Vaccinated or not, California workers may keep masks on

The workplace rules could remain in place into early next year even though coronavirus cases have fallen dramatically in the state after a severe winter spike and as more people get vaccinated.

That contrasts with the state’s plan to fully reopen in less than two weeks and do away with virtually all mask and social distancing requirements for vaccinated people.

Katie Hansen, senior legislative director for the California Restaurant Association, was part of a long line of critics from various industries that testified at a meeting of the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, or Cal/OSHA, that is considering the plan.

Hansen said if the rules are adopted, then after the state reopens “a fully vaccinated server could work a lunch shift at a restaurant … 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.”

“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.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who established the state reopening date of June 15, was noncommittal about what he would do if the idea is 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. Elmy Bermejo, one of the restaurant’s owners, said after Newsom’s comments that she supports keeping a face mask requirement to protect her employees and so customers feel safe.

Recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance says that fully vaccinated people can now skip face coverings and distancing in nearly all situations and the state is set to follow that recommendation.

But the state safety board’s staff says conditions are different among workers, leading to a proposed rule that even vaccinated employees wear masks unless everyone else in their workspace is inoculated.

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

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.

They recognize key differences between employees and the public at large, including that employees have “longer cumulative exposures” in the workplace than with casual social contact, Berg said.

Allowing some to wear masks and others to go unmasked would create significant enforcement issues for employers and Cal/OSHA, Berg said.

The Cal/OSHA regulations being considered by the board apply in almost every workplace in the state, from office workers to retail clerks to factory workers. Its pandemic rules apply to all employees except those working from home or where there is a single employee who does not have contact with other people.

“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 coronavirus variants, the staff reasoned.

Business groups are upset the staff didn’t ease its masking recommendation during a two-week delay since the board postponed its consideration while its staff reviewed the CDC guidelines.

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%.

While a majority of speakers at the hearing opposed the proposed rules, the plan was supported by worker advocates and unions including those representing teamsters, machinists, utility workers, engineers, nurses and other health care workers, and school employees.

“Worksite outbreaks are still occurring,” said Maggie Robbins, occupational health specialist with Worksafe Inc., an Oakland-based worker advocacy group, noting that the majority of Californians are 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.”

Employer organizations were also critical of a proposed rule that starting July 31 would require employers to provide the most effective N95 masks for voluntary use by employees who work indoors or at large outdoor events and are not fully vaccinated.

That will require employers to track workers’ vaccination status and stockpile masks in competition with health care workers.

Berg said the masks used should be the most effective because “workers are in close proximity to each other for extended periods of time” and need the best protection from the virus.

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Associated Press writer Olga R. Rodriguez contributed from San Francisco.