The Plymouth Selectboard hosted a townwide zoom hearing Monday evening on a proposed ordinance mandating face coverings in town, while over the weekend, on the town common, an anti-mask mandate protest was held.

Plymouth’s selectboard chair Bill Bolton said there’s a reason the town is considering a mask mandate now: Plymouth State University students are nearly here.

“Our population almost doubles, you know, when they come back to campus,” Bolton said. “There's going to be 6,000 more students on board. So even though the virus is not very widespread in this area of New Hampshire, we don't want to be able to have it start.”

This week's public hearing meeting gives the board a chance to check the language of the ordinance – which Bolton said draws heavily from Nashua’s mask mandate, currently in effect – but also gives locals a chance to be heard.

“We'll find out, you know, for certain what the public actually feel about the ordinance,” Bolton said. “It’s become a partisan issue. So there are people on the other side, so we just need to break that down. Say, ‘No, it's not partisan. It's public health.’ ”

The people on the other side gathered Sunday on the town common.

Many health experts, including the CDC, emphasize that face masks are among the most important weapons in the fight to spread the coronavirus, and that the benefits increase the more widespread mask-wearing is in a community.

But Sunday's protestors, including rally organizer David Lheureux, said they don't see it as a public health issue, nor is it partisan: This, they claim, is about personal liberty.

“Maybe we need to start rethinking this position of public health versus liberty, because I do believe if the Black Plague was rampaging through Plymouth, or Ebola was all of a sudden found at a Plymouth church, I would say, ‘Wow, we need to do something about that.’ But that is not this,” said Lheureux, who's 33 and lives in Campton.

Jenn Halliwell from New Hampton said she has one question for mask wearers:

"If the mask is protecting them, why did they get so offended and upset if I'm not wearing a mask? Because that kind of shows me then they're afraid that the mask isn't really protecting them if they're concerned if I'm not wearing one.”

In fact, the CDC, in a review of several studies of mask-wearing, concluded that there’s growing evidence that the main benefit of cloth masks is in preventing those with COVID-19 from spreading it to others.

“The main protection individuals gain from masking occurs when others in their communities also wear face coverings,” states the CDC.

While most of the people gathered Sunday were against the mandate, Plymouth's Michael Cuddihy was one of a handful of mask wearers in attendance who strongly supports it.

One bright light, he said: He’s had meaningful conversations about mask wearing with people he absolutely disagrees with.

“We're treating the [town] common like it's neutral territory, like it's Sweden, in a sense and just, you know, here in no man's land, this is a safe space where we can all put our weapons down so to speak," he said. "We can come here, hopefully drop some pretense and talk to each other.”

Lheureux, the organizer of the anti-mask protest, said he believes rallies like this help expand and shape the public debate.

“And I'm willing to have my opinion and my position changed,” Lheureux said, “and I'm willing to change my mind, if I see things where we are, we're actually having problems with COVID. ”

I asked mandate supporter Michael Cuddihy if he heard anything at the protest that changed his mind.

“Not for one moment, not for one moment,” he said. “I know full well how I feel about this situation, about corona, about COVID, about medicine, about medically protecting myself. It's about medicine. This is about just being humane whether you want to vote red or blue. It doesn't matter. If you want to protect the people of our state, wear that mask.”

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These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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