Waiter at The Current Burger delivers an order in Fashion Valley on Feb. 6, 2021.
A waiter wearing a face masks serves customers at The Current Burger in Fashion Valley. Photo by Chris Stone

Californians are eagerly awaiting June 15 as the grand reopening date for our state, as determined by the Governor. The lifting of restrictions and confusing color-coded tiers signals that the sacrifices made professionally, personally, emotionally, have paid off and we are entering an official recovery from the ravages of COVID.

However, before anyone begins their celebrations, Cal/OSHA has told employers the recovery has begun for everyone but them. We may be going “beyond the blueprint,” but the body of individuals appointed by the Governor, who are not legislators, voted Thursday that employers will be left holding the bag on the safety of Californians.

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Through a complicated Emergency Temporary Standard update adopted after a full day of public testimony Thursday, employers are directed (in no less than 26 pages) that yes, employees who are vaccinated can shed their masks and enter their workplace as normal. But only if everyone in the workplace is also vaccinated.

And, if they are in mixed company with non-vaccinated colleagues, then stringent distancing and/or mask requirements remain. Even partitions, whose presence was accepted early in the pandemic but found not to be terribly effective, are required if the employee pool’s vaccination status is mixed.

And while this could, on its face, be manageable, the underlying presumptions are an outright challenge to businesses’ recovery. Simply having requirements for non-vaccinated employees is not what this emergency standard does. Instead, it shifts the burden of tracking or requiring vaccines to employers and puts them in a sensitive spot that we have been clear about wanting to avoid.

Vaccines, our most effective way out of the pandemic, have become a hot button. For some, vaccination status is a delicate topic rife with personal beliefs and medical issues. Requiring employers to navigate this space while failing to give them any protections from an already litigious environment is bad policy making.

Who will bear the brunt of this? Not office workers, not those with the freedom to continue to telework. But the same employees that have suffered from the whiplash of closures, restricted operations, temporary reopenings, and more closures. It’s the employees that interface with the public who will continue to be the target of poorly thought-out guidance.

This workforce is largely in retail and hospitality, the industries hit the absolute hardest by COVID that continue to struggle to attract a post-pandemic workforce. Telling prospective employees that California’s exciting reopening is applicable to everyone but them while they are working is going to be detrimental to recruitment efforts.

The board originally considered a slightly different proposal to update the emergency standard on May 20. At that meeting, staff wisely asked the board to postpone their vote until the standard could reflect the latest (very positive) CDC guidance for vaccinated individuals, and the state’s expectation to lift restrictions June 15.

We were encouraged by that move. It indicated that the concerns shared by industry were heard and that keeping our workforce and customers safe would not be complicated by strange and confusing rules. Equally important, it seemed that the efforts made by businesses to be a productive partner in the vaccination effort were seen and valued. Incentives, time off, and campaigns like Time To Vaccinate were born out of a desire to help our state recover.

During Thursday’s hearing, the proposal was originally voted down, for all the reasons stated above. But under a reconsideration and an uncertain timeframe to revise that vote, it was brought back and passed. And now we’re being pushed into stringent, frustrating regulatory roles.

Not only is this new guidance still frustratingly confusing, but it still defies the June 15 date which all but ensures that there will be tension as folks understandably believe they are getting mixed messages. The standard now is in effect until at least July 31 — a full month and a half after the June 15 date set by the Governor, for reasons that we are left to simply wonder about.

Recovery from COVID will require everyone working from the same set of facts, and from continuing to take safe, practical measures to keep the virus at bay and our workforce functioning. Today’s vote by Cal/OSHA disregards the science that is guiding the rest of the country via the leadership of the CDC. It fails to rise to the occasion of a collective reopening.

Even worse, it threatens the public trust behind vaccinations and continues to place impossible burdens on the exhausted employers and workforce who were just beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Jerry Sanders is president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.