FILE.- NH Chris Sununu 11-3-2020

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu wears a protective mask Nov. 3, 2020, at a polling station in Windham, N.H.

(The Center Square) – Gov. Chris Sununu has lifted a statewide mask mandate, citing New Hampshire's declining COVID-19 infections and increasing numbers of vaccinated people.

The mandate, which was set in November, was lifted effective Friday but Sununu said the state "encourages folks to wear masks when they are unable to be socially distanced."

"We have been very careful from the beginning of this pandemic to take items up individually and make informed decisions,” Sununu said Thursday. "We have never set arbitrary dates unsupported by the data and the science."

Sununu said even though the state is lifting the mandate, it "won't limit or prevent the ability of private businesses and local cities and towns from requiring masks."

Public health officials have warned states against using their COVID-19 restrictions with several highly contagious mutations of the virus increasing infection rates nationally.

Sununu said the state’s 7-day average of daily deaths has dropped to 0.6, the lowest since October 2020, and hospitalizations "remain at a manageable level." He noted that the state has vaccinated 70% of those 65 and older, one of the highest levels in the country.

But Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state's epidemiologist, pointed out that the state's decision to lift the mandate "does not diminish the importance of wearing a face mask."

"The threat to health from COVID-19 is real," he said Thursday. "Even as restrictions are reduced, we are still in a pandemic and levels of COVID-19 remain high across the state."

To date, the Granite State has reported 90,525 COVID-19 cases and 1,264 deaths, according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services,

Masks and homemade face coverings act as a barrier for respiratory droplets that can be propelled into the air when an infected person coughs, shouts or sneezes.

Medical experts say face coverings are among the most effective personal protective measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The mask requirements have created disputes between officials who want to require face coverings and those, mostly conservatives, who say the measures are government overreach.

In New Hampshire, critics have staged protests outside Sununu's Newfields home, which prompted him to make his inauguration speech virtual.