Postal workers wear masks and gloves as they sort mail at the United States Postal Service processing and distribution center on Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Oakland, Calif. | Ben Margot/AP Photo
California’s workplace safety agency released proposed changes Friday to its emergency Covid-19 rules that would allow vaccinated employees to be unmasked in most situations.
If adopted, the new standards would align masking requirements at work with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends masks for vaccinated residents in only a handful of indoor settings including airports, hospitals and nursing homes.
Unvaccinated employees would still be required to wear face coverings while indoors, though it is unclear what sort of verification workers will need to provide employers to prove their vaccination status.
Physical distancing requirements would also be eliminated, except for unvaccinated employees during major outbreaks. Vaccinated workers would not need to be tested after Covid-19 exposure unless they develop symptoms.
The California Department of Public Health moved earlier this week to adopt the CDC guidelines for the general public, beginning June 15. Private businesses would still have the authority to require any customer to wear a mask, but only those who are unvaccinated would face a blanket mandate in all indoor settings. Proof of vaccination for non-employees entering businesses will largely rely on the honor system, according to California Public Health Officer Tomás Aragón.
Background: The hurriedly crafted revisions come after Cal/OSHA and its independent standards board were roundly criticized last week for adopting workplace standards that would have relaxed safety measures but not completely dropped the indoor mask mandate for vaccinated workers.
That plan, which was rescinded by the board Wednesday night , would have required inoculated employees to wear face coverings while indoors if any other workers are unvaccinated or have Covid-19 symptoms.
Industry groups had for weeks bashed that proposal, which was originally released last month — saying that it was out-of-line with federal guidelines and would likely put businesses at odds with the rest of the state as California moved toward an anticipated lifting of mask mandates.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and state health officials stopped short of openly criticizing the board’s previous proposal but issued statements reiterating findings from the CDC that vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks in most situations.
Newsom publicly addressed the issue Friday after staying relatively quiet on the topic over the last week, saying that he was “encouraged” by the board’s decision to reverse the June 3 vote.
“I was very pleased to see them rescind earlier in this week their previous vote,” he said. “We'll get where we need to go, and I have all the confidence in the world that we'll get there next week.”
New timeline: The Cal/OSHA standards board will vote on the new proposal at its June 17 meeting. From there, it will head to the Office of Administrative Law, which has 10 days to approve or reject it. If the revisions follow the standard process, vaccinated employees would likely be able to ditch their masks on June 28.
Newsom hinted Friday, however, that he is considering taking action to shorten the 10-day review period. It is unclear what the process would look like, though the governor can use executive authority when dealing with emergency workplace rules.
What’s next: The new proposal didn’t address several policy concerns from labor and industry that will likely take longer to work out.
Among those issues is a requirement that employers maintain supplies of N95 respirator masks for unvaccinated employees who request them.
Industry raised objections to the proposed N95 mask rules, calling them an unnecessary and expensive burden. On the other side, worker advocacy groups have criticized the move to do away with social distancing and physical partitions, arguing that those are more effective tools to protect unvaccinated employees.
Labor and industry have also asked for more clarity on what kind of vaccination proof is sufficient in workplaces.
Revisions to those issues could be voted on in July or August, based on estimates offered by the board's executive officer, Christina Shupe, during the June 3 meeting.