Within minutes of Gov. Chris Sununu announcing he’s lifting the Granite State’s mask mandate, New Hampshire Democrats pounced on the news, continuing a pattern they’ve maintained throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a strategy that has yet to pay political dividends.

“As many of you know, this Friday the mask mandate is set to expire. We have been careful from the beginning of the pandemic to take up items individually and to make informed decisions. We never set arbitrary dates unsupported by data and science,” Sununu said. “Tomorrow, New Hampshire will not renew the state’s mask mandate, and we will continue to work hand-in-hand with public health to encourage social distancing. That message will not change. What does change is the government’s imposed requirement to do so.

“The pandemic is not over, and we are not claiming victory by any means,” Sununu added.

The announcement came just hours after a data analysis ranked New Hampshire the safest state in the country when it comes to handling the coronavirus pandemic.

Democrats promptly condemned the decision.

“Our state is averaging more new cases each day and more hospitalizations than when the mask mandate first went into effect,” said state Sen. Tom Sherman (D-Rye). “As a doctor, I am shocked that in spite of these facts the governor is now lifting this critical protection against the spread of COVID-19. It is clear that the pandemic is far from over.”

Ronelle Tshiela, a Black Lives Matter activist who served on the governor’s Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency tweeted, “Seeing people out in public with no masks is going to make me sick to my stomach. Way too early in the vaccine distribution process to end the mask mandate.”

And NH Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley was more direct, retweeting the message: “When Republicans get elected, people die.”

It’s not a new strategy. Sununu was the last New England governor to impost a state mask mandate, even as Democrats maintained a steady barrage of criticism. But polls — and a 30-point re-election victory in November — showed the public was happy with Sununu’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. And based on New Hampshire’s overall performance, including the eighth-lowest death rate, Sununu has a strong case to make.

Meanwhile, the debate over the efficacy of mask-wearing continues, and Sununu’s decision puts the Granite State in the center of it. Michigan, New Jersey and New York, for example, have some of the most stringent rules currently in place, and they’re also among the worst-performing states in the country. Meanwhile, states like Texas, Georgia, and Arizona have no mask mandates and low weekly case counts.

While cases have trended up in recent weeks, New Hampshire has the sixth-lowest rate of COVID infections in the nation during the course of the pandemic.

“We still average one fatality per day. One is too many for all of us, but with a more than 90 percent drop in fatalities, and with vaccines being readily available — especially to those most vulnerable — this is what we had put the mask mandate in place to protect for, and it worked,” Sununu said.