Rhode Island will lift its statewide indoor mask and proof-of-vaccination requirements for  businesses and other indoor public places beginning this Friday (2/11), Governor Daniel J. McKee said Wednesday.

The governor also plans to end the statewide masking mandate in schools on March 4. That would leave it up to school districts to decide whether or not to require masking.

Providence, the state’s largest school district, announced Friday that it will continue to require all students and staff to wear masks after the statewide mandate expires on March 4. 

With the recent decline in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations and with nearly 80% of residents fully vaccinated, McKee said, “we can safely make the shift, which also puts us in line with other New England states.”

McKee said the decision was made after looking closely at trend data with the state Department of Health, and in consultation with the state Department of Education and Rhode Island Commerce. He said his team also has been meeting with stakeholders including the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association, Rhode Island Association of School Committees, the Rhode Island League of Cities and Town and union leaders.

Rhode Island is one of more than a half-dozen, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, that as of Wednesday had announced plans to lift their mask mandate for schools. Massachusetts will lift its school masking mandate on Feb. 28.  The others are New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Oregon and California.

McKee said that the decision to wait until March 4 to lift the school masking mandate was to allow school districts time to plan and parents time to get their kids vaccinated. “It’s all about having flexibility,” McKee said, “and emphasizing personal responsibility.”

The decision requires the General Assembly to approve a 45-day extension of the governor’s emergency authority, which expires on Feb. 14. If that extension is not approved, the school mask mandate would also end next week when his emergency authority expires, Alana O’Hare, a spokeswoman for McKee said.

Discussions are still underway on the timeline for lifting masking requirements in state offices, O’Hare said. It’s not expected to be later than March 4, she said.

Dr. James McDonald, the state interim health director, said that the pandemic has shifted to a “preventable, treatable disease” and the state has to “find a new balance” and “a little bit of perspective” in its response.

 “What we're not saying is masks are no longer needed in schools,’’ McDonald said. “What we're talking about is like lifting a statewide mask mandate, returning this to local school districts, let local educational agencies make their own decisions.’’

The state Health Department will release its own recommendations, McDonald said, which health officials will discuss with the schools and others in state government. 

The vaccination rates in Rhode Island school districts vary widely. In Providence, the state’s largest district, the district’s vaccination rate is about 32%, compared with 78% in Barrington. In Central Falls, among the hardest-hit by the virus, the vaccination rate remains at about 31%. 

“We have to do better,” State Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said. Speaking in English and Spanish, she urged parents to get their kids vaccinated.

“Right now where we are today we’re keeping the masks,” Infante-Green said. “I don’t know where we’ll be next week or the week after.”

McKee said that during the next few weeks the state will be “doubling down” on efforts to get vaccinated residents booster shots and educating residents about the importance of vaccinations. 

People who are unvaccinated who contract COVID-19 are hospitalized at more than three times the rate of those who are vaccinated, McKee said. “If you are unvaccinated,’’ he said, “we strongly recommend you continue wearing masks indoors.’’

Masking also is still recommended for immunocompromised people and those who have not received all the doses they are eligible for, including a booster dose, according to a joint statement released by McKee and state health officials.

This story has been updated.

Health reporter Lynn Arditi can be reached at larditi@thepublicsradio.org. Follow her on Twitter @LynnArditi

With reports by the Associated Press