“Wearing a mask is easy; no more difficult than a shirt, shoes, or remembering your notebook for class!” wrote Town Administrator Todd Selig in an email with The New Hampshire

The Town of Durham has passed a mask ordinance, impacting residents and visitors of Durham, as well as the University of New Hampshire (UNH) community as they prepare for their return to campus for the fall semester.  

Emergency Ordinance #2020-11 “requiring the wearing of face coverings under certain conditions within the Town of Durham” was passed unanimously by the Durham Town Council on Monday night and is effective immediately.  

Employees and customers of all businesses and restaurants, patrons in town buildings, and pedestrians in certain zoning areas when unable to social distance are expected to wear a mask. 

Circumstances where people are not required to wear a mask are when seated at a restaurant or to temporarily verify their identity and/or age. Additionally, children under the age of 10 and those with proof of medical exemption are not required to wear a mask.  

Situations where masks are not explicitly required but are strongly encouraged include when using public recreation lands, when entering a residential complex of greater than two units and when inside or outside common areas within such buildings. 

The Durham Police Department will have masks available for those who are stopped for non-compliance and do not have a mask with them. Should someone still refuse to put on a mask, there will be a fine of $100. The second offense will be a $200 fine, and third and subsequent offenses will be $500. 

New Hampshire is the only state in New England that does not have a statewide mask mandate, as Gov. Chris Sununu has left the decision to require mask wearing up to each community. The city of Nashua has already passed a mask ordinance, and towns including Hanover, Keene, and Portsmouth are considering taking similar measures. 

On May 28, Durham issued Order #7, a request that residents use cloth face coverings in certain situations within the town. The key distinction is that this was simply a request that residents wear masks, and lacked enforceability. Following this order, the use of face coverings in Durham was less than was desired, according to the Council Communication for the proposed ordinance. Given all of these factors, and in anticipation of the thousands of students that will begin arriving in Durham next week, the vote was a relief for many residents.  

“Numerous community members have communicated with Town officials that unless mask wearing is mandated within downtown establishments, they will avoid downtown Durham and shop elsewhere out of a fear for their own health,” Selig wrote in the working draft of the ordinance.  

Modifications can be made to the mask ordinance while it is in place and it will automatically stand repealed on Oct. 2, but can be reenacted if the emergency still exists. 

In terms of legal authority, the Durham Town Charter states that emergency ordinances may be passed by a two-thirds vote of the Town Council “to meet a public emergency affecting life, health, property or the public peace.”  

The university will be notified of non-compliance cases involving UNH students. The university has a strike system in place for those who repeatedly refuse to follow mask guidelines from the town, university, or both. The first offense will be considered a learning experience, and the second offense may result in removal from campus. 

Durham’s mask ordinance will be a collaborative effort with UNH’s plans. In terms of mask-wearing enforcement, the UNH Police will focus on campus and the Durham Police will focus on off campus, wrote Selig. 

The university is requiring students to wear masks while in buildings and in public common areas, in addition to maintaining a physical distance of six feet when possible. Situations where students do not have to wear a mask on campus are in the case of medical exemptions, in their own office or residence hall room, and outdoors when able to maintain a distance of greater than six feet. 

There will be a COVID-19 hotline to report situations of non-compliance or other dangers to the university. “Anyone blatantly disregarding public health expectations will be addressed. If students violate those expectations a second time, they could be required to leave campus and continue their classes remotely,” according to a UNH FAQ page. 

UNH has asked students to bring three reusable cloth masks to campus, but every UNH community member will also be provided with approximately 40 surgical masks.  

“UNH wants you back. Durham wants you back. Students want to be back. So everyone involved must conduct themselves in a way that will give our collective community the best likelihood of avoiding a local COVID outbreak, which could bring in-person UNH learning to an abrupt end. It’s vital that UNH students social distance, wear a mask, and refrain from participating in large gatherings,” wrote Selig.