CDC mask guidance brings confusion to Santa Clara County
George Lahlouh, co-owner of Original Gravity, MINIBOSS and Paper Plane, behind the bar. File photo.

Differences between federal and local mask rules are creating confusion, frustration and in some cases hostile situations.

Santa Clara County residents breathed a sigh of relief this week with the move to the least-restrictive yellow tier in California’s reopening plan, an indication that life might return to “normal” after more than a year of fear and anxiety.

The change in tiers came on the heels of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s announcement that fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to mask or social distance “in any setting” except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, including local business and workplace guidance.

But in Santa Clara County, masks are still required until California fully reopens on June 15. Ten other states have fully reopened and 38 other states plan to do so soon.

“While we work to make sure that everyone who is eligible in our community has the opportunity to get vaccinated, residents will need to keep their masks on indoors a bit longer,” said a spokesperson for the Santa Clara County Public Health Department. “We will continue to keep the public updated on the latest information around masking, and in the meantime, the best thing that residents can do to help us get back to some level of normalcy is to get vaccinated if they haven’t already, and to encourage their friends and family to do so as well.”

Tensions over contradicting orders from the CDC to take off masks and the county to keep them on is boiling over in San Jose. Earlier this week, a woman spat on an employee at Umai Savory Hot Dogs after refusing to wear a mask inside the restaurant.

Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, said businesses are unfortunately used to dealing with conflicting information and rules.

“We are not out of the woods yet, although moving to yellow tier this week is a very positive milestone,” Knies told San José Spotlight. “Most of our businesses are used to looking at the different timing and protocols coming from the state and county and taking the most conservative approach. ”

Knies said there’s still been significant progress, and he and local business owners are “cautiously optimistic” about the coming summer and having restrictions largely lifted.

Some business owners, however, are stressed about playing “mask police.”

Downtown San Jose restaurant owner George Lahlouh said his employees have to do some policing to make sure guests wear a mask, especially on weekends.

“We face the same challenges of most bars and restaurants right now,” said Lahlouh, who owns Original Gravity, MINIBOSS and Paper Plane. “The one or two people who you’re constantly telling, ‘Hey, can you please put your mask on?’”

Lahlouh said most guests are understanding, and while some might roll their eyes, they don’t fight the rule.

However, he’s concerned that may change after June 15. The changing guidelines leave Lahlouh and other business owners confused and asking if they’re going to have to check patron’s vaccination cards in the future.

“We haven’t had to deal with those kinds of situations, yet,” he said, “but especially now with all the CDC announcements making things looser and Santa Clara County moving into the yellow tier…it’s actually making more problems. Everyone’s under this impression that if you’re vaccinated, masks aren’t part of your lives anymore. For us, it’s trying to politely educate people.”

Although his policy is to have employees wear masks, Lahlouh said they have a few employees who’d prefer not to work when patrons no longer have to wear masks.

Mezcal restaurant owner Adolfo Gomez in San Jose. File photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Mezcal owner Adolfo Gomez said he’s diligent about asking guests to wear masks, and if they don’t have their own, the restaurant will provide one.

“The more changes we see, the fussier people will be about wearing masks,” Gomez said. “How do you know who is fully vaccinated and who’s not?”

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Students in Santa Clara County schools will need to remain masked until further notice from the CDC. The agency recommends K-12 students continue to wear face coverings and social distance. Only students older than 12 can receive the Pfizer vaccine as of May 12, leaving younger students without as much protection as their older peers.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions surrounding the CDC’s guidance for fully vaccinated individuals.

What does it mean to be “fully vaccinated?”

A person is fully vaccinated two weeks or more after their second dose of the Pfizer/Moderna vaccine, or two weeks after a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

What happens in California on June 15?

California is set to fully reopen its economy on June 15. This means counties will no longer be categorized in “tiers.” Businesses can return to normal operations, “with common-sense risk reduction measures,” according to the California Department of Public Health. Schools, including colleges and universities, will be able to conduct full-time, in-person instruction.

Can my boss ask about my vaccination status?

Yes. Under a local health order, businesses are required to ascertain the vaccination status of every employee (this applies to volunteers, too). If an individual declines to answer, the assumption is that they are unvaccinated.

What behaviors should I practice until June 15?

According to state public health department, everyone regardless of vaccination status needs to wear a mask indoors in public places unless they are eating or drinking. Wearing a mask is still required on public transportation, as well as indoor and outdoor crowded places such as concerts, parades, sporting events and fairs.

What are the rules for masks at work now? How will they change after June 15?

You still have to wear your mask at work until June 15.

On Thursday, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) was scheduled to consider allowing workers to go maskless if everyone else in the room is vaccinated. But the agency decided to push that decision off until a later date.

Cal/OSHA will still be able to make any necessary COVID-19 safety rules for the workplace, including requiring masks, in the future if circumstances change.

What can I do until June 15 if I’m not fully vaccinated? What about after June 15?

If you aren’t fully vaccinated, wear a mask if you are around people from two or more households. After June 15, wearing masks will be up to the discretion of individuals and businesses. The CDC and local health officials encourage individuals who are not vaccinated to still wear a mask, even if it’s not required.

Local health leaders are confident inoculated individuals will be safe without masks. There are plenty of vaccines available in Santa Clara County, officials say, and plenty of opportunities to get a shot. Some clinics now have drop-in hours, with no appointment required. A list of vaccine clinics can be found at sccfreevax.org.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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