McKee lifting RI indoor mask mandate this weekend, and school mask mandate next month

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State Department of Health Interim Director Dr. Jim McDonald says the data show that COVID-19 took the lives of more than 1,000 Rhode Islanders last year.
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McKee News Conference

PROVIDENCE — The mask-or-proof-of-vaccination requirement for Rhode Island businesses and other indoor venues will be lifted effective Friday, Gov. Dan McKee announced Wednesday after declaring "we're seeing a lot of encouraging movement" in pandemic data.

The move comes at the approach of the Valentine's Day weekend, when restaurants, stores and other businesses are expected to be bustling.

The governor also said Rhode Island's school mask mandate will remain until March 4, provided the General Assembly approves a 45-day extension of his COVID emergency powers, which are set to lapse next week. After that, individual school districts would still be free to set their own mask-wearing requirements, as towns such as Barrington already have.

More: RI lawmakers battle over votes on extending Gov. Dan McKee's emergency COVID powers

More: Massachusetts to lift public school mask mandate on Feb. 28

McKee did not have an update on ending the mask requirement for high-school athletes in competition, but said it will probably correspond with the March 4 date.

McKee has no control over federal mask requirements on public transportation, such as RIPTA buses and even school buses.

Speaking at the State House during a COVID briefing, interim Health Department director Dr. James McDonald said COVID-19 is on its way to becoming endemic — "a preventable, treatable disease" — and said it was time to find a "new balance." He compared the current situation to landing an airplane, noting that there could be bumps on the way, particularly with the emergence of the BA.2 subvariant of coronavirus.

McDonald said the coming end to the school mask mandate does not mean that masks are no longer needed in schools, but reflected a move toward local control. He said the Health Department will provide guidance to help districts make decisions.

In Providence Public Schools, it looks like masks will stay on for now. State Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said that while a decision has not been made officially, the vaccination rate among students in Providence, which she said was 32%, remains too low.

Reaction to Wednesday's developments came swiftly.

“The RI Hospitality Association supports Governor Daniel McKee’s announcement to end the current mandates requiring businesses to enforce mask-wearing indoors or ask for proof of vaccination," president and CEO Dale J. Venturini said in a statement.

"The hospitality industry continues to work hard to provide guests with the best experience possible, including keeping patrons and staff safe. While the state mandates may be dropped, we recognize that business owners may choose to require proof of vaccination and/or mask-wearing in their own businesses and we ask that those decisions are respected.”

Similarly, Chris Parisi and Rick Simone, speaking for the RI Small Business Coalition and the Ocean State Coalition, tweeted that the organizations applaud McKee's decision. "To do it before this upcoming weekend shows he understands and cares about small businesses," the tweet read. "The message is clear that consumers can once again feel confident to shop and dine local, while also giving everyone their choice when it comes to masking."

In a communication with The Journal, Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and academic dean of Brown University's School of Public Health, said: "I am fully supportive of lifting indoor mask mandates when the vaccination, case and hospitalization numbers support it. Our state is in a much better spot than it was a month ago, or four months ago. I would remind us all that masks are one part of a multi-pronged strategy to minimize COVID’s harm.

"Two important takeaways: First, we need clear guidelines for the governor and for schools — both for when to lift guidelines and when to put them back in place in case of future surges; and second, we need to continue to ensure that vulnerable adults and kids continue to be protected, through ventilation and higher standards in certain areas such as hospitals."

Noting that several states have acted or will act much as Rhode Island has, Brown University School of Public Health Dean Dr. Ashish Jha tweeted: "Governors across [the] nation are lifting mask mandates. While I've called for waiting a few more weeks until hospitalizations drop further, I understand our leaders reflect where folks are. But let's not waste this reprieve. Let's prepare for whatever future surges & variants may come."

McDonald noted the partying expected to occur in Rhode Island this weekend, with the Super Bowl on Sunday and Valentine's Day on Monday. "If you're symptomatic — runny nose, cough, body aches, feeling tired — you really should test before going," he said. Better still, he said, stay home. "Please don't bring your symptoms into someone else's party," he said.

McDonald also urged civility regarding an individual's decision to wear or not wear a mask, saying "quite frankly, I think a little more calmness and sanity and kindness would go a long way for everybody."

Noting that he is also a board-certified pediatrician in addition to being certified in preventive medicine, he urged parents and guardians to consult with their children's pediatricians about COVID vaccinations for children under 5. Pfizer has applied for emergency use authorization for this final age group, and a federal decision is expected in the coming weeks.

A pediatrician's office, he said, is where "kids feel most comfortable." It's where, he said, he has administered many vaccines over his long career.

The Rhode Island Department of Health on Wednesday reported four more coronavirus-related deaths and 635 additional cases of COVID-19, along with 11,878 negative tests, for a 5.1% positive rate There were 279 COVID-positive patients in Rhode Island hospitals at last count, down from 288 reported yesterday, with 37 in intensive care. Rhode Island has reported an average of 697 new COVID cases a day over the last seven days, down 40% from a week ago and down 71% from two weeks ago.

COVID by the numbers

Cases in R.I.: 350,715 (635 reported Wednesday)

Negative tests in R.I.: 6,927,577 (11,878; 5.1% positive rate)

R.I. COVID-related deaths: 3,369 (4 reported Wednesday)

Rhode Islanders hospitalized with COVID: 279 (37 in intensive care)

Fully vaccinated in R.I.: 808,378 (929,379 at least partially vaccinated)

Cases in Mass.: 1,639,656

Mass. COVID-related deaths: 22,602

Cases in U.S.: 77,067,831

U.S. COVID-related deaths: 909,270

Want to learn more about how the COVID pandemic is impacting Rhode Island?

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With reports from Staff Writer Katherine Gregg and Managing Editor Michael McDermott.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Live: McKee lifts RI indoor mask mandate during press conference