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Regional Interests

Californians May Need Masks at Work Unless All Employees Are Vaccinated

To mask or not to mask? In California, that is still the question.

With the state less than two weeks away from scrapping nearly all mask and social distancing requirements for fully vaccinated people, regulators on Thursday weighed new rules that would require workers to continue wearing masks on the job unless everyone in the workplace is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

If approved by the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, which sets standards for Cal/OSHA, the proposed rules could remain in place into early next year, months after the state’s June 15 reopening date.

“Vaccinated persons are at lower risk for COVID-19 infection and transmission,” the board wrote in its meeting agenda note. “In mixed groups of vaccinated and unvaccinated people, however, unvaccinated employees would be at risk without the use of face coverings indoors.”

People working in rooms in which everyone is vaccinated would be exempt from the proposed rules, as would vaccinated employees without symptoms who work outside. However, to take advantage of these exceptions, employers would need to have documentation of their workers’ vaccination status.

But the prospect of ongoing worker mask mandates has a slew of business groups and employers, among many others, extremely perturbed. That was clearly evidenced by the more than seven hours of impassioned public comment the board heard on Thursday, largely dominated by staunch opponents of the proposed rules.

Many pointed to the state’s growing vaccination rate and low COVID-19 case count as reason enough to drop the precautions, emphasizing that the rule would place undue burden on employers and deprive workers of their right to determine how best to protect themselves.

“People who are sitting behind desks and pulling a paycheck are making decisions for those who have to wear masks 8 hours a day, and it’s not right,” Michelle Richardson, a small business owner, told the board, noting that her children, who work in a pizza place, now have “horrible acne” as a result constant mask wearing. “This regulation will create a two-class environment and create extreme pressure on the unvaccinated to get vaccinated.”

Other commenters called attention to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention new guidance, announced last month, that says fully vaccinated people can now skip face coverings and physical distancing in nearly all situations. California is one of the few states in the nation that have waited to adopt those guidelines.

“Cal/OSHA is out of step with the rest of the country,” said Andrew Sommer on behalf of the California Employers COVID-19 Prevention Coalition.

The proposed regulations set up “an inconsistent standard” between workers and other members of the public, said the California Chamber of Commerce and more than five dozen other business organizations said in a letter to the board.

Katie Hansen, senior legislative director for the California Restaurant Association, told board members that the proposed rules would be both confusing and illogical. “A fully vaccinated server could work a lunch shift at a restaurant,” she said, “and then go out to dinner with their family or friends at the same restaurant in the evening and not be required to wear a mask, even though they had to wear a mask earlier in the day while at work.”

Business groups were also critical of another proposed rule that would require employers, starting July 31, to either implement specified physical distancing requirements or provide N95 respirator masks for voluntary use to employees who are not fully vaccinated.

That would require employers to track workers’ vaccination status and stockpile masks, some employers argued, putting them in competition with health care workers, especially at a time when those masks will be urgently needed during the height of fire season.

But state safety board staff member Eric Berg said the proposed rules incorporate the latest scientific evidence and have been reviewed and supported by the state Department of Public Health.

The rules, he said, reflect key differences between employees and the public at large, particularly factoring in that employees have “longer cumulative exposures” in the workplace than during casual social contact, Berg said. And, he added, allowing some workers to wear masks and others to go unmasked would create significant enforcement issues for employers and Cal/OSHA.

The Cal/OSHA regulations being considered by the board apply in almost every non-home workplace in the state where there is more than single employee, from offices and retail stores to factories and farms.

“A very large proportion of California employees will remain unvaccinated as of June 15, 2021,” the staff said in its recommendation. “Due to changes in social norms, as mask-wearing and physical distancing decline among fully vaccinated people, those precautions are likely to decline among unvaccinated and partially vaccinated people as well.”

Yet unvaccinated employees will remain at risk, particularly from more contagious variants of the virus, the staff reasoned.

More than 17.5 million of California’s nearly 40 million residents are fully vaccinated, state health officials said Thursday, and the positivity rate for the virus is 0.9%.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who established the state reopening date of June 15, was noncommittal about what he would do if the board’s rules are adopted. Newsom has the power to override it with an executive order.

“We’ll see where they land on the rulemaking before making a determination of next steps,” he said, adding that Cal/OSHA must apply its rules to a wide variety of businesses, including places like meatpacking facilities that were hit especially hard by the virus.

He spoke outside Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco while announcing renewed efforts to help restaurants.

While most commenters at Thursday’s hearing opposed the board’s proposed rules, the idea of a continued mask mandate was supported by a range of unions representing teamsters, nurses, machinists, utility workers, engineers and school employees. Many advocates stressed that the pandemic is not over.

“Worksite outbreaks are still occurring,” said Maggie Robbins, an occupational health specialist with Worksafe Inc., an Oakland-based worker-advocacy group. She noted that the majority of Californians are still not fully vaccinated.

“The workplace is not the same as deciding to go to a dinner party or the gym or go to a movie,” she said. “There’s a lot of work to be done before we have a substantially immune population where we can relax more of the controls.”

“Our members continue to fall ill to the virus, and some unfortunately continue to die,” added Jassy Grewal, legislative director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

Mitch Steiger, a legislative advocate for the California Labor Federation, said his organization had some concerns about the proposed rules and agreed with many employer groups that they needed to be more clearly defined and explained.

“But it goes far beyond nothing,” he said, strongly urging the board to adopt the rules.

“Frankly, I’m a little shocked by all these calls” to do away with masks at work, with people still getting sick and dying. “We have to air on the side of caution,” he said, criticizing the CDC for loosening the guidelines prematurely, “We have the opportunity here to be smarter and make a good choice about how to protect workers.”

Copyright 2021 KQED