The indoor mask mandate first imposed by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on July 22, 2020, to combat COVID-19 will be removed Friday.
The news was signaled when Walz and his top pandemic-fighting commissioners entered a press conference Thursday evening — without the masks they’ve worn since the mandate began. “It looks a little different up here,” he said.
The mandate will be dropped completely, not just for those who have been fully vaccinated, as having two sets of rules would have caused confusion, Walz said. Instead, he called on Minnesotans to do the right thing if they are not yet vaccinated. “It has been challenging this year to not see people smile, to not see the emotions on their face,” Walz said.
When asked, Walz said he expected to go to stores like Target without a mask, should the company decide to lift its own mask requirements. “I have not gone without so far, but I will now. And more people will recognize me, and I’m sure that will go well,” Walz joked.
Private businesses may still have mask mandates, and many local governments could also keep mandates for public indoor spaces.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey released a statement Thursday night saying the city would keep its mask requirement for the time being: “The Minneapolis indoor mask requirement will stay in place while we review the data, consult our health experts, and analyze the unique circumstances and vaccination rates for our communities across our city,” said Frey. “After such review, we can reasonably project a timeline for lifting the requirement. That projection and final decision will follow the same health-based philosophy as when we first instituted the mask requirement a year ago.”
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter also said he would consult with the city’s public health officials before dropping St. Paul’s mask mandate: “I appreciate the continued diligence of our community as we work with our public health professionals to determine when mask measures can be safely lifted at the local level,” he said in a Tweet.
Walz’s announcement came just hours after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines on where and when masks should be worn by people who are fully vaccinated, which is defined as someone having all required vaccinations plus the two-week period afterward for antibodies to reach protective levels.
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said her department’s guidance remains the same for those who haven’t been vaccinated or those who aren’t fully vaccinated — that masks should be worn. But that recommendation will no longer have the force of a legal mandate. And Malcolm acknowledged that she would have preferred to have one rule for vaccinated people and one for unvaccinated people.
“If we thought it was enforceable to be able to divide people into those vaccinated and those unvaccinated, I would have like to have seen that,” Malcolm said. “I just think it’s not practicably enforceable. But we will continue to be clear that our guidance remains that there’s a whole lot of stuff that’s a lot safer if you are vaccinated.”
The governor said having two sets of rules would put too much onus on businesses to act as vaccine cops, asking customers who are maskless if they have received vaccinations. The confusion of two sets of rules would be “untenable and unworkable.”
Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said the state didn’t expect businesses to be “cops at the door.”
Vaccinated people not only are immune from getting infected with the virus but are not spreading the virus to unvaccinated people, Walz said, citing studies in real-world settings.
Under Walz’s most recent executive order — until Friday, that is — the indoor mask mandate would have ended on July 1, and sooner if more than 70 percent of those 16 and older had received at least one shot. As of Thursday, 61.5 percent of eligible residents have received at least one shot and just over 50 percent have either one shot of the Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot regimen or two shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Yet Minnesota also currently has the fourth-highest COVID-19 infection case growth in the U.S. and is not near the vaccination rate to reach herd immunity — a level at which the virus stops spreading because it lacks enough uninfected hosts. “We don’t have nearly enough people vaccinated to keep this virus suppressed,” Malcolm said. “It will come back if we don’t continue to build up more vaccinations.”
“My anxiety as I stand here is that when things are no longer a rule or a mandate people think everything is safe,” she said. “They might translate this guidance as meaning the pandemic is over. It’ll be incumbent upon us to get that message out there.”
The CDC news was announced at the end of Thursday’s session of the state Senate, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka praised the news, saying it meant masks would no longer have to be worn on the Senate floor. GOP leaders quickly called for an end to state-ordered mandates and an end to Minnesota’s peacetime state of emergency. Walz is expected to extend that state of emergency on Friday for another 30 days.
After adjournment of the state Senate session Thursday, three DFL senators — Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent of Woodbury, Sen. Karla Bigham of Cottage Grove and Sen. Melisa López Franzen of Edina — tossed their masks in the air, Mary Tyler Moore style.
At the time, the governor’s executive order requiring masks to be worn indoors was still in effect, though the Legislature and Supreme Court were not covered because they are separate branches of government, not subject to executive orders. The public areas of the Capitol building, however, are likely covered — something that didn’t stop members of both parties from walking through the area maskless.
Later, House Speaker Melissa Hortman said if she relaxes mask requirements on the House floor she would trust that members who don’t wear masks are fully vaccinated, with some exceptions. “If somebody has splashed all over social media that they are not going to get a vaccine and they are not going to wear a mask and they expect to come to the floor and be recognized to speak? I will not recognize them, no,” Hortman said.