Community reacts to removal of Upper Valley mask mandates
The towns of Hanover and Lebanon, Dartmouth College and local schools have lifted mask mandates as COVID-19 cases fall, prompting a variety of reactions.
With Lebanon’s repeal of the indoor mask mandate on March 24, municipality requirements to wear face coverings while indoors have been removed from the Upper Valley. On March 14, School Administrative Unit 70 — which manages four schools in Hanover and Lebanon — lifted its indoor mask mandate as a result of pressure from the state, while the town of Hanover paused its mask mandate on March 16 to mostly positive reactions from business owners.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 data tracker, there has been a decline in the number of positive tests and hospitalizations in Grafton County in recent months.
In an emailed statement to The Dartmouth, Hanover town manager Julia Griffin wrote, “The Town, working in close consultation with the Hanover/Dresden School District and Dartmouth, chose to follow [CDC] guidance and maintain the indoor mask requirement in place until Grafton County was no longer classified as a red or ‘significant transmission’ county.”
On March 4, Grafton County was reclassified as a yellow or “moderate transmission” county, so in collaboration with the College and Hanover’s school district, the town decided to lift the indoor mask mandate at the start of the College’s spring break on March 16. However, because the lifting of the policy is technically a “pause,” it is unclear whether the mask mandate would be reinstated should cases re-enter the red zone. Griffin stated that she does not know whether the town of Hanover will implement a permanent lift of the mask mandate in the near future.
Lebanon, which is also in Grafton County, was the last town in New Hampshire to drop its mask mandate on March 24. According to Lebanon assistant mayor Clifton Below, in order to repeal, amend or enact an ordinance, a separate public hearing must take place, which delayed the hearing to repeal the ordinance an extra week. Moreover, according to CDC guidelines, Lebanon was still in the “red zone.” However, Below said that high transmission and hospitalization rates had decreased “fairly quickly” in recent weeks, which caused Lebanon to enter the “green zone.”
Unlike the mask mandate pause in Hanover, Below said that Lebanon would have to enact a new ordinance to reinstate masks.
In terms of resident reactions to the repeal, Below said he hasn’t “heard too much,” but there were people at the hearing opposed to the measure, such as a nurse who said healthcare facilities are still overextended.
According to Griffin, local concerns surrounding the mandate’s pause in Hanover have come to light since nearby Windsor County in Vermont, located just across the state border, has re-entered the red zone. Additionally, she wrote that there has been an uptick in COVID-19 cases within the Dartmouth community as students returned from spring break.
Given the transmission of COVID on campus and elsewhere, Griffin wrote that she “would not be surprised” to see Hanover return to a high rate of transmission, especially as the omicron BA.2 subvariant spreads. Griffin wrote that the town will be working with the College should there be a significant increase in cases on campus.
Griffin wrote that local reactions have been evenly split between people for and against the decision. She noted that she has received “angry emails and phone calls” from those opposed or concerned — including some Dartmouth students — but there has also been positive feedback from the community.
Umpleby’s Bakery & Cafe owner Charles Umpleby said that he is “totally okay” with the pause.
“My staff in general has been very responsive of doing what’s required of them, so I’m completely confident going forward without the mask mandate,” he said.
At the start of the pause, Umpleby said that some cafe staff members continued wearing masks, but now none of the staff wear face coverings. Yet, he said that the store emphasizes to staff members that it is their own individual decision whether or not they want to wear a mask.
Similarly, Murphy’s On the Green and Impasto Italian Eatery owner Nigel Leeming said the repeal of the mask mandate was “a long-time coming.” He said that while some staff members continue to wear masks for personal reasons “with no questions asked,” the majority do not.
On the other hand, Still North Books & Bar owner Allie Levy ’11 expressed “mixed feelings” about the lifting of the indoor mask requirement. She said that Hanover is in a “much better situation” than earlier in the pandemic.
“Even though there is a part of me that is sometimes scared to be somewhere without a mask, I also have started to not wear my mask in certain situations, so I think it’s just about personal comfort levels and being ready to jump back to wearing masks if we start to see a higher community spread again,” she said.
Other Upper Valley businesses have chosen to keep their mask mandates for now — such as the Child Care Center in Norwich, which is in Windsor County. Director Lisa Sjostrom wrote in an emailed statement to The Dartmouth that their mask mandate will lift one week after the upcoming public school spring break in April.
Hanover town residents William Roach, a scientist, and Katie Roach, the interim principal at Mount Lebanon Elementary School, think the pause is a “good idea” because of the data regarding decreasing COVID cases and hospitalizations.
Katie Roach said that not everyone at her school is comfortable with the change, despite it being “helpful” for children to see and play with one another. She said that “a lot” of students continue to wear masks.
Should there be another surge in COVID cases, both William Roach and Katie Roach said that reinstating the mandate would be in the “best interest” of everyone’s health. William Roach noted that this is especially true if a variant unresponsive to vaccines causes a future surge.
Despite concerns about seeing another surge in cases, Umpleby, like other Hanover residents, said that he is looking forward to a gradual return of post-pandemic life.
“I’m excited to be moving forward now that I think the worst is behind us,” Umpleby said.