California drops workplace mask rule for vaccinated workers

California regulators have approved revised worksite pandemic rules that allow fully vaccinated employees the same freedoms as when they are off the job.

The revised regulations adopted Thursday come after weeks of confusion. They conform with general state guidelines by ending most mask rules for people who are vaccinated against the coronavirus.


The governor-appointed California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board approved them on a 5-1 vote.

Gov. Gavin Newsom immediately issued an executive order waiving the usual 10-day legal review. The new rules will take effect as soon as they are filed with the secretary of state.

"While I understand the proposal in front of us today is extremely controversial and inconvenient, now I don’t think is the time to let our guard down," said David Harrison, a labor representative on the board who voted for the revised rules. "We need to do everything reasonable, and I highlight reasonable ... within our power to protect employees in California and across the country."

The rules apply in almost every workplace in the state, including to workers in offices, factories and retail.

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They are intended to ensure that workers are protected while businesses resume normal or near-normal activity, Eric Berg, deputy chief of health for California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, told the board.

Business groups had sought the changes but argued they didn’t go far enough. They supported conforming rules for businesses with state guidelines patterned after the latest federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.

The California Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 14,000 members, still praised a decision it said "will help employers move forward and fully reopen."

Board member Laura Stock, an occupational safety expert who cast the lone opposition vote, warned that the pandemic is not over.

"This has real consequences that people can get sick and die due to exposure in the workplace," Stock said.

She said the rules go too far by eliminating physical distancing and workplace partitions and allowing workers to self-report their vaccination status, while relying too heavily on people to be vaccinated.

"What’s very difficult is to figure out what the balance is so that we’re doing the most good for the most people, but not at all dismissing the vulnerable in our population," said Chris Laszcz-Davis, a management representative on the board.

The move comes after the board did a double-twisting backflip in recent weeks when it first postponed, then rejected, then adopted, then rescinded proposed rules that would have allowed workers to forego masks only if every employee in a room was fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The new regulations conform with general state guidelines patterned after the latest U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.

Fully vaccinated employees will not need to wear masks, except in locations like mass transit and classrooms where they are required for everyone, or in the event of outbreaks.

Physical distancing will also end except for certain workers during major outbreaks.

Vaccinated employees also won’t need to be tested or quarantined unless they show symptoms, even if they have close contact with an infected person.

Employers must document that workers who skip masks indoors are indeed fully vaccinated. But employers have the choice of requiring workers to show proof of vaccination or allowing employees to self-attest to their vaccination status, with the employer keeping a record of who self-attests.

They could also decide to require everyone to remain masked — vaccinated or not. And vaccinated employees will still be able to wear masks if they choose without facing retaliation.

The California Chamber of Commerce in a statement thanked Newsom, a Democrat, for eliminating confusion by pledging to conform workplace rules with the state’s loosened pandemic precautions.

That includes immediately ending social distancing obligations instead of waiting until July 31, as California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, had initially proposed.

The chamber also praised a rule change that will require employers to provide the most effective N95 masks for free to unvaccinated employees only upon request.

Helen Cleary, director of the Phylmar Regulatory Roundtable, a coalition of large businesses with major California operations, said allowing workers to self-attest is helpful, though her coalition still objects to requiring employers to document employees’ vaccine status.

Requiring employers to provide N95 masks even upon request will still require them to stockpile the most efficient face coverings, she said.

Everyone will need to remain masked in places such as public transit, indoor school classes, health care facilities and evacuation centers.