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Vaccinated California Workers May Have to Keep Masks on

California is set to fully reopen in less than two weeks and do away with virtually all mask and social distancing requirements for vaccinated people. But officials who regulate workplaces in the state aren’t ready to go that far and that’s angering business groups.

The California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board on Thursday was considering new workplace rules that would only allow workers to go maskless if everyone in a room is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The 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.

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 starting June 15.

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.

Helen Cleary, director of the Phylmar Regulatory Roundtable, a coalition of large businesses with major California operations, said she was “astonished” that the staff of the safety board, known as Cal/OSHA, didn’t follow guidelines from federal and state health officials. The proposed rules would “create two classes of people” in the workplace, she told the board.

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.

“A fully vaccinated server could work a lunch shift at a restaurant, get off work, go home, change out of their uniform 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,” added Katie Hansen, senior legislative director for the California Restaurant Association.

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 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. 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.

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

With the state set to reopen in less than two weeks, “we need worksites to be able to operate under normal conditions,” added Melissa Patack, a vice president of the ?Motion Picture Association of America.

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 most speakers at the hearing opposed the proposed rules, they were supported by unions representing teamsters, machinists, utility workers, engineers 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 and as the state’s wildfire season heats up.

Cal/OSHA’s Berg said the masks used should be the most effective N95 respirators because “workers are in close proximity to each other for extended periods of time” and need the best protection from the virus.

This article was first published in Insurance Journal.

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