Businesses must close employee break areas in Santa Clara County under COVID-19 restrictions
A new COVID-19 vaccine clinic was launched this week by Santa Clara County Public Health officials to vaccinate 500 fire personnel and paramedics. Photo courtesy of Santa Clara County Public Health Department.

    Santa Clara County health officials kicked off 2021 by adding new restrictions on businesses — they must now close their employee breakrooms.

    While officials told San José Spotlight they had issued previous “guidance” on breakrooms, an earlier version of the county’s directive did not include any language about closing indoor employee breakrooms.

    According to the changes, made on Dec. 31, businesses in Silicon Valley must “prohibit personnel from using any indoor breakrooms or break areas for eating or drinking” — even if they’re alone at the time.

    Employees can access cafeterias and breakrooms only to use appliances such as coffee makers, refrigerators or microwaves. They can store or heat up food, but cannot eat it inside the breakroom. County officials recommend eating lunch in the car, the safest option.

    Employees can use break areas for legally-protected purposes, such as lactation.

    “Eating indoors in a breakroom is one of the highest-risk activities during this pandemic because breakrooms are usually small with poor ventilation, and face coverings must be removed in order to eat,” the county wrote in an updated FAQ document. “Employee breakrooms have proven to be one of the most common causes of workplace COVID-19 transmission.”

    Health care facilities and hospitals are exempt from this rule. Any businesses that cannot close their indoor breakrooms must appeal to the county for an exception and come up with a safety plan, such as staggering employee breaks or creating an outdoor break area. They also must increase ventilation in the room and regularly disinfect high-touch surfaces.

    The county previous advised employees to wear masks in breakrooms, maintain six feet of distance, remain seated, minimize conversations and eat outdoors “whenever possible.”

    The new rules come as Santa Clara County confronts an alarming spike in COVID-19 cases, straining area hospitals.

    As of Dec. 31, the county recorded 69,870 cumulative COVID-19 cases and 709 deaths. Those figures reflect an increase of 2,507 new cases and 36 new deaths in recent days. The county reported 681 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 and officials said only 28 ICU beds are left.

    Access to COVID-19 vaccines is limited and slow.

    The county has received more than 94,805 COVID-19 vaccines so far, but they’re rolling them out in tiers with a priority on health care workers. Officials reported administering 500 shots this week at a new clinic to fire department personnel, EMTs, critical care transport nurses and paramedics on air ambulances.

    Meanwhile, health officials are urging people to continue getting tested — especially if they’ve been exposed during the holidays.

    For people without COVID-19 symptoms, the county is offering indoor and drive-through sites. Those who have symptoms should use drive-through sites to prevent infecting others.

    “There is a light at the end of the tunnel through the vaccinations that have begun,” said Santa Clara County COVID-19 Testing officer Marty Fenstersheib. “But that in no way means we can let our guard down. The positivity rate is tenfold what it was just two months ago – COVID-19 is more prevalent in the community than ever before. Anyone who believes they may have been exposed should quarantine and get tested.”

    For a full list of free testing sites, including new ones opening next week in Los Altos Hills, Mountain View, Cupertino, Campbell and Palo Alto, click here.

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