ST. PAUL — An experiment of sorts is playing out across the state and nation, one in which local jurisdictions and places of business can choose whether or not to require face coverings.
Some of Minnesota's largest cities are already going without, having repealed their mask measures shortly after Gov. Tim Walz brought an early end to the statewide mandate last week. Others, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, are opting to keep theirs in place, as are a smattering of retailers and health care providers.
The situation calls to mind the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, during which states were largely left to determine public health protocols and procure personal protective equipment by themselves. But the key difference between then and now, elected officials and health experts say, is the availability of vaccines against COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, that stand to lessen the risk of a federated approach.
The patchwork of mask policies in Minnesota is taking shape in the aftermath of recently issued guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a surprise move, the agency last week said that fully vaccinated Americans need not wear masks, which help prevent the spread of respiratory droplets containing the virus, in most indoor settings.
Shortly after the CDC announcement, Walz said he would repeal the statewide mandate requiring masks indoors by executive order, though he and state health officials stressed that unvaccinated residents should continue to cover their mouths and noses. Cities, workplaces and businesses can still require masks to be worn.
The cities of Duluth and Rochester soon followed suit, and announced an end to their own masking measures. Smaller Minnesota cities, such as Winona and Mankato, did the same.
In Mankato, where a local mask measure overrode by the state mandate expired in September, "there has been no discussion about reinstatement at this time," City Communications and Engagement Director Edell Fiedler said.
In the Twin Cities area, by contrast, local mask measures are still in effect. The same night that Walz announced an end to the statewide order, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey's office issued a news release stating that would be the case pending a "review of health data."
"After such review we can reasonably project a timeline for lifting the requirement," Frey said in the release.
Places of business, meanwhile, are for the most part deferring to local policymakers on the subject of masks. Target, for example, wrote on its corporate blog that fully vaccinated employees and customers won't have to wear them in-store "except where it's required by local ordinances."
Those who are not fully vaccinated are "strongly recommended" to wear masks when inside Target stores, according to the blog post. The company did not respond to a request for comment on whether it would ask employees or customers about their vaccination status.
By comparison, Menards, the Upper Midwest hardware chain, has said on its website that masks will still be required in all of its stores.
Under Minnesota's "Safe Learning Plan," teachers and students still have to don masks for in-person education until the end of the school year.
Masks will still be required in many hospitals and doctor's offices in the near future as well. The Mayo Clinic, one of Minnesota's largest employers, said it will require all patients and visitors to continue wearing masks and practicing social distancing regardless of vaccination status in order to protect patients with weaker immune systems, who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
"It's important for patients to know that this new guidance doesn't apply to health care settings," Dr. Jack O'Horo, a Mayo Clinic infectious diseases expert is quoted as a saying on a medical center webpage. "For now, the best thing you can do is be aware of your local conditions, continue to wear masks in facilities that require them, and if you haven't already done so, look into your options for the vaccine."