By Lloyd Alaban
California’s workplace safety board has changed its rules on masks again—this time to align with the whole state which reopened Tuesday.
Cal/OSHA ruled Thursday that vaccinated workers can shed their masks in the workplace—even if some of their colleagues are unvaccinated—except in places where they are required for everyone such as public transit.
Workers also won’t have to follow physical distance rules unless there is an outbreak. If there is a COVID outbreak, masks will be mandated for all workers indoors, and outdoors if workers aren’t able to stay six feet apart. Fully vaccinated workers don’t have to be tested or quarantined even after potential exposure to the virus.
Gov. Gavin Newsom promised to rush the legal approval process of the new rules. Cal/OSHA’s decisions usually need sign off from the state Office of Administrative Law within 10 days. But Newsom said he will issue an executive order to implement the new rules immediately.
As part of the new rules, employers must keep track of which workers are vaccinated. Workers can either show their vaccination cards or self-attest to verify vaccination status.
Unvaccinated workers are still required to wear masks indoors unless alone in a room or vehicle. Employers must make respirators, such as N95 masks, available only to those who request them.
The rules apply in almost every workplace, including offices, factories and retail. They are modeled after guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Brian Amador, general manager with ClubSport San Jose, said there was already a requirement to ascertain vaccine status of employees in Santa Clara County.
“We’re very pleased that a high number of our employees are vaccinated,” he said, adding that the gym will follow compliance mandates regarding those who are not.
He said they’ll have to figure out a way to stock up on N95 masks as now employers must provide them to workers upon request.
“The members seem happy to be taking their masks off,” Amador said. “It’s delightful for us to see their full smiling faces again and I imagine the same will be true when employees can… smile back and start to feel a little more normalized again.”
Sarju Naran, an attorney with San Jose-based law firm Hoge Fenton, said the updated rules ease the burden for employers. They no longer need to concern themselves with everybody in the room needing masks if one person or more is unvaccinated, he said. The challenge for employers is while the rules are more relaxed, they are harder to enforce as not all counties track vaccination.
Even with tracking, Naran said it will be difficult for employers to determine if everyone in the room is vaccinated.
“How do you go about regulating that, making sure the unvaccinated folks are wearing a mask without disclosing to the other employees that there is somebody in the room that’s not vaccinated?” he said.
The seven-member Cal/OSHA board has gone back and forth about masks and physical distancing. The board issued rules that required masks for mixed-vaccinated workplaces June 3 until it reversed course a week later.
Hours-long public comment at Cal/OSHA’s June 3 meeting criticized the board for being out of step with CDC guidelines. Dozens of California residents commented at Thursday’s meeting too, urging the board to stop mask requirements.
Connor Medina of the Orange County Business Council said proof of vaccination rules are inconsistent.
“Businesses, workers and customers need clarity in reopening rules, not confusion,” he said, suggesting that Cal/OSHA implement a grace period before enforcement.
Helen Cleary, director of the Phylmar Regulatory Roundtable, asked how employers will address eating in cafeterias. The face covering section of the new rules requires physical distancing for unvaccinated workers while eating and drinking, she said, and roundtable members discussed separate eating areas for vaccinated and unvaccinated workers.
“That’s a segregated lunchroom,” she said. “To enforce face coverings, employers will be pushed to create two classes and physical markers for vaxxed and non-vaxxed employees. This is undesirable for safety and ethical reasons.”
Mitch Steiger, a legislative advocate for the California Labor Federation, objected to removing face coverings from the workplace. He said people are pretending the pandemic is over and ignoring that workplace COVID outbreaks are still happening. Most Californians are still not fully vaccinated, he said.
As of Thursday, 119,580 Santa Clara County residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and 2,187 have died. About 79.5% of county residents age 12+ are vaccinated with at least one dose, and about 70.5% of residents age 12+ are completely inoculated.
Statewide, 19,074,396 people—56.2%—are fully vaccinated.
Board Member Laura Stock raised concerns about lifting workplace mask mandates, saying that there are still Californians who only have one dose of the vaccine. She believes the revisions go “too far in rolling back essential protections.”
“No matter how tired we are of restrictions, the pandemic is not over,” Stock said. “I’ve been very conflicted about the choices presented to us today.”
Stock added that California is putting “most of our eggs in a basket around vaccines,” calling for more stringent vaccination documentation.
Near the end of the debate, Board Chair David Thomas urged everyone to get vaccinated.
“Every meeting I hear a lot of misinformation. It is amazing to me after all this time that we still have so much information that is passed around,” Thomas said.”If you haven’t been vaccinated, I wish you would seriously consider it.”
This article was originally published by The San José Spotlight.