Governor cancels inaugural, citing mask protests at his home

National News

FILE – In this Nov. 3, 2020 file photograph, N.H. Gov. Chris Sununu wears a protective mask, due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, at a polling station in Windham, N.H. New Hampshire joined three dozen other states, including the rest of New England, in enacting a statewide mask mandate as the coronavirus pandemic intensifies. Sununu issued an executive order requiring masks to be worn in public spaces, indoors or outside, when social distancing isn’t possible, which goes into effect on Thursday Nov. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire’s Republican governor said Wednesday that he is canceling his outdoor inauguration ceremony next month because of public safety concerns — namely, armed protesters who have been gathering outside his home in the weeks since he issued a mask order.

“My first responsibility is ensuring the safety of my family and our citizens” Gov. Chris Sununu said in a news release. “For weeks, armed protesters have increasingly become more aggressive, targeting my family, protesting outside my private residence, and trespassing on my property — an outdoor public ceremony simply brings too much risk. We do not make this decision lightly but it is the right thing to do.”

In consultation with Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, Sununu said, he and Senate President Chuck Morse, acting House Speaker Sherm Packard and the Executive Council will be sworn in during a small ceremony Jan. 7. It will be attended by leaders of both houses of the Legislature and will be virtually attended by all other members. Sununu will deliver his inaugural address at 7 p.m. that day.

Protesters started gathering outside Sununu’s home in Newfields on Nov. 22 over his order, which had taken effect two days earlier, requiring masks to be worn in public spaces, indoors or outside, when social distancing isn’t possible because of the coronavirus pandemic. On Monday, local police issued summonses to nine people and arrested one of them under a new anti-picketing ordinance passed by the Newfields selectboard, on which Sununu’s brother sits.

Skylar Bennett, 38, of Concord, said Wednesday he will contest his arrest on charges of criminal trespass and disorderly conduct at a candlelight vigil held outside the home.

“It’s clear this ordinance in Newfields was specifically to benefit King Sununu,” Bennett said. He added that people have been gathering to protest because Sununu “closed the state.”

When Sununu issued the mask order, he said at the time a mandate was appropriate, given the rising percentage of positive test results, the fact that the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 had doubled in the past two weeks, there were new outbreaks at five nursing homes, and an “incredibly alarming rate” of community transmission by people who aren’t showing symptoms. The order expires Jan. 15.

At least 100 people appeared outside Sununu’s home at the first protest. Frank Staples of the group Absolute Defiance said protesters chose the site because Sununu had shut everything down, including the Statehouse, “so right now, this is the Statehouse.”

There have been more protests since then. That led to the Dec. 22 passage of the ordinance by the three-member Newfields selectboard.

The governor, who was not at home during Monday’s gathering, had no involvement in the ordinance or in its enforcement, Sununu’s spokesperson, Benjamin Vihstadt, said in a statement.

The ordinance says “It is unlawful for any person to engage in picketing before or about the residence or dwelling of any individual in the town of Newfields.” Violators are subject to a $100 fine.

According to the minutes of the Dec. 8 board meeting, Newfields Police Chief Nathan Liebenow said the Nov. 22 protest was described as “very boisterous and disturbing” and generated a number of complaints from residents.

There had been at least three more gatherings since then, and Liebenow said more events were planned into January. He said the intention of the ordinance is not to suppress or violate anyone’s constitutional right to free speech.

The language of the ordinance is similar to one affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, said Assistant Attorney General Matthew Broadhead, chief legal counsel for the state police. He also described “the verbal harassment endured by the governor, his family and nearby residents,” according to the minutes.

The Newfields Police Department, in its news release Wednesday, said the nine people were advised of the town’s residential picketing ordinance and instructed to stop but didn’t, so they were given summonses.

Police did not provide names other than Bennett’s, but the NH Journal said one of its reporters, Chris Maidment, was given a summons, even though he repeatedly identified himself as a reporter covering the event. The Journal said it will contest the summons and fine.

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This story has been corrected to show the last name of the NH Journal reporter is Maidment, not Madiment.

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