CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu on Thursday increased pressure on Granite Staters to wear masks in all public spaces in hopes of limiting hospitalizations during the second surge of COVID-19 cases, though individuals who resist won’t be fined.
According to an executive order that takes effect Friday, everyone over 5 will be required to wear a mask or cloth face covering over their noses and mouths any time they are in public spaces — indoors or outdoors — if they can’t stay at least six feet from people “outside their own households.”
The order expires Jan. 15 unless Sununu extends it.
The move came on a day the state announced 529 new cases of COVID-19, the highest number in a single day since the pandemic hit. After announcing five new outbreaks of the virus in long-term settings, state officials said they plan to begin weekly testing of all nursing home staff.
“Today we are really elevating the message, given the seriousness of the crisis and given the surge in cases and the number of hospitalizations,” Sununu said.
Public spaces identified in the order include lobbies, waiting areas, elevators, streets, sidewalks, parks, beaches, stairways and parking garages, as well as retail businesses and restaurants.
Sununu’s order does not call for fines for those who don’t wear masks.
State prosecutors already have the authority to fine or issue warning letters to owners of private businesses that don’t comply with COVID-19 restrictions.
The order does not override any requirements already in place for specific industries.
It also does not supersede stricter ordinances already adopted by New Hampshire cities and towns.
The order has nine exceptions: students and staff in public schools; those with a medical condition or disability that prevents them from wearing a mask; anyone deaf or hard of hearing; anyone eating or drinking at a restaurant; people engaged in “strenuous physical activity”; anyone removing a mask at the request of law enforcement and anyone speaking or performing in front of an audience, for example at a church, concert, political rally or media event.
Public safety workers don’t have to wear masks if they interfere in their duties, and anyone providing or receiving a service can temporarily remove their mask to clarify communication.
The executive order states that anyone who claims a medical or disability reason for not wearing a mask does not have to provide proof of it.
School leaders already enforce mask requirements, which have suppressed the number of COVID-19 cases among students and staff, according to the governor.
Sununu said he decided to issue his order after noting several indicators of the surge’s widening scope, including statewide community transmission, the rising rate of positive tests, the number of new outbreaks in long-term care and chronic staff shortages facing health care providers.
Although Sununu for months had predicted the fall would bring a rise in cases, he stressed that the alarming uptick seen in the past few weeks justified his action.
“It’s a lot steeper, it’s a lot deeper, it’s a lot bigger than anybody had anticipated,” Sununu said at his weekly briefing on the virus.
Sununu’s announcement came under criticism across the spectrum, with Democratic legislative leaders saying his delay in issuing the order “cost lives” and with vocal opponents of COVID-19 restrictions urging citizens to defy the order.
Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, said he called for a mask requirement in July.
The two Democrats who ran against Sununu for governor in 2020 called for one before that.
“This mandate is long overdue, and while I am glad to see it finally put in place, I am disheartened at the amount of time gone by and the number of lives lost by playing politics with health and safety,” D’Allesandro said.
Andrew Manuse, chairman of RebuildNH, said the group is planning a Nov. 30 summit to urge policymakers to end the state of emergency. He cited a recent Danish study that questioned the effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread of the virus.
“Given the true science behind masking, this is clearly just condescending psychological warfare attempting to continue a culture of fear that enables centralized control,” Manuse said in a statement.
“We are urging all Granite Staters to resist this mandate by taking their masks off once and for all, and to resist this governor, who is imposing a flawed methodology to give the appearance that he is addressing a perceived crisis.”
Health care industry leaders praised the decision.
“Each and every one of us has a role to play in protecting our families, friends, and colleagues from contracting the virus,” said Dr. Joseph Pepe, president and CEO of Catholic Medical Center. “Wearing a mask in every appropriate place is just one step.”
The New Hampshire Hospital Association also issued a supporting statement: “Until we have a vaccine, wearing a mask is one of the most simple and effective things we can do to keep the virus from shutting down our state and overwhelming our healthcare system,” the NHHA statement said.
“Wearing a mask is really all about keeping friends, neighbors and our critical workers safe and allowing our economy to stay open,” Sununu said.