Everyone in Orange County is still required to wear masks at work, regardless of vaccination status, after the state’s workplace safety regulatory board decided to nix their updated guidelines.
The Occupational Safety and Health Standards (CalOSHA) board unanimously voted Wednesday evening to rescind it’s guidelines that would’ve allowed fully vaccinated workers to ditch their masks, unless they work indoors with unvaccinated people.
The seven-member board is appointed by the Governor and is responsible for crafting and implementing safety policies for workplaces.
Now, guidelines from November will stay a little longer, which call for all workers to wear masks on the job.
Board members said they did it so they’ll have a chance to revise the jobsite guidelines at their meeting next Thursday to align with the California Department of Public Health’s guidelines.
State public health guidelines call for vaccinated people to largely ditch masks indoors and outdoors — except for skilled nursing homes or other medical settings like hospitals. Those guidelines go into effect next Tuesday, when the statewide reopening hits.
“What this would mean is there would be another opportunity for the division to develop a draft to incorporate some changes potentially related to the [California Department of Public Health] guidelines that would come for a vote on (next) Thursday,” said board member Laura Stock.
Department of Industrial Relations staff said if the board adopts updated guidelines next Thursday, they would be implemented at workplaces by the end of the month.
During the meeting, CalOSHA board member David Harrison said the move is necessary “so we’re all on the same page.”
Some business advocacy groups, during public comment, said having masked and unmasked employees would create a de facto class system at work between vaccinated and unvaccinated employees.
Chairman David Thomas disagreed and said it’s about protecting all workers, regardless of vaccination status.
“I think the concern here is for people who have preexisting conditions and can not get vaccinated and those people who don’t want it,” Thomas said. ”I’m not aware of this war between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. I don’t think it’s out there.”
CalOSHA board members’ decision comes less than a week after they adopted the guidelines they ended up nixing Wednesday night.
Wednesday’s vote comes after board members faced mounting pressure by Gov. Gavin Newsom, State Health Officer Dr. Tomàs Aragòn and numerous business groups to reexamine the workplace guidelines.
“The Governor’s Office appreciates the Board’s actions to maintain worker safety and is 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,” reads a Tuesday statement from Newsom’s press office.
Numerous labor unions and worker advocacy groups have been pushing to keep masks in the workplace.
Gloria Alvarado, executive director of the OC Labor Federation, said the local unions still want masks because many of their workers live in overcrowded housing and they fear removing the mandates could cause more outbreaks among essential workers.
“We definitely want safety to continue to be a priority. This is because we know how difficult it’s been to isolate those cases and isolate the workers from contamination as some people refuse to wear masks or people refuse to use the sanitation guidance that was given to us,” Alvarado said in a phone interview last week.
The move sparked confusion because the California Department of Public Health’s guidelines call for vaccinated people to largely ditch masks in nearly all settings once the statewide reopening hits next Tuesday.
“Let me be clear that the CDPH guidance … really govern the general mask guidance for very general settings,” said secretary of the state’s Health and Human Services Agency, Dr. Mark Ghaly, at a Wednesday news briefing before the CalOSHA board meeting.
“When it comes to workplaces or employers, they are subject to the CalOSHA temporary COVID-19 standards,” he said.
The now-dead CalOSHA guidelines also drew some criticism from business associations across the state.
Locally, businesses were puzzled on what CalOSHA’s guidelines meant and how they would follow them.
“Businesses are all over the map on this and every one of them wants their customers and employees safe, but the rules are very confusing,” said the CEO of the Orange County Business Council, Lucy Dunn, in a Tuesday phone interview.
UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert Andrew Noymer said the mask debate is essentially moot at this point because coronavirus transmission rates are so low.
“We’re in such a lenient period right now in terms of transmission rates, it’s really a question of just kind of waiting and seeing what happens in the fall. There’s going to be very little incidents of COVID this Summer, barring the unseen,” Noymer said in a phone interview last Thursday.
But masks could come back this Fall, he said.
“So it really just depends a lot on if/when transmission starts to kick up in the Fall — that’s when we really need to start putting the masks back on.”
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio