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California regulators withdraw controversial work mask rules

Cal/OSHA withdrew the controversial masking regulation late Wednesday.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — 9:30 p.m. update:

California’s workplace regulators have reversed themselves for the second time in a week. They withdrew a controversial masking regulation late Wednesday night. 

That gives them time to consider a rule that more closely aligns with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s promise that the state will fully reopen from the pandemic on Tuesday. 

The California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board’s rule would have allowed workers to forego masks only if every employee in a room is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. That contrasts with the state’s broader plan to do away with virtually all masking requirements for vaccinated people. Withdrawing that worksite rule allows the board to consider changes next week.

Original Story:

A dozen major California business organizations have called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to change recently adopted workplace regulations requiring all workers to wear masks unless everyone in a room is vaccinated.

Now, California’s workplace regulators are set to reconsider controversial pandemic masking rules.  They've hastily set a special meeting for 5 p.m. Wednesday.

The move comes after the California Department of Public Health Director Tomas Aragon sent a letter to the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board reiterating that the state plans to do away with virtually all masking and social distancing requirements for vaccinated people starting June 15. The California Retailers Association and organizations representing manufacturers, farmers, tourism interests and other industries sent a letter to Newsom asking him to issue an emergency order rescinding the regulations adopted last week. 

That conflicts with the board’s decision to allow workers to go maskless only if every employee in a room is fully vaccinated. The revised rules adopted June 3 by a sharply divided California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board are expected to kick on June 15.

The new rules could include:

  • If all employees are vaccinated, there is no need for masks indoors, but if there is even one person who is not vaccinated, masks will be required for all.
  • Unvaccinated workers will have to mask up at "mega-events" of more than 10,000 people.
  • Social distancing will be required through July 31, regardless of immunization status.
  • Employers will be required to provide COVID-19 testing to the unvaccinated at no cost if they show symptoms and must pay workers who self-isolate due to exposure to the virus at work.
  • After July 31, employers must offer respirators, such as N-95 masks, to all non-vaccinated workers for protection. It is up to the employee whether or not they wear it. 

The board could withdraw its new rules. But it can't adopt new changes without giving at least five days' notice.

In his letter, Aragon noted the California Department of Public Health would recognize the Division of Occupational Safety and Health's authority over workplace standards and tell California to defer to the board's decision to masking in the workplace.

Grocery store workers like Heidy Lopez of Tracy can't wait to take off her mask.

"I've been waiting over a year and I'm sure a lot of customers, too," Lopez said.

Depending on where you eat in Tracy, masks are already off in restaurants for workers. At The Station bar and grill restaurant, no workers wear masks, and customers aren't required to when entering. Next door at Popo's on Sixth, the California contemporary eatery with a taste of Hawaiian continues to require its employees to mask up.

Owner Stefan Wilson says the change towards normal will be a gradual one.

"I think I'm going to have employees wear masks and we'll probably start to segue away from it as we go because it will be a hard adjustment for a lot of people," said Wilson.

The California Nurses Association has about 100,000 nurses along with hundreds of call center employees. When the state reopens, masks will stay.

"This may be the new normal that we get used to just masking up, as a matter or principle, as a matter of good public health," said Stephanie Roberson, CNA spokesperson.

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