On Wednesday, September 16, multiple state representatives were confirmed by The New Hampshire to have refused to wear masks while on the UNH campus and within the Whittemore Center Arena. Though each representative was separated within the Whittemore Center by six feet in all directions, UNH protocol and town of Durham ordinance says that all guests and residents must wear a face covering and maintain a six-foot physical distance.
These events occurred when the New Hampshire House of Representatives held a special legislative session in the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) Whittemore Center Arena.
However, when the House of Representatives occupies a building, the body follows what is referred to as “Embassy Rules,” with the rules of the governing body superseding protocol in the locality or building they are in.
Providing further context, Rep. Cam Kenney (D-Durham), outlined how the chamber regulates masks in a comment on a post on Facebook.
“Seated further behind the vast majority of reps who are wearing masks are two different groups in two different sides of the Whit: those who have medical reasons and those who refuse to wear a mask… Every rep is provided a mask, and a vast majority of reps follow the rules, but anyone who was not wearing a mask it was their choice, not because of lack of information or not being provided a mask.
“There are other dress codes required in the House, like for the men who are wearing (required) suit coats. We can only take them off when it’s hot and voted on. Some people may not agree with always having to wear a suit, but they do… Because it’s required. Therefore, since this seems to be a much bigger issues, I believe the reps are making a political point, and I do think it’s completely misguided,” wrote Kenney.
Like Kenney, other House Representatives believe masks should be worn within the chamber. Rep. Marjorie Smith (D-Durham) has felt increasingly frustrated with some of her colleagues. “They didn’t wear masks and they see it as a point of pride that they don’t wear masks. They make quite a fuss about it. I would like to see 100% participation.”
Even with the Durham mask ordinance, some representatives, such as Rep. William Fowler (R-Rockingham), believe the ordinance to have zero legal standing.
“You have a choice provided by your constitution to exercise free will, this cannot be overstepped by any law, Any and all attempts to violate your freedoms are in fact illegal. There are no exceptions. The Constitution strictly states that no law shall be made to overstep personal freedoms and any law subject to violation of the constitution shall be null and void and shall be deemed illegal.”
Todd Selig, Durham’s Town Administrator, strongly disagrees with Fowler.
“He’s wrong. The Town has the ability to establish local laws called ordinances. Durham has a duly enacted ordinance in place that requires the wearing of masks in our downtown core when six feet or more cannot be maintained. If somebody has a health condition, that would be a reason for someone to appropriately not wear a mask. Other than that, or other than a small child, people are required to wear masks. I’m sorry that the legislator doesn’t believe that communities have that authority. I would direct that legislator to a recent Nashua court case where it was determined that Nashua is within their right for having a mask mandate.”
A recent request for a preliminary injunction against Nashua’s mask mandate was denied by Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge Jacalyn Colburn. The court order states that the mask mandate is enforceable at a local level. Durham and Nashua are among multiple localities, including Portsmouth, Exeter, Newmarket, Concord, Keene and Plymouth that also have mask mandates.
Even with the lack of attention to town protocol, members of the UNH community remain concerned that state officials refusing to wear masks could set a bad example for students.
Clark Knowles, a principal lecturer in the English department in the College of Liberal Arts (COLA), expressed his concern to The New Hampshire after posting a photo on Facebook regarding the matter. “UNH gives all of the students the stern finger-wagging when there is a party. When you have something similar happening with legislators, it sets a bad example. Even when they are within 100 feet of two giant signs saying ‘wear a mask’. Every single person, faculty, students, staff, contractors were wearing masks around them.”
Knowles noted that his students appear to be taking the coronavirus (COVID-19) extremely seriously in the classroom. “[I have had] surprisingly zero issues. Everybody seems very respectful. They wipe things down, are willing to keep their masks on. I haven’t seen any push-back. I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen.”
Though the House does not require masks, the House Minority Leader Senior Legislative Aid Aaron Goulette outlined the protocols currently in place for the chamber. “Health screeners who were taking members temperatures and asking health-related questions outside of the arena, but not stopping people without masks, or supplying masks to those that had none. The speaker indicated no member would be turned away.”
Rep. John Burt (R-Goffstown) was among the representatives who refused to wear a mask. “The biggest reason 60 of us, including Democrats, did not wear masks was because the House does not follow Durham’s rules. Not that I’m opposed to masks, in the beginning, the WHO and CDC were opposed to masks.”
Despite the stark partisan divide the mask issue has created in the United States, Democrats within the chamber took their masks off to eat and refrained from distancing, according to Burt.
“Why are you [the Democrats] doing this? COVID is still here, so stay 6 feet away. I requested everyone around me to give me two-seat distance,” said Burke.
In contrast to Knowles and some of his colleagues, Burt believes his actions set a positive example for the students of Durham: “Well, we are setting a good example because we’re showing that we have freedoms.”
“These two young ladies came up, probably seniors, came up to me and asked ‘why aren’t you guys wearing masks? You need to set an example for the younger classes,’” the Rep. Said. “We don’t have to follow your rules.”
Even so, Burt noted that the students of UNH were not following protocols. “When I was sitting in my car, I saw several students. We were in Parking Lot A… I bet you 20% of the kids walking by were not wearing their mask properly and some didn’t even have the on.”
In addition to the mask controversy, House Representatives seated in the chamber were discovered to have left behind multiple beer cans following the session.
House Speaker Steve Shurtleff (D-Penacook), released a letter apologizing for the behavior of the representatives.
“I also want to also take a moment and apologize for the actions of some of our members taken at yesterday’s session. It came to my attention that some of the members were drinking beer in the hall and that some members were outside of the Whittemore Center, without masks, against both UNH and Durham protocol and ordinances. Please know that the House takes decorum very seriously and the actions of a few do not represent the New Hampshire House of Representatives as a whole.”
Selig expressed his discontent for the legislators drinking beer during the session.
“In terms of whether legislators were drinking beer during yesterday’s legislative session, I have only one comment: Really!? It’s an incredibly challenging time in our history and we need serious, focused, and lucid exchanges of ideas in order to develop consensus around solutions for complex problems. Let’s grow up and deal responsibly with the problems that confront our citizens. Legislative sessions are no time for drinking games.”
In a final comment to The New Hampshire, Selig hopes legislators have a change of behavior should they return for another legislative session.
“This is an exceptionally difficult time for our country, our state, and our local citizens and businesses. Residents of the Durham community are legitimately concerned about their health and the health and safety of their loved ones during the worst pandemic in a century. Based upon the best public health guidance available from the NH Division of Public Health, the CDC, and others, the Durham community has exercised local control and implemented a mandatory facial coverings ordinance. The ordinance is in place to protect the health and safety of our collective community, including University of New Hampshire students, staff, and faculty — as well as all who come to visit. To the extent state legislators were intentionally disregarding the best practice public health measures the Durham and UNH community have painstakingly put in place either to be obstinate or to make some kind of political statement, shame on them. Nobody likes to wear a mask. I certainly don’t. But we wear masks in Durham and at UNH in order to protect those around us from us in case we have the Covid-19 virus and don’t know it. It’s a pandemic; wearing masks in public is the responsible thing to do and it’s the law in Durham. It conveys the clear message: “I care about your health, in addition to my own,” said Selig.
UNH Police Chief Paul Dean and university Spokesperson Erika Mantz did not respond for comment to The New Hampshire.
Staff Writer Chloe Camelio contributed reporting to this story.
Photo Courtesy to Clark Knowles.