Citing an uptick in COVID-19 vaccination rates across Minneapolis, Mayor Jacob Frey on Tuesday ended the city's yearlong face-mask requirement.
St. Paul followed suit late in the day, saying it would officially end its mandate on Wednesday.
"While we are yet to reach the benchmarks set by local public health experts, the reality of a maskless Minneapolis limits the logic and efficacy of maintaining a masking order alone," said St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, adding that he urged all residents to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
Frey imposed the indoor mask mandate in Minneapolis last spring, two months before Gov. Tim Walz issued a similar statewide mask order.
Frey said the change was made because 78.6% of city residents age 15 and older have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose.
"It certainly helped control spread and the data has shown how effective masks have been up to this time," said Frey. "Now that we are getting close to the 80 percent, we do plan to lift the mask mandate."
Walz ended the statewide mask mandate on May 14 shortly after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks. Several other states and private businesses quickly dropped mask requirements.
Minneapolis initially opted to keep its mandate, citing low vaccination rates in some parts of the city.
"It happened fairly quickly with the state so we needed to go back to review our own data," said Frey.
The Hennepin County Board on Tuesday considered a resolution to eliminate its mask requirement for people inside its facilities but deferred the decision for two weeks to gather more information.
Frey said Minneapolis has seen improvement in its vaccine equity efforts, which also factored into his decision to lift the mandate.
Three of the city's five ZIP codes that have significant numbers of Black and Indigenous residents and people of color have seen vaccination rates exceed 55%.
"This doesn't mean that we are closing up our shop on increasing our vaccination rates in our most vulnerable communities," Frey said.
State and local governments, as well as health systems, community organizations and other groups have targeted vaccination efforts in minority communities.
Because they tend to be younger, many were not eligible in the first rounds of vaccinations last fall, which focused on the elderly and health care workers.
Minneapolis health officials said they were offering free vaccinations at public housing high-rises and are conducting vaccine education outreach with community organizations and nonprofits.
Although rates have improved, disparities still remain. Statewide, 45 to 48% of Indigenous, Black and Hispanic residents 16 and older have received at least one dose, compared with 61% of whites and 66% of Asians.
Statewide, over 2.9 million Minnesotans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Although the pace of new vaccinations has slowed, infection and hospitalization rates have dropped dramatically since Minnesota saw a surge in the early spring.
The Minnesota Department of Health on Tuesday reported 134 confirmed COVID-19 infections and one additional death, bringing the state's pandemic total to 601,517 cases and 7,427 fatalities.
State officials recently introduced a menu of incentives to help push up the percent of state residents 16 and older who have received at least one dose from 65 to 70% by July 1.
Minneapolis Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant said that although the city has surpassed the state's goal, some neighborhoods might take longer to increase vaccine uptake.
"At the rate we are going I think that would be hard to reach by July," she said. "We will continue to work in those areas that are accelerating at a lesser rate."
Musicant said compliance with the city's mask mandate appeared to be good even after mask requirements disappeared in neighboring suburbs.
"We didn't get a lot of indications about people that were not following the mandate," she said. "We didn't have an explosion of complaints about businesses where people weren't wearing masks."
Private businesses are free to set their own policies now that the city's mandate has expired. "If they choose to continue the mask mandate we certainly support them in that," Frey said.
Within about 30 minutes of the city's announcement, the Wedge and Linden Hills Co-ops had posted signs saying masks were no longer required but still encouraged, especially for unvaccinated customers and employees.
"We're encouraging it … but it is optional," said Twin Cities Co-op CEO Josh Resnik, adding that about 95% of customers on Tuesday still wore masks. "Gradually things are opening up."
The co-ops have increased limits on the number of customers who can be in the stores at one time and samples of items will again be offered. Plexiglass dividers at registers will stay up there and at Lake Wine & Spirits in south Minneapolis. An employee who declined to be named at the liquor store said most customers and employees are still choosing to wear masks.
"I think most people are accustomed to wearing masks," he said, adding he wasn't sure when he would stop wearing a mask himself.
Frey noted that the CDC still recommends that those who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks.
"Regulating based on a person's vaccination status is very hard if not impossible," he said. "We are trying to provide the best possible regulation for the whole city."
Metro Transit said federal mandates require it to enforce mask wearing on buses and trains.
Masks are also required in schools under state guidelines until the end of the school year.
Where must you still wear a mask?
• Buses, trains
• Airplanes and airports
• Long-term care facilities
• Private businesses that choose to continue requiring employees and/or customers to wear masks
Staff writer Kelly Smith contributed to this report.