Reopening California – What Employers Need to Know

On Friday, June 4, Governor Newsom announced that he will not lift California’s State of Emergency Order, which provides specific programs that address the ongoing effects of COVID-19. Notwithstanding this announcement,  the State of California plans to fully reopen for business on June 15, 2021, according to the Blueprint for a Safer Economy. Under the Blueprint, the state still plans to lift certain business restrictions and public mask mandates. Many employers are asking what they need to know to ensure they are operating within the most recent guidance and following the regulations relating to mask-wearing, social distancing, and other safety steps they have been taking for more than one year. Below are the mandates and recommendations that the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has issued to assist with this reopening. California employers must still comply with Cal/OSHA’s COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standards for its workers to make matters more complicated. These Standards were just revised with changes that could take effect no later than June 15. Since California rules, laws, and regulations frequently change, you should always check with a California-licensed Employers Council attorney for any updates.

California’s State of Emergency and COVID-19 Regulations

A bit of history may help explain the evolution of California’s mandates and restrictions on businesses. On March 19, 2020, the CDPH issued an order requiring most Californians to stay home to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Then, California businesses became acquainted with the Blueprint for a Safe Economy in August 2020 when the state provided guidance to California businesses, as well as restrictions that would remain in place for operations. Under the Blueprint, the rules would be determined based on the number of positive COVID-19 cases in an area.

In September 2020, the CDPH issued the COVID-19 Employer Playbook Supporting Safety Environments for Workers and Customers. This document detailed the requirements imposed on employers reopening their businesses for onsite operations.

Cal/OSHA then added further restrictions and instructions in the Emergency Temporary Standards (ETS) effective November 30, 2020, which applied to all California workers except those covered by Cal/OSHA’s Aerosol Transmissible Diseases Standard for those who are exclusively working from home.

Additional legislation, similar to the rules adopted in the ETS, was then made effective January 1, 2021. This new Labor Code section added additional notification requirements for employers to advise employees of potential exposures in the workplace. This law will remain in place until January 1, 2023.

Recent CDPH Guidance for Operations

Employers relied heavily on the Blueprint, Playbook, and guidance from Cal/OSHA until the CDPH issued new guidance on April 6, 2021.

Over 20 million people were vaccinated by April 6, 2021, and the state found that vaccine availability was being equitably supplied for any Californian over 16 years. Additionally, hospitalizations for COVID-19 were stable and low, and hospitalizations among fully vaccinated people were low. From these significant findings, the CDPH issued “common-sense” health measures to begin the process of reopening the state and all business operations. On May 3 and May 12, 2021, the CDPH issued its Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People, clarifying quarantine, physical distancing, and mask-wearing requirements for fully vaccinated people as applied to the public, non-healthcare workplaces, and the Cal/OSHA ETS. These changes followed, in many respects, the guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

This new guidance permitted those who are fully vaccinated to:

  • Spend time with other fully-vaccinated people without wearing masks or remaining 6 feet apart;
  • Spend time with unvaccinated people from a single household with low risk without wearing a mask or remaining 6 feet apart;
  • Refrain from wearing masks while attending crowded outdoor events, such as live performances, parades, fairs, or festivals; and
  • Refrain from quarantining following a known exposure unless the fully vaccinated person develops symptoms;

However, in the workplace, employers are still required to maintain the mask-wearing requirements mandated by the ETS. Moreover, fully vaccinated people should get tested if they develop symptoms and also self-quarantine if they test positive. While vaccination will assist in lessening the overall impact the virus has on a fully vaccinated person, this person may still transmit the disease to others.

What Employers Need to Know about Cal/OSHA’s Recently Revised ETS

On June 3, 2021, the Cal/OSHA Standards Board held a public meeting to consider and vote on revisions to the ETS. In the meeting, the Standards Board approved the revisions to the ETS, which will become effective by June 15, 2021, as long as the Office of Administrative Law submits its stamp of approval. The following are some of the changes to the ETS approved by the Standards Board:

  • Face Coverings: Indoors, all workers – regardless of vaccination status – will continue to be required to wear a face covering unless all persons in a room are fully vaccinated and not showing any COVID-19 symptoms. Fully vaccinated and unvaccinated workers without symptoms do not need to wear face coverings outdoors except when working at “outdoor mega events” with over 10,000 attendees, which may include events or theme parks.
  • Physical Distancing: When the revised standards take effect, employers can eliminate physical distancing and partitions/barriers for employees working indoors and at outdoor mega events if they provide respirators, such as N95 masks, to unvaccinated employees for voluntary use. After July 31, physical distancing and barriers are no longer required (except during outbreaks), but employers must provide all unvaccinated employees with N95 masks for voluntary use.
  • Prevention Program: Employers are still required to maintain a written COVID-19 Prevention Program, but there are some key changes to requirements:
    • Employers must review the California Department of Public Health’s interim guidance for ventilation, filtration, and air quality in indoor environments here.
    • COVID-19 prevention training must now include information on how the vaccine is effective at preventing COVID-19 and protecting against both transmission and serious illness or death.
  • Exclusion from the Workplace: Fully vaccinated workers who do not have COVID-19 symptoms no longer need to be excluded from the workplace after a close contact.
  • Special Protections for Housing and Transportation: Special COVID-19 prevention measures that apply to employer-provided housing and transportation no longer apply if all occupants are fully vaccinated.

The most recent CDPH guidance and Cal/OSHA revised ETS will have significant impacts on employers. Employers are encouraged to review and update their COVID-19 Prevention Program, prepare to offer updated training to its employees, and start inquiring into the vaccination status of its employees to ensure an appropriate amount of respirators (N-95 masks) are available for voluntary use by unvaccinated employees. Employers should also be aware of any local requirements they may need to comply with.

We will continue to remain updated on all news within California, so please contact the California Legal Services team at CAInfo@employerscouncil.org with any questions.