Orange County Supervisors questioned their own pandemic policies on who has to wear a mask inside county buildings and how officials will verify if someone is fully vaccinated, with Supervisor Katrina Foley saying she’s worried the county isn’t following state regulations.
“I feel we are violating CalOSHA and the Department of Public Health laws in the matter in which this memo was prepared,” Foley said during Tuesday’s supervisors public meeting.
She was referring to a Friday memo updating supervisors and county employees on masking protocols, stemming from the Division of Occupational Safety and Health board’s (CalOSHA) decision to update workplace guidelines last Thursday.
“Employers may allow fully vaccinated employees not to wear face coverings indoors if a voluntary self-attestation process is completed. Per Cal/OSHA, if a member of the public is not wearing a face covering, then we are to interpret this as they are attesting that they have been fully vaccinated,” reads the memo from county CEO Frank Kim.
The debate about masks and how the county follows the regulations came during the supervisors’ regularly scheduled pandemic update, when the board is given an overview of the virus situation and the county’s overall response.
CalOSHA, which regulates workplace safety, allows fully vaccinated employees to drop masks at work, largely mirroring the state Department of Public Health’s guidance.
Businesses and employers must verify someone is vaccinated through either the honor system, a verification process or simply making everyone wear a mask indoors.
But the CalOSHA changes did not directly address the general public.
While CalOSHA’s guidelines do not clearly spell out how workplaces — like county buildings — can verify the vaccination status of the general public, the state Department of Public Health’s mask guidelines do.
“Provide information to all patrons, guests and attendees regarding vaccination requirements and allow vaccinated individuals to self-attest that they are in compliance prior to entry,” read the department’s guidelines, which also state officials can verify through documentation or simply make everyone wear a mask.
Kim said it would be difficult to ask people to verify if they’re vaccinated before allowing them to come into buildings maskless.
“The difficulty is as you’re highlighting today, I’m in an awkward position of having county employees become the mask police at the door,” Kim said to Foley. “My front, public-facing staff are not in a position to implement these things.”
Foley said he’s not interpreting the guidelines correctly.
“The state does not have a guidance or recommendation or a rule that defaults to ‘I’m not wearing a mask, therefore I’m fully vaccinated.’ You still have to attest,” Foley said. “I actually disagree with you. I think the state gave clear guidance.”
The county’s relying on the honor system, which allows fully vaccinated people to go maskless indoors if they say they’re vaccinated.
The self-attestation process drew the concern of CalOSHA board member Laura Stock, who was the only dissenting vote last Thursday when the updated guidelines were adopted.
“We are now putting most of our eggs in a basket around vaccines. And if vaccine is our primary strategy here, it is critical to ensure and verify who is vaccinated and who isn’t,” Stock said. “I believe it is essential to this approach.”
Orange County’s Mask Debate Continues
Tuesday marked another chapter in Orange County’s mask debate, which stretches back to the early days of the pandemic.
Last year, the discourse became so intense that former county Health Officer Dr. Nichole Quick resigned after protestors showed up at her house.
A labor group news conference was also shut down last year by residents who railed against masks.
Supervisor Don Wagner called for residents to be allowed back into the board chambers so they can directly address county leadership again.
“I would urge that we allow the public to participate in this room,” Wagner said during the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting.
Supervisor Chairman Andrew Do disagreed and said opening up the chambers to the general public could expose county employees to the virus.
“Masks are required for unvaccinated individuals in indoor public settings and businesses … now when we have the public that has been vocal against the vaccines, who are against face masking, who do not subscribe to any of the processes the state has articulated to allow them to be indoors — which is to show verification of vaccination or go through attestation — since we do not see compliance with that, CalOSHA requires that we protect our workers,” Do said.
Since the pandemic began, many residents have railed against the virus restrictions, masks and — more recently — vaccines.
Some people have compared the vaccination efforts and COVID-19 restrictions to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.
The comparisons drew the ire of local Jewish community leaders.
County’s Reopening Process Draws Flak
Wagner criticized the way county officials are handling the reopening, including how officials verify if someone is vaccinated or not when they come to a county building.
“In all of these rules and regulations, we got to look at them together … Frankly, they’re inconsistent. There’s holes throughout all of them,” Wagner said. “Because the state has failed throughout the pandemic to bring a coherence to its rules.”
He also criticized the county’s handling of the rules.
“What has troubled me greatly today is how haphazardly we have been discussing them and applying them,” Wagner said. “This is a mess of a policy. It is a mess of discussion. It is a mess of the way the government handles COVID.”
Wagner said nobody verified the vaccine status of the supervisors or employees in board chambers Tuesday.
“Nobody in this room today was checked for verification,” Wagner said.
He also reminded people the majority of supervisors shot down a proposal that would have provided people digital proof of their vaccine status through the county’s vaccination app, Othena.
“We as the government don’t check. Indeed, this board voted against the Othena app in providing self-attestation. A vote that was right and appropriate,” Wagner said.
At a supervisors meeting las month, hundreds of people protested against the idea and many cited privacy concerns.
Others said it was a vaccine passport program being forced on people and some compared it to the Holocaust, despite county officials repeatedly telling people they are not forcing vaccines or a passport system on anyone.
Meanwhile, state public health officials rolled out a vaccine verification program for everyone last Friday.
California Department of Public Health officials are not making most businesses verify someone’s vaccination status — except indoor events with more than 5,000 people — and said the program is a tool for businesses who chose the verification route over the honor system.
“This is really no different than someone’s vaccine card. It’s an optional tool for people to use,” state epidemiologist Erica Pan said at a media briefing last Friday.
She said use of the verification program is entirely up to the business community.
“We don’t have any regulations around how businesses, in general, verify,” Pan said. “We don’t have any state regulations that have authority over how businesses can implement those kinds of things.”
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio