Portsmouth officials clash over calls to require masks at Trump rally

"There is no politics behind masks, only science."

Portsmouth, NH - 06/03/20 -  A boat on the Piscataqua River passes beneath Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth.  The Piscataqua River Bridge carries traffic on Interstate 95 in the background.   Kay Walkingstick, a Native American artist, has made a life's work of painting North American landscapes as a means of reclaiming them for her people. Her newest work, Wabenaki Waters, was painted on New Castle Island, the site of a fortress built to protect colonists in the war of 1812.  (Lane Turner/Globe Staff) Reporter:  (Murray Whyte)  Topic: ()
A boat on the Piscataqua River passes beneath Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth. –Lane Turner / The Boston Globe

The mayor of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is holding firm against calls for a mask mandate for President Donald Trump’s rally Saturday night at a local airport in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a card that when we play it, we have to carry it out,” Mayor Rick Becksted said Monday, according to the Union Leader. “I think it’s important that if we do that, we do it for the right reasons.”

Some local officials say that Trump’s rally Saturday is reason enough.

Despite public health experts’ guidance against large gatherings in the absence of a coronavirus vaccine, the Republican president plans to speak to thousands of supporters at an outdoor rally Saturday night at Portsmouth International Airport at Pease. According to the campaign’s announcement, “there will be ample access to hand sanitizer and all attendees will be provided a face mask that they are strongly encouraged to wear.”

Still, leaders in the Democratic-leaning city want that encouragement with more teeth, given the evidence that face mask requirements can significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19.

According to Seacoast Online, the idea of some sort of requirement has been floated by City Councilor Deaglan McEachern, Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine, and Police Commissioner Stefany Shaheen.

“NH is one of only 3 states with declining cases of COVID-19 and we want to keep it that way,” Shaheen tweeted Monday, saying that she would be “fighting” for a mask requirement.

While there is currently less than five confirmed COVID-19 cases in Portsmouth, the Granite State recently lifted its 14-day quarantine advisory for visitors from other New England states.

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“Trump events have already had many high profile examples of Trump aides, allies, and staff carrying COVID,” McEachern told NHPR. “And when you add to that the president has not encouraged masks — in fact quite the contrary — that’s also concerning.”

In a Facebook post Sunday, the Democratic city councilor acknowledged calling for a mask requirement for Trump’s rally “potentially adds to the political nature” around COVID-19 precautions; masks, in particular, have been absorbed by the larger political culture war.

“But to me there is no politics behind masks, only science,” McEachern wrote. “Our community’s safety is too important for anything less.”

Following a 6,000-person Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last month, six campaign staffers tested positive for COVID-19 and the local county reported record numbers of new infections, though it’s unclear to what extent the rally contributed to the increase, as states across the country witness climbing case counts.

Supporters of a mask mandate for Trump’s event in Portsmouth called for a special meeting this Thursday to discuss the policy, but Becksted suggested it was an overreaction.

“I’m not going to go and hold a special meeting because of a one-day event,” he told NHPR.

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Becksted also questioned whether Portsmouth would even have the authority to enforce such an ordinance.

“We have no jurisdiction of any kind whatsoever,” he said, according to Seacoast Online. “It is federally-owned land.”

Paul Brean, executive director of the Pease Development Authority, which does have jurisdiction over the airport, said the plan is to have the rally in a hanger with the doors open. According to Brain, the PDA follows New Hampshire guidance, which strongly encourages the wearing of face masks.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said in a statement Monday that it is “imperative that folks attending the rally wear masks.” According to the Concord Monitor, the Republican governor also pledged to wear a mask if he is around the president.

The RSVP page for Trump’s rally includes a waiver certifying that attendees “understand and expressly acknowledge that an inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present.”

“In attending the event, you and any guests voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19, and waive, release, and discharge Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.; Portsmouth International Airport at Pease; or any of their affiliates, directors, officers, employees, agents, contractors, or volunteers from any and all liability under any theory, whether in negligence or otherwise, for any illness or injury.”


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