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The state is lifting its COVID-19 mask mandate. Here’s what that means for you

By Catharine Richert and Peter Cox

It marks a singular milestone in the COVID-19 pandemic: Friday morning, Gov. Tim Walz will sign an executive order to undo the state’s mask mandate.

The announcement comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that people who are fully vaccinated no longer have to wear masks outside or inside in most cases.

Here’s what you need to know about the latest developments.

Who does this new guidance apply to, and under what circumstances?

Anyone who is fully vaccinated — people who are two weeks out from their second shot if they got a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, or their only shot if they got a Johnson & Johnson vaccine — no longer have to wear masks outside or inside, under most circumstances.

There are caveats: If you’re in a medical building — like a hospital or long-term care facility — you still need to mask. If you’re on a plane or a bus, you still need to mask. And schools will continue to follow state education department guidance that requires masks in school buildings until the end of the academic year.

How does this announcement fit into the state’s plan to get people vaccinated?

This news disrupts that plan.

The announcement came just a week after Gov. Tim Walz announced that he would drop Minnesota’s mask mandate on July 1, or when 70 percent of Minnesotans 16 or older had been vaccinated, whichever came first.

Walz said the CDC announcement Thursday took him by surprise. And he emphasized that there are still a lot of people in the state who need to be vaccinated.

He said he doesn’t think the new CDC guidance is a disincentive to getting vaccinated. The state will just continue to double down on reaching people who haven’t gotten shots yet.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm says she’s not entirely comfortable with the federal guidance.

“People who are not vaccinated still are at risk,” she said. “My concern about this is that there are a lot of people in Minnesota who are not vaccinated.”

So should I keep wearing a mask when I’m out and about?

Municipalities and private businesses still have the ability to enact their own mask-wearing rules, but the lifted mandate leaves the decision to wear masks largely in the hands of individuals.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Thursday that she has mixed feelings about the news.

On one hand, she said, the science is increasingly clear that the vaccines not only prevent illness but also prevent transmission. This, she said, is great news.

But she also said she worries people won’t abide by these new rules — that people who aren’t vaccinated won’t wear masks, endangering people who aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine, like kids under 12, and giving the virus more opportunities to continue to circulate.

“We don’t have nearly enough people vaccinated to keep this virus suppressed,” she said. “It will come back if we don’t continue to build up more vaccination.”

She said she worries that if the rule is lifted, people will assume that not wearing masks is a safe bet. But, she said, the state isn’t near where it needs to be, when it comes to vaccinations, which help tamp down the virus’ spread.

“It’s really in our individual hands,” she said.

What does this mean for kids in school?

Malcolm said that the state’s “Safe Learning” plan in schools will stay in effect through the end of the current school year.

That plan requires all students in kindergarten through 12th grade to wear a face covering while they are in school buildings, with some exemptions for children under the age of five and those with certain medical or mental health conditions or disabilities.

Will these new rules be enforced?

Thursday Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said that businesses won’t be expected to police mask-wearing — or have to ask people if they have been vaccinated.

The new CDC guidance gives local jurisdictions and businesses the option to continue to require masks.

Grove said this is a matter of individual responsibility, and that it will come down to people making a choice.

Michael Osterholm, a public health and infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, said the new guidance is appropriate in the sense that the science backs it up and that people who are vaccinated should reap some of the benefits of getting a shot.

He said that he thinks businesses will have an incentive to make sure that people are safe in their facilities, as a way to attract customers.

“It’s just like the old days of smoking in restaurants,” he said. “I heard time and time again that this would ruin the businesses. Just the opposite. More people went out because they wanted to go out, because they felt that comfort and protection of not having smoke throughout the restaurant.”

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