From Massachusetts to New York to Illinois, states were rapidly lifting mask mandates Wednesday as the Omicron wave recedes and governors come under intense pressure from Americans who are exhausted by the pandemic.
Those states and Rhode Island joined a growing list that included California and Oregon, places that once enforced strict protocols but are now shifting as case numbers plummet and polling shows bipartisan pandemic fatigue. The moves will step up the pressure on the Biden administration, and in particular on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to offer new guidance to the states on mask wearing and other mitigation measures.
The White House has been quietly meeting with outside health experts to plan a pandemic exit strategy and a transition to a “new normal,” but the behind-the-scenes effort is crashing into the public reality of blue-state governors have gotten ahead of President Biden by suddenly abandoning their mask mandates.
“We are working on that guidance; we are working on following the trends for the moment,” the C.D.C.’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said at a briefing on Wednesday. But she cautioned, “Our hospitalizations are still high, our death rates are still high. So, as we work toward that and as we are encouraged by the current trends, we are not there yet.”
The governor of Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, said Wednesday the statewide indoor mask requirement there would be lifted on Feb. 28. But he held off on changing the rule for schools.
“Protecting everyone in a school community, their education and their health is our highest priority in the coming weeks,” he said at a news conference. “It’s my hope and expectation that we will continue making progress to a place where we can remove school masking requirements and keep kids in schools.”
The Massachusetts school mask mandate will end on Feb. 28, Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, said. Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York, also a Democrat, also announced that her state’s move to end its mask-or-vaccination indoor mandate will take effect this week, but has said she needs more time to make a decision on masks in schools.
The governor of Rhode Island, also a Democrat, announced Wednesday that state’s indoor mask mandate will end Friday. He also announced plans to lift the masking requirement in schools on March 4 and leave it up to districts afterward.
In California, officials announced Monday that the state will end a universal indoor mask mandate next week, and are reviewing the mask mandate for schools.
Ms. Hochul said New York State has improved dramatically since the Omicron surge and the time had come to end its mandate requiring proof of full vaccination or mask-wearing in indoor public spaces.
“Numbers are coming down, and it is time to adapt,” she said.
The moves herald a new phase of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, where regions that have taken a cautious approach for two years are relaxing their guard as the highly contagious Omicron variant recedes. New cases are plummeting but remain extremely high, with an average of more than 240,000 reported each day, just below last winter’s peak. Hospitalizations also remain high at over 100,000 patients and daily deaths are at about 2,500.
Other recent moves to ease mask mandates have come from Democratic governors in states like New Jersey, Connecticut and Oregon.
Gov. John Carney of Delaware rescinded his state’s general indoor mask mandate this week, but extended it for schools until the end of March.
The moves by governors respond to growing public exhaustion with pandemic restrictions in the United States. But there is no consensus among public health experts about whether ending mask mandates now is wise or premature.
In-school transmission of the virus has occurred on only a limited scale throughout the pandemic. While the federal C.D.C. continues to recommend universal mask-wearing in schools, many independent public health experts now say that masks can hinder learning and socialization, and provide little benefit in regions where infection rates are relatively low and vaccination rates are relatively high.
Asked about mask mandates at a Wednesday news conference, Jen Psaki, President Biden’s press secretary, said the president remained committed to listening to guidance from scientists.
“Listen to data,” she said. “That doesn’t move at the speed of politics. It moves at the speed of data.”
In California, Massachusetts and other blue states, local communities and school districts can often follow their own policies. In Boston, education officials said the public school district had no plans to end its mask requirement anytime soon, though the Archdiocese of Boston said it would stop requiring its parochial school students to wear masks. Denver Public Schools said Wednesday masks will no longer be required beginning Feb. 28.
Los Angeles County officials said Tuesday that it will keep its indoor mask mandate for now, while in the San Francisco Bay Area, 11 counties announced they would drop their indoor mask mandates in most public settings.
No changes have been announced in New York City, which does not have a citywide universal mask mandate. Masks are required on mass transit, and in health care, congregate care and child care settings. Unvaccinated people must wear masks whenever they are in a public space, according to city regulations. Many businesses, including most theaters, require masks, too.
In Massachusetts, Mr. Baker said the state would support individuals who continue to choose to wear masks in schools, and that they should feel comfortable doing so. He also said new masking guidelines for child care centers would be in line with those for K-12 schools, although vaccines are not yet available for children under 5.
Amelia Nierenberg and Sharon Otterman contributed.