An indoor mask-wearing mandate will end no later than July 1 and COVID-19 restrictions on business and social gatherings will end May 28 under a plan that Gov. Tim Walz hailed Thursday as a path to a "great summer" for Minnesota.
The rollback of COVID-19 restrictions will start at noon Friday with an elimination of capacity caps for outdoor entertainment venues such as Target Field, an expansion of caps for indoor venues, and an end to early bar and restaurant closing times. All caps will be eliminated May 28 ahead of Memorial Day weekend.
The mandate requiring masks in indoor public spaces could be lifted before July 1 if the state can increase the rate of Minnesotans who have received COVID-19 vaccine from 59% to 70%. Though vaccine uptake is slowing, Walz said that amount of progress requires only another 473,000 eligible people 16 or older to get their first shots.
"Let's just go get it done and end this thing," said Walz, predicting that a 70% vaccination rate would drive down infections, hospitalizations and COVID-19 deaths. "That is what we're really asking you to do."
The decisions were made with the presumption that current positive trends in the pandemic will continue. The positivity rate of diagnostic testing has fallen from 7.4% on April 10 at the peak of the latest wave to 5.9%. COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota dropped from 699 on April 14 to 565 on Wednesday.
However, state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said most indicators of pandemic activity are above caution thresholds for Minnesota — which on Thursday reported another 13 COVID-19 deaths and 1,661 infections with the novel coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease.
The end to business and social restrictions was delayed three weeks to buy time for further increases in vaccinations and declines in infections, she said. "With the patterns we've seen, every couple weeks really does matter."
Vaccination progress has helped Minnesota and the U.S. "turn a corner" and avert a disastrous outbreak like the one in India, said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Even so, he noted that Minnesota is pulling back restrictions at a level of pandemic activity that would have alarmed people last summer.
"I was surely wanting more people vaccinated before we started pulling back these restrictions," he said. "At the same time, society is ready to pull them back."
The immediate changes on Friday come ahead of the typical season for graduations and end-of-school celebrations. They allow indoor social gatherings of up to 50 people and outdoor gatherings or entertainment events with no caps or social distancing requirements.
Outdoor mask-wearing is no longer required by the state except in close-contact work situations and at entertainment venues and events with more than 500 people.
Indoor caps will remain in place for bars and restaurants until May 28, but servers can serve 10 people at one table instead of six.
Business leaders celebrated the moves. Walz acknowledged pushing the end of restrictions ahead of Memorial Day weekend, a key goal for restaurant and resort owners.
"Bars and restaurants have been desperate to fully open safely and quickly — and the end is in sight. We're thrilled to fully open for business with minimal restrictions," Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association Executive Director Tony Chesak said.
The Minnesota Twins responded with plans for adding more tickets for games May 14-30 "and ramping up to full capacity as appropriate."
Whether Minnesota will reach a 70% vaccination trigger to end its mask mandate before July 1 is unclear.
Local jurisdictions will have the option after that to enforce their own mask policies. The city of Duluth in a statement noted that its mask requirement is slated to continue as long as Minnesota has a state of emergency declaration in place for the pandemic.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey on Thursday left open the possibility that the city could extend its mask mandate beyond July 1.
Minnesota on Thursday reported that more than 2.6 million people in the state had received at least a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, or 59% of the population of people 16 and older who are eligible to receive it. The state would reach 70% if 3,087,404 people received vaccine.
Technically, Minnesota is closer to that goal than is reported by the state. Its numbers include vaccinations of Minnesotans that took place in Wisconsin and North Dakota, but not in other states — including snowbird states where senior citizens may have received shots in the winter.
Minnesota's total also doesn't include the 59,431 first doses provided by the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center — though as a regional center some of those doses went to veterans who live in other states.
The doses not tracked in Minnesota's pandemic data won't have much effect on when the state reaches the 70% goal, said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director. She added that it is an incremental threshold and that the ultimate goal is to vaccinate many more Minnesotans anyway.
Walz said he was happy to offer the incentive of an earlier end to the mask mandate to people who hesitated to get vaccine. The mandate has been controversial since Walz used his emergency authority to enact it last July, and compliance has been weakening. While 79% of surveyed Minnesotans reported wearing masks in public all the time in mid-February, that rate has dropped to 73%, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Washington state.
"I'm just putting it in their hands," Walz said. "If you don't like the masks, then let's get vaccinated."
State health and economic commissioners warned that the end of COVID-19 restrictions won't end the pandemic or its impact. Malcolm said the state will still offer guidance on how to reduce risks of infection and that unvaccinated people in particular may be advised to continue wearing masks in public.
Customers won't be rushing back to restaurants and activities just because the restrictions have ended, said Steve Grove, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
The use of vaccinations to drive down COVID-19 activity to low levels is needed, he said. "The more consumers who are vaccinated, the stronger our collective consumer confidence is. Quite simply, vaccines equal confidence, and confidence equals economic growth."
Staff writer Liz Navratil contributed to this report.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744