PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island will remove its indoor vax-or-mask mandate later this week and end the mask mandate for schools next month, Gov. Dan McKee announced Wednesday, joining a growing group of governors who are moving to reduce pandemic restrictions.

“We’ve made considerable progress against COVID-19 and the recent surge, and we are in a much better place than we were in early January,” McKee said at an afternoon coronavirus briefing, where he was joined by other state leaders.

McKee said his December executive order requiring proof of vaccination or a mask at most indoor spaces in Rhode Island will expire as of Friday, while the order requiring students and staff to wear masks in schools will end on March 4 as long as coronavirus trends continue to improve. (The latter move is contingent on legislators granting McKee the authority to extend the school mask order into March.)

“Our team feels we can safely and confidently take these steps based on decreasing COVID numbers and increasing vaccination rates,” McKee said.

Local school districts will have the power to set their own mask policies once the executive order expires next month. McKee said state leaders want to give school officials and parents “plenty of time to plan” for the change, including more time to get initial and booster vaccination shots.

(Story continues below video.)

Rhode Island Interscholastic League sports teams will be urged “to allow players to unmask during active play with symptom screening,” according to a notice McKee’s office sent municipal leaders, though it will be recommended that students who are unvaccinated or haven’t received a booster shot continue to wear a mask.

Masks will still be required on public transportation due to federal rules, and businesses will have the ability to set their own policies related to masking and vaccination requirements.

McKee’s decision comes as coronavirus trends rapidly improve in Rhode Island after a surge earlier this winter driven by the omicron variant. The seven-day average for new cases has fallen by nearly 90% since early January, while the average for COVID-19 hospitalizations has dropped by over 40%.

McKee said he spoke about next steps on masks with both of Rhode Island’s neighboring governors in an effort to coordinate regionally. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker set a Feb. 28 end date for his state’s school mask mandate earlier Wednesday, and Connecticut’s governor picked the same date earlier this week.

Dr. James McDonald, interim director of the R.I. Department of Health, said the change in mask policy is part of an ongoing shift away from dealing with COVID-19 as a pandemic disease and toward treating it as an endemic one.

“We have to find a new balance,” McDonald said, saying policymakers are embracing “more targeted approaches.” He reiterated that unvaccinated and immunocompromised individuals should consider continuing to wear masks in public spaces, and joined McKee in urging individuals to get booster shots.

Health Department data shows that while more than 90% of Rhode Island residents have received at least one vaccine dose, only about 36% of residents have gotten a booster dose to date.

McDonald noted that federal officials are continuing to review when children under age 5 can become eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, and said state officials would provide more information to parents about their availability once final decisions are made.

Looking ahead to Super Bowl Sunday, McDonald suggested individuals should stay home if they feel sick. “Please don’t bring your symptoms into someone else’s party,” he said.

(Story continues below video.)

Some local officials have already taken action as they awaited the governor’s announcement. The South Kingstown School Committee voted Tuesday night to make masking optional in schools if he decided not to extend the mandate further.

R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green expressed concern about the wide variation in vaccination rates across school districts, saying the coverage rate is 78% in Barrington schools but only 32% in Providence schools.

“We have to do better,” she said, urging more parents to have their children get shots. She also said no decision has been made yet on whether Providence schools, which are currently state-run, will keep a mask requirement in place after the statewide mandate ends.

(Story continues below video.)

Leaders of the state’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association Rhode Island, said in a statement they are “cautiously optimistic that the current statewide school mask mandate can be safely relaxed in the near future, assuming these current trends continue.” They urged state officials to track virus trends closely in case masking is needed in the future, and to provide “clear guidelines” to local districts as they make their own decisions about masks.

Wednesday’s announcement comes as state lawmakers are considering bills that would extend McKee’s authority to issue coronavirus-related executive orders past 180 days, with votes in the House and Senate expected Thursday. Lawmakers instituted a 180-day sunset for such orders last year.

Not everyone welcomed McKee’s announcement. Former Secretary of State Matt Brown, one of the governor’s Democratic primary challengers, issued a statement following the news conference describing the decision to end the mask mandates as “irresponsible and dangerous.” He said the state should maintain the mask mandates, require vaccinations, and provide free masks and tests.