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California could end workplace social distancing and mask requirement by August

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 5/11/2021 Jeong Park, The Sacramento Bee

May 11—California workers won't have to physically distance themselves from each other at workplaces starting in August under a proposed update to the state COVID-19 safety rules.

The proposal, which would adjust California workplace regulations adopted in November, also specifies fully vaccinated workers will not have to wear face coverings when they are outdoors and don't have COVID symptoms.

Workers will also not have to wear face coverings indoors if they and everyone around them in a room are fully vaccinated and do not have symptoms of the coronavirus.

The proposal by the standards board of the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, commonly called Cal-OSHA, reflects another step toward normalcy in California where case COVID-19 numbers have plummeted. Gov. Gavin Newsom in April had announced a plan to lift most restrictions by June 15.

California won't completely repeal its workplace regulations, however. For instance, starting July 31, employers will need to provide free testing to workers who have COVID symptoms and are not fully vaccinated.

"Even if the state is able to reopen fully in June, COVID-19 is likely to remain a significant workplace hazard for months to come, if not longer," staff at the standards board of the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health said in its report outlining the updated rules.

The board is scheduled hear and likely take a vote on the rules at its May 20 meeting. If passed, the rules could go into effect within days.

Changes to COVID workplace safety rules

Under the current rule, employers must separate employees by at least six feet wherever possible. The provision is set to sunset by July 31 according to the proposed update.

Employees may work more closely if they are wearing respirators like N95 masks or if all of the workers are fully vaccinated except for those who require a "reasonable accommodation or exception to vaccination" under federal or state law, according to the proposal.

By July 31, employers should provide respirators for voluntary use to employees working indoors who are not fully vaccinated, according to the proposal. "N95s and more protective respirators protect the users from airborne disease while face coverings primarily protect people around the user."

Employers are still required to pay workers who are self-isolating because of their exposure to COVID-19 at workplaces. Fully vaccinated workers or workers who had recovered from COVID-19 within 90 days don't have to self-isolate as long as they don't have symptoms.

Businesses react

Business organizations, some of which had sued the state over the original regulations, had a mixed reaction to the proposed update.

Rob Moutrie, a policy advocate at the California Chamber of Commerce, said the feasibility of the rules remains questionable. Securing N95 masks for workers could be challenging during wildfire season, and employers have questions on how they can show proof of their employees being vaccinated, he said.

Moutrie also noted physical distancing or barriers will be required if workplaces become the site of a COVID outbreak.

"If you have put in physical dividers, I don't know if businesses will want to put them in and out," he said.

Requiring free testing for workers remains an issue for employers, especially those in rural areas, said Karen Harned, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses' Small Business Legal Center.

"To their credit, they addressed some of the concerns stakeholders have had," Harned said. "But for small businesses... these are so one-size-fits-all, very onerous, very burdensome, very complicated for them to administer and even understand."

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