Masks will no longer be required in much of New Hampshire now that Gov. Chris Sununu will let the state's mandate expire.
Sununu said in a news conference Thursday the mandate would expire at midnight Saturday morning, citing the increasing number of vaccinated residents.
"New Hampshire will not renew the state's mask mandate," Sununu said. "We will continue to encourage social distancing and the wearing of masks when appropriate. ... It's just a good idea."
Individual communities and businesses are allowed to continue requiring masks, according to Sununu, and some are doing so.
Nashua was the first city to enact an ordinance requiring masks in May. The rules remain in place while the city’s board of health develops criteria for removing them, according to the city’s website.
"I'm disappointed New Hampshire made this call because we're not there yet, we're just not there yet. We see what's going on in the rest of the country and we need a little bit more time," said Jessica dePontbriand, owner of jajaBelle's Bakery in Nashua.
Similar ordinances were enacted in Concord, Portsmouth, Keene and Durham. Concord’s is set to expire June 1, Durham’s expires June 5 and Portsmouth’s on June 30, though they could be renewed.
“The lifting of the state-wide mandate by the Governor does not diminish the importance of wearing a face mask,” said Durham Town Administrator Todd Selig. “The threat to public health from COVID-19 is real.”
New Hampshire was the last state in New England to adopt a statewide mask mandate in November and with the latest change, will be the first to lift it.
“If it’s crowded, I’ll probably still wear it just because it’s crowded," resident Judi Barthakur said. "But I go out a lot to walk and I refuse to wear a mask when I’m out there hiking and outside.”
In addition to dropping the mask requirement, the state will eliminate other pandemic-related measures on May 7, Sununu said, including retail and restaurant restrictions and the "Safer at Home" edict.
“Everyone is really doing their part to stare down COVID,” Sununu said. “The pandemic is not over, and we’re not declaring victory by any means on any of this, but our successes to date have created opportunity.”
While infections have risen throughout the spring, Sununu credited the state’s success with vaccinations for keeping deaths low and hospitalizations at a manageable level. More than 70% of residents age 16 and older have either been vaccinated or have scheduled appointments, said Beth Daly, chief of the state Bureau of Infectious Disease Control.
“We have truly been in this together since March of 2020, we’ll continue to move forward together in a measured, data-driven way,” he said. “Let’s keep getting our vaccinations and doing what we need to do to keep our communities safe. Together, New Hampshire is definitely on track for a very successful summer and beyond.”
State Sen. Tom Sherman (D-Rye), who is also a doctor, urged Sununu to reconsider his decision.
“This is not the time to let down our guard,” Sherman said, calling the move an “unnecessary and potentially devastating deviation in our public health policy.”
Some COVID numbers in the state are already moving in the wrong direction, according to Sherman, and he worries lifting the mask mandate now could jeopardize the summer.
“Now is exactly not the time to put our public health at risk,” he said. “Especially as we move into one of our most important seasons both for recreation and our economy.”
Thursday's announcement follows a reduction in the state’s seven-day average of daily deaths to 0.6, the lowest since October of 2020 before the mask mandate had been implemented, as hospitalizations remain at a manageable level, and as over 70% of residents 65 and older have been vaccinated.
"I would love to see people continue to wear the masks," Sununu said. "The only thing changing is New Hampshire isn't coming down and saying 'thou shalt or must.'"
Lifting the mask mandate could come with severe consequences, according to one medical expert.
“More people will die, so it’s an easy question — it’s a bad idea,” Boston Medical Center Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Linas said.
Linas says the science is clear: Now is the wrong time to get rid of masks. According to Linas, we could reach herd immunity as early as this fall.
“To those listening who might argue they have a civil right to not wear their mask, I completely disagree. We do not," Linas said. "You do not have the civil right to walk down the street naked and in the middle of our pandemic you don’t have the civil right to walk through the world with a naked face."
New Hampshire's mask mandate started in November after a spike in COVID-19 cases and expired Friday. It required people to wear one in public when they can't stay away from others.
Sununu had teased the announcement during a virtual business meeting on Wednesday, saying that most of the state’s restrictions would be lifted "wicked soon."
He said Thursday that the state decided on the May 7 date to lift restrictions because 95% of New Hampshire residents who want the vaccine will have gotten their first shot by that time.
Sununu's announcement comes as New Hampshire is set to begin vaccinating people from out of state beginning on Monday.
The governor had faced some criticism from Democrats and officials in college communities over the state’s initial decision to prohibit college students from other states other non-residents from being vaccinated in New Hampshire. But that restriction is being lifted because the state anticipates having plenty of doses to go around.
Also on Monday, schools in New Hampshire will return to full-time, in-person instruction five days a week.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.