California considers timing on easing workers' virus rules
SACRAMENTO — California workforce regulators recommended Friday that the state stick with a July 31 deadline for updating certain employer pandemic safety rules instead of adopting Gov. Gavin Newsom's mid-June lifting of mask and physical distancing requirements in most social settings.
Revised rules to be considered Thursday by the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board have relatively few changes from an earlier proposal that drew extensive criticism from business and agricultural groups.
Cal/OSHA's staff withdrew their initial proposal last week so they could take into account new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that fully vaccinated people can now skip face coverings and distancing in virtually all situations.
California is delaying that recommendation until June 15 in social settings, and business groups hoped the workplace regulators would adopt the same date.
The timing of the standard board's emergency hearing next week means the new regulations could take effect in mid-June, but several of the proposed revised rules affecting masking and physical distancing still include a date six weeks later.
“We are disappointed to see that this new revised draft does not correspond to the governor’s June 15th opening, and that vaccinated individuals will have to continue to wear masks in the workplace," California Chamber of Commerce policy advocate Rob Moutrie said in an email.
That broad mask requirement could mean a shortage of the most effective N95 masks for healthcare workers and agricultural workers as the state enters what is expected to be another drought-driven wildfire season, Moutrie and other critics said.
One exception to universal mask-wearing would be employees in a room where everyone is fully vaccinated.
The masking requirement “will require employers to track vaccination status, stockpile N95 respirators and create policies and procedures for two classes of people: vaccinated and non-vaccinated,” said Helen Cleary, director of the Phylmar Regulatory Roundtable, a coalition of large businesses.
California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board regulations apply in almost every workplace in the state, and its pandemic standards apply to all employees except those working from home or where there is a single employee who does not have contact with other people.
The rules would remain in effect into early next year, even as coronavirus cases plummet after a devastating winter spike and more people are vaccinated. The state’s infection rate remains less than 1% and more than 17 million of the state’s 40 million residents are fully vaccinated, health officials said Friday.
“It still says nothing about vaccines even though a substantial fraction of the population is now vaccinated,” said California Farm Bureau director of employment policy Bryan Little. “We’re going to have a regulation that doesn’t really reflect the reality that we’re dealing with.”
Worker advocates have said having half the population not fully vaccinated means precautions are still needed. Board members said last week that they are inclined to keep revised workplace safety rules in place even after July 31 for fear of a new surge or breakthrough by virus mutations.
Little argued for lifting some of the safety restrictions when 80% of an employer's workers are vaccinated instead of the 100% required under the proposed regulations. That plus the natural resistance acquired by those who contracted the virus and recovered means "you’re at herd immunity at that point,” he said.
Under the proposed revision, until July 31 all employees working indoors or at outdoor events with more than 10,000 people would have to be separated by at least six feet unless they are wearing the most effective N95 masks, which must be provided by their employer. Some restrictions for mask-wearing during transit would also lift July 31.
Starting July 31, employers would be required to provide N95 masks for voluntary use by employees working indoors or at outdoor mega events who are not fully vaccinated.
The staff made some proposed revisions, including requiring that employees in some situations be tested for the virus once a week instead of twice weekly. They also made clear that retailers, restaurateurs and others would be responsible only for their own employees, not members of the public who enter their place of business.