MANCHESTER — People will be required to cover their faces when they visit city offices but will continue to use their own discretion when moving about the Queen City.
Aldermen on Tuesday rejected an ordinance that would have required people to wear face coverings in public buildings in the state’s largest city. That proposal included city government buildings.
The vote was 8-5 against, with aldermen Kevin Cavanaugh, Will Stewart, Pat Long, Tony Sapienza and Dan O’Neil in favor. Opposed were Jim Roy, Ross Terrio, Mike Porter, Barbara Shaw, Bill Barry, Normand Gamache, Keith Hirschmann and Joe Kelly Levasseur.
In a separate action, aldermen approved a mask requirement for city government buildings only. That vote was 9-4, with Cavanaugh, Stewart, Long, Sapienza, Terrio, Porter, Barry, Gamache and O’Neil in favor. Opposed were Roy, Shaw, Hirschmann and Levasseur.
Mask ordinances for both public and city buildings were recommended by the Aldermanic Committee on Administration and Information Systems, after it voted Monday night to remove language proposing a $1,000 fine for failure to comply.
Long proposed removing the fine and instead offering violators “education and assistance” in obtaining a mask.
Tuesday’s meeting was held remotely because of concerns for the health and safety of staff and others after a recent meeting was attended by people who refused to wear face coverings and engaged in “high-risk behavior,” according to an email from Mayor Joyce Craig.
According to the email, at least two city employees subsequently were tested for COVID-19.
That decision was challenged by Alderman At Large Joe Kelly Levasseur.
“I looked through the executive order with a microscope,” Levasseur said. “There’s no executive order in place for unruly behavior. You had no grounds for this.”
Craig answered by reiterating the decision was made to protect the health and safety of city staff and the public.
The failed ordinance would have required people to wear a mask inside all buildings where 6-foot distancing could not be maintained. It would have required people to keep their masks on for most activities, including those like bowling. Restaurant patrons would have been able to remove their masks to eat after they sat down.
Several aldermen spoke out against the ordinance.
“We’ve all received, I don’t know how many emails — hundreds I guess — and phone calls,” Porter said. “I personally wear a mask. I strongly encourage it. We’ve already heard from the public — they do not want this.”
“We shouldn’t get involved with businesses,” Barry said. “There is no way I can vote with a good conscience on this, I don’t feel comfortable doing this.”
“We already know there’s not going to be any enforcement or any consequences,” Roy said. “Let’s talk about the unintended consequences — we know Nashua has a mask ordinance, and they’re in court. It’s a useless ordinance. People need to be able to make their own choices.”
“I think this is dividing our city,” Shaw said. “I think 90% of people in this city wear a mask. It’s a choice. It’s unenforceable, and I don’t believe in passing bills that are just feel-good things.”
Brendan Williams, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Health Care Association, which represents most of the state’s nursing homes and many of its assisted-living facilities, on Wednesday expressed “strong disappointment” with the vote.
“We have supported mask ordinances in other localities, beginning with Nashua,” he said in a statement. “Some states failing to enact mask ordinances have been forced to implement them after a harrowing rise in hospitalizations and infections, and it’s not just the elderly that die or suffer.”
“Every Manchester nursing home but one has now seen COVID-19 cases,” Williams said. “If community transmission spreads, and it’s guaranteed to do so with respiratory illness season upon us and people forced indoors, it’s impossible to keep this virus from killing. I personally couldn’t sleep at night if I didn’t do everything to prevent that.”
Under the proposal, the city’s public health director and police and fire departments would have been responsible for enforcing the ordinance.
An alternative ordinance drafted by attorney Greg Muller of the city solicitor’s office and approved by aldermen requires masks in city government buildings only.
The new rule requires face coverings for anyone unable to maintain social distancing while entering, exiting and visiting city buildings, except those governed by an operating agreement. The rule carves out several exceptions, including one specifically addressing ballots and voting, and gives authority to department heads to amend or suspend the rule when it interferes with performance of their duties.
Alderman Roy asked how the rule would be enforced.
“If there’s no enforcement, no discipline, I don’t see how it’s going to change anything,” Roy said.
“If you’re asking me if it has any teeth in it, in terms of enforcement, it does not,” said city solicitor Emily Rice.