San Jose workers prepare for new mask rules
Andrew Esler, right, works on a bike at La Dolce Velo in San Jose. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

In a little over a week, the state will lift its mask mandate after nearly a year of requiring face coverings indoors. But in certain workplaces, employees will still have to cover their faces according to new rules adopted this week by the board of the California Division of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or Cal/OSHA.

Under the new rules, fully vaccinated workers without COVID-19 symptoms do not need to wear face coverings indoors with other fully vaccinated people. But workers are required to wear masks when there are both vaccinated and unvaccinated people in a room.

Things won’t change much for employees inside La Dolce Velo, a bike store near downtown San Jose. All employees are fully vaccinated and hope to join customers without masks as soon as they are allowed to.

“Employees have been encouraged to be vaccinated and we require masks to come inside,” worker Andrew Esler told San José Spotlight. “We’ve been pretty tight on making sure everyone is doing so. Luckily we didn’t have any anti-vax workers and we were on it very quickly.”

Cal/OSHA’s orders are still subject to review by the state Office of Administrative Law, which is expected to sign off on the rules no later than June 15.

The entrance to La Dolce Velo at 1280 The Alameda in San Jose. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

Masks are not required outdoors for fully vaccinated workers unless they are working at outdoor “mega-events” of 10,000 or more people. Outdoor workers who aren’t fully vaccinated must wear masks when they are less than six feet away from another person.

Cal/OSHA will require physical distancing indoors if workers are not wearing N95 masks until July 31. After July 31, physical distancing is no longer required, but employers must offer N95 masks to unvaccinated employees.

The differences between what is allowed at city, county, state and federal levels could make adhering to workplace rules difficult, according to Sarju Naran, an attorney with San Jose-based law firm Hoge Fenton.

In talking with companies during the pandemic, Naran said, the decision-making process for employers can be tough: Employees who aren’t vaccinated must wear masks, which is an instant visual giveaway that they aren’t inoculated.

“The employers have to perform this balancing act. You’ve got to comply with the most stringent rules,” Naran said. “But then there’s the practical aspect of this. They have a sense of duty to keep their employees safe. It’s not just about what you’re required to do, but what makes the most sense for any given workplace.”

N95 masks have become a point of contention among business owners, with some saying the burden is expensive for employers.

“Cal/OSHA is out of step with the rest of the country,” said Andrew Sommer, a member of the California Employers COVID-19 Prevention Coalition, during the meeting.

The seven-member Cal/OSHA board said the measures are temporary, and formed a three-member subcommittee after the vote to revise the rules as soon as possible.

Dzung Lam, a barista at Crema Coffee, said she’s not too worried about the new rules. She said a majority of her coworkers are vaccinated or plan to complete their shots by the time the state fully reopens.

“We’ve been pretty good about masks. We used to have a ton of (social distancing) signs up but we’ve taken most of them down since we’re about to open up more,” Lam told San José Spotlight. “Customers have been pretty good about it too.”

Dzung Lam said a majority of her coworkers are vaccinated or plan to get their shots before the state reopens on June 15. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

Dozens of Californians, community leaders and business leaders attended the virtual Cal/OSHA meeting to protest what they believed were more severe restrictions given the state’s low COVID-19 case rate compared to the beginning of the pandemic.

About 1,326,179 Santa Clara County residents 12 and older—77.3%—have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Saturday evening. About 1,125,278 residents aged 12 and older, or 65.6%, have completed vaccinations. To date, 119,245 residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and 2,153 have died.

“COVID no longer creates the risk it did one year ago or six months ago,” said Melissa Patack of the Motion Picture Association during public comment. “We’ve made much progress in taming this virus and we ask that Cal/OSHA not impose unreasonable burdens in the employment setting.”

At La Dolce Velo, owner Rob Mardell hopes that customers won’t take any unwarranted risks.

“We just hope they will be respectful to our employees and employers and to be vaccinated,” Mardell said. “And we hope the same of them.”

He did joke however that that might be “too much to ask” for some customers.

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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