California delays debate on dropping mask, physical distancing rules in the workplace

California workforce regulators will aim for a mid-June easing of workplace mask and social distancing requirements to conform with a broader state order, postponing a vote on whether to revise coronavirus safety rules for employees.

Cal/OSHA's staff said it would aim "to make possible a targeted effective date of June 15, 2021," instead of proceeding with a proposal that would have made businesses wait until July 31 to ease some pandemic restrictions.

The same regulations also would impose new requirements that dozens of business groups called too onerous during a hearing Thursday by the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board.

Cal/OSHA put in emergency temporary standards back in November to protect workers on the job during the pandemic. Some of the eased restrictions that were discussed Thursday would allow employees to ditch their mask as long as everyone was vaccinated.

That drew strong criticism from some business organizations.

"It's more complicated when the regulation requires employees to create two classes of people. It involves medical decisions, medical limitations and religious reasons," said Helen Cleary, director of the Phylmar Regulatory Roundtable, a coalition of large businesses. "Doing so will likely result in discrimination, harassment and possible workplace violence."

Others cited the guidance under consideration as outdated. Much of the language crafted for Cal/OSHA's standards was done back in January, during the peak of the third COVID-19 wave. Since then, the availability of vaccines a drop in cases has changed the landscape.

"Somebody who is fully vaccinated is less likely to contract the disease If they do contract the disease, it's very much more a milder disease," said Ken Smith, director of WH&S at the University of California.

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Having two conflicting enforcement dates would also be "a huge source of confusion and problems," California Chamber of Commerce policy advocate Rob Moutrie told the board.

The board delayed voting on the new rules after staff said they wanted to reconsider them based on last week's U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that fully vaccinated people can now skip face coverings and distancing in virtually all situations.

Meantime, the state is less than a month away from dropping its mask mandate.

California health officials announced Monday that the state would begin following the Centers for Disease Control's eased mask guidelines for some indoor settings starting June 15. The date aligns with the state's plan to reopen California's economy on June 15, and allows more time for more Californians to get fully vaccinated.
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But Cal/OSHA board members said they are inclined to temporarily retain revised workplace safety rules perhaps past July 31, over the objections of some business groups. They set a June 3 hearing to consider revised rules.

"I think we need to continue to have some COVID requirements in place - the crisis isn't over. But I think we need to recognize that it's been mitigated to some extent," board member Chris Laszcz-Davis said.

Cal/OSHA regulations apply in almost every workplace in California, including those in state and local governments. Its emergency temporary standards related to the pandemic apply to all employees except those working from home or where there is a single employee who does not have contact with other people.

California has made a remarkably fast transition from being an epicenter for the virus at the start of the year to a record low infection rate of less than 1% and an economy with all sectors now reopened, albeit with restrictions. More than half the state's population of nearly 40 million has received at least one vaccine dose.

Employers told the board that the improvement makes the rules less necessary, while worker advocates said having half the population unvaccinated means precautions are still needed

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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