Twin Cities Mayors Melvin Carter and Jacob Frey on Thursday jointly rescinded their vaccine-or-test emergency regulations for restaurants, bars and entertainment venues, effective immediately, as COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations rapidly decline.
Mask mandates for Minneapolis' "areas of public accommodation" and St. Paul's city-licensed businesses will stay in place for now.
"We always want to try and be as least invasive as possible when we're coming from a public health perspective," Minneapolis interim Health Commissioner Heidi Ritchie said in an interview. "We felt like in the areas where there were people who were eating and drinking and they couldn't feasibly wear a mask, that vaccination was really the best way to keep everybody safe. At this point with the transmission rates dropping the way that they are, the hospitalization rates not as precarious as they were, we're comfortable pulling that more invasive regulation backwards."
The Twin Cities have been closely monitoring new cases, positivity rates, vaccination rates, hospital capacity and vaccine breakthrough cases since announcing the vaccine-or-test mandates last month.
"I wouldn't go as far to say the numbers came down because we implemented this policy," Carter said in an interview. "I think there's a number of factors at play, of which I would suggest this is one of them. I think we'll be able to evaluate a lot of that in the coming months."
The latest weekly case rate, for Feb. 1-7, is about 161 per 100,000 people, according to preliminary data on Minneapolis' COVID-19 dashboard. It is down from Jan. 21-27's 500 per 100,000, the week after the mandate went into effect.
Over the past seven days, Ramsey County has seen a 58% drop in cases and a 38% drop in hospital admissions, according to a St. Paul news release. Statewide rates are also headed down.
"We know that Minneapolis is kind of the center for entertainment and sports and all of those items, so it brings people from outstate Minnesota into Minneapolis," said Ritchie. "We like to take in consideration how the state is faring overall as well."
Minneapolis' and St. Paul's orders that dine-in customers must show proof of vaccination or a negative test taken with three days received mixed reaction.
Some diners said it made them feel more confident going out to eat. And the mandate did not pose a major hurdle for restaurants and concert venues that had voluntarily instituted vaccine checks earlier in the pandemic.
Other businesses stacked up the chairs in their seating areas and temporarily converted to takeout only rather than add staff to check documentation and risk dealing with quarrelsome customers. A group of restaurant operators sued Minneapolis seeking a temporary restraining order, which a judge denied.
The orders were not consistently enforced. In St. Paul, only one-third of restaurants were subject to the mandate because the city licenses just those that sell alcohol while the state licenses the rest.
"What we've heard significantly from business leaders is that, in particular, a vaccine requirement creates challenges to implement, to enforce," Carter said. "That seems to be a bit of a more intense requirement than a masking requirement."
City of Minneapolis employees working remotely throughout the pandemic are set to return to their offices Feb. 14. Carter has not yet announced a return-to-work date for St. Paul employees working remotely.
"That is a welcomed sign for Minneapolis, especially for the small businesses and restaurants that have shouldered the weight of this pandemic," Frey said in a statement. "Let's hold the momentum and bring our city back in full by continuing to follow public health guidance and supporting local businesses."
Staff writer Katie Galioto contributed to this report.