HARRISBURG — Vaccinated people no longer have to wear face masks indoors in most cases, but the state is still keeping its mask mandate for unvaccinated people until 70 percent of the adult population has been immunized for COVID-19, Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said Thursday.

Beam said a March state order indicated that Pennsylvania will follow federal CDC guidance on mask-wearing. So, when the CDC on Thursday announced that vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks except in health care settings and on public transportation, the state’s guidance automatically mirrored the federal guidance, she said.

“Today’s guidance from the CDC affects only people who are fully vaccinated,” Beam said. “This is another incentive to get the vaccine that is now easily and conveniently available. Once 70 percent of Pennsylvanians over 18 are fully vaccinated, we can completely lift the masking order,” she said.

As of Thursday morning, just 46.7 percent of the state’s adult population was fully vaccinated, according to the Department of Health. Almost 67 percent of Pennsylvania adults have gotten at least one dose of vaccine, according to the CDC.

The state’s move to keep the mask-wearing guidance in place for non-vaccinated people will put businesses in a bind as they try to determine how to enforce mask-wearing by customers, said Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

“I’m not being critical of the administration, I’m just saying business has to figure out what’s going on here. We have to figure out how we’re going to work through this,” Barr said.

“It’s welcome news. It shows things are improving. But I’m not sure what to tell businesses at this point," he said.

Business groups had lobbied to get the state to provide liability protection for businesses against COVID-related lawsuits when the business is following state and federal guidelines.

That legislation passed the General Assembly but Wolf vetoed it in November saying the bill was too broad and if passed it would have invited “carelessness and a disregard for public safety.”

Barr said that without the liability protection, the mask mandate requirement “leaves our guys out to dry again.”

Republicans have pressed Wolf for months to speed up the move to reopen the economy and relax mitigation restrictions.

Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for House Republican Leader Kerry Benninghoff, said the governor should get rid of the mask mandate entirely.

"There is no public health rationale to waiting until 70 percent of the adult population receives their vaccination and today's CDC guidance recognizes that. According to CDC data, 95 percent of Pennsylvania's most vulnerable population — those 65 and older — have been vaccinated,” Gottesman said. “Throughout the course of this pandemic, the governor has been inconsistent and arbitrary in his decision-making. Gov. Wolf should use his penchant for inconsistency for good, follow the science, and lift his mask mandate for fully vaccinated Pennsylvanians. Doing so will help us get people back to work, children back to school, and set fire to our return to normal."

Thursday's change is the latest in a series of moves to relax restrictions as vaccination rates climb and the number of new COVID cases drops.

Wolf announced earlier this week that on Monday indoor events will be permitted to admit up to 50 percent of their normal occupancy limits and outdoor events will be allowed to admit up to 75 percent of their normal occupancy limits.

He'd announced earlier that all COVID restrictions, with the exception of the mask order, will be lifted on Memorial Day.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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