Calif. Governor Pledges Consistent Workplace Mask Rules

Confusion over what have been conflicting rules prompted business groups to push the governor to use his executive powers to override the board.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday that he’s confident the state’s workplace regulators will soon fall in line with California’s plan to drop virtually all masking and social distancing requirements next week for people who are vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board is set to consider revising its conflicting rules Thursday, two days after the state more broadly eases its pandemic restrictions.

“I expect and am determined to see a favorable outcome when they convene,” Newsom said of the worksite board he appoints. “We’ll get where we need to go, and I have all the confidence in the world we’ll get there next week.”

Newsom said he expects to take executive steps to make the worksite regulations take effect before a typical 10-day administrative law review, which would push back the new rules until at least June 28.

He left unclear whether he also intends to bridge the remaining potential gap of a few days between when the state lifts its orders on Tuesday and the board meets on Thursday. Unless he acts, the current more restrictive worksite rules will remain in effect during that window.

Those current rules require all workers — vaccinated or not — to remain masked and physically distanced on the job. The regulations apply in almost every workplace in the state, including workers in offices, factories and retail.

The revised workplace rules released Friday that the board will consider next week say that fully vaccinated employees would not need to wear masks, except in locations like classrooms and mass transit where they are required for everyone, or in the event of outbreaks.

Physical distancing requirements also would go away except for certain workers during major outbreaks.

Those rules are both generally consistent with the broader guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Department of Public Health that will take effect Tuesday.

Vaccinated employees also wouldn’t need to be tested or quarantined even if they have close contact with an infected person, unless they show symptoms.

The draft rules proposed by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, say employers must check and document that employees who skip masks indoors are indeed fully vaccinated. Vaccinated employees could still wear masks if they choose without facing retaliation.

The rules would require employers to provide the most effective N95 masks for free to employees who are not fully vaccinated, but only upon request. And they would have to provide coronavirus tests to employees who have symptoms regardless of whether they have had their shots.

“We’re are glad to see Cal/OSHA catching up with CDC on masking and social distancing, though we have some outstanding concerns regarding documentation and N95s,” said Robert Moutrie, a policy advocate at the California Chamber of Commerce. Business groups say the N95 requirement could be costly and potentially cause a shortage.

California Farm Bureau director of employment policy Bryan Little and Helen Cleary, director of the Phylmar Regulatory Roundtable, a coalition of large businesses with major California operations, both said the draft rules still leave confusing gaps in how employers are supposed to comply.

“I think there is some stuff in here to like,” Little said. But given the ongoing questions, “I’m not prepared to jump up and down for joy over this.”

Confusion over what have been conflicting rules prompted business groups to push the governor to use his executive powers to override the board.

Newsom responded that the revised proposed regulations to be considered next week will conform California’s workplace rules with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines being broadly adopted by the state starting Tuesday.

“I anticipate their action will be consistent with the CDC, but they have to make that decision. And I want to respect that process. If I didn’t, that would appropriately open us up to criticism, and I want to be fair to that deliberative process,” he said.

Newsom added that he will act if needed after the board’s decision “to clarify any ambiguities.”

At a hastily scheduled special meeting earlier this week, the board rescinded conflicting rules that it passed just a week ago.

But the rapid-fire back-and-forth left businesses baffled by the shifting rules over who needs to wear masks and where as the nation’s largest state fully reopens from the pandemic on Tuesday.

With vaccinations rising and coronavirus cases low, California will end most mask rules June 15 for people who are vaccinated while continuing to require face coverings for unvaccinated people in indoor public settings and businesses. Everyone will need to remain masked in places such as public transit and indoor school classes.

Under the system, business can rely on an honor system where customers are expected to use a mask if they aren’t inoculated but aren’t required to show proof.

“Putting the requirement on the individual to self-attest to their vaccine status by wearing or not wearing a mask will be the way — one approved way — to comply with this set of updates,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s secretary of health and human services, said this week. Businesses can also require vaccine verification or face coverings if they choose, Ghaly said.

Derrick Seaver, president and chief executive of the Silicon Valley Organization, said businesses have struggled throughout the pandemic with a patchwork of approaches and lack of consistency in guidelines. But he believes the state is moving in the right direction by seeking to get in sync with CDC guidance on face coverings, and he said businesses are pleased they won’t be on the hook to verify or enforce mask wearing among customers.


Associated Press writer Amy Taxin contributed to this report from Orange County.

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