ST. PAUL — Nearly every measure in place to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota will expire Friday, May 28, Gov. Tim Walz has announced, and Minnesotans won't be required to wear face masks in public beginning in July.
The governor on Thursday, May 6, heralded an end to pandemic restrictions that began more than a year ago. As more and more residents are vaccinated and case rates decline, he said, "we can now confidently and safely set out our path back to normal."
"The pandemic is not over and we have work to do. But from the State Fairgrounds, to doctor’s offices, to retrofitted Metro Transit buses that deliver vaccines where they're most needed, Minnesotans now have more opportunities than ever to get the vaccine when and where they want to," Walz said in a statement.
The move comes as Minnesota rebounds from a recent COVID-19 surge, with case growth slowing from a peak in mid-April. In a sign of less widespread infection levels, the state's percent positivity rate is also declining, according to recent Minnesota Department of Health data, though it is still nearly a full point higher than the critical 5% threshold.
Using his emergency powers, Walz loosened restrictions most recently in March, raising occupancy limits on bars, restaurants, gyms, barbershops, salons, entertainment venues and other public facing businesses. Caps on worship services and outdoor gatherings were also lifted that month.
But the timeline Walz laid out Thursday goes even farther and will take effect soon:
- Starting noon Friday, May 7: Guest limits and social distancing requirements for outdoor gatherings and outdoor dining will be rescinded, as will masking requirements. These rules will still apply, however, to large venues with more than 500 people. Curfews imposed on bars and restaurants, meanwhile, will also end Friday afternoon.
- By May 28: All remaining occupancy limits and social distancing requirements will end for indoor events and outdoor gatherings. Face coverings will still be required indoors for a time and will have to be worn at open-air events attended by more than 500 people.
- By Thursday, July 1 (or when 70% of eligible residents have at least one dose of vaccine) the statewide mask mandate will be rescinded. Sixty percent of eligible residents have had at least one shot so far, or approximately 2.6 million people.
The state's mask mandate has been in effect since July 25, 2020.
The plan allowing Minnesota schools to operate on an in-person or hybrid basis will stay in place until the end of the school year, and a statewide eviction moratorium will also remain in effect for an unspecified period of time. Masking will still be required for indoor youth sports until the end of the school year as well.
After July 1, the governor's office said, local jurisdictions and businesses will still have the flexibility to require masks and institute other health measures. State health authorities will also continue its efforts to test and vaccinate for COVID-19.
Business leaders hailed the announcement, which a coalition of local business networks spearheaded by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce said Thursday was "a long time coming for businesses who have endured incremental dial turns while simultaneously keeping their businesses afloat and protecting employee and customer safety."
"The business community — local chambers and coalition members — have been steadfast in their support of employers, understanding their enormous impact on local communities and Minnesota's economy as a whole," the group's statement reads.
Republican lawmakers in Minnesota were unmoved, however, and criticized Walz for not relinquishing the additional executive powers he first took hold of last March, when he declared a statewide peacetime emergency. The executive order Walz signed Thursday laying out Minnesota's exit from pandemic restrictions did not include a repeal of the emergency declaration.
"The governor continues to lead alone, ignoring our suggestions and the suggestions of the businesses and medical community to find any compromise — especially on the mask mandate," Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said in a statement. "This does not make our job at the Capitol to pass a balanced budget without raising taxes, and on time, any easier."
In a news conference broadcast online Thursday afternoon, Walz cautioned that even the declining case growth rate is "still too high" and must be driven "down to nothing." He emphasized the safety of the vaccines for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and asked Minnesotans to encourage those close to them to get their shots.
"We are still losing Minnesotans today and we can save those lives," he said.
Watch the news conference below:
The governor pledged to improve vaccine equity and said Minnesotans would soon "have the same vaccination rate across the state" regardless of their ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds. He was joined by other officials Thursday in acknowledging the sacrifices residents have made to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Health Department Commissioner Jan Malcolm stressed in her comments Thursday that the activities soon to be free of government restrictions will still be risky for the unvaccinated.
"So long as this virus is circulating ... it remains a threat to all of us. Every person COVID-19 infects is a chance for others to become sick," she said at the conference.
But the path forward, Malcolm continued "is very much in our hands. We have the information and the tools and the resources to continue this progress."