Gov. Tim Walz will end the state's mask mandate on Friday after federal health officials recommended that fully vaccinated people don't need to wear masks in most situations.
Businesses will be free to make their own decisions about whether to ask customers or employees to mask up, but Walz said that the time has come to discontinue the mask mandate that has stood since July 25.
"We know that masks were a critical tool in the early stage and still remain today in slowing or stopping the transmission of the coronavirus," Walz said.
Minnesota health officials will still encourage mask wearing among those who are not fully vaccinated, but that guidance will not have the legal force of a mandate.
"I have really mixed feelings about this," said Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. "We are the fourth-highest state in the country for case growth."
The end of the statewide mask mandate does not preclude local governments from setting and enforcing their own mask requirements. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey announced late Thursday that the state's largest city will keep its indoor mask requirement until officials there have had time to review data and consult health advisers.
"After such review we can reasonably project a timeline for lifting the requirement," Frey said in a statement.
State health officials announced Thursday that more than 50% of the eligible population, or 2.2 million residents, have been fully vaccinated. Altogether, 2.7 million, or 60.9% of those 16 and older, have received at least one shot.
The pace of new shots has been slowing since the first week of April, when nearly 410,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered. Last week saw just 235,349 doses given.
"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."
Walz and Malcolm said they were surprised when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued the new mask guidance Thursday. Last week, Walz set the state on a path that would have ended the mask mandate by July 1 or when 70% of Minnesotans older than 15 have received at least one shot.
The CDC said that regardless of vaccination status, masks should still be worn in crowded indoor settings, including airplanes, buses, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters. People are considered to be fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the last of the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
"We're still analyzing everything that came out of this announcement," Walz said. "As we've done from the beginning, we've followed CDC guidance as closely as we could."
Walz and Malcolm said they considered keeping the state mask mandate for those who were not fully vaccinated but rejected that option as too difficult to enforce. "Setting up a dual-tier system ... would prove more of a challenge and less efficient," Walz said.
Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said some businesses may continue to require masks as a way to help customers and employees feel safe.
"We know businesses without a state mandate will manage this in different ways," he said. "We want to be clear that we don't expect businesses to be cops at the door asking for vaccine cards."
Malcolm emphasized that lifting the mandate does not mean the pandemic is over.
"I certainly agree with the governor that there is some good news here," she said. "The guidance is that fully vaccinated people are essentially free to go back to our activities that we did before the pandemic. People who are not vaccinated still are at risk," she added. "My concern about this is there [are] still a lot of people who are not vaccinated."