Most California Workers Have to Keep Masks on After June 15 Reopening

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Masked servers deliver food to customers seated outdoors at a restaurant. Under newly adopted Cal/OSHA rules, most workers will have to continue wearing masks on the job — even after the state relaxes broader masking and social distancing rules on June 15. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Updated 10 a.m. Friday

Vaccinated or not, workers in California will still be required to keep their masks on unless every employee in the room is fully inoculated against the coronavirus — even after the state more broadly reopens on June 15.

That's the new mandate under revised rules approved Thursday night by a sharply divided group of California workplace regulators. Still, the seven-member California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, which sets standards for Cal/OSHA, made clear the regulations are only a stopgap while they consider further easing pandemic rules in the coming weeks or months.

After hearing more than seven hours of impassioned public comment, mostly from opponents of the revisions, the board initially rejected the new rules on a 4-3 vote.

"We have to create reasonable and enforceable standards," said board member Nola Kennedy, who at first voted against adopting the changes. "I just don’t think this proposal is there yet."

But board members quickly reconsidered after realizing that not adopting the changes would leave workers subject to the current standards, which require masks for all employees, along with social distancing and partitions between employees in some circumstances.

"We don’t want to leave the last one in place when this is better than that," said board chairman David Thomas, acknowledging the revised rules were far from perfect.

The board then unanimously — if reluctantly — adopted the changes, while appointing a three-member subcommittee to consider additional revisions.

Without further changes, the revised workplace rules could remain in place into early next year, although the board is likely to take up the issue again when it meets next on June 17.

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The updated rules will apply to almost every non-home workplace in the state, from offices and retail stores to factories and farms.

People working in rooms in which everyone is vaccinated would not have to wear masks, nor would vaccinated employees without symptoms who work outside. However, to sanction that, employers would need to have and be able to show documentation of their workers’ vaccination status.

The new requirements contrast with California's plan to do away with virtually all mask and distancing requirements for vaccinated people on June 15, in accordance with recently revised guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

'This Will Create a Two-Class Environment'

The prospect of ongoing worker mask mandates has a slew of business groups and employers, among many others, extremely perturbed, as was clearly evidenced during the onslaught of public testimony Thursday.

"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.

Many critics pointed to the state's rising vaccination rate and low COVID-19 case count as reason enough to drop the precautions, emphasizing that the new rules will place undue burden on employers and deprive workers of their right to determine how best to protect themselves.

"People who are sitting behind desks and pulling a paycheck are making decisions for those who have to wear masks eight hours a day, and it's not right," Michelle Richardson, a small business owner, told the board. "This regulation will create a two-class environment and create extreme pressure on the unvaccinated to get vaccinated."

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Katie Hansen, senior legislative director for the California Restaurant Association, told board members that the proposed rules would be both confusing and illogical, creating an inconsistent standard between workers and other members of the public. "A fully vaccinated server could work a lunch shift at a restaurant," she said, "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."

Numerous employer groups also sharply criticized another rule, included in the board's approved revision, which requires employers starting July 31 to offer N95 respirator masks to all workers who are not fully vaccinated and work indoors or at large outdoor events.

Many said that requirement will be impractical, expensive and tie up millions of masks needed by health care workers — and likely to be in high demand during the state's wildfire season.

"Logistically I’m just unclear how a business determines how many, how much," said Chris Laszcz-Davis, a management representative on the board who initially voted to reject the revised regulations.

But state safety board staff member Eric Berg said the revised rules as a whole incorporate the latest scientific evidence and have been reviewed and supported by the state Department of Public Health.

The changes, he said, reflect key differences between employees and the public at large, particularly factoring in that employees have "longer cumulative exposures" in the workplace than during casual social contact, and that a large percentage of Californians are still not fully vaccinated. Additionally, he added, allowing some workers to wear masks and others to go unmasked would create significant enforcement issues for employers and Cal/OSHA.

More than 17.5 million of California’s nearly 40 million residents are fully vaccinated, state health officials reported Thursday, and the positivity rate for the virus is 0.9%.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who established the state reopening date of June 15, was noncommittal on Thursday when asked about what he would do if the board's rules are adopted. Newsom, who is facing an upcoming recall election, has the power to override it with an executive order.

He spoke outside Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco while announcing renewed efforts to help restaurants.

"We’ll see where they land on the rulemaking before making a determination of next steps," Newsom 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.

'People Are Still Getting Sick and Dying'

While most commenters at Thursday's hearing opposed the board's revised rules, the idea of a continued mask mandate was broadly supported by a range of unions representing teamsters, nurses, machinists, utility workers, engineers and school employees.

Many advocates stressed that the pandemic is not over, and that low-wage frontline workers have been disproportionately impacted.

As COVID-19 cases, and deaths, spiked across the state last fall and winter, Cal/OSHA received thousands of worker complaints related to the virus. Yet the vacancy rate for field inspectors doubled to 26% as of late February, compared to 13% two years earlier.

"Worksite outbreaks are still occurring,” said Maggie Robbins, an 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."

Liz Ortega, executive secretary-treasurer of the Alameda Labor Council Essential, said the workers she advocates for have put themselves at risk for the last year and a half, "making sure the rest of us could survive during the pandemic."

"We’ve spent the last 18 months fighting for and winning worker safety, hazard pay, and sick leave," Ortega said in an email. "We aren’t going to now criticize Cal/OSHA for proceeding with caution."

Mitch Steiger, a legislative advocate for the California Labor Federation, said that while his organization had some concerns about the proposed rules, calling them somewhat vague and undefined, he still strongly urged the board to accept them.

"Frankly, I'm a little shocked by all these calls to do away with masks at work — people are still getting sick and dying," he said. "We have the opportunity here to be smarter and make a good choice about how to protect workers."

This post includes reporting from KQED's Matthew Green and Don Thompson of the Associated Press.

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