PROVIDENCE — Governor Daniel McKee announced Wednesday that the state’s requirement for masking or providing proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 tests for indoor public places and large venues will expire on Friday.
The governor also plans to end the statewide masking requirement in schools and state offices on March 4. His decision is pending the approval of the General Assembly of a joint resolution that extends the governor’s emergency authority for 45 days.
McKee said the decision to relax the restrictions came after seeing the steady drop in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations since the calamitous peak in early January. Cases have dropped by 94 percent, from the height of 6,700, and hospitalizations have decreased 52 percent, according to data from the state Department of Health. For students in K-12, the cases also plummeted, from 9,931 cases during the week of Jan. 2 to 1,547 cases during the week of January 30.
Rhode Island now has the eighth-lowest percent positivity rate in the country, he said.
“We have made considerable progress against COVID-19 and are in a much better place than we were in early January,” McKee said.
After his order on masking in schools expires on March 4, McKee said, state officials will leave it up to individual school districts to make their own decisions. The next few weeks will give districts time to prepare for the transition and, he hopes, for parents to get their children fully vaccinated.
The Rhode Island Interscholastic League is recommending that players wear a mask if they are unvaccinated or have not received boosters. The student athletes can take off their mask during active play, with symptom screening.
Businesses may also either continue the masking requirements or make other changes. Masks are still recommended for those who are immunocompromised and those who have not received their booster shots.
Rhode Island currently requires masks to be worn in all indoor venues with a capacity of at least 250 people; small businesses require employers and patrons to show proof of the COVID-19 vaccine or wear a mask indoors.
McKee’s decision comes just before Saturday’s Providence College Friars basketball game at the Dunkin Donuts Center, which has been subject to the masking rule, and ahead of Super Bowl gatherings and Valentine’s Day outings this weekend.
McKee and Interim Director of Health Dr. James McDonald said the changes were guided by the data, not the upcoming events. Even the new variant known as BA. 2, a descendant of the omicron variant, has appeared late in Rhode Island, McDonald said, and did not appear to be a cause for concern.
“We’re heading in right direction,” McDonald said. “What we’re talking about now is different that two years ago.”
McKee said that his administration sought to align with Massachusetts, along with Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware, to reflect the evolution of the virus and its decreasing impact.
The announcement came hours after Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said that he would lift the statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools on Feb. 28.
“With Massachusetts a national leader in vaccinating kids, combined with our robust testing programs, it is time to lift the mask mandate in schools and give students and staff a sense of normalcy after dealing with enormous challenges over the past two years,” Baker said in a statement. “We have all the tools to keep schools safe as we move into dealing with the next phase of managing COVID.”
Between the school districts of Rhode Island, however, there are unequal vaccination rates, and just 53 percent of students overall were at least partially vaccinated as of Jan. 29, according to data from the Rhode Island Department of Health.
Only three school districts reported that more than 80 percent of students are vaccinated: Jamestown (85 percent), Barrington (83 percent), and East Greenwich (82 percent). In Providence, only 40 percent of students were vaccinated. Central Falls was also at 40 percent. The vaccination rates were even lower in Pawtucket (38 percent) and Woonsocket (36 percent).
McDonald urged parents of young children to wait for official guidance on the new Pfizer vaccine, which may be available for children ages six months to 5 years.
Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green urged parents of children who are eligible for the vaccine to get their shots soon. McKee said the state would work with school districts as they prepared for March 4 and “double down” on getting the booster shots to children.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown accused McKee of responding to “political pressure from anti-maskers.”
”Governor McKee’s decision to lift mask and vaccine mandates just weeks after the highest case rates we’ve seen since is irresponsible and dangerous. Through this pandemic, Rhode Island has had more COVID cases per capita than any other state in the country,” Brown said in a statement. “As governor, I would maintain the mask mandates, implement a vaccine mandate, and ensure all Rhode Islanders have access to free masks and tests.”