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California loosens mask rules for vaccinated employees in workplaces

A masked employee serves a customer at La Jolla's Trilogy Sanctuary vegan cafe in May 2020.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

A state board ends physical distancing requirements for workers and says many fully vaccinated employees can stop wearing masks.

California’s circuitous journey to relaxing COVID-19-related workplace safety rules finally reached its destination after a state board voted June 17 to endorse a proposal to end physical distancing requirements for all workers and allow most fully vaccinated employees in many workplaces to stop wearing masks.

Normally, it would take at least 10 days for any standards advanced by the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board to take effect, pending a review by the state Office of Administrative Law. But Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order almost immediately after the decision to allow the revisions to take effect without the typical review period.

The approved standards also do away with the requirement for solid, cleanable partitions designed to reduce viral transmission, such as the now-familiar plastic barriers that often separate customers and cashiers.

The standards call for workplaces to still be required to provide masks to workers who are not fully vaccinated and make sure they wear them while indoors or in shared workplace vehicles or employer-provided transportation. Employers also would have to provide respirators — such as N95 masks — should an employee who is not yet fully vaccinated request one.

Unvaccinated workers generally could take off their masks indoors only if they’re alone or eating or drinking.

The new plan “aligns with state guidelines, it addresses a number of stakeholder concerns about burdensomeness while still providing robust protection to employees,” Eric Berg, deputy chief of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, said at the June 17 meeting.

The concept is notably less restrictive than previous standards that the board voted on — which were rejected, advanced, then ultimately rescinded before they took effect.

Under those earlier rules, fully vaccinated people would have been required to mask up in an indoor workplace if even one person who was unvaccinated or whose vaccination status was unknown entered the room.

The current draft affects most workplaces but not health care settings, which are regulated by a stricter standard.

“While I understand that the proposal in front of us today is extremely controversial and inconvenient, we need to do everything reasonable, and I highlight reasonable ... within our power to protect employees in California,” board member David Harrison said.

Starting June 15, coronavirus-related capacity restrictions and physical distancing requirements were lifted for the general public at almost all businesses and other institutions. Residents who are fully vaccinated can now go without face masks in most nonwork situations.

Unvaccinated people, however, are still required to mask up in public indoor settings. And everyone, regardless of inoculation status, has to wear a face covering while in transit hubs or taking public transportation; in health care settings and long-term care facilities; indoors at K-12 schools, child care facilities or other youth settings; in homeless shelters and emergency shelters; and in correctional facilities and detention centers.

With California dropping its COVID-19 tier system and most mask requirements, many local businesses and organizations say guests won’t have to mask up but some pandemic practices will remain for now.

California’s reopening hung over the board’s previous deliberations on what additional rules, if any, to keep in place for worksites. Many individuals and business groups said any workplace standards should dovetail with wider state regulations, saying it no longer makes sense to impose more restrictions on a “fully” reopened economy.

However, some at the June 17 meeting considered even relaxed masking rules a nonstarter — one that would foment hostility toward those who are unvaccinated and effectively force people to wear a “scarlet letter” advertising their private medical decisions.

Others decried any face-covering requirement as tantamount to discrimination or segregation and said the rules made no accommodation for those who had not been vaccinated but had natural immunity from a previous coronavirus infection.

Business representatives also said any requirement to provide N95 masks would be unduly onerous and objected to the idea that they should be required to confirm their employees’ vaccination status or enforce the rules that come with that determination.

“We trust our employees every day, including not coming to work with COVID-19 symptoms,” said Helen Cleary, director of the Phylmar Regulatory Roundtable, a business coalition. “We need to respect decisions not to get vaccinated, trust that people understand the risk and acknowledge natural immunity.”

On the other hand, some workers and representatives of labor groups urged the board to keep additional masking and other safety requirements in place — warning that the danger posed by COVID-19 has not yet passed and that rules that might make sense for the public at large can’t be applied wholesale to worksites, where employees often cluster in close quarters for extended periods of time.

Mitch Steiger, a lobbyist with the California Labor Federation, said largely removing the mask mandate would be essentially pretending “that the pandemic is over” at a time when many Californians have yet to be fully vaccinated and coronavirus variants are circulating.

On June 16, Newsom noted that concerns remain “around self-attestation and recordkeeping related to employers with employees that are not vaccinated,” as well as the supply of N95s, which he said the state can provide.

“This is not the last act,” he said. “I want to continue to work with industries, large and small, to work through some of these issues in real time. And I’m prepared to do that through executive order after we determine exactly where OSHA lands.”

Given the trajectory of the pandemic, state officials have said they feel largely comfortable with relaxing many of the safety measures that have long defined California’s battle against COVID-19 — though they emphasized that those who are unvaccinated should still take steps to protect themselves.

Over the past week, California has reported an average of 872 new cases and roughly 20 new COVID-19 deaths per day, according to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times. Both figures are among the lowest since the earliest days of the pandemic.

And a steadily growing swath of the population is armored against future outbreaks through vaccination. Almost 57 percent of Californians are at least partially inoculated at this point, with six counties (including San Diego) having more than 70 percent of residents at least partially vaccinated, according to data compiled by the Times.

— Los Angeles Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.