LACONIA — A stroll through downtown on Wednesday shows compliance with face mask requirements varies widely from business to business.
Unlike other New England states, New Hampshire does not have an overarching requirement that people wear facial coverings. Instead, the state has universal guidelines that say they are required under some circumstances. For example, universal guidance found on NH.gov states:
“Employees and volunteers who are directly providing service to consumers or individuals must wear masks while providing such service. ‘Providing service’ examples include explaining information to consumers or individuals in person, interacting with consumers by showing or providing products/services in person, registering individuals in person, or any other interaction where maintaining social distancing is difficult.”
The guidance says “must,” but in some local businesses, customers are seen wearing masks, while the staff is not. Others strictly adhere to the requirement.
On Aug. 13, Gov. Chris Sununu signed an order authorizing civil penalties for violating any “emergency order, rule, or regulation issued under the State of Emergency.”
At Bootleggers Footwear, manager Bob Belk, said masks are uncomfortable but feels the business needs to comply with state regulations.
“When it’s warm like yesterday, you feel like you can’t breathe,” he said. “They’re sort of a pain.”
One advantage of wearing a mask is that it encourages customers to wear them as well, he said as a customer approached the cash register without one on.
In addition to the state’s universal guidelines, it has offered industry-specific guidance.
The food service industry rules state, “Direct customer contact employees shall wear cloth face coverings over their nose and mouth when at work and around others in settings where social distancing may be difficult (e.g. serving clients, greeting, etc.).”
Restaurant customers are supposed to wear masks on the way to and from their tables.
Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards said the rule that customer-contact employees must wear masks is an example of a mandatory requirement that can be enforced, while the guidance involving customers is a discretionary recommendation.
A quick look inside the always popular Soda Shoppe restaurant in downtown Laconia showed customers tucking into their meals, while masked waitresses moved from table to table, filling up coffee cups and taking orders.
But at the new restaurant, Trillium Farm to Table, owner Hanah Rush was taking customer orders without wearing a mask. Tables at the restaurants have been spaced out to allow social distancing, but none of the staff members wore a mask. Rush said she didn’t want to talk about the issue of face masks.
At All My Life Jewelers, there were three customers and three staff members. The customers were wearing masks, but the workers, who were taking money and waiting on people, did not wear masks. Owner Suzanne Bullerwell said she has a policy of not talking to reporters.
Edwards said retail staff members who ring up sales and wait on customers are required to wear masks. Her office has fielded about 175 complaints over potential violations of the state COVID-19 requirements over the last few months, but none have progressed to the actual imposition of civil penalties. Business owners tend to comply once they are educated about the rules.
Jim Daubenspeck, owner of Daub’s Cobbler Shop, was sitting on a stool outside his store. He said it doesn’t make sense for him to wear masks for hours at a time, when customers are fairly infrequent.
He said the materials involved with shoe repair may put him in a vulnerable group for COVID-19.
“We’re back there sniffing glue all day,” he quipped.
He said he keeps a mask handy in case a customer wants him to put one on.
Myles Chase, owner of MC Cycle & Sport, also said he tries to be amenable to his customers. He wasn’t wearing a mask.
“It’s whatever everyone is comfortable with,” he said.
The staff at Meredith-based Energysavers, which sells wood stoves and hot tubs, did not wear masks while waiting on customers. The same was true at nearby Sundance Spas.
At City Hall, City Clerk Cheryl Hebert was set up at a desk in the lobby behind a plastic shield. She was filling in for someone who directs people where to go in the building.
Signage and tape on the floor directs people where to stand and where to exit and enter.
Hebert was wearing a mask that covered only her mouth. She said she didn’t want to cover her nose because it would cause her glasses to fog up.
The state has a phone number for people to call with concerns about compliance with the COVID-19 rules and recommendations: 603-271-1225 and EO52issues@DOJ.NH.gov