California workers can go maskless only if all in room are vaccinated, safety board says
Conflicted California workplace regulators approved controversial rules Thursday night that allow workers to go maskless only if every employee in a room is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
But the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board made clear Thursday night that the regulations are only a stopgap while they consider further easing pandemic rules in coming weeks or months.
The board initially voted 4-to-3 to reject any changes to current rules.
But Cal/OSHA Chairman David Thomas said that would have left employers with the current rules, which require masks for all employees, along with social distancing and partitions between employees in certain circumstances. Moments later, the seven-member board unanimously adopted the revised regulations while a three-member subcommittee considers more changes.
"It's better than the previous one, because that's what we're going back to" if the board didn't act, Thomas said. "We don't want to leave the last one in place when this is better than that."
'Out of step with the rest of the country'
The off-again, on-again decisions came after major business groups and dozens of individuals spent hours urging the board to further lift pandemic regulations.
Members who initially rejected the revision said they are concerned that it doesn't go far enough or that it requires employers to stockpile the most effective N95 facemasks for employees who want them starting July 1.
Before the Thursday night vote, Major California businesses expressed frustration with the fact that California is not fully aligning itself with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The CDC has said that fully vaccinated people can now skip face coverings and social distancing in nearly all situations.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has said California will fully reopen in less than two weeks — eliminating almost all of the occupancy limits on businesses and other pandemic-related restrictions.
Katie Hansen, senior legislative director for the California Restaurant Association, was part of a long line of critics from various industries that testified before the Cal/OSHA Board.
Hansen said the new rule would mean that 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.
Newsom could override with executive order
Ahead of Thursday night's vote, Newsom, who established the state reopening date of June 15, was noncommittal about what he would do if the idea were to be 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.
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 didn't follow guidelines from federal and state health officials.
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 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," 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.
More than 17.5 million in state are fully vaccinated
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 rules adopted late Thursday, 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.
"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.