Hennepin County will no longer require masks in government buildings for vaccinated employees and visitors.
The County Board's vote Tuesday follows the lifting of the COVID-19 mask mandate in government buildings by the state, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Ramsey County. Masks still must be worn in health care settings, Metro Transit vehicles and in some school districts.
"This doesn't mean people can't elect to wear a mask," said Hennepin County Administrator David Hough. "As things change over the next several months, the safety plan can be modified."
The County Board also approved $100,000 in federal funding for a vaccine incentives program. It will partner with community groups to host vaccine events and support giving out free meals, groceries and entertainment.
"Vaccine incentive programs are designed to build trust and increase vaccination rates. This action is an opportunity to build on Minnesota's statewide vaccine incentive strategy in a way that's specifically tailored to the unique needs and concerns of Hennepin County residents," Commissioner Chris LaTondresse said. "For us, this means addressing vaccine disparities in our highest social vulnerability index ZIP codes."
Board Chair Marion Greene and Commissioner Irene Fernando voted against ending the mask mandate.
Fernando raised concerns about vaccine disparities for the county's most disadvantaged residents and the lack of vaccines for children younger than 12.
"I have gratitude for the progress we made, but have concerns about people using a honor system about vaccines and how the mask requirement will be equally enforced," she said.
Commissioner Jeff Lunde said eliminating the mask mandate is another step to get people back to normalcy. Business at government service centers has decreased 50% and library visits are down 30%. County officials still are recommending social distancing in buildings.
There have been 124,000 positive COVID-19 cases in Hennepin County. In November, the county averaged 1,200 cases a day and now that number is down to 39.
In other board action, commissioners approved $5 million in federal funds to prevent gun violence. Minneapolis started a similar program in 2018 and St. Paul was looking into a gun violence program last month.
Hough said the program will fund hospital-based programs to connect violence victims to services, interventions to identify and support high risk people mostly likely to commit gun violence and mental, behavioral and substance misuse services.
Between 2019 and 2020 Hennepin County saw a 28% increase in the number of crimes that involved guns. In 2019, Hennepin County had 67 homicide cases and 108 in 2020. In 2021, the county has had 53 homicides.
The board will receive a detailed program plan in four months.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465