California regulators on Thursday approved revised workplace pandemic rules that allow employees who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus the same freedoms as when they are off the job, including ending most mask requirements.
The revised regulations approved by the governor-appointed California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board come after weeks of confusion. The rules adopted in a 5-1 vote, with one member absent, now conform with general state guidelines that took effect Tuesday by ending most mask rules for vaccinated people.
Gov. Gavin Newsom immediately issued an executive order waiving the usual 10-day legal review. The new rules will take effect as soon as they are filed with the secretary of state.
“While I understand the proposal in front of us today is extremely controversial and inconvenient, now I don’t think is the time to let our guard down,” said David Harrison, a labor representative on the board who voted for the revised rules. “We need to do everything reasonable, and I highlight reasonable ... within our power to protect employees in California and across the country."
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The rules apply in almost every workplace in the state, including offices, factories and retailers.
They are intended to ensure that workers are protected while businesses resume normal or near-normal activity, Eric Berg, deputy chief of health for California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, told the board.
Business groups had sought the changes but argued they didn't go far enough. They supported conforming rules for businesses with state guidelines patterned after the latest federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.
The California Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 14,000 members, still praised a decision it said "will help employers move forward and fully reopen.”
Board member Laura Stock, an occupational safety expert who cast the lone opposition vote, warned that the pandemic is not over.
“This has real consequences that people can get sick and die due to exposure in the workplace," Stock said.
She said the rules go too far by eliminating physical distancing and workplace partitions and allowing workers to self-report their vaccination status, while relying too heavily on people to be vaccinated.
“What’s very difficult is to figure out what the balance is so that we’re doing the most good for the most people, but not at all dismissing the vulnerable in our population," said Chris Laszcz-Davis, a management representative on the board.
The move comes after the board did a double-twisting backflip in recent weeks when it first postponed, then rejected, then adopted, then rescinded rules that would have allowed workers to forgo masks only if every employee in a room was fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Fully vaccinated employees will not need to wear masks, except in locations like mass transit and classrooms, where they are required for everyone, or in the event of outbreaks.
Physical distancing also will end except for certain workers during major outbreaks. Vaccinated employees won’t need to be tested or quarantine unless they show symptoms, even if they have close contact with an infected person.
Employers must document that workers who skip masks indoors are indeed fully vaccinated. But employers have the choice of requiring workers to show proof of vaccination or allowing employees to self-report their status, with the employer keeping a record of who does the latter.
They also could decide to require everyone to remain masked — vaccinated or not. And vaccinated employees will still be able to wear masks if they choose without facing retaliation.
Public comments to the board before the vote largely split along management and employee lines.
Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, said the requirements that employers provide masks and keep track of employees' vaccination status add record-keeping that could create liability and privacy issues.
"They do remain a significant barrier to fully reopening the economy,” Lapsley said.
Loosening the masking rules while a majority of Californians are not fully vaccinated and dangerous variants spread “will sicken many and likely kill some workers” as protections ease, countered Mitch Steiger, a legislative advocate for the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.
The California Chamber of Commerce praised the move to immediately end social distancing obligations instead of waiting until July 31, as Cal/OSHA had initially proposed. And employers must now provide the most effective N95 masks for free to unvaccinated employees only upon request, under the latest revision.
Newsom promised to provide a one-month supply of the masks after business groups complained they would have to stockpile the N95s in competition with healthcare workers.
There were 700 California workplace outbreaks and more than 10,000 infections in the last 30 days, Cal/OSHA's Berg said, but he said the N95s are the best alternative as other protections wane.
Lapsley's organization, joined by groups representing restaurateurs, manufacturers, retailers and others, in a statement called the revised rules “a step in the right direction” but asked Newsom to end what they said are confusing differences between state rules and federal guidelines.
“There is still more work to be done and these new Cal/OSHA regulations do not ensure that the economy can ‘roar’ back,” the groups said.