PLYMOUTH — This town might soon join the small but growing list of communities where face masks are not just recommended while in public spaces, but required by local ordinance. The selectboard will be holding a public hearing on Monday to consider such a measure.
Kathy Lowe, town manager, said the public hearing will take place on July 27 as part of the regular selectboard meeting. She said that the hearing was placed on the agenda at the direction of board chair, Bill Bolton. Selectmen will take input from the public and have the opportunity to state their own views during the meeting, which will be conducted via Zoom.
The board won’t have a chance to vote on the proposed ordinance until their next scheduled meeting on Aug. 10, Lowe said.
The novel coronavirus is not currently a significant problem in Plymouth. As of July 19, per the state’s infection reporting, there were between 1 and 4 current COVID-19 cases in Plymouth. Surrounding towns have similarly low numbers of infection.
Bolton said he wanted to propose the face covering ordinance not because of how things are, but how they might become.
“We’re a university town, obviously, and in a few weeks we’ll be expanding our population by 4,000. The students come from all over the nation and internationally. We’re very concerned about the effect on our community,” Bolton said.
A draft of the ordinance, which Bolton said was patterned after a court-tested example from Nashua. It requires cloth face coverings to be worn by employees when interacting with the public and whenever they are within six feet of another person; by members of the public entering any business, work site or government building; by members of the public entering a restaurant, though not once they are seated at a table; and by people entering a residential or commercial building complex with more than two units.
The ordinance would not apply to children younger than 10. It also includes an exemption for people who should not wear a mask for health-related reasons, as advised by a medical professional.
The draft is silent on how the ordinance would be enforced, and what, if any, would be penalties for violation.
“Enforcement would be the prime problem,” Bolton said. He said he envisioned “passive enforcement,” in the form of businesses notifying customers that the mask rule was no longer a suggestion, or a request on the part of the individual business owner, but a requirement from Town Hall.
“The expectation is that people will understand that this is a serious issue and the health of others is at risk,” Bolton said.
Other New Hampshire municipalities with a mask ordinance include Portsmouth, Keene and Durham. Bolton said he expected to have majority support for the ordinance, though he didn’t expect a unanimous vote on Aug. 10.
The mask ordinance would be in concert with rules already in place at Plymouth State University, Bolton said, as well as with major retailers in town such as Walmart and Market Basket. Other brands are expected to follow soon.
Mike LeClair, store manager for the Plymouth Market Basket, said his company’s mask suggestion, which had been in place for months, turned into a mask requirement on Monday.
“A townwide ordinance wouldn’t affect me at all,” LeClair said. “I would say that 99 percent of customers are in compliance.”
LeClair said he has told his workers not to confront shoppers who don’t wear a mask – like the proposed town ordinance, Market Basket’s new rule allows for people who can’t wear a mask for medical reasons. LeClair said he doesn’t want to put his employees in the position of determining whose claims of medical exemption are legitimate.
“We’re not officers, we’re retail clerks,” he said.
Even so, confrontation occasionally erupts in the grocery aisles.
“The biggest problem we see is we have customers who yell at other customers,” LeClair said. “Every once in a while, someone gets upset.”