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COVID Reopening: Santa Clara County Latest To Enter Least-Restrictive Yellow Tier

SAN JOSE (CBS SF) -- Santa Clara County on Tuesday became the third county in the Bay Area to enter the least-restrictive Yellow Tier under the state's COVID-19 reopening plan.

"For the first time in a long time, I feel optimistic," said Dr. Sara Cody, chief public health officer for Santa Clara County at a press conference announcing the lifting of most public health measures.

Under the state's rules, most indoor businesses can expand their capacities. Movie theaters, indoor dining at restaurants and gyms are among the sectors that can open at 50 percent capacity. Bars in the county that do not provide meals can resume indoor operations at 25 percent capacity.

As the state reassigned Santa Clara to the least-restrictive tier, Dr. Cody announced that most of the COVID-19 health orders implemented by the county would be lifted.

"We have a clear path out of this pandemic," Cody declared at her Tuesday afternoon press briefing.

Under the revised health order, which is limited in scope, companies are no longer required to maximize the number of employees who are working remotely. Workplaces and schools must continue reporting COVID-19 cases to the county and employers must determine who on staff are fully vaccinated to prepare for upcoming changes on masking and social-distancing requirements.

"All business and governmental entities must determine the vaccination status of all their personnel within 14 days," said James Williams, chief counsel for the county.

The new requirement to collect the vaccination status of employees troubled some privacy advocates who expressed concern about who might have access to the data and how it might be used.

"California has always been protective of privacy rights -- more so than other states. And, as you continue to collect information like this, you're going to increase the impact on privacy rights," said James Brown, an employment attorney.

Professor Dorit Reiss of UC Hastings says it's both legal for the county to ask about vaccine status and it's also legal for your employer to ask.

"It is legal for an employer to request your vaccine status. Many people say that there may be limits from HIPAA but that's incorrect. That does not apply to your employer, that applies to your provider," Reiss said.

There are medical privacy laws in the U.S. and California but those often have exceptions for public health.

Some officers are already asking about vaccine status. In San Francisco, Salesforce re-opened to small pods of fully vaccinated employees already.

Dr. Robert Wachter of UCSF has said vaccine passports will be the masks of 2021.

"Your vaccination status is not solely a decision about you taking a risk for yourself. It really is about the health of the entire community," Wachter told CBS News last month.

Dr. Cody, who was among the first health officials in the country to impose restrictions on large gatherings and issue a stay-at-home order in March 2020, credited the county's high vaccination rate for bringing COVID-19 cases to the lowest levels seen since the start of the pandemic.

Health officials said more than 75 percent of residents 16 and older have received at least one dose. As of Tuesday, nearly 60 percent of residents are fully vaccinated.

Business leaders say companies can legally collect information about vaccination status and may even require employees to be vaccinated if they want to return to the workplace in person.

"I'm imagining a world in which vaccination becomes a requirement. The reason it's easy to imagine is because there's already an historical precedent for it. Vaccination is a requirement for public schools and other public institutions," said Russell Hancock, CEO of Joint Venture Silicon Valley.

"For a while it seemed uncertain to me whether the vaccines or the variants would win," Cody said. "I think that team vaccine is in the lead, holding the lead and will win."

Dr. Cody urged eligible residents who have not received their vaccine to do so.

"Let's all look forward to a wonderful summer where we can all be and feel a bit safer as we return to normal," Cody said..

Along with Santa Clara, neighboring Santa Cruz County re-entered the Yellow Tier on Tuesday.

KPIX correspondent Andria Borba contributed to this report

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