When the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic prompted widespread mask wearing, the federal government left states and towns to decide whether or not it was enforceable. Despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice to wear a mask in any public place, it took months for ordinances to appear in many communities.
About five months after the nationwide lockdown, Durham, N.H. was one of the first Seacoast communities to have a mask mandate. As a college town with the impending arrival of thousands of students, town officials were under pressure.
Durham’s mask ordinance became effective in August of 2020 – three months before the state.
“It’s easier when everyone knows what’s expected,” said Petra Vopalenska, store manager at Hayden Sports.
As the school year at Durham’s resident university draws to a close and vaccinations are administered, community members are taking the time to reflect on the COVID-19 experience in Durham. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Law enforcement officers, university officials and residents were pleased with the rollout. And to the relief of many concerned residents, the student body cooperated.
The Summer after the Lockdown
In March of 2020, the nation fell into lockdown mode due to the soaring COVID-19 cases in the United States. Durham patiently waited to safely open up again.
“We shut down for five weeks until mid-May,” Vopalenska said. “We’ve been open ever since.”
According to Vopalenska, Hayden Sports urged customers to wear masks as soon as they reopened. At that time, there was no ordinance.
“Initially there was some resistance,” she said.
Before the mandate, Vopalenska and her coworkers were “frustrated and exhausted” with enforcing mask wearing in the store.
The town of Durham and the University of New Hampshire (UNH) worked on solutions all summer.
The discussion of a town mandate began in July 2020. Sam Flanders, a Durham resident, was cited in the Durham Town Council meeting minutes as concerned with the impending arrival of UNH students. This triggered an ongoing conversation of a mandate in Durham.
Meanwhile, UNH was brainstorming ways for a safe arrival and adaptation of the students back into Durham. Also in July 2020, the Faculty Senate thought of having students sign an informed consent agreement “We [want] them to acknowledge that they have a role to play here and if they don’t follow these rules they cannot come to campus,” said Provost Wayne Jones in the meeting. This contract, later coined as the Wildcat Pledge, stated that students “must follow guidelines both on and off campus and comply with all town ordinances” according to UNH’s COVID-19 website.
“The Durham [UNH] campus communicates regularly with the town of Durham,” said UNH President James Dean during the Faculty Senate meeting on Aug. 30, 2020.
The Durham Town Council unanimously voted on a mask ordinance on Aug. 3, 2020.
Employees at Hayden Sports noticed a difference in the amount of people wearing masks on the premises.
“Once it became [required] town and statewide to wear masks, it was easier to control,” she said.
The First Months of the Mask Ordinance
Durham police officer Holly Malasky commented on what it was like to enforce the mask mandate in the fall.
“Very early on, there were a lot of unknowns, so people in Durham were wearing masks anyway,” she said. “The [community] was overwhelmingly pro-mask mandate and positive for its adoption and the safe return of students.”
Malasky added that Durham used multiple platforms to promote the mask mandate, including signage inside businesses and road signs throughout downtown. Law enforcement personally visited local businesses to deliver signs stating the new COVID-19 guidelines for the town. The Durham Police Department also took advantage of the university’s mass emails by including the ordinance in messages to the student body.
“Educate, remind, reiterate,” Malasky said, “that’s our mantra.”
Town Council Chair Katherine “Kitty” Marple noted that she noticed hardly any resistance from residents.
About a month and a half after its installment, the mandate was deemed a success. Durham Police issued 499 warnings and handed out more than 90 masks. They issued no fines or summonses. Chief Rene Kelley of Durham PD reported no resistance.
The article came about following a 61-day extension of the mandate.
UNH Police Chief Paul Dean expressed satisfaction with the rollout on the university side, as well. Dean said the UNH Police Department felt supported by the university and the town of Durham, and felt that his department and the Durham Police Department were on the same page.
“[The Durham Police Department and the UNH Police Department] both believe that education is key in this public health emergency,” Dean said. “Providing masks and educating the community has been the most effective tool.”
Dean noted that UNH installed an online complaint form if anyone in the university community felt inclined to report a non-emergent violation. He added that “some people have used it.”
UNH achieved their goal set in July and remained in Yellow mode the entire fall semester. No fines or summonses were ever issued.
Spring Weather’s Effect on the Ordinance
After a quiet few months in Durham, operations resumed at UNH on Feb. 1, 2021. As springtime weather crept in, wintertime layers, and in some cases masks, began to shed.
“[We’ve] noticed a little less mask wearing as the weather gets nicer,” Malasky said. “On one of the first nice weekends in March, I saw about 15 people without masks in five minutes.”
Malasky added that of the 15, only about five were argumentative when she asked them to put on a mask.
Marple didn’t notice it firsthand, but she received some complaints from residents.
“There were a few residents concerned about outdoor maskless parties,” she said.
Durham resident Jerry Needell said that the Main Street maskless parties “don’t make it very inviting to go downtown.”
He added that he was very pleased with the initial response, but felt things have been laxer recently.
“I think people are getting tired of [the mask wearing] at this point, as with most places,” he added.
A UNH student commented on their choice to attend outdoor maskless parties. They asked to remain anonymous.
“My friends and I usually just stay isolated from the rest of the crowd if we’re at parties,” they said.
This student felt that being tested for COVID-19 twice a week through the university and staying in their circle was being cautious enough for the given circumstances.
“College only lasts so long, and I just turned 21,” the student added. “I’m still cautious about it. I think a lot of people are. I just don’t want to look back and regret not having had a college social life.”
According to Marple, townspeople are mostly appreciative to students, though, for wearing their masks as much as they have.
Emily Feliciano, a Durham resident, added that when running errands or taking her kids to playgrounds in other local communities, she sees “way more maskless people” than in Durham.
“I’m happy with the student body, and I will always support them here,” Feliciano said. “Compared to other neighboring towns, I’m thankful to live in Durham.”
Marple said she hoped residents would relax more once vaccinations were given to the student body. Marple’s comment was given shortly before UNH’s announcement on April 2, 2021 of a vaccine clinic for in-state students.
Now, UNH has conducted vaccination clinics for in-state and out-of-state university and community members. According to Dean, about 6,000 people have been vaccinated with at least their first Moderna or Pfizer shot through the university.
Looking Ahead – Town Vs. State With the announcement from Gov. Chris Sununu lifting the statewide mask mandate, communities like Durham remain cautiously optimistic. Safety of the student body and the town’s residents remain a top priority to town and university officials.
Durham Town Administrator Todd Selig commented that the continuation of Durham’s mask ordinance, which remains in effect, will rely on a multitude of factors: CDC and state COVID-19 case information, the potential of new COVID-19 variants, and partnership with the university.
“Durham and UNH work very closely together, so we’ll be aligning our on-campus and off- campus efforts into the summer and the fall,” Selig said via email. “I’d anticipate the local mask mandate to extend into the May/June timeframe for now, and potentially longer.”
Selig added that resumption of the mandate could occur at the start of the fall 2021 semester.
In Selig’s Durham Friday Updates for April 30, 2021, he officially announced to the community that the Durham ordinance will remain in effect through at least June 5, despite the announcement from Sununu on April 16.
Selig wrote, “The lifting of the state-wide mandate by the Governor does not diminish the importance of wearing a face mask. The threat to public health from COVID-19 is real.”
Photo courtesy of the University of New Hampshire.