Pressure is mounting on New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu to issue a mask mandate ahead of President Trump’s rally in Portsmouth on Saturday, as locals fearing a surge in coronavirus cases brace for an influx of outsiders.
“We’ve worked incredibly hard in Portsmouth and New Hampshire to keep the cases of COVID low,” Portsmouth City Councilor Deaglan McEachern told the Herald Thursday. “To think about how much work we’ve put in as a city to be safe, and to watch that potentially go away, it’s frustrating.”
The Trump campaign said it will be providing hand sanitizer at the rally and distributing masks that attendees are “strongly encouraged to wear.”
But McEachern is among the local officials who say that’s not good enough. Unable to enforce a mandate themselves — McEachern said the city lacks jurisdiction over the Portsmouth International Airport at Pease, where the rally will be held in an airplane hangar — they’re calling on the governor to make a move. More than a dozen health care professionals have also sent Sununu a letter urging him to issue a mask order amid fears that a gathering of thousands could turn into a “superspreader event.”
“Our community and region face significant risks to public health and could be left with a bill as preparations continue,” said Stefany Shaheen, a Portsmouth police commissioner who’s also been sounding the alarm about masks.
Sununu said it’s “imperative” that people who attend the rally wear masks. His office said Thursday there will be signs around the rally venue “strongly encouraging mask use.”
But the Republican governor has stopped short of making it an order — even as he cited public health concerns as a reason for not attending the rally himself.
Locals remain concerned after eight members of the advance team for Trump’s Tulsa, Okla., rally in late June tested positive for the virus, and health officials said the event and the protests that accompanied it “more than likely” contributed to a recent spike in cases.
With just under 6,000 total cases and 386 deaths, New Hampshire has been spared the worst of the pandemic. The virus has stayed largely under control during reopening there even as other states have watched their cases rise precipitously.
At least one business isn’t taking any chances: The Country View Restaurant in Greenland, just a few miles from the airport, said it would close for a week beginning Thursday in light of employees’ “personal concerns for their health and safety,” according to Seacoast Online.
Portsmouth Police Capt. Darrin Sargent, whose department is preparing for both ralliers and protesters, including Black Lives Matter demonstrators, on Saturday, said, “I just hope that people are smart and maintain their social distancing and wear masks.”
Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker issued a simple message for Bay Staters heading north for the event: “Wear a mask.”
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