It’s final: Masks, social distancing not required for vaccinated California workers

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Fully vaccinated Californians won’t have to wear masks or practice social distancing at their workplaces, under the state’s new COVID workplace safety rule approved by a Cal-OSHA board Thursday.

The rule is going into effect now, with Gov. Gavin Newsom issuing an executive order to shorten the administrative process. It caps off weeks of confusion and debate over how California should regulate its workplaces to prevent the spread of the COVID-19, even as case numbers remain low.

Still, the board’s vote came after hours of public comments from lobbyists and worker advocates, who raised a number of concerns over whether the rule goes too far or does not go far enough in protecting workers while letting businesses get back to normal.

“Announcements of the lifting of the mask mandates and capacity limits may create an illusion that the COVID-19 pandemic is over. It is simply not true,” said Jassy Grewal, a legislative director for UFCW Western States Council which represents food and grocery workers among others.

Grewal and others pointed to the rise of the Delta variant, which is more contagious and can cause more severe damage to those infected although current vaccines appear to be effective against the strain. Some masks and social distancing measures will still be required if a workplace is dealing with an outbreak.

“I’m a little bit worried that we may have eased up a restriction a little bit soon,” said Maggie Robbins, an occupational and environmental health specialist at worker advocacy group Worksafe. “If we had waited until the end of July -- we would have had a lot of population vaccinated.”

Advocates also called for the board to establish triggers for when more restrictions can go into effect, as well as create a permanent standard for dealing with pandemics in the future.

Board member Laura Stock, representing occupational safety officials, cast the only no vote, echoing the advocates’ concerns.

I’m disappointed in the revision that it goes too far in rolling back the essential protection while the pandemic is still going on,” she said.

Business advocates, on the other hand, raised concerns over the rule’s requirement for employers to provide N95 respirators to unvaccinated workers who request them. Gov. Gavin Newsom has said the state will make available a month supply of N95 respirators to businesses, but the advocates said they still believe the requirement to be too burdensome.

The advocates also raised concerns over the requirements for employers to keep track of which of their workers are vaccinated, even though the regulation allows workers to self-attest their vaccination status.

“They do remain a significant barrier to fully reopening the economy,” said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable.

The Cal-OSHA board is looking at further revising the rule. Its subcommittee will meet on Monday, June 21, at 10:30 a.m. to further discuss the standard.

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