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California Workplaces to Return to Normal? Not Unless Everyone is Vaccinated

Most coronavirus restrictions are set to end on June 15 in California. The statewide mask mandate will align with CDC guidance, but workplaces will follow the new Cal/OSHA mask mandate: Unless everyone is vaccinated indoors, everyone masks.
June 8, 2021, 9am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Coronavirus and Urbanism
Eddie Hernandez Photos

"California is preparing to get back to normal," reads the top of the California Department of Public Health's Blueprint for a Safer Economy webpage. The Blueprint has been successfully guiding all 58 counties since Jan. 25 when Gov. Newsom lifted the Regional Stay Home order on Jan. 25 that had imposed the nation's strictest restrictions to spare hospitals from being overwhelmed with COVID patients during the deadly fall/winter surge.

On June 15, capacity and distancing restrictions will be lifted for most businesses and activities. Large-scale indoor events will have vaccination or negative test requirements for attendees through at least October 1.

California is one of four states and Puerto Rico that didn't adopt the less-restrictive Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) masking guidance issued on May 13 that largely exempts fully vaccinated people from masking requirements. On June 15, the California Department of Public Health will align its masking guidance with the CDC, meaning that for the most part, it's "back to normal" next Tuesday. Or is it?

The workplace exception

"But the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, isn’t ready to follow suit," reported Marisa Kendall for The Mercury News on June 3 (source article).

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on workers, causing death, serious illness and in many cases, long term chronic illness,” said Cal/OSHA deputy chief Eric Berg, adding that while the situation has improved thanks to vaccines, it’s not yet safe to retire face masks, social distancing and other safety measures. “We cannot rely on vaccines alone to stop transmission of COVID-19 in the workplace,” he said.

"The new rules will go into effect June 15 and last until early next year, though the agency has the option to revise or repeal them sooner," adds Kendall. Five rules were adopted, including:

  • Face Coverings:
    • Indoors, fully vaccinated workers without COVID-19 symptoms do not need to wear face coverings in a room where everyone else is fully vaccinated and not showing symptoms. However, where there is a mixture of vaccinated and unvaccinated persons in a room, all workers will continue to be required to wear a face covering.
    • Outdoors, fully vaccinated workers without symptoms do not need to wear face coverings. However, outdoor workers who are not fully vaccinated must continue to wear a face covering when they are less than six feet away from another person.
  • Physical Distancing: When the revised standards take effect, employers can eliminate physical distancing and partitions/barriers for employees working indoors and at outdoor mega events if they provide respirators, such as N95s, to unvaccinated employees for voluntary use. After July 31, physical distancing and barriers are no longer required (except during outbreaks), but employers must provide all unvaccinated employees with N95s for voluntary use.

"The new rules add another layer of complexity to the state’s pandemic recovery as COVID-19 cases decline, vaccination rates increase and society continues to reopen," adds Kendall.

They force employers to pry into who has gotten a shot and who has not, yet leave unclear how employers should verify their workers’ vaccination status.

Dissension

At least one widely-respected public health expert strongly disagreed, indicating that "Newsom should waste no time in overruling the stringent guidelines," reported Eric Ting for SFGate on June 4.

"The problem with Cal/OSHA's decision is that they’ve failed to embrace the effectiveness of vaccines," said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at UCSF. "The CDC is an extremely cautious organization, but their recommendation that immunity from a vaccine is far more powerful than protection from a mask is sound. California's continued interest in adhering to masks in the face of high vaccination rates, low case rates and the CDC guidance is unfathomable."

Gandhi, who authored seven papers on the benefits of universal masking, does not believe there is any science that justifies Cal/OSHA's decision, especially since there is nothing stopping employees who wish to continue wearing masks from doing so. She stated that the only possible explanation behind the rules is that masking has become a political issue and that lifting mask mandates is seen as a right-wing position.

Ting reported separately that "Newsom seemed to suggest he would not overrule those guidelines via executive order."

"They're moving in the right direction and we'll continue to look forward to the deliberations there at the board, and they're an independent board, so one has to be mindful of that," he said.

For California readers who will be returning to their workplaces, see Kendall's second piece, "What is and isn’t allowed in the workplace?" about the Cal/OSHA rules. "The rules are confusing, and they might change again soon."

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Published on Thursday, June 3, 2021 in The Mercury News
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