do it for new ordinances.”

But Canaan resident Cheryl Tourville, a health- care worker who has seen one of her children struggle with respiratory issues, said she signed the petition calling for a mask mandate in town.

“We’ve been very lucky to have low numbers in the Upper Valley,” she said. “The only way we are going to keep those low numbers is if we stay on top of it.”

Valley News staff writer John P. Gregg can be reached at 603-727-3217 or jgregg@vnews.com.




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