Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz welcomed new federal COVID-19 guidance Tuesday allowing vaccinated people to go mask-free in many outdoor settings, even though it will have little practical impact in a state that mostly required them indoors.
The relaxed mask guidance from the CDC is another sign of progress against the pandemic that Walz said could result in a further scaling back of restrictions and capacity limits in the next week in Minnesota.
"Masks coupled with vaccines is really the path out of this thing," said Walz, who hoped that the CDC announcement would incentivize vaccination and encourage continued mask-wearing in places where it remains necessary.
Minnesota's mandate since July 25 has required mask-wearing for people in public indoor settings and for workers outdoors when they can't maintain social distancing to do their jobs. The CDC guidance doesn't affect that, instead advising that people who have been fully vaccinated — which means it has been 14 days since their final doses — do not need masks outdoors in small social settings and when exercising alone.
Mask-wearing will continue regardless of vaccine status in large-group outdoor settings such as Minnesota Twins games at Target Field, where the practice is required under a combination of state rules for large entertainment venues and Major League Baseball policies.
The Twins on Tuesday announced a new slate of ticket offerings at a state-mandated 20% capacity through May 30, but Walz said those limits could be expanded for future events because "it looks like we are seeing some plateauing" in pandemic activity.
"The moves coming now are the moves back to normal," Walz predicted, "because already you can be in restaurants, you can be in movie theaters, we have kids in school. We're doing most of those things. The next moves are capacity limits coming off and some of those things."
The signs that a third wave of pandemic activity has peaked in Minnesota included a decline in the seven-day average positivity rate of COVID-19 diagnostic testing from a peak of 7.5% on April 8 to 6.6%.
Hospitalizations for COVID-19 edged up from 613 on Sunday to 641 on Monday, fueled largely by middle-aged patients who have yet to be vaccinated against the infectious disease. But that total remains below the recent high of 699 on April 14.
Minnesota on Tuesday reported another 12 COVID-19 deaths and 1,088 infections with the novel coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease — raising the state's pandemic totals to 7,091 deaths and 570,518 known infections.
Tuesday's state report included the death of a first-grader in Marshall, which Walz said was a "tragedy" and a reminder of the ongoing hazards of the pandemic. Tuesday's White House COVID-19 report for Minnesota showed that the state in the week ending April 21 had the nation's fifth-highest rate of new infections and the ninth-highest COVID-19 hospitalization rate.
The state also had the nation's 24th-highest COVID-19 death rate in that week, but that hasn't risen at the same rate as infections and hospitalizations — suggesting that Minnesota's prioritization of early vaccine supplies for vulnerable senior citizens has worked.
The state on Tuesday reported that nearly 2.5 million people in Minnesota have received at least a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine — a number that equates to 56% of eligible people 16 or older and 86% of senior citizens.
Signs of plateauing interest in the vaccines have emerged in Minnesota, though, where the availability of appointments prompted Allina Health on Tuesday to start taking anyone 16 or older, whether or not they are patients of the health system. A federally sponsored mass vaccination event at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds started adding walk-in vaccinations at the end of each day as well.
School districts also started arranging on-site vaccinations or directed students to local opportunities, as people ages 16 and 17 are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine but not the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson alternatives.
Walz said Minnesota has a chance to lead the nation and reach a vaccination rate of 70% by mid-May, and he disagreed with assessments that remaining people in the state are hesitant because of safety fears.
"People aren't hesitant to get the vaccine if they're just really busy or it's not convenient for them to get it, or they don't have a computer or a car or something," Walz said Tuesday, standing in front of a Metro bus converted into a mobile vaccine site in Richfield. "We're doing that next step of making it as easy as possible."
Evangelina de Santiago, 45, had a day off from her hotel cleaning job and the single mother saw an ad on social media for Tuesday's vaccine event in Richfield near home.
"It's important for my kids and for my job," said de Santiago, who waited in the rain to get her first dose, with her 6-year-old daughter at her side.
Walz said he does have a concern about weakening mask-wearing after nine months under the state mandate — with some people wearing them casually below their noses in a way that doesn't protect them or not wearing them at all. The latest survey data published by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation showed that 73% of people in the state say they always wear masks in public, down from 79% in February.
"It is a pain," Walz said. "I don't think anybody enjoys it, but it does work. It's the most effective, least intrusive and cheapest of the things that we have."
State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm noted that the CDC guidance didn't just permit vaccinated people to go outdoors without masks. It also reinforced the importance of indoor mask-wearing in combination with social distancing and staying home when sick to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The guidance is "continuing to say indoors, it's a really good idea, whether you're vaccinated or not," she said. "Vaccines are highly effective, not 100% effective."
Minnesota has tracked 1,163 breakthrough infections with the SARS-CoV-2 virus out of 1,256,342 fully vaccinated people — a rate of .09%. The breakthrough cases included 118 people who were hospitalized and 11 who died.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744