This story was originally printed in the May 21 print edition of the Daily Post. To get all of the local news first, pick up the Post in the mornings at 1,000 Mid-Peninsula locations.
By the Daily Post staff
When Santa Clara County entered the Yellow Tier for Covid restrictions, it seemed like things were headed back to a pre-pandemic normal.
But county health officer Dr. Sara Cody has issued a health order that requires all employers to find out if their employees, contractors and volunteers are vaccinated, and provide a report by June 1.
Employees who decline to respond “must … be treated as unvaccinated.”
If an employee is unvaccinated, they have to wear a mask during work.
Employers must ask unvaccinated employees about their status every 14 days, the order said. Within 24 hours of learning of a positive case on-site, an employer must report the information to the Santa Clara County Public Health Department.
Here’s the form employers must submit for every employee.
Violators can face fines. And Santa Clara County is aggressive about fining violators of its Covid rules. The Mercury News reported in April that businesses here are 13 times more likely to get slapped with a fine than any other Bay Area county. And the amount of fines is 50 times more than the next highest county, San Mateo.
As for masks, the CDC has issued guidance that fully vaccinated people can now skip face coverings and distancing in virtually all situations. The CDC said it was simply following “the science” that showed the vaccines work.
But state health officials — who have also said they are guided by “the science” — said this week they will keep the state’s rules requiring indoor masking and distancing until the state more broadly lifts its pandemic restrictions on June 15, a date also endorsed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Masks possible until August
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.
Proposed additional employer mandates intended to make up for some relaxed regulations would “create new unnecessary burdens and requirements,” said Helen Cleary, director of the Phylmar Regulatory Roundtable, a coalition of large businesses.
Business groups are particularly upset with a proposal requiring that employers provide masks for voluntary use starting July 31.
That potentially means regularly providing N95 face masks to 2 million workers, CalChamber’s Moutrie said, assuming 20% of the state’s 20 million workers can’t or won’t be vaccinated and half of those work indoors. The rules also would require employers to provide free coronavirus testing during work hours to unvaccinated employees with Covid-19 symptoms.
What type of mask?
Standards board chairman David Thomas later said he was inclined to permit less effective face coverings like his own blue surgical-style mask. But others said that easing some safeguards makes it more important that workers have the type of mask that provides the most protection.
Thomas, like other board members, said regulators must be cautious in lifting safety regulations.
“Hopefully we’re getting to a place where we can open things up,” Thomas said, but “we’ve seen this before and we just don’t want to get, for lack of a better word, we don’t want to get stupid.”
Requiring employers to provide masks and make other provisions like installing partitions and air filters “adds more burdensome obligations to employers just as the federal government is loosening restrictions and California’s Governor appears to believe California is on track to open in June,” more than 40 groups said in a comment letter.
They include organizations representing California cities and counties, retailers and restaurateurs.
The board’s staff is now reconsidering rules that would require workers to wait until July 31 before they can stop wearing masks indoors and distancing, unless everyone in the same room is fully vaccinated and not showing coronavirus symptoms.
“Exemptions for fully vaccinated employees will not work if 100% of the workforce must be vaccinated to benefit,” Cleary said.
But Cal/OSHA’s staff warned that some regulations are needed even as conditions improved. “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,” they advised the board.