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UPDATE: Cal/OSHA Says Most Vaccinated Workers Must Keep Masks On

SACRAMENTO (CBS / AP) — Conflicted California workplace regulators approved controversial rules that allow workers to go maskless only if every employee in a room is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

But the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (Cal/OSHA) made clear Thursday night that the regulations are only a stopgap while they consider further easing pandemic rules in coming weeks or months.

The board initially voted 4-to-3 to reject any changes to current rules.

But chairman David Thomas said that would have left employers with the current rules, which require masks for all employees, along with social distancing and partitions between employees in certain circumstances.

Moments later, the seven-member board unanimously adopted the revised regulations while a three-member subcommittee considers more changes.

"It's better than the previous one, because that's what we're going back to" if the board didn't act, Thomas said. "We don't want to leave the last one in place when this is better than that."

The off-again, on-again decisions came after major business groups and dozens of individuals spent hours urging the board to further lift pandemic regulations.

"We have to create reasonable and enforceable standards," said board member Nola Kennedy, an initial no vote. "I just don't think this proposal is there yet."

Kate Crawford also was initially opposed, saying the revision should more closely follow recent guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The guidance says fully vaccinated people can now skip face coverings and distancing in nearly all situations and the state is set to follow that recommendation on June 15.

For some members who initially rejected the revision, the deal-killer was a requirement that employers stockpile the most effective N95 facemasks for employees who want them starting July 1.

They reflected criticism by numerous employer groups who said the requirement will be impractical, expensive and tie up millions of masks that are needed by health care workers.

"Logistically I'm just unclear how a business determines how many, how much," said Chris Laszcz-Davis, a management representative on the board who initially voted to reject the revised regulations. "I'm not sure how much we're buying by recommending N95s. Why not a surgical mask?"

But the initial rejection was not a clear split between labor and management representatives on the board, which also includes public members and safety experts.

The board plans to regroup at its June 17 meeting but further revising the rules will be a lengthier process. The newly-appointed three-member subcommittee will try to craft acceptable revisions that then must be drafted by Cal/OSHA employees before a public review.

The California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board spent much of the day Thursday considering the new workplace rules that would only allow workers to go maskless if everyone in a room is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Debate over updating the plan included heated public comment.

Recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance says that fully vaccinated people can now skip face coverings and distancing in nearly all situations, and the state is set to follow that recommendation starting June 15.

But the state safety board's staff says conditions are different among workers, leading to the proposed rule that even vaccinated employees remain masked unless everyone else in their workspace is inoculated.

Helen Cleary, director of the Phylmar Regulatory Roundtable, a coalition of large businesses, said she was "astonished" that the staff didn't align with guidelines from federal and state health officials.

The proposed rules would "create two classes of people" in the workplace, she told the board. Moreover, "there are conflicting messages in the proposed amendments and there is a lack of scientific evidence for them."

The California Chamber of Commerce also is upset.

"If you are fully vaccinated, (under CDC recommendations) you don't need to wear a mask inside or outside. That's the science!" chamber President and CEO Allan Zaremberg said in a statement. "Under these (proposed Cal/OSHA) rules, workers' freedoms will be controlled by their fellow workers decisions to get vaccinated, not by their own choices."

That sets up "an inconsistent standard" between members of the public and employees, the chamber and more than five dozen other business organizations said in a letter to the board.

"Starting June 15, vaccinated individuals will be able to go to most public settings without having to wear masks, even if other unvaccinated individuals are present," they wrote. "But vaccinated employees at that same location will have to wear a mask."

Board staff member Eric Berg said the proposed rules incorporate the latest scientific evidence and have been reviewed and supported by the state Department of Public Health. They recognize key differences between employees and the public at large, he said, including that that employees have "longer cumulative exposures" in the workplace than with casual social contact.

Allowing some to wear masks and others to go unmasked would create significant enforcement issues for employers and Cal/OSHA, Berg said.

At Tommy's Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco, where Gov. Gavin Newsom was announcing the extension of outdoor dining and cocktails to go, workers plan to keep their masks on, even though everyone has been fully vaccinated.

"I don't mind wearing the mask," said Julio Bermejo of Tommy's. "I think it's good practice until we literally defeat the pandemic, if that's possible."

Jot Condie of the California Restaurant Association told KPIX 5, "The restaurateurs that are really doing the right thing are including the employees."

It was not immediately known if Newsom would support Cal/OSHA's proposal.

"Larger meat packing facilities and larger industrial facilities, have a different set of challenges and criteria and so OSHA is always mindful of that," Newsom said.

The Cal/OSHA regulations being considered by the board apply in almost every workplace in the state. Its pandemic rules apply to all employees except those working from home or where there is a single employee who does not have contact with other people.

"A very large proportion of California employees will remain unvaccinated as of June 15, 2021," the staff said in its recommendation. "Due to changes in social norms, as mask-wearing and physical distancing decline among fully vaccinated people, those precautions are likely to decline among unvaccinated and partially vaccinated people as well."

Yet unvaccinated employees will remain at risk particularly from more contagious coronavirus variants, the staff reasoned.

Business groups are upset the staff didn't ease its masking recommendation during a two-week delay since the board postponed its consideration while its staff reviewed the CDC guidelines.

"I'm a little mystified why they didn't do more," said California Farm Bureau director of employment policy Bryan Little, whose organization joined more than three-dozen agribusiness opponents of the proposed rules. "I think that's an unreasonable expectation on their part."

More than 17.4 million of California's nearly 40 million residents are fully vaccinated, state health officials said Thursday, and the positivity rate for the virus has dropped to 0.8%.

But worker advocates at the board's last hearing said regulators should continue protections for vulnerable employees, while board members said they were inclined to keep safeguards for fear of another surge or emerging virus mutations.

Employer organizations were additionally critical of a proposed rule that starting July 31 would require them to provide the most effective N95 masks for voluntary use by employees who are working indoors or at outdoor mega events and are not fully vaccinated.

That will require employers to track workers' vaccination status and stockpile masks in competition with health care workers and as the state's wildfire season heats up.

Cal/OSHA's Berg said the masks should be the most effective N95 respirators because "workers are in close proximity to each other for extended periods of time" and need the best protection from the virus.

The Cal/OSHA staff said its proposed rules "would significantly reduce the number (of) COVID-19 related illnesses, disabilities and deaths in California's workforce."

© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report

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