California could move to end some COVID-19 mask and distancing rules for workers

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A masked hostess stands at a Hermosa Beach restaurant. A masked hostess waits for customers at Playa Hermosa Fish & Oyster Co. in Hermosa Beach on May 14.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times) Share Close extra sharing options

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A California workplace safety board is scheduled to decide Thursday whether to further relax physical distancing and mask rules for workers statewide.

The proposal, which the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board will consider during a meeting that began at 10 a.m., reflects the latest possible relaxation of the tried-and-true techniques long thought essential in thwarting coronavirus transmission.

But as the pandemic continues to wane and more people are inoculated for COVID-19, officials and experts are increasingly confident that entrenched face covering and distancing rules are no longer a must for fully vaccinated Californians, though they remain important protective measures for those who have yet to roll up their sleeves.

As documents included in Thursday’s agenda note: “Vaccinated persons are at lower risk for COVID-19 infection and transmission. In mixed groups of vaccinated and unvaccinated people, however, unvaccinated employees would be at risk without the use of face coverings indoors.”

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The proposal under consideration — which, if approved, would still be subject to further review by the state Office of Administrative Law — would allow workers in a room to take off their masks if everyone in a room is fully vaccinated and does not have COVID-19 symptoms. Masks would still be required if anyone in a room is not fully vaccinated.

Someone is considered fully vaccinated 14 days after receiving either their second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, or the single shot of Johnson & Johnson. Employers would need to have documentation of a worker’s vaccination records on file.

As written, the proposal would dramatically change how offices could function if no guests are allowed and everyone has been fully vaccinated.

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However, workers in places such as stores and restaurants, as well as those who interact with members of the public, will likely still need to mask up for the foreseeable future.

According to the proposal, employees in indoor settings or outdoor events of 10,000 or more people would also need to continue either physically distancing from others or be given the option to wear respirators — like an N95 — for voluntary use until July 31.

Workers also must generally be allowed to wear masks if they choose to do so, even if it’s not required, the proposal states.

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The suggested changes, put forth by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, come less than two weeks before the state is set to widely relax its mask rules as part of its long-anticipated full reopening.

Starting June 15, California will align with recent guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which state that those who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 can go without masks in most places.

Existing state rules generally stipulate that everyone, such as members of the public in a store, needs to wear masks in indoor public settings. Workers are also required to wear face coverings and practice physical distancing unless they’re alone — either in a room or outside. Employees can remove their masks when eating or drinking, but must be physically distant from others.

Officials said the decision to wait until June 15 to implement the CDC guidelines was based on giving residents more opportunities to get vaccinated and businesses and workers time to prepare for the change.

Still, the CDC’s May 13 announcement caught many off guard, and sparked some concerns that the nation was repeating the sins of its pandemic past and moving too quickly to relax restrictions.

Such fears have not materialized, however. Newly confirmed coronavirus infections have continued to tumble nationwide in recent weeks, as have COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.

In California, more than 70% of adults have now received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, according to data from the CDC.

While the state is still short of the 80% threshold many experts believe necessary to achieve long-lasting herd immunity against the coronavirus, the relatively robust level of vaccine coverage still provides a strong level of protection, officials and experts say.

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Local-level health officials can impose stricter rules than the state’s, but many counties — including Los Angeles — have indicated they plan to follow California’s lead come June 15.

L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said she thinks the latest set of proposed workplace rules demonstrates that “at least for now, Cal/OSHA doesn’t want to take any chances with worker safety around the masking.”

“They’ve given some movement on both masking and on distancing, but they’ve made it clear that there’s an obligation for employers to ensure that there’s a lot of safety at the workplace, and that continues to mean adhering to some masking rules and some distancing rules at all of our work sites,” she said Wednesday.

As Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board agenda documents note: “A very large proportion of California employees will remain unvaccinated as of June 15.”

“Due to changes in social norms, as mask-wearing and physical distancing decline among fully vaccinated people, those precautions are likely to decline among unvaccinated and partially vaccinated people as well,” documents state. “Unvaccinated employees will therefore be particularly at risk, especially given the spread of especially contagious SARS-CoV-2 variants, unless protective measures are taken.”

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