Relaxing Mask Restrictions – What Should You Know?

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With most states lifting their mask mandates and the omicron-driven wave has started to subside, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) has begun to change its course on masking guidelines. As of this past Friday, February 25, 2022, the CDC announced a new framework, “COVID-19 Community Level” metrics, to determine whether to recommend masks in a given area. As of yesterday, February 28, 2022, the California Department of Public Health (“CDPH”) has also updated its guidance – it removes the obligation that unvaccinated individuals mask within indoor public settings. This does not apply to high-risk settings (schools, public transit, and healthcare environments).

What Changed?

The CDC’s prior recommendations advised that fully vaccinated individuals residing in communities of substantial or “high” transmission should wear a mask in an indoor public setting.

The new metric system is more comprehensive and is based on three pieces of data in a community: new COVID-19 hospitalizations, hospital capacity, and new COVID-19 cases. The metric system identifies community levels as “Low,” “Medium,” or “High” to help decide what recommendations and requirements to enact.

If you’re curious and want to search how your community/county measures up, the CDC has provided a “COVID-19 County Check” tool to locate your community level and the prevention measures advised in that county. Notably, with the new metric system, only those residing in areas of “High” COVID-19 community levels are urged to wear a mask indoors in public, regardless of vaccination status. Only around 37% of counties in the U.S. are within this category.

In California, Governor Newsom has lifted the general making requirement under Cal/OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standards for those who are not fully vaccinated. This means that California employers now follow orders from the CDPH or local health departments.

What does this mean for employers?

As you may recall, the CDC’s guidance is not directly binding on employers; however, it is still significant.

Employers should examine their local and state masking obligations and continue to comply with the same. If a mask mandate is no longer in effect in your jurisdiction, you should review the COVID-19 County Check tool to make an informed decision regarding your mask policy.

In California, masking will still exist in the following scenarios: when employees voluntarily wear a mask, where there is a close contact situation in the workplace, when an employer implements their own masking policy, and where a local masking order is enacted. For example, Los Angeles County will maintain universal indoor masking until COVID-19 reaches a moderate level of transmission; they expect this will be achieved in a few weeks (mid-March). However, some outlets are reporting that it could happen by the end of this week.

Employers should ensure that employees who voluntarily decide to wear a mask do not face any unlawful mistreatment from colleagues. Employees should be informed that retaliation, discrimination, and harassment are never tolerated as (should be) outlined in employer policies.

If you need assistance to further understand how this impacts your business, please contact us at info@mnklawyers.com.

This material is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice, nor does it create a client-lawyer relationship between MNK Law and any recipient. Recipients should consult with counsel before taking any actions based on the information contained within this material.

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