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Riverside County supervisors question California's mask guidance in workplaces

The Desert Sun (Palm Springs) logo The Desert Sun (Palm Springs) 6/9/2021 Ema Sasic, Palm Springs Desert Sun
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Riverside County supervisors expressed frustration Tuesday over recently updated California mask guidance in workplaces, with one supervisor saying a state board has gone "as far as you can go" with its proposed rules.

"This has to stop," Fifth District Supervisor Jeff Hewitt said.

The seven-member California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, which is appointed by the governor, approved controversial rules last week that would allow workers to go maskless only if every employee in a room is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. They would also require employers to secure N95 facemasks for voluntary use by employees who are not fully vaccinated. 

a sign above a store: Just Fabulous has several signs requiring customers to remain masked while in the store, May 24, 2021. © Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun Just Fabulous has several signs requiring customers to remain masked while in the store, May 24, 2021.

The proposed rules are subject to review by the state Office of Administrative Law and, if approved, could go into effect by June 15.

They differ from more general mask guidance which California also plans to adopt that day: Fully vaccinated individual will not need to wear masks in most indoor settings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Worker masks: California workers can go maskless only if all in room are vaccinated

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Hewitt, a Libertarian businessman who previously announced he will run to challenge Gov. Gavin Newsom in the upcoming recall election, said the state board went too far.

"Cal/OSHA, which is an unelected bureaucracy, really answerable to no one, is telling us that at this time, only the people who are going back to work, unvaccinated or those who don’t want to get vaccinated ... the only ones in danger are them," Hewitt said during a board meeting. "We’ve got unelected bureaucrats protecting us from ourselves. That goes as far as you can go."

Other Riverside County supervisors also expressed frustration about the rules, noting that the state is one week away from its planned reopening which will lift restrictions that have been in place for months. Capacity limits at businesses will go away, and individuals will not need to physically distance themselves from others.

Second District Supervisor Karen Spiegel said it's been "frustrating" that "we’re one week out and our employers don’t know what the rules are going to be." 

Riverside County Public Health Director Kim Saruwatari said she did not know the exact date when final mask guidance for workplaces would be released.

First District Supervisor Kevin Jeffries questioned whether all county employees and members of the public who wish to visit county buildings would be required to wear N95 masks. The county's Public Health Officer Dr. Geoffrey Leung said there seems to be "different sets of rules for groups" depending on whether they're clients or customers versus workers.


Video: Some California residents wary of easing mask rules (The Desert Sun (Palm Springs))

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"There's no language we've seen that would require a N95 for the general public," Leung said.

Jeffries then asked if other health officials had taken "a similar position" that N95 masks should be worn by "everyone" as opposed to cloth or disposable masks. "Or does the virus just become more deadly after June 15?" he said.

"I don't think that the virus becomes more deadly on June 15," Saruwatari said. "There are some negotiations occurring in terms of what those guidelines should say that are coming out of Cal/OSHA."

COVID-19 metrics fall in yellow tier

Riverside County's COVID-19 metrics finally qualified Tuesday for the least-restrictive yellow tier in the state's reopening framework — a week before retail stores and restaurants across California are slated to return to business as usual.

The county reported a case rate of 1.6 new daily COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents — compared to last week's two, according to data released at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting. The county's positivity rate is 1.2% and its positivity among at-risk populations is 1.3%, Saruwatari said.

Last week's positivity rate was 1.3% and positivity among at-risk populations was 1.4%.

The county has been in the orange tier of the state's four-tiered, color-coded reopening framework since April 6. In order to move into the yellow tier, a county needs to report fewer than two daily new cases per day, a positivity rate less than 2% and less than 2.2% positivity among at-risk populations, for two consecutive weeks.

However, when California fully reopens its economy June 15, it will eliminate the tiered system.

Reopening: California's reopening is two weeks away. Here's what changes on June 15

Vaccine lottery: Your chances of winning are better than Mega Millions

Restaurants, bars, retail stores, theaters, amusement parks, places of worship, hotels and entertainment centers may return to their usual operations next week. There will be no capacity limitations, and social distancing will no longer be required for patrons.

The state will still recommend that attendees of outdoor events with more than 10,000 people, and indoor events with more than 5,000 people, show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.

More than half of Riverside County residents ages 12 and older have been partially vaccinated and 41% have been fully vaccinated.

Nearly three-quarters of Riverside County residents ages 65 and older have been partially vaccinated and 63% have been fully vaccinated.

California recently announced a $116.5 million prize vaccine incentive program to encourage more individuals to get inoculated. Fifteen names were drawn June 4 for the first $50,000 drawing. Another 15 individuals have the chance to win $50,000 Friday.

Ten individuals will walk away with the top prize of $1.5 million each on June 15. 

Anyone 12 and older who has received at least one shot is eligible, regardless of immigration status, Newsom said, and they are already entered in the drawing.

Leung said 99.8% of all COVID-19 cases in California in the past several months have occurred in individuals who have not been fully vaccinated. 

"It does look like the vaccine is working very well," Leung said. 

Associated Press contributed to this report.

Ema Sasic covers health in the Coachella Valley. Reach her at ema.sasic@desertsun.com or on Twitter @ema_sasic.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Riverside County supervisors question California's mask guidance in workplaces

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