A small group of business owners gathered outside a state occupational-safety office in Santa Ana Thursday, decrying potential regulations on workplace mask-wearing that they said would be onerous for employers and workers.
The gathering came hours after a late-night decision Wednesday by the state Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board to rescind those proposed regulations, leaving the fate of California’s work-site masking rules in limbo pending another meeting next week.
The business owners who gathered outside Cal-OSHA offices in Santa Ana said employers should not face any added state regulations once the majority of COVID-19 restrictions are lifted on Tuesday, particularly if the regulations require them to meddle into their workers’ medical records.
“We are not health care providers. We are small businesses who are struggling,” one protester told ABC7. “I am not going to tell my employees you have to get vaccinated. I’m not going to track them. I’m not going to keep records of them. That is not our job. Our job is to keep them employed and keep them safe. I understand that, but it is not my job to keep a record of their health.”
The Cal-OSHA board last week recommended rules that would have required all workers in indoor settings to continue wearing masks regardless of vaccination status, unless one person is working alone in a room or if all people in a room are fully vaccinated and not showing any symptoms of COVID-19. The proposed rules also would have allowed physical distancing requirements to be scrapped indoors and outdoors if employers make N-95 respirator masks available to non-vaccinated workers.
Cal-OSHA’s proposed rules also wouldn’t have required masks for workers in outdoor settings, except at outdoor “mega events” with 10,000 or more people. At those events, workers would have been required to wear face masks regardless of their vaccination status.
Those rules were on track to take effect next week, in conjunction with the statewide economic reopening. But they were met with opposition from top state health officials because they conflicted with recommendations by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has opined that fully vaccinated people can shed masks in most situations.
Andrew Noymer, a UC Irvine professor of population health and disease prevention, said the agency made the right decision reversing course on the mask guidelines.
“Now they’re saying any vaxxed person can doff the mask and, honestly, that’s fine. I wish they would make up their minds, though, because it’s causing confusion,” Noymer told City News Service. “I do believe the vaccines are robust, so I’m kind of fine with their current guidance.”
Allowing vaccinated workers to shelve their masks is, in effect, “dangling a bigger carrot” for non-vaccinated workers to get inoculated, Noymer said.
“I think it makes sense, especially now with transmission very low,” he said. “As long as it remains low, I think we need to go back to the world in which we’re not wearing masks everywhere on a mandatory basis.”
Noymer expects a surge in cases in the fall or winter, so, “that’s when it may be time to amend it, but I would really think we should cross that bridge when we come to it, not before.”
California’s mask-wearing guidance for the general public starting Tuesday will align largely with the CDC recommendations. The state released its guidance Wednesday afternoon, and state Public Health Officer Dr. Tomás Aragón outlined the rules for the Cal-OSHA board Wednesday night.
Given the discrepancies, the board rescinded its previously approved workplace recommendations and plans to vote next Thursday on a new set of work-site rules. It remains unclear what those rules will entail, but Cal-OSHA Deputy Chief Eric Berg told the panel the new recommendations will likely mirror state rules for the public at large.
If approved by the board next week, the regulations would undergo an administrative legal review and potentially take effect by the end of the month.
Outside the workplace, California’s rules on face-coverings taking effect Tuesday will allow fully vaccinated people to stop wearing masks in most situations. But they will still be required in certain settings, such as indoor K-12 schools, on public transportation and at public transit hubs, at health-care, child-care and correctional facilities, and at homeless and emergency shelters.
According to state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly, people who are not vaccinated will still be required to wear masks in indoor public settings, including retail stores, movie theaters and government offices.
But how the mask-wearing rules will be enforced will vary from place to place, with Ghaly laying out three options for business owners and event-venue operators:
— businesses and venues can publicly post rules regarding mask-wearing and allow visitors to “self-attest” that they are vaccinated;
— they can “implement a vaccine-verification system to determine whether individuals are required to wear a mask”; or
— they can simply require all patrons to wear a mask.
Ghaly conceded the system of self-attestation — essentially an honor system — is not perfect.
“Of course all systems of verification are fraught with challenges,” he said, adding that state officials determined “people’s sense of being able to protect their own information” and the ability to “operate a business in a certain way” were important goals.
“And then business owners do have a choice,” he said. “… Some business owners very well may decide that the honor system as you’re calling it is not sufficient, and they’re going to require all patrons to their business to wear mask.”
Some members of the Cal-OSHA board on Wednesday expressed skepticism with a self-attestation system, suggesting people would simply lie about vaccine status to avoid wearing masks. They said relying on an honor system at a work site could increase the risk of virus spread among employees at a location they must go to make a living.
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