Thursday evening brought on a mask-free sigh of relief throughout Minnesota as Gov. Tim Walz announced an important milestone in the COVID-19 pandemic: the end of the state’s mask mandate.
Walz signed an executive order Friday to undo the statewide mask mandate after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new guidelines Thursday that fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks in most cases.
Though the state no longer is dictating where masks need to be worn, businesses and individuals are now left to make their own decisions on mask regulations and practices. Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron is urging everyone to still practice caution as the vaccination process is still well underway.
“Steele County currently has 56% of people 16 and up who have had at least one shot – and of course some of those include the Johnson and Johnson vaccine which means those people are fully vaccinated,” Caron said. “The state is at 61%, though, so we are lagging behind a little. Our numbers are going in the right direction, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet.”
Rice County is currently at 61.1% of residents 16 and older who have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccination, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Caron said not knowing who is and isn’t vaccinated is why she recommends individuals continue to err on the side of caution despite the lifting of the mandate. A fully vaccinated person herself, Caron said she will likely still practice the same safety precautions when she is out in public that have been promoted throughout the lifespan of the pandemic – including wearing a mask.
“It will really depend on the situation I’m in at the time. If I’m with my own family and people I know are vaccinated, then I probably wouldn’t wear a mask,” Caron said. “But if I’m out and about, it is something I will definitely consider because I know the virus is still out there.”
Caron said she's concerned that the end of the mask mandate will make it more difficult to get people to make vaccination appointments, adding that in a matter of weeks Public Health went from filling up their slots immediately to now having 200 available appointments every day.
“This just tells us that we probably still have some more work to do on our end to find the people who need and want the vaccine,” Caron said.
What this means for business
Target in Owatonna and Walmart in Faribault are still requiring customers to wear face masks unless underlying conditions harm the person wearing it.
But at The Depot in Faribault, patrons are allowed to go mask-free.
“I’m happy about it because I can smile at my customers again,” bar manager Sara Caron said. She added that she didn’t have an opinion on the timing of the decision, and spoke highly of Walz’s handling of the pandemic and keeping everyone safe.
Owatonna Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Brad Meier said while the timing may have caught people – specifically businesses – a bit off guard, he believes it signals that Minnesota is in a good place when it comes to battling the virus.
“I think the part that is a little concerning for businesses is that it leaves it open now to their discretion and enforcement of any mask rules,” Meier said. “I know that the local manufacturing companies are wrestling with this right now to try to decide how they want to work with their employees, but customer-facing businesses like retail have to make those decisions, also.”
Meier said that he anticipates that locally owned business will be more likely to allow patrons in without face masks.
The CDC still recommends hospital and health care settings keep mask and distance precautions to protect people deemed at high risk of dying from the virus. The Northfield Hospital & Clinics will continue to require both measures for staff, patients, visitors and vendors, including in outdoor settings like the Northern Lights Café patio.
What this means for you
There are some caveats to the lifting of the mask mandate. People will have to continue to wear masks on public transportation and on airplanes, and school districts will continue to follow guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education that currently requires masks inside school buildings until the end of the academic year.
But so long as someone is fully vaccinated, Amy Caron said that is when they can start making the decision on whether they want to wear a mask out in public. While some cities still have mask mandates in place – Northfield has mandated masks in city facilities since July – Caron said she has not heard from any Steele County municipalities about establishing a local mandate.
“I imagine we will stay on par the same way we have throughout the pandemic – by following what comes out of the Governor’s Office,” Caron said.
Rice County Administrator Sara Folsted noted the county is updating signage to reflect the most recent CDC guidance and information from the state and that masks will no longer be required inside county facilities.
Again, Caron urges that the public continue to exercise caution as the race to herd immunity continues. As the state opens up and the mask mandate ends, health officials are still doing contact tracing for positive COVID-19 cases. People who test positive still have to isolate, and people who haven't been vaccinated and are a close contact to a case will still have to quarantine, according to Caron.
“We don’t want the misconception that the virus is gone – it is still very much here and you are going to want to take you own personal precautions out there,” Caron said.