State regulators relaxed COVID restrictions this week for California workers, but the new rules raise nearly as many questions as they answer.
Starting June 15, vaccinated Californians don’t need to wear a mask in the workplace — unless they are in a room with someone who has not been vaccinated. But that mandate conflicts with the latest, more lenient federal health guidelines, which Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office is expected to adopt this month. And then there are county guidelines and individual business protocols to keep track of.
To top it all off, the rules could change again in a matter of weeks.
Confused? You’re not alone. Here’s what you need to know:
Q: What are the latest COVID rules for the workplace?
A: If you’re fully vaccinated you can take off your face mask while you’re indoors — but only if everyone else in the room also is fully vaccinated. Fully vaccinated employees don’t need to wear a mask outside either, except when working large “mega-events,” such as concerts with more than 10,000 attendees.
Employers must either have physical distancing protocols that keep workers 6 feet apart, or offer all unvaccinated workers N95 masks or similar respirators. After July 31, all employers must keep a stash of N95 masks for unvaccinated workers. But unvaccinated workers aren’t required to use the N95 masks — they can use a cloth mask or other face covering.
Q: Who decided these new rules, anyway?
A: They were drafted by the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, and then approved Thursday evening by the agency’s standards board.
Q: Why might they change again in the near future?
A: Not everyone is happy with the new workplace rules — including some of the board members who approved them.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fully vaccinated people can resume most indoor and outdoor activities without face masks — even if they are around unvaccinated people. Newsom said the state would adopt those guidelines June 15. That would confusingly create one set of standards for people dining out, attending movies, going to school and more, and another set for people at work.
After more than 100 people called into Thursday’s Cal/OSHA board meeting — many who were upset that vaccinated workers will have to wear masks, and that employers will have to police employees’ vaccination status — some board members expressed reservations about the new rules. They created a subcommittee tasked with reevaluating the rules, and may approve a new set in the near future. But it’s unclear if and when they will get anything approved.
There’s another way the new rules could change: Newsom could override them with an executive order.
But even though the governor likely is not happy with the discrepancy between the CDC guidelines and the new Cal/OSHA rules, he may be hesitant to wade into the middle of the controversy before his recall election, said Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson, who specializes in elections law and politics.
“This is such a divisive issue,” she said. “I think if he doesn’t have to weigh in with an executive order, probably all the better for him.”
Q: Has the governor said whether he will overturn the rules?
For now, Newsom is keeping his next move close to his vest.
“We appreciate the Board’s actions to maintain worker safety and are hopeful the Board will further revise its guidance to reflect the latest science while continuing to protect workers and balancing realistic and enforceable requirements for employers,” a spokeswoman for the governor’s office wrote in an emailed statement. She did not immediately respond when asked if the governor would address the issue with an executive order.
Q: How will my employer know who is vaccinated and who isn’t?
A: Regulators are working through these details, and plan to release a more detailed FAQ soon. Expect them to answer questions such as, how should workers prove their vaccination status? And, what happens if a worker loses his or her vaccine card? Santa Clara County already requires employers to document the vaccine status of all on-site workers. Employees are not required to share their vaccine status, but if they refuse, the employer must treat them as unvaccinated.
Q: I can’t keep track of all these rules. Aren’t there local rules to worry about, too?
A: Each county continues to enforce its own COVID rules, which may be stricter than those imposed by the state. Bay Area county health officials have said they’ll follow direction from Newsom come June 15.
Q: What about schools?
A: The CDC recommends schools continue to require face masks and implement social distancing, for now. Many young people have not been vaccinated and/or are not able to be vaccinated yet — children between the ages of 12 and 15 only became eligible for vaccinations May 12, and younger children still aren’t eligible.
Universities, including Stanford and UCSF, still require you to wear a face mask when inside campus buildings, even if you’re vaccinated.