Governor Dan McKee and Rhode Island Department of Health Interim Director Dr. Jim McDonald hosted a COVID-19 briefing at 1:30 pm on Wednesday to provide an update on the State’s masking policies.

McKee announced that he will let his executive order regarding indoor vax/mask mandates expire on Friday across Rhode Island.

The order requiring students and staff to wear masks in schools will end on March 4. Governor McKee said that after that time mask requirements or mandates would be made by individual school districts and not the state.

McKee said that March 4 was chosen to allow enough time for parents and school districts to prepare.

Related – Coronavirus in Rhode Island: The latest data on community transmission of COVID-19

Governor McKee, RIDOH Announce Plan to Lift Statewide School Mask Mandate and Allow Masking Decisions to be Determined at the Local Level

Govermor McKee’s office issued the following press release during the press briefing;

With COVID-19 case and hospitalization data continuing to improve, Governor Dan McKee and the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) today announced plans to lift the statewide school mask mandate on March 4, allowing decisions about masking to be made by local school districts at that time. Additionally, the Governor and RIDOH announced that the Executive Order on indoor masking will lift on Friday, February 11. Today’s announcement empowers schools, businesses, and venues of assembly to implement the health and safety measures best suited to the needs of their communities.

“Thanks to Rhode Islanders stepping up to do the right thing, together we’ve made considerable progress against COVID-19 and the winter surge,” said Governor McKee. “Based on our decreasing case and hospitalization numbers, our team at the Department of Health feels confident in our plan to safely shift masking guidance for both schools and public settings as we move into an endemic management phase of the virus.”

Decisions to shift the State’s masking policies were made in collaboration with the Department of Health and based on current COVID-19 data. Since peaking at approximately 6,700 cases a day in early January, Rhode Island’s case numbers have decreased by more than 94 percent. Since peaking at 598 hospitalizations in mid-January, Rhode Island’s number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has decreased by approximately 52 percent. (Hospitalization trends tend to lag behind case trends.) During the week of January 2, there were 9,931 K-12 cases in Rhode Island, compared to 1,547 K-12 cases the week of January 30.

Overview of Updates:

  • Businesses and venues of assembly – On February 11th, the Executive Order that requires masking or proof of vaccination status (depending on the venue size) will expire. At that point, businesses and venues will have the ability to create their own masking and vaccination policies.
  • Schools – Pending the approval of a joint resolution to extend the Governor’s emergency authority for 45 days, the Governor will extend the Executive Order that requires indoor masking in public K-12 schools to March 4. At that point, cities, towns, and school committees will be able to implement their own masking policies using updated recommendations that RIDOH and RIDE will provide. This updated approach brings masking in line with other mitigation measures that schools implement based on recommendations from RIDOH and RIDE, such as testing, social distancing, and symptom screening.

Given the complexities of developing and implementing new COVID-19 policies in schools, the current masking requirement for schools will remain in effect for three weeks longer than the requirement for businesses and venues of assembly. During these three additional weeks, school leaders will be able to develop masking policies after reviewing the updated recommendations from RIDOH and RIDE and after gathering input from families. This will also give families additional time to get their children vaccinated.

Following these shifts, students, teachers, and school staff and people in businesses and venues of assembly will still have the option to wear masks. Additionally, masks will still be required for people in public transportation stations and while on public transportation, including school buses. (These are federal requirements.)

“Thanks to the availability of treatment and vaccine, severe COVID-19 illness is now largely a treatable, preventable disease. We are also seeing that the Omicron variant is often resulting in a much less serious course of illness for many people,” said Interim Director of Health James McDonald, MD, MPH. “Given this reality, the shifts we are announcing today represent a measured approach that will help our schools and our community regain a much-needed sense of normalcy.”

“With cases rapidly declining and continued efforts to improve vaccination rates across the state, we’re optimistic about the direction we’re heading,” said Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green. “Over the next month, we’ll be working closely with districts to help them review the data, connect with the Department of Health, and create guidance that works for their school communities.”

Masking is still recommended for immunocompromised individuals and for those who are not up to date on their COVID-19 vaccination. Being up to date means that you have received all the doses you are eligible to receive (for example, you have received a booster dose if you are eligible to receive a booster dose).

Rhode Island Hospitality Association Reacts

Dale J. Venturini, President/CEO of the RI Hospitality Association (RIHA) issued the following statement in response to today’s news that Rhode Island will lift its mask and vaccine mandate.

“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.

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.”

Massachusetts Updates Masking Requirements

In Massachusetts today, the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced that the statewide mask requirement for K-12 schools will be lifted on February 28. Additional guidance for child care programs in the Bay State is expected to be announced next week.

Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are among the several other states that have recently rescinded their school mask requirements.

CDC Maintains Its Recommendation

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains its recommendation that anyone age 2 years or older who is not vaccinated or not up to date on vaccines should wear masks in indoor public spaces.

Their recommendation also applies to people who are up to date on their vaccines when they are in an area of substantial or high transmission.

CDC also currently recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of their vaccination status or the area’s transmission rates. The CDC says that the benefits of mask-wearing are well-established.

Further Reading

Opinion – R.I. League of Charter Schools: Statement on School Mask Mandate, COVID-19 Measures

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