June 15, 2021

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California votes to continue requiring masks at work if anyone is unvaccinated – San Francisco Chronicle

3 min read

If anyone in a workplace is unvaccinated, all colleagues must wear masks when in the same room, according to a new California workplace standard passed Thursday. But the standard allows workers to ditch masks when everyone in a room is vaccinated.

The standards board for California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, passed the new rules as a stopgap measure after a marathon meeting Thursday, minutes after it initially rejected the same rules by a 4-3 vote, swayed by business groups’ arguments that they are too strict.

The board said it considers the measure temporary and will act quickly to craft a replacement. If the board had rejected the new rules, the existing standard, which requires everyone to wear masks at all times, would have remained in place.

The group decided to revisit its original vote and pass the proposal with the understanding that a three-person subcommittee would meet with agency experts to revise it as soon as possible. Meanwhile the new proposal takes effect June 15 if it passes legal muster with the state.

“It’s much less restrictive than the one we’re going to be stuck with if we don’t” adopt the latest proposal, board chair David Thomas said in suggesting the group pass the proposal in a second vote.

Scores of business trade groups and some employers spoke at the meeting to oppose regulations they termed burdensome, while several unions applauded the rules as protecting workers in industries such as education, health care and food service. Some Cal/OSHA board members said the confusion and resistance from business groups showed problems with the proposal.

Opponents from the business community said the proposed rules conflicted with recent guidance from the CDC that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear face coverings indoors, as well as with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s declaration that California can return to business as usual on June 15.

Instead, Cal/OSHA had said that workers can be unmasked indoors only when everyone in a room is vaccinated. Outdoor masking is not required except for unvaccinated workers at “mega events” of more than 10,000 people.

Eric Berg, Cal/OSHA deputy chief of health, attributed the requirement of indoor masking in mixed company to “marked differences” in how workplaces operate, noting that worksite COVID outbreaks are still occurring. “Workers have longer cumulative exposures to others in the workplace,” he said.

The indoor masking rule generated a lot of resistance.

“The face coverings and mask requirements are more restrictive and onerous than they need to be,” said Melissa Patack, vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America, during public comments, while Kenneth Smith, director of environmental health and safety at the University of California, termed the regulations “onerous.”

In contrast, David Barber, deputy chief counsel of the California School Employees Association, a union representing 250,000 staff members at schools and community colleges, supported the requirements. “Indoor masking at work will continue to be an essential worker protection,” he said.

Mitch Steiger, senior legislative analyst with the California Labor Federation, said he was shocked at calls to do away with masks “in the context of a California where most people are still not fully vaccinated, and every day several hundred people are still getting sick and dozens are dying.”

Some observers said the masking requirements could stigmatize unvaccinated people.

“Employees will be pissed off, wondering whose fault it is that they have to wear a mask,” said Stephen Hirschfeld, a San Francisco employment lawyer, speaking before the meeting. “This could set up a situation where they try to figure out who is unvaccinated and give them a hard time.”

Other controversial aspects: Even when everyone in a room is vaccinated, the rules require social distancing continue until July 31, more than six weeks after the state’s planned reopening. After July 31, employers must offer respirators to all unvaccinated workers for voluntary use, which would provide an alternative to having to stay 6 feet away from others.

Large quantities of N-95s are still used by health care workers, and soon will be needed to protect Californians against wildfire smoke, so forcing employers to stockpile them could exacerbate shortages, speakers said.

Berg said that the administration is “exploring options to support California businesses in accessing N-95s,” and reiterated that they are the most effective barrier against small, airborne particles.

Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: csaid@sfchronicle.com

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