Not the time to end mask mandate

More than two thousand demonstrators rally on the plaza and lawn in front of New Hampshire's Statehouse Thursday, March 31, 2011 to protest proposed spending cuts and a provision that would strip public employees of their union protection when their contracts expire, in Concord, N.H.

Six weeks ago, optimism filled the air.

Days were longer, winter’s end was near, snow was melting, and the COVID-19 vaccination program was picking up steam with more doses rolling in and many of the kinks fixed in the registration system.

And after a winter of discontent with a raging pandemic, the new cases trended down substantially from the more than 1,000 a day fueled by Thanksgiving travel that continued for three months.

On March 2 there were 242 new cases, 2,274 active cases and 88 people in the hospital.

At that point, unfortunately, 1,170 Granite Staters had lost their lives to the disease, the equivalent of the population of the town of Washington.

But the downward trend did not continue for much longer.

As of Friday, there were 423 new cases, 3,751 active cases, and 132 people hospitalized.

As of Friday, 1,266 Granite Staters have lost their lives to the disease, or almost 100 in six weeks.

Another troubling trend is the increase in the number of those 18 and under contracting the disease, 33 of 242 cases on March 2, or 13.6%, and 95 of 423 Friday, or 22.5%.

According to the tracking done by the New York Times of every state in the country, in New Hampshire, new cases have increased at a rate of 11% over the last 14 days, hospitalizations have increased 43% and deaths have decreased by 1%.

There are a number of reasons for the latest surge, COVID fatigue, variant strains, greater infections in the unvaccinated young, and relaxed regulations.

Almost every college campus in the state has dealt with surges and outbreaks this spring with unvaccinated students and the social reality of college life.

The conventional wisdom has been infections should slow down as the weather warms and people can be outdoors and not inside where its transmission is more prevalent.

But last month’s optimism has been replaced with concern as the goal of herd immunity may be further away.

And after last week, the situation feels more like Capt. Billy Tyne and his crew on the Andrea Gail sailing into 1991’s Perfect Storm.

We need Linda Greenlaw’s sensibility warning Billy of the ocean’s dangers in his quest for a big payday.

Despite the COVID-19 trends, Gov. Chris Sununu let the mask mandate expire Friday. New Hampshire was the last state in the Northeast to impose a statewide mask mandate and now it is the first to end it, joining 12 other states including Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, Texas and Wyoming among others.

After the election

That Sununu waited until after the November election to impose the mask mandate might be indicative of his reasons for lifting it now.

Sununu frequently tells the press his team looks at the data to make decisions. Judging from the current COVID data, it is likely the only data being considered is polling data.

Whether the data is for the U.S. Senate seat up for election in 2022 or the governor’s seat, does not really matter.

The U.S. Senate race five years ago may be on Sununu’s radar. Then U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte lost the race by 1,014 votes to then Gov. Maggie Hassan. Many blame former Free State project chair Aaron Day for his independent campaign that drew 17,742 votes for Ayotte’s loss.

Would all of Day’s votes have gone to Ayotte? Probably not, but his ballot appearance made it easy for the few disgruntled Republicans to vote for someone besides Ayotte.

That is not a scenario Sununu wants to see repeated if he decides to challenge Hassan for the seat that could help decide who controls the U.S. Senate after the 2022 election.

There might be other political reasons for the decision.

Sununu has been targeted by the very conservative members of the House, who feel he overstepped his authority during the pandemic.

They have picketed his home and introduced a number of bills to rein in the governor’s power during a state of emergency.

Ending the mask mandate could be an attempt to quell that insurrection within the GOP and shore up his base of supporters.

But like any political decision, there are consequences.

What does ending the mask mandate say to health care workers who worked long hours during the pandemic and watched their patients die?

Or to businesses trying to keep their employees and customers safe? What do they say to customers who refuse to wear a mask? They can no longer say, “It’s the state mandate, sorry I can’t let you in.”

A look at Facebook since Sununu made his announcement shows how concerned many businesses are about removing the mandate.

Those businesses and the communities with mask mandates are on their own without the state edict.

The governor may want to have a robust tourist season this summer, but while some praise the decision, others say they will avoid the state this summer.

It is time to begin connecting the dots.

Last fall with the spread of the coronavirus somewhat under control, state officials decided to end surveillance testing at the state’s nursing homes — which had been devastated by the pandemic — over to the operators, thus reducing the state’s financial obligation.

Under the new system, it was not long before the virus was again raging in long-term care facilities and did not subside until a widespread federal vaccination program was done. Now most of the deaths from COVID are not residents of long-term care facilities.

And earlier this spring, the governor ordered schools to hold at least two days of in-class teaching every week.

The number of cases affiliated with schools, which had been one of the biggest success stories so far, started to show more cases.

And the governor’s mandate for five days of in-school learning, you can expect to see the number of cases increase because most students are not vaccinated and not all the faculty and staff have had their doses.

And after denying out-of-state college students access to vaccines, and the pushback from host communities, the governor opened the state’s vaccination program to everyone regardless of residence.

Just when the goal was in sight, the goalposts have been moved.

Yes, it feels like standing on the deck of the Andrea Gail on an unforgiving Atlantic on a frigid day in 1991.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.

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