By the end of this month, COVID-19 restrictions other than the state's mask mandate will be lifted. By July 1, that requirement will be gone, too, allowing Minnesotans to shop without face coverings for hot dogs, chips and charcoal for July 4th gatherings.
After more than a year of enduring the fears and restrictions necessitated by a pandemic, a potentially normal summer is worthy of celebration. A year ago, spring lockdowns were barely in the rearview mirror. Experts struggled to scale up testing. Treatments were few. Optimism was hard to come by.
Yet on Thursday, Gov. Tim Walz outlined a three-step process that will ease "nearly all state COVID-19 restrictions by May 28, and end the statewide masking requirement by July 1 at the latest." Lifting the mask mandate could happen sooner if the state reaches a 70% vaccination goal. The plan is a sensible one after a year of mostly grim state updates. While the virus is far from eradicated, there are three safe and remarkably effective vaccines authorized for use in the U.S.
The vaccine supply moved from scarcity to abundance over the past few months. Minnesotans have commendably embraced the shots, with 59.3% of those 16 and up so far having had at least one dose. Thank you to all who have rolled up their sleeves. Broad vaccination thwarts viral spread. Those who've stepped up to protect their families and communities are powering this move back to normal, but many others still need to do their part.
Walz's announcement drew criticism from State Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, who said the rollbacks were "not good enough and not soon enough." Gazelka and others made similar arguments even before the vaccines were authorized for use late last year. But the more responsible course of action was to wait for the vaccines, prioritize shots for the elderly and other vulnerable people, then vaccinate a significant percentage in the broader community before loosening restrictions.
This caused economic pain and strain for many Minnesota businesses, workers and their families, but the sacrifice saved lives. According to federal data, Minnesota's COVID mortality rate is lower than those of bordering states, some of which had governors who rushed to ease restrictions. Minnesota's mortality rate also stands out (in a good way) in national state-by-state comparisons. Easing restrictions in Minnesota still carries risk. On Thursday, state health officials reported 1,661 new COVID cases and 13 additional deaths. The virus also is capable of introducing its own game-changer — variants that are more infectious or cause more severe illness, or both.
Immunizing another 473,000 Minnesotans is needed to hit the 70% goal. That's not a place to stop, however, with 70% on the low range of estimates needed to hit "herd immunity." Better would be 80% and 90% better still. Parents can and should help make that happen when federal officials expand use soon to ages 12-15. The shots won't just protect kids but everyone around them.
The Walz address had a memorable line. "We're here, we're here, we're here," the governor said softly but with an intensity that seemed to sum up Minnesotans' relief, gratitude and exhaustion. There's work to do, but we are in a much better place than May 2020. Take a breath. Then either go get the shot, or gently encourage someone else to do so. Let's finish this.