Berlin City Hall

Berlin City Hall.

Citing the ongoing spread of COVID-19 in their communities and the resultant pressure on an already-strained health care system, legislative bodies in Berlin and Gorham on Monday approved ordinances requiring nearly everyone to wear facemasks in public.

The ordinances, which went into effect immediately, are nearly identical in language and neither has an enforcement and/or punitive component.

The one main difference is that the Berlin ordinance — which was approved by a 7-1 vote of the City Council — will expire in 30 days, unless re-adopted, whereas the Gorham ordinance, which passed by a 3-0 vote of the Board of Selectmen, is to come back before the selectmen for reconsideration on Nov. 8.

Denise Vallee, who is the Gorham town manager, said on Tuesday the two-week review was a compromise from the originally-proposed 30-day expiration date.

“Hopefully, in two weeks they (the number of COVID-19 cases in Gorham) will have gone down,” she said, “and we won’t need the ordinance, but who knows.”

On Oct. 15, Vallee and Berlin City Manager Jim Wheeler issued a joint “code-red alert” to their communities, warning that the recent increase in the number of COVID-19 cases was putting tremendous pressure on Androscoggin Valley Hospital and Coos County Family Health Services in Berlin and Gorham.

Days later, the Walmart store in Gorham announced that it was temporarily shutting down for a deep cleaning due to the prevalence of COVID-19 in the area.

The Walmart was open as of last Thursday, said Vallee, while other good news is that Gorham schools, where students and staff have been wearing facemasks “for a while now,” most recently reported just one student who tested positive for COVID-19 at the high school while one student and a staff member had tested positive at the elementary school.

“That is a really good development over what we had two weeks ago,” she said.

The facemask ordinance passed by the selectmen on Monday, said Vallee, is only the town’s second such ordinance of the pandemic. The previous mask ordinance was concurrent with Gov. Chris Sununu’s statewide ordinance, which Sununu lifted in April.

Vallee said the new Gorham ordinance was adopted in the absence of a statewide mandate because “we felt strongly we needed to support the hospital and the medical centers.”

Like Vallee, Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier on Tuesday said the rationale behind his city’s ordinance was to educate and persuade people to be mindful of COVID-19 safety, not to punish them for non-compliance.

Previously, both Vallee and Grenier have said that facemask ordinances are supported by business owners who, while cognizant of the public health benefits of them, are concerned about alienating some customers who view ordinances as coercive and depriving them of their rights.

Grenier asked anti-maskers and opponents of the COVID-19 vaccines to “put aside their negative feelings” about both and help curtail the COVID-19 virus by following the ordinance.

“I don’t like wearing a mask any more than anyone else and I’m certainly not a fan of vaccine, but I got mine (vaccine shot) because I have a responsibility as a member of society to help others,” said Grenier, adding “The people who are belly-aching about freedom are restricting my freedom.”

“Just put in an honest, concentrated 30-day effort to knock this down and put it back in place where we can all go back to leading somewhat normal lives,” he said. “We’re almost in the winter now and we’re going to be inside. If we don’t get a handle on this we’re going to be fighting it all winter.”