NH city considers mask exemption for first responders

Portsmouth fire and police department officials said their protocols call for masks to be worn in most circumstances

Elizabeth Dinan
Portsmouth Herald, N.H.

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — When the City Council next meets, it will hold a third and final reading for a face-mask ordinance and Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine will propose a partial exemption for first responders.

Splaine's proposed amendment includes the wording, "Exempted from the requirements of the ordinance requiring the wearing of face coverings include law enforcement personnel, first responders, or other workers actively engaged in their tasks if wearing a face covering may hinder their performance."

Portsmouth Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine has proposed an exemption for first responders in an ordinance requiring masks be worn in public places. (Photo/viarami, Pixabay)
Portsmouth Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine has proposed an exemption for first responders in an ordinance requiring masks be worn in public places. (Photo/viarami, Pixabay)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mask advisory doesn't include exemptions for first responders, and in neighboring Durham, where the student population could be compared to Portsmouth's tourist population, there is no exemption. Portsmouth police and fire officials explained their current mask protocols, which indicate little to nothing would change if Splaine's exemption is passed.

"In reviewing the ordinance up to the point that it currently stands, and in listening to objections from the public and council members during the past few weeks, I felt that exceptions need to be made clear as to avoid misunderstandings in the application of the requirements of face coverings," Splaine said.

The assistant mayor said examples "may be if a police officer is making an arrest and is being resisted, or a firefighter is performing an emergency service requiring considerable physical exertion."

"In those cases, I don't think we can expect them to wear a face covering," Splaine said. "And except in those situations where the face covering would make it difficult for them to conduct their function as first responders, etc., first responders would be expected to wear face coverings when they cannot remain social-distanced from others. I think we have to be flexible and understanding in whatever application or enforcement we do with this ordinance. Otherwise, it just won't work."

Portsmouth Police Chief Robert Merner reminded the police station lobby is now closed to the public and said inside everyone is wearing a mask when they can't social distance. He said all police personnel are required to wear a face mask unless they're driving alone in a police vehicle, or under "exigent circumstances."

Those circumstances, he explained, can include a foot chase, an officer observing an emergency while driving alone and unmasked, then exiting a cruiser, or responding to someone "screaming for help."

"You jump out and you activate yourself," he said. "Other than that, everyone is wearing a mask."

Portsmouth Fire Capt. Bill McQuillen, also head of the New Hampshire Fire Fighters Association, said masks are mandated whenever firefighters leave a building, or a fire department vehicle. In addition, he said, they're all mandated to wear goggles or some form of eye covering.

The only exception, McQuillen said, is when firefighters are wearing breathing apparatus to fight fires. At those times, he said, their breathing is contained because they're breathing through tanks of air.

The CDC recommends masks be worn by everyone in public settings, especially when social distancing can not be maintained. It makes three exceptions: children younger than 2 years old, anyone who has trouble breathing and "anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance."

Durham's mask ordinance, passed Aug. 3, has no exemption for first responders. Town Administrator Todd Selig said no one there has mentioned a first responder exemption and he doesn't anticipate one.

Selig said Durham was one of the first communities to adopt a mask ordinance and he thinks as time goes by, other communities have had additional time to fine tune their own. He said he thinks the language proposed by Splaine "is good language to add, but we've been operating seamlessly without it."

City Councilor John Tabor said he supports a first responder exemption, "Only if it interferes with their work."

"Otherwise, they should wear masks indoors in public places and when they cannot social distance from the public," Tabor said.

Mayor Rick Becksted said he plans to propose any mask-mandate ordinance be shelved unless the governor declares a health emergency with a mandate from the state level.

Councilor Paige Trace said, "Clearly, there are those times that truly outweigh the adherence to a possible mask ordinance."

"Remember the awful night of the State Street fire?" she asked. "The thought of someone standing there handing out masks to 39 fire departments and saying, 'Here, you have to wear this while you risk your life' is ludicrous. Oh, and figure out on the run how to make it work with your oxygen tank."

"Or to the police officer who's chasing down a possible kidnapper or someone having committed some other major crime, 'Excuse me, but you have to put on this mask before you chase down that dangerous felon,'" Trace said. Or to the EMR team, "'Hey, stop with the CPR on that dying person. Where's your mask? Can you perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation with a mask on? It's an issue of common sense, plan and simple."

Splaine said the primary purpose in his proposing a face-mask resolution a couple of months ago, and the pending ordinance, "is awareness and education as to the value and need of wearing face coverings to reduce the spread of COVID-19."

"I want to make this ordinance, if it passes, is something that people can live with, and continue their work or job," Splaine said.


©2020 Portsmouth Herald, N.H.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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