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California regulators withdraw controversial work mask rules

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California’s workplace regulators have reversed themselves for the second time in a week. They withdrew a controversial, pending mask regulation late Wednesday.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California’s workplace regulators have reversed themselves for the second time in a week.

They withdrew a controversial, pending mask regulation late Wednesday.

That will give 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 revised 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 in concert with the latest recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Withdrawing that worksite rule allows the board to consider changes at its June 17 meeting and potentially have them go into effect by month’s end.

The goal, said board chairman David Thomas, is to change the workplace regulation “so that it matches up with the CDC and the California Department of Public Health, so that we’re all on the same page. That’s what this is about, so we’re not out of step with everybody else.”

The safety board’s staff was not specific on what changes it will recommend next week, other than it will try to more closely conform the workplace rules with public health guidelines.

But Eric Berg, deputy chief of health for California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, said the public health guidelines generally allow anyone who is vaccinated to skip wearing a mask indoors, while outdoors masks aren't needed except at very large events.

Under those rules, he said, “a vaccinated person would not have to wear a mask at work.”

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California’s workplace regulators are set to again reconsider controversial masking rules designed to protect employees against the coronavirus — requirements that business organizations say will make it harder for them to operate when the state fully reopens its economy next week.

A “special meeting’’ of the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board was hastily scheduled for Wednesday after State Health Officer Dr. Tomás Aragón sent a letter to the panel reiterating the state's plans to follow federal guidance starting next Tuesday.

Aragón said the state will do away with virtually all social distancing requirements and drop the mask requirement for people who are vaccinated while “requiring face coverings for all unvaccinated individuals in indoor public settings and businesses.”

That policy conflicts with the board's vote last week to allow workers to go maskless only if every employee in a room is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. The board will consider Aragón's letter "and take action if appropriate,” board spokeswoman Erika Monterroza said.

Meanwhile, a dozen business groups including the California Retailers Association and organizations representing manufacturers, farmers, tourism interests and other industries sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom asking him to immediately issue an emergency order rescinding the board's regulations, called Emergency Temporary Standards (ETS), and putting state workplaces in compliance with federal guidelines.

Without such action, the groups said the state's economy won't fully reopen next week as Newsom has said.

“Businesses will not bring employees back with the level of confusion and uncertainty created by the ETS and the mixed messages coming from state and local leaders," the letter said.

The groups called the board's regulations “expensive liabilities for businesses of all sizes, but especially for small businesses who may not have the legal expertise to navigate the confusing and contradictory statements and regulations coming from various levels of government."

Newsom was asked last Friday if he would issue such an order and he indicated he was disinclined.

On Tuesday, Newsom’s office repeated its statement from last week: that the administration is “hopeful the board will further revise its guidance to reflect the latest science while continuing to protect workers and balancing realistic and enforceable requirements for employers.”

The Cal/OSHA board's regulations apply in almost every workplace in the state, including workers in offices, factories and retail.

Its pandemic rules apply to all employees except those working from home or where there is a single employee who does not have contact with other people.

The board at Wednesday’s meeting could withdraw the new rules that it adopted less than a week ago because those have not yet become effective, Monterroza said.

But that would at least temporarily leave in place existing emergency rules that are even more stringent, requiring all workers to keep distanced and masked even if vaccinated.

The board can't adopt new changes without posting the proposed revisions and giving the public at least five calendar days of notice, she said. That potentially sets up further public comment and action at the board's regularly scheduled June 17 meeting.

The board's rules decision have put Newsom in an awkward position as the state nears what he promised would be a full reopening and while he faces a likely recall election in the fall.

The recall was driven by criticism of Newsom's restrictions on businesses and personal activities during the pandemic. His Republican opponents have seized on the workplace regulations as evidence the Newsom administration continues to rule with overly heavy hand.

Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego city councilman who wants Newsom recalled, sent an email to supporters on Tuesday that highlighted an “absurd new mask mandate” that “is not only an inconvenience to workers, but this anti-science policy imposes significant costs on small businesses and opens them up to costly frivolous lawsuits.”

In their letter to Newsom, the business groups said requiring masks unless all are vaccinated in a workplace will “create yet another barrier to rehiring and reopening" at a time when “we need to be providing incentives to bring people back."

The organizations also said requiring masks for people who have been fully inoculated could lead the public to believe the vaccine isn't really effective.

“Now, more than ever, the state must stand with the science and show residents — customers and employees alike — that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe, effective and necessary," the letter said.

Cal/OSHA board members made it clear when they adopted the measures that the regulations are temporary, and they appointed a subcommittee to continue working on revisions.

The board said it will hear briefings from the state Department of Public Health and California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health at Wednesday's meeting before considering “the impact of the presented information” on its new rules.

Separately, the state health department has recommended that workers who aren't vaccinated be tested once or twice a week, depending on the type of test, if they come in close or frequent contact with the public.

That for instance includes those working in restaurants, public transit, theaters, amusement parks and other areas.

It should also apply to those areas with higher virus transmission rates, the department said, and to high-density workplaces where physical distancing is difficult, such as factories or food processing plants.

Don Thompson, The Associated Press

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