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Fearing a big COVID surge, California reinstates rules for private workplaces — and the vaccinated

Assistant General Manager Elisa Gallardo serves customers from inside a takeout window at The Beehive in the San Francisco Mission neighborhood on July 25, 2020.
Anne Wernikoff
Assistant General Manager Elisa Gallardo serves customers from inside a takeout window at The Beehive in the San Francisco Mission neighborhood on July 25, 2020.

A little more than a year after the first COVID-19 vaccines arrived in California, the state is bracing for yet another surge — and piling back on protections.

The more things change, the more things stay the same.

On Wednesday, the day California’s new indoor mask mandate went into effect, the state Department of Public Health quietly updated its online guidance to emphasize that the rules — which are set to last through Jan. 15 — apply to both public and private workplaces. Previously, the state had allowed most fully vaccinated workers to forgo masks.

Then the standards board of Cal/OSHA, the state’s workplace safety agency, voted Thursday to, among other things, eliminate some distinctions between vaccinated and unvaccinated workers. Under the new temporary COVID workplace rules — which are slated to last from Jan. 14 to April 14 — workers exposed to someone who’s tested positive for the virus must quarantine for two weeks (though asymptomatic vaccinated employees will have the option to wear masks and social distance), and companies must make free COVID tests available to them at work.

  • Robert Moutrie, a California Chamber of Commerce policy advocate, told my colleague Grace Gedye: “We have serious concerns about the implications of those changes, both in a world where rapid COVID-19 tests are becoming less available and where excluding more workers from the workplace — who are showing no symptoms and have been vaccinated — is going to make operational difficulties for many employers in California who are already short-staffed and struggling with a labor shortage.”

But labor advocates say the changes will help protect workers: “Unfortunately, vaccination is not immunity, and vaccination doesn’t mean you can’t spread the disease,” Stephen Knight, executive director of Worksafe, told Grace.

Indeed, California health officials are bracing for what Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County’s public health officer, called a “deluge of omicron.” COVID hospitalizations have spiked 15% statewide in the last three weeks, from 3,439 patients on Nov. 23 to 3,971 on Wednesday, according to state data. And, as more COVID cases are confirmed across the state and uncertainty continues to swirl around the omicron variant, cancellations are pouring in.

Moved online: A massive January JPMorgan Chase health conference in San Francisco, which would have injected much-needed dollars into the city’s hard-hit hospitality sector.

Delayed indefinitely: Apple’s return to in-person work.

Pushed to Zoom: Stanford’s first two weeks of January classes — and instruction for the entire sixth-grade class at Travis Ranch School in Yorba Linda, which was recently hit with a COVID outbreak.

Cancelled: Thursday practice for the Sacramento Kings basketball team, which also shut down its facility amid reports that multiple players had tested positive.

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Wednesday, California had 4,901,895 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 74,879 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 61,992,176 vaccine doses, and 69.9% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.