COVID’s Endemic Transition in the Workplace – Where We Are and What’s Coming

Since the decline of the holiday COVID-19 spike and Governor Newsom’s announcement of California’s transition to treating COVID-19 as an endemic risk on February 17th (the “SMARTERx Plan” or “Plan”), many safety-conscious Californians have been wondering: what happens next? What is COVID-19 safety going to look like for businesses and individuals in 2022 as (hopefully) COVID-19 numbers continue to decline, and life returns to normal?

Governor Newsom’s SMARTERx Plan

The Governor’s SMARTERx Plan provides for ongoing assessment of COVID-19 risk and a gradual transition towards less precautions as health conditions continue to improve. Continuing with California’s successful strategies, the Plan focuses on stockpiling vaccines and masks, as well as increasing testing in order to prevent and quickly catch new COVID-19 cases.

Masking Changes

Perhaps the most clearly visible change under the Plan was a shift in masking obligations. On February 15th, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) allowed the holiday mask mandate to expire (updated guidance available here). Then on February 28th, Gov. Newsom issued EO N-5-22 to apply the same principle to California’s workplaces. Specifically, EO N-5-22 waived one subsection of the COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (“ETS”, 8 CCR 3205) which had previously required that unvaccinated employees wear masks in the workplace at all times unless subject to another exception.

Some school districts have followed suit on March 11th – but policies differ from district to district and parents should check their district’s policies. Notably, Los Angeles Unified School District has not yet lifted its masking mandate as of the date of this blog.

With these changes, unless you either (a) work in a high-risk setting (such as public transportation, correctional facilities, or healthcare), or (b) your workplace was in the middle of an outbreak under the ETS, you probably are not required to wear a mask in the workplace due to COVID-19

However, to be very clear, it is still “strongly recommended” by CDPH that you wear a mask. Furthermore, these state-level changes do not invalidate local ordinances or county public health orders – so make sure you check local requirements.

Regulations: Cal/OSHA’s COVID-19 ETS and Other Industry-Specific Obligations

Cal/OSHA’s COVID-19 ETS is also due for an overhaul and may see one soon. Though Cal/OSHA’s Standards Board had been expected to vote to re-adopt the COVID-19 ETS at its March 17th meeting, EO N-5-22 allowed Cal/OSHA 21 days of extra time before voting to re-adopt. This extra time is expected to allow Cal/OSHA staff to revise the draft version to better reflect the updated masking policies and make corresponding changes – though other changes may be waiting in the wings as well. Expect the draft language reflecting these changes to be released in late March/early April, with a vote within a week or so thereafter.

Importantly, these recent changes are supported by the data. California’s COVID-19 case rates as well as hospitalization rates continue to fall and have almost reached pre-holiday spike numbers. So, though the transition towards an endemic COVID-19 is sure to include some difficult-to-manage district-by-district differences and ambiguities … I think we’re all glad to hear that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Robert Moutrie, Policy Advocate