New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said he will not renew the state's mask mandate, instead allowing it to expire on Friday.
"Tomorrow, New Hampshire will not renew the state's mask mandate," he said at his weekly press conference on Thursday. "We will continue to encourage social distancing and the wearing of masks when appropriate... It's just a good idea."
Sununu said this will not limit private businesses or cities and towns from requiring masks. Nashua and Keene have already announced the mask mandate will remain in effect in their communities for the time being. It remains to be seen if other cities and towns will follow suit.
Sununu said the state's other pandemic-related safety measures will be lifted on May 7, including retail and restaurant restrictions and the "Safer at Home" edict.
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Thursday's announcement follows a reduction in the state’s 7-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'."
New Hampshire will be the first state in New England to lift its mask mandate, but it could come with severe consequences, one medical expert says.
“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.
“It would make sense to lift mask mandate when there’s enough immunity across the population, through both vaccination and past infection, that the epidemic doesn’t have enough susceptible people to sustain itself,” Linas said referencing herd immunity.
According to Linas, we could reach herd immunity as early as this fall.
New Hampshire State Senator Tom Sherman agrees.
“This is not the time to let down our guard,” said Sherman, who is also a doctor.
Sherman says some COVID numbers in the state are already moving in the wrong direction, 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.”
Linas says the arguments against wearing a mask right now make no sense.
“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.”
Granite State residents are split on the governor's announcement. Many say that masks should stay on for now -- it's not the right time to end the mandate.
“I think the masks — the masks should stay on,” Ronald Morin said.
“I’m gonna still wear my mask,” said Maura Belonga. “I have family members that are ill.”
“I just think we should still have the mask mandate,” said Jean Staniewicz. “Just to protect everyone.”
“I don’t know - I just don’t think it’s the right time,” Laurie Bachelder said.
“Since we haven’t all taken the vaccines, I think it’s good to wear the masks,” Simon Bitabo said.
But others say they've had enough. They think it's about time to be done with the "suffocating" masks that "take away from your freedom."
“At this point, it’s been going on long enough that if you’re comfortable enough walking around without them then you should do that,” Vanessa Gill said.
“I’m not gonna wear it anymore,” said Alyssa Capone. “Suffocating. I’m sorry I don’t believe we really need to be wearing it.”
“I think it’s about time,” said Scott Hagen. “I just feel it takes away from your freedom.”
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New Hampshire's mask mandate started in November after a spike in COVID-19 cases. It requires people to wear one in public when they can't stay away from others. But now, five months later, Sununu is changing course -- lifting that rule.
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.
"The pandemic is not over, and we are not claiming victory on this by any means, but our success has created opportunities," Sununu said. "New Hampshire is on track for a very successful summer. This is some good news hitting us here... The finish line is definitely within sight."
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.
More than 90,000 people have tested positive for the virus in New Hampshire, including 552 new cases announced Thursday. Three new deaths were announced, bringing the total to 1,264 in the state.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in New Hampshire has risen over the past two weeks from 369 new cases per day on March 29 to 441 new cases per day on Monday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.