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Masks soon won’t be required for fully vaccinated people indoors at work — unless they work with unvaccinated people — after California’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board members adopted a proposal to update workplace guidelines.
“So at least this version will recognize fully vaccinated individuals and groups that can get together and have a meeting and not wear face masks,” said board member Barbara Burgel late Thursday after debating masking guidelines for hours and considering a host of different approaches.
Thursday’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health Standards (CalOSHA) board meeting ran for about 10 hours, most of it taken up by public comment. The seven appointed board members are charged with helping form and vote on statewide policies for workplace safety.
Last fall, the agency issued mandatory mask guidelines to protect workers.
These new workplace guidelines allow fully vaccinated workers to ditch their masks, as long as all their colleagues are fully vaccinated. The regulations are expected to become effective on June 15.
Some residents and business interests wanted to do away with the mask provisions, along with physical distancing mandates.
“We’re supposed to protect employees in the workplace who are vulnerable. That’s our charge,” said board chairman David Thomas during Thursday’s meeting. “The people that are not vaccinated and have conditions that won’t allow them to be vaccinated, I think what we’re trying to do is to protect them, but not lose sight of where we’re going.”
UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert, Andrew Noymer, said the mask issue is largely moot at this point.
“Basically none of this matters until the Fall because we’re in a really lenient period right now. Virtually regardless of what we do this Summer, I think the outcome is going to be the same. Where these things are going to start to matter again is when transmission picks up in the Fall,” Noymer said in a Thursday phone interview.
Other board members expressed concern about a provision in the new workplace guidelines that would’ve mandated employers provide n95 masks to their workers. They were also unsure who would have to wear a mask under the proposed guidelines — like grocery clerks or other public-facing workers.
CalOSHA Staff said those questions would be answered later.
They also said physical distancing guidelines will be gone by the end of next month, but the masking requirements will stay.
The workplace guidelines will largely match what residents can expect when the statewide reopening hits June 15, when officials will drop mask requirements for fully vaccinated people.
Except, the workplace guidelines call for all employees to wear masks if employers can’t verify all their workers are fully vaccinated.
Gloria Alvarado, executive director of the OC Labor Federation, said she and her fellow labor leaders still want masks and physical distancing guidelines until vaccination rates increase.
“We don’t want to lose any more members. We’ve lost enough,” Alvarado said in a Thursday phone interview.
The federation represents a wide array of labor unions and employees throughout Orange County.
“Our nurses, our doctors, our pharmacists, our grocery workers, our letter carriers. All those people who are in constant exposure, let’s support them — the ones we call heroes — by keeping them safe,” Alvarado said.
During Thursday’s nearly seven-hour public comment period at the CalOSHA board meeting, the mask debate pitted businesses advocates — chambers of commerce and contractor advocacy groups — against unions and other worker advocacy groups.
Most of the business advocacy groups said the new guidelines run counter to state public health officials’ plan to drop mandated masks — except for unvaccinated people — beginning June 15.
They also said it doesn’t align with CDC guidelines, which essentially say fully vaccinated people can ditch masks.
“We are astonished that the changes proposed May 28 are not aligned with the CDC,” said Helen Cleary, director of the Phylmar Regulatory Roundtable, which advocates for large businesses throughout the state.
The business groups also raised concerns over how employers could accurately verify their workers are vaccinated, saying it could violate privacy laws.
“One of our members is considering placing stickers on ID badges to determine who is vaccinated and who is not. Another is contemplating two separate floors,” Cleary said.
Orange County public health officials tried to create a digital vaccine verification program, but the idea was ultimately killed by county Supervisors after waves of people railed against the idea and said they feared it could invade their privacy.
During the CalOSHA board meeting, union representatives and other labor advocacy groups said the state is nowhere near herd immunity yet and reminded board members of the numerous outbreaks among essential employees that happened at work places.
“We support this standard because it’s meaningful,” said Maggie Robbins, an occupational & environmental health specialist for the labor advocacy group, Worksafe.
“Workplace outbreaks are still occurring,” she said. “We need to continue to make sure we don’t have worksite transmission of COVID.”
Cal/OSHA board’s debate comes roughly a year after a similar debate was playing out in Orange County between county Supervisors and local labor leaders.
Except the mask debate last June came as the Summer Wave was hitting the county.
It’s also a debate that played out at the Orange County Board of Education last summer, when they recommended a full return to schools without masks and social distancing. Ultimately it was up to individual school districts on how and when to return to school.
Still over 4,000 emails were sent into the county’s board of education from parents, teachers, educators, students, medical professionals and community members on their recommendations on both sides of the debate.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam