St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter on Thursday announced an end to the vaccine-or-test requirement for restaurants, bars and other entertainment venues licensed by the city. St. Paul's mask mandate remains in effect for businesses licensed by the city.

Star Tribune reporter Katie Galioto spoke with the mayor about his decision-making process. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you decide to lift St. Paul's vaccine-or-test requirement? What made you feel comfortable taking that step?

This is a unique situation, where usually you create policy because you want that policy to last forever. This is one that was designed to be deleted. It's designed to be rescinded. Our goal has always been to move ourselves to a place as quickly as we can where we didn't need it. We've been working closely with our public health professionals to really assess four categories of statistics. One is, of course, positivity rates and case rates. One being severe symptoms that require hospitalizations. One being ICU capacity. And one being deaths. … Clearly, in the first half of January, when those numbers spiked, that was a cause for significant alarm for many of us. And then we saw those numbers come back down in a way that helped us to feel like it was a time to be able to safely lift those requirements so that we can move forward as a community.

Why did you decide to keep the city's mask mandate? What threshold do we need to reach for that to be lifted?

We don't have one carved-in-stone threshold where all of these different numbers have to be in this one spot. I don't think that would reflect the real ground truth that we're experiencing right now. We have public health professionals here in our city-county public health department, we have public health professionals at the state level, and we're getting a lot of information from the federal government that will help guide those decisions. So in the same way that we made this decision that we announced today, that's the same way we'll determine how we move forward.

What we've heard significantly from business leaders is that, in particular, a vaccine requirement creates challenges to implement, to enforce. That seems to be a bit of a more intense requirement than a masking requirement. At some level, we're all somewhat used to being masked, and we know that provides some level of protection for our community as well. We are still in a pandemic. We are still, based on the CDC's numbers, at a high rate of community spread.

The vaccine-or-test requirement was only in effect for 22 days, and applied to roughly one-third of the city's restaurants. When you and Mayor Frey announced those policies, you said you wanted to reduce the spread of the virus, relieve pressures on hospitals and avoid an economic shutdown. Do you feel like this policy helped accomplish those goals in the short period of time that it was in effect?

You know well my passion for real, independent data. And so I wouldn't go as far to say the numbers came down because we implemented this policy. 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 and what the "hows" and "whys" are. What we know right now is that those numbers did come down, and they came down sharply. We're all very relieved that they've come down. And some of the protocols that seemed critical just several weeks ago, as we were considering putting those requirements in place, some of those circumstances no longer seem to be the case.

Do you have a response to restaurant, bars and businesses who have said this policy detrimentally affected sales and their employees over the last few weeks?

I know the entire pandemic has been traumatic for, in particular, our hospitality industry. I'm hopeful that we will have another round of supports coming soon with American Rescue Plan dollars. What we told them was two things: One, that we believe — I continue to believe — that a vaccine requirement was critical to some of their customers having the confidence we want them to have to know that they can dine safely. We've heard that from a number of individuals. And two, that we would rescind the policy as soon as we found ourselves in a space where we were able to. That's what we've done, and we'll continue to work with our partners in the food and hospitality industries as closely as we can to ensure that they're able to rebound with all the rest of us.

What about the people who liked the vaccine requirements and felt more comfortable dining with it in effect? Are you encouraging businesses to keep asking for proof of vaccination on their own?

I am continuing to encourage people to get vaccinated and to keep a mask on and to continue to encourage their family and friends and co-workers and the folks in their circles to do the same, so that we can protect not only ourselves but our families and our entire community from this ongoing pandemic. This pandemic has claimed millions of lives across the globe, over 1,100 right here in Ramsey County. And we have the tools to fight it. So we're certainly encouraging people to continue taking every precaution they can to continue to follow public health guidelines and will continue to advance those messages everywhere we can.

If St. Paul were to see COVID cases and hospitalizations rise to the levels we saw in early January at some other point down the road, would you consider re-implementing a vaccine requirement?

What I've said since the beginning is that we are going to do literally everything we can figure out to help slow the spread of this virus in our city and in our community. Our first hope is that we won't see the type of spike that we saw last month again. And should we get back to a place where our public health professionals are suggesting that something like that is necessary, absolutely it would be something that I would consider.