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As New Hampshire Trump rally approaches, calls for mask mandate grow louder

Health experts and elected leaders would like Governor Sununu to require event attendees to wear face-coverings Saturday.

President Donald Trump on a jumbotron speaking during his first campaign event since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in Tulsa, Okla., June 20, 2020. Trump's campaign is planning an event at an airport hangar in Portsmouth, N.H. But the state's governor, Chris Sununu, a Republican, has said he will not be attending.
President Donald Trump on a jumbotron speaking during his first campaign event since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in Tulsa, Okla., June 20, 2020. Trump's campaign is planning an event at an airport hangar in Portsmouth, N.H. But the state's governor, Chris Sununu, a Republican, has said he will not be attending.Erin Schaff/NYT

As President Trump’s rally in Portsmouth on Saturday approaches, elected officials and public health experts in New Hampshire are asking Governor Chris Sununu to require masks at the event, concerned that the large gathering could lead to an increase in COVID-19 infections.

“Science says wear a mask or we’ll end up like Tulsa,” Portsmouth City Councilor Deaglan McEachern tweeted this week, referencing the apparent spike in coronavirus cases linked to a recent Trump rally in Oklahoma. “[Governor Sununu], your job isn’t only staying safe yourself, it’s keeping NH safe. Do your job.”

In a phone interview Thursday, McEachern said the City Council does not have the authority to mandate masks at Portsmouth International Airport at Pease, where the rally is taking place.

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“The only person who can mandate wearing a mask is likely the governor,” he said. “[Sununu] knows the issue at play, and yet he’s the only one in power to mandate masks there and he’s decided to do nothing.”

McEachern said the state has worked hard to “take care of one another, and keep people safe” since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. He said if people don’t follow the recommended health guidelines, the rally runs the risk of setting a lot of that progress back.

“That’s about 1,000 percent the concern,” he said.

Jim Splaine, Portsmouth’s assistant mayor, has also been sounding the alarm about the need for a mask mandate ahead of the rally.

“It would be a good thing to do,” Splaine said. “We know what’s happened with rallies such as this one, significantly spreading the virus.”

Splaine said because the city doesn’t have jurisdiction over the airport, the mandate would need to come from Sununu or the Pease Development Authority, which operates the facility.

“There are only two things we can do right now: one is to encourage social distancing …and the the only other thing we can do right now — there’s no cure; no vaccines — is wear masks or some type of facial-covering,” said Splaine.

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A group of New Hampshire health care professionals backed the idea of requiring masks at the Trump rally in a strongly-worded letter to Sununu on Wednesday.

The letter, titled “Take action to keep Granite Staters safe ahead of Trump’s super-spreader rally,” said health experts were “deeply concerned” that the event could cause a spike in COVID-19 cases locally.

“To protect the health of Granite Staters, we urge you to mandate masks for every attendee, including President Trump, and enforce this rule strictly,” the letter, forwarded to the Globe by McEachern, said. “If you fail to do so, COVID-19 infection will grow and Granite Staters will have to pay an additional price for this rally.”

Among those who attached their names to the letter — as the New Hampshire Union Leader first reportedwere Leonard Korn, former president of the New Hampshire Medical Society; and Richard DiPentima, former chief of communicable disease and epidemiology at the New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services.

Officials from Sununu’s office did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday.

But at a press conference Tuesday, he addressed calls for a mask-wearing requirement.

“We’ve treated all gatherings in this state, from the time the pandemic began to today, the same,” he said. “Whether they were the Black Lives Matter protests, whether they were protests on the State House lawn, whether it’s a political rally — whatever it is — everyone’s always treated the same. To have a mask order for one and not the other isn’t fair; doesn’t make sense.”

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In an earlier statement this week, Sununu said he was “pleased to see the [Trump] campaign will be handing out face masks and hand sanitizer to all attendees.”

He added, “it is imperative that folks attending the rally wear masks.”

Sununu said he plans to greet Trump upon arrival in New Hampshire — while wearing a mask — but would not be staying for the event himself.

“I will not be in the crowd of thousands of people,” he said this week. “As the governor I try to be extra cautious for myself and my family.”

Paul Brean, executive director of the Pease Development Authority, said a privately-leased corporate hanger will act as an egress to a “vast open area” where the rally will be.

“The hanger will serve as a health and security screening area,” he said. “All attendees will be provided a mask, and strongly encouraged to wear a mask.”

The arrival of potentially large crowds has also apparently led to at least one restaurant near where the rally is being held to shut its doors for a while.

On Facebook on Wednesday, the Country View Restaurant said it has decided to go on hiatus until next Thursday, July 17.

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“After many discussions here at CVR among our employees and in light of their personal concerns for their health and safety, we have decided that we will be closing the restaurant temporarily,” the post said.

On Thursday, the message didn’t mention the Trump rally specifically, and the owners did not immediately return a message from the Globe.

But according to Seacoast Online, the Greenland restaurant had originally said that because Saturday’s event at Pease was “a few short miles from our establishment,” and “expected to attract a lot of out-of-state people from all across the country to the area,” they were trying to keep the safety of employees and customers in mind.

Meanwhile, even Governor Charlie Baker weighed in on the importance of people wearing masks if they plan to drive to New Hampshire this weekend for the event.

On Wednesday, during a press conference about the state’s COVID-19 cases, Baker was asked by a reporter if he had any advice for those heading north for the day.

“Wear a mask,” Baker said. “Wear a face covering.”

As evidence of masks helping to stop the spread of the virus, Baker cited testing done by state officials in Massachusetts following weeks of large Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations.

“The vast majority of the people who participated in those demonstrations and marches wore masks, and the positive test rate coming out of that was 1.27 percent,” he said. “I don’t know how many times we need to say this, and maybe never will be enough, but this is about you and it’s also about the people you’re with.”

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Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.