Minnesota mask mandate ends Friday; Walz pleads for more vaccinations

Walz and commissioners at a press conference, no mask.
Gov. Tim Walz (left) speaks as Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm (center) and DEED Commissioner Steve Grove listen during a press conference about Minnesota's updated mask guidance on Thursday. All four did not wear masks during the press conference, a first in nearly a year.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Updated 7:53 p.m.

Minnesota will end its statewide mask-wearing order on Friday following new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowing people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to stop wearing masks, Gov. Tim Walz said Thursday.

Calling it a great day for Minnesota, the governor continued to plead with unvaccinated Minnesotans to get their shots to help hold back the spread of COVID-19.

"So, those peacetime emergencies are done and the business mitigations are coming to an end. I want to be clear it's not the end of the pandemic, but it is the end of the pandemic for a  lot of vaccinated folks,” he told reporters.

Even as he was ending the statewide order, he said that entities like hospitals and airlines would still be allowed to require masking if they choose. Local governments can also keep mandates in place.

Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said that fully vaccinated people were free to return to pre-pandemic activities, although she expressed reservations about the move to end the statewide masking order and its potential effect on residents.

“When things are no longer a rule or a mandate, they think therefore that everything is safe,” she said, noting that Minnesota still has a concerning level of COVID-19 spread. “People may translate this guidance meaning that the pandemic is over.”

Malcolm said if it were feasible to keep a mask mandate just for unvaccinated people, “I definitely would have liked to see that. I just think that it’s not practically enforceable at this stage.”

In a notable change, Walz and his commissioners were not wearing masks at the press briefing.

‘Governor, it’s time’

Walz last week had said the mask mandate would remain in place until July 1 or when at least 70 percent of Minnesota residents 16 and older had at least one dose.

After the CDC update, however, legislative Republicans demanded that Walz end the mask mandate immediately.

“If you’re trying to follow the science, it’s time to get rid of the masks, get back to normal,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said from the Senate floor. “Governor, it’s time. The CDC is saying it’s time. What are we waiting for?”

Even some DFL senators who have been vaccinated threw off their masks in Mary Tyler Moore-style before leaving the floor.

But others took to social media to urge Walz to proceed with caution, saying they couldn’t be sure that people without masks would be vaccinated. Children under 12 are still ineligible for the vaccine.

The CDC’s new guidance still calls for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters, but will help clear the way for reopening workplaces, schools and other venues — even removing the need for masks or social distancing for those who are fully vaccinated.

Malcolm said during the Thursday news briefing that Minnesota’s current “safe learning” guidance on mask-wearing in schools will stay in effect through the end of the school year.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Watch: Walz briefs reporters on the end of Minnesota’s statewide mask mandate

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

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